My first ghazal and thoughts about choosing constraints

If you follow my writing at all, you know I am fascinated by different styles of poetry. I’ve written haiku, sonnets, villanelle and am now tackling the dreaded ghazal. I’ve often said that if I have writer’s block, I will write haiku to break it.

So when one of my favorite e-newsletters arrived in my mailbox featuring an article about Oulipo, an organization of French novelists and poets, I was intrigued. These writers believe writing with certain constraints actually inspires creativity. For example, very restrictive forms of poetry as far as rhyme and/or length and even more daring constraints on works of fiction. Like writing an entire novel without using the letter “e”. Some of these works have been translated from French to English…also without using the letter “e”, if you can believe that.

What would it be about restricting yourself that actually inspires creativity? I can’t answer this, but I know that historically adversity can lead to great works of art. The Renaissance, for instance, was conceived during the darkness of the Bubonic Plague. Amazing works of art resulted from the pain of the Aids epidemic. Wars have always inspired great art. And the Covid-19 lockdown released a flurry of works of art, literature, and music that we are only beginning to appreciate.

Is it because we as humans have to hope that adversity creates great work? And following that, do we as artists create artificial constraints on our work just so we can burst out of it? Does restriction force something else out of us? Or is writing a sentence without the letter “e” just silly? (Or: Is it silly to try to show our thoughts without using a common symbol?)

I can only really answer to what works for me (and it’s not not using the letter “e”). Although I don’t totally agree with Robert Frost that “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down”, I do believe that I write good sonnets…and haiku…and villanelle. Not sure about ghazal yet. What do you think?

Star Falls

By Michelle Garren-Flye

Recite poetry in a husky voice—I hear your calls!

Tell me the story of the world and the star that falls.

How is it okay to whisper it all in my ear?

Count every moment from now to when the star falls.

It won’t matter anyway, I won’t let myself care.

I’ll run away—I swear I will—run ‘til that star falls.

But wait!, you say, are you sure that’s really okay?

The moments don’t pause, though, no, not until the star falls.

You’re silent at last, peace surrounds me and I will stay.

Last chance to wish on my whisper (sun’s rising!)…and star falls.

RIP Calliope, 2015-2023. Photo by Michelle Garren-Flye. Copyright 2023 Michelle Garren-Flye.

Putting on my author hat…over my bookseller one.

This Sunday, November 20, I get to do something I don’t often get to do anymore. I’ll be just an author selling her books.

I’m not totally certain I remember how to do that…

Running a bookstore was a dream of mine for a long time. I used to haunt the two little bookstores in my hometown. The Book Nook was my favorite because it was used books that I could actually afford. (I did buy my first new hardback book there, though. Black Beauty and Other Horse Stories. It cost $15 and I still own it.) Highland Books was where I went to dream. I didn’t have enough money usually to buy the books, but the owners were tolerant and didn’t say anything if I curled up in a corner with a brand new science fiction novel they knew I couldn’t buy. I wonder how many people bought books there that I had already read?

But I digress. I dreamed of owning my own bookstore for a long time but I didn’t realize that when I got one, I couldn’t just be an author anymore. Yes, I write in my bookstore. And sometimes I sell one of my own books. I’m on the bestseller table here, so I do sell some here and there, and it’s definitely exciting when I do. But I’m mostly here to sell other people’s books.

On Sunday, however, I will be at the New Bern Farmer’s Market from 1-4 p.m. with a slew of other authors, all selling our own books! I’m planning to take all the books I have here at the store (well, maybe leave one copy of each on the shelf) and hope to sell them and maybe get some people reading my poetry.

And still I won’t be able to resist asking what kind of book people like to read. And I know enough of the other authors there so I’ll know if their books are a better fit than mine. And I won’t hesitate to send them that way…so it might not be that different from being in my little bookstore at all. 🙂

Meraki, a risk worth taking.

lol.

Of course.

I have sold literally dozens of a certain book recently. Great news, right? (Keep in mind I don’t sell dozens of books usually.)

Except I don’t actually like this particular book…

It’s not a badly written book. I don’t write bad. It’s even got a more complex plot than some of my simpler romances. It’s just that I tried an experiment with this one and I don’t think it worked. At the time I wrote it I’d been writing romances with the typical sweet, likable, strong female protagonists who had faced down challenges in their lives and come out the better for it. (huh) So I decided to write a less likable female protagonist for this one. She’s supposed to be brittle on the outside with a soft core. She’s a bit bitchy, to be honest. And while she was sort of fun to write, I never really connected with her.

