Discovering the Cento


So the other day, I was reading Robert Okaji’s poetry blog and he gave an example of a form of poetry I had never before heard of, the cento, a patchwork poem made from the lines of other poems. Naturally, I immediately wanted to do this, and today I sat down and did. I picked out some of my favorite volumes by some of my favorite writers on my main poetry shelf (the one I can reach without a ladder or chair) and went to work. My cat jumped up on the table, settled himself under his tanning lamp with his feet on my wrist and watched. So here it is. I have listed the poem each line is from below. They are in reverse chronological order because I moved from A to Z and put the stack down backwards. Sigh. See what you think.


Ah, the shining pastures of salt:

Flames bouncing off the river’s back,

A photograph of an eagle just setting down,

Bright fog reaching over the beaches.

How poignant and amplified the world before me seemed.

In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,

Strengthening our embrace.

I mostly chose lines that had roughly similar rhythm and length and ended with a short line, as that feels more musical. I like it because it is sort of representative of the inner geography of my mind when I sit down to write: the inside reality is bigger and grander than the outside reality. And I have been writing love poems of a sort lately; I am not actually in love myself, it is only part of a project. Then again, May Sarton would say that all writing is a love poem because love is attention to details.

Willard, Nancy. Missionaries among the Heathen. Water Walker.

Troupe, Quincy. Snakeback Solo #2. Avalanche.

Piercy, Marge. What Goes Up. Stone, Paper, Knife.

Ursula K. LeGuin. Incredible Good Fortune, Incredible Good Fortune.

Collins, Billy. Marginalia, and Purity. Sailing Along around the Room.

Boland, Eavan. VII. First Year, Against Love Poetry.

OToole, Robert. Eagle Morning Strike. Photo.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer


In the end, we all write alone.

As a performing introvert, sometimes I revel in the solitude and sometimes I get edgy and want to talk to other people about the things I am writing about. Not imaginary people, like editors of journals and their subscribers. Real people with faces and names and opinions. At least, that is what it feels like.

I don’t know a lot of poets these days. Working in academia, I know a lot of fiction writers, scholars, science writers, bloggers and at least two recovering journalists. This is usually enough, as the issues we all face in terms of writing process and simply putting down the right words in the right order are ubiquitous regardless of genre. Having some writer friends is not only helpful; I would argue that it is necessary for your long-term happiness as a working writer. There are some things that only other writers understand:

  • the habit of leaving a notepad in the bathroom for 3 am inspirations
  • the frustration with having thought of the almost-right word (no, that is not good enough, dammit)
  • the victory of writing 1665 words a day for more than two weeks in a row
  • scribbling the lyrics to a new song idea on the inside of your Dunkin Donuts bag, sometimes before you get around to eating the donut
  • those white-noise days when you stare at page or screen for hours and produce nothing
  • the feeling of “Damn, I’m good!”* when you finish an exquisite bit of writing even you didn’t know you were capable ofdamnfinemug

You can experience the joys and pains alone, but it is exhausting, especially when you are also submitting work to those imaginary editors out there in Journal Land and receiving form rejections back in a much higher proportion than the acceptances. And, alone, you can solve the obstacles in your writing—the clunky transitions, the fifth draft ending that still sucks—but it will go faster with a friend.

When I think of this, I think of otters, who sleep on their backs on the water, holding hands so that they don’t get separated. Sometimes, you just need a buddy.


* A college friend of mine had a mug that said this. I have always thought it would be a great mug for a writer. George Eliot at the least would have found it invaluable.

Inspiration Tip: Revisiting Old Friends


One way I rev the engine of creation when I am stuck in neutral gear is to go back to one of my favorite poets, often Marge Piercy, Billy Collins, or Nancy Willard, but occasionally someone less famous. A while back I was updating the Publication section on my Curriculum Vitae, which entailed digging through contributer’s copies. During the 1990s, I published a lot of my poems about art in a then-new journal called Ekphrasis, which means–get this–poems about art.

It is still around, a great little journal, and one of the best things about it is that it publishes some really cool poetry/poets. One of the poets I discovered there was Simon Perchik, who writes these skinny little poems with lines that just blow my mind. His line “or perhaps your shadow overflowing again” (from “D111”) inspired a poem about a panic attack; “today is missing/the ground is missing” (from “D180”) inspired a poem about an anxiety attack on a hot summer day. I cannot find some of the other poems; they were not all about mental health!

The ending of one of my favorite Nancy Willard poems was put on postcards several years back in a Poetry in Public sort of program. This is from “The Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God.”

“In a world not perfect but not bad either

let there be glue, glaze, gum, and grabs,

caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, and slips,

and signs so spare a child may read them,

Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands, they can work wonders.”

Willard, Nancy. Water Walker. New York: Knopf, 1989.