I recently heard a word that I relate to. A friend posted it on Facebook. The word is meraki. It is Greek for leaving something of yourself in everything you do. Every artist strives to do this, I think. It’s a risk, though. When you leave something of yourself in your work and it’s rejected, that’s a part of you that suffers. Maybe at the time I chose to write a romance with less of me in it than usual without thinking I’d be less likely to connect to it? Maybe that’s why I am loving poetry so much now. Because it’s easier to leave me in my poetry because if I’m writing it right, I’m lost in it anyway.

Whatever the reason I wrote that way then and this way now, every time I see the numbers tick up on this particular book, I think, No, not that one! Because there’s no meraki to it. There’s not enough me.

From Learning Curve, coming soon! Copyright 2022 Michelle Garren-Flye

Poetry Diaries: It’s happening!

Everyone who knows me as a poet knows my feelings about poetry being nonfiction. Poetry is a much more personal form of writing (to me) than novels or short stories. I can write about anything in a novel or short story. I once wrote a flash fiction about a woman who’d lost both legs in an accident. I used to write horror. And yes, romance. All fiction.

Nothing personal.

Poetry, on the other hand, is almost never fiction to me. I can’t really put myself in someone else’s shoes when I write poetry. The few times I have, it’s because I’m able to empathize for one reason or another. And I almost never think those poems are as good as my others.

So poetry is very personal. It’s my thoughts and feelings. And when I put together a poetry book, it’s almost like a diary. I tend to share a bit about what and why I wrote different poems. Like a diary.

I noticed this trend in my work after Hypercreativity. Both Hypercreativity and 100 Warm Days of Haiku fit this concept I had for poetry diaries. So I decided to make them part of a series. The Poetry Diaries was born. The third in this series is coming soon. Well, hopefully. I’m hoping it will be fifty villanelle, but I haven’t even hit forty yet and may stop there, honestly. I’ve discovered a new type of poetry I really want to try. In the meantime, however, I did design the cover to the next poetry diary. And it’s pretty good!

I

Just make a left

Do you ever just wish you could stop following all the rules?

I know I do. I see other people doing it. In the carpool lane when it’s obvious there’s a faster way than the long line of cars leading to the proper exit. Just make a left instead of a right. You’ll get out a lot faster.

Forget the rules.

Who’s gonna care?

Ah, but I’m a rule follower. It’s about honesty in my opinion. There are no shortcuts. No legal ones, anyway. No honest ones.

It’s like that in my writing as well. If I’m writing a haiku, it’s going to have the proper number of syllables in each line. I know even haiku master Matsuo Basho said if it’s better with the wrong number of syllables, it’s better to write it that way, but I’d rather write and rewrite and rethink and restructure until I’m happy with it. Because I have to follow the rules.

I was considering entering a poetry contest with some of my villanelles. (I’m that pleased with how they’re coming out.) This contest had a section for traditional rhyming poetry, something few editors have an appreciation for. I was encouraged, so I looked up some of their past winners. One of them was a “villanelle”. I pulled it up and read it.

It broke all the rules.

There were no rhymes where there were supposed to be rhymes.

There were no repeated lines or even words.

It was written in paragraph form.

What’s the fun of that? It’s like writing a short story and calling it a haiku. There’s no challenge. I remember my father saying something that has stuck with me for most of my life, “You can call it whatever you want, it doesn’t make it that.”

Hey judges, it’s not a villanelle if it doesn’t follow the rules.

I’m going to keep plugging along writing my haiku and villanelles and following rules. I have no idea why. I could break the rules and write a paragraph and call it a villanelle. I could write a novel and call it a haiku. I might even win some contests that way. But I won’t.

It’s just that I’m a rule follower.

Villanelle #21

Just make a left instead of right!
It'll get you there much faster,
and your schedule's really tight.

Nobody's gonna care if you take flight
and look for a greener pasture.
Just make a left instead of a right.

I don't mean to make light;
I'm certainly not your master,
and your schedule's really tight

No one can really know your plight.
It can't possibly lead to disaster
if you make a left instead of a right

Rules are not always right.
They're not molded in plaster,
and your schedule's really tight.

Perhaps you'll never feel Karma's bite
graze rear skin of alabaster.
Just make a left instead of a right—
after all, your schedule's really tight.

—Michelle Garren-Flye
Fall is around the corner. Photo by Michelle Garren-Flye

Which Wolf Do You Choose?

Fear and hope. One can easily defeat the other. It’s a matter of which wolf we choose to feed.

I’ve fed both in the past. Fear is a scavenging beast of a wolf. His ribs always show, regardless of how much you feed him. He’s always wanting more. More of your confidence, more of your dreams, more of your self. He brings nothing but doubt.

Hope is a mighty warrior when you feed her. She’ll slay Fear before he can eat your soul. She’ll encourage you to reach for those dreams, even when it seems there’s no way you’ll ever achieve them. She brings joy and life and love.

I am almost finished with my next poetry book Hypercreativity. During the course of putting it together, I realized that although I always want to choose to fill Hope’s bowl with kibble, I often dribble it into Fear’s. Because you have to consciously make a choice to feed Hope, but Fear is always there, waiting.

I made a conscious decision to finish my book with a healthy feeding for Hope. I’m pleased with that decision because my entire writing life is built on Hope. She needs to be strong.

Illustration copyright 2022 Michelle Garren-Flye

National Poetry Month, Day 30, Verse 30

And so we have rushed, headlong, to the end. The end of April, the end of the beginning of spring, the end of National Poetry Month, and the end of my renga.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my life up to this point. I should definitely be past the beginning of spring. Well established in my, ahem, fifties, however, I’m not certain if I ever had one.

This year, this project forced me to look closely at the spring that was not just happening, but living and breathing all around me. I saw how the flowers bloomed, how they started as tiny buds, but because they knew from the beginning what they were supposed to do, they just did it without question. They spread petals, inviting the visits of pollinators and the gentle brush of spring breeze to spread the pollen that not only makes us sneeze but also carries their DNA to another willing recipient.

The flowers do this because they know what they are meant for. As human beings, we question. We doubt our talents and our abilities and our purpose. This leads to anger and resentment and despair. Most of us never fully experience our spring and are therefore not ready for summer because we’re stuck in that thawing stage at the beginning, unable to fully realize our potential because we just don’t believe.

(As an example, I’m doubting these words even as I write them.)

It’s a difficult thing believing in yourself. Going all in for what you want to do and be. More and more I’m trying to do that. Maybe even at this point in my life, it’s not too late for spring.

Poem and illustration copyright 2022 Michelle Garren-Flye

National Poetry Month, Day 29, Verse 29

Ever considered doing something kinda nuts (nuts just because it’s totally out of character for you, not like dangerous or anything)? I feel like I’ve spent most of my life rushing headlong toward the end and now I want to put on the brakes and just enjoy. I might get whiplash if I put them on too hard, though, so I’m still hesitating. Hesitating while rushing onward.

Poem and illustration copyright 2022 Michelle Garren-Flye

National Poetry Month, Day 28, Verse 28

On Saturday I actually give a fairly long speech about the history of poet laureates. I’m a bit nervous, not to mention ambivalent about closing my store for a couple of hours to do it. But it’s the last day of National Poetry Month, and I’m discovering I actually like public speaking once I get past the scary moment at the beginning—and if I am fully prepared with a written speech that I’ve read out loud several hundred times. This was an interesting one, too. I had to do a lot of research since I didn’t know that much about poet laureates (I had some idea that it came from Greece because of the whole “laurel” thing). What I found was equal parts interesting, amusing, and inspiring. If I wrote the speech right, maybe it’ll come out that way for my audience.

In the meantime, my spring renga is rushing to its close.

Poem and illustration copyright 2022 Michelle Garren-Flye

National Poetry Month, Day 27, Verse 27

No real thoughts today except that I do think my artistic skills are improving lol. This rose, compared to the rose in verse 19, is far better. And the rose in verse 19 is better than the ones I drew in 100 Warm Days of Haiku. Most of them, anyway. Hopefully my art will improve along with my writing. We’ll see. That is always my ambition, at any rate. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written the greatest poem ever only to read it a week later and think, god, what garbage…

I guess I did have a thought or two.

Poem and illustration copyright 2022 Michelle Garren-Flye