Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Birthing the Mother Writer Class 2: The Deeper Stuff of Poetry

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Welcome to the continuation of our Birthing the Mother Writer Class! If you'd like to catch up, you can read Cassie's column for Class 1, as well as the Reader Response column for that class. Also below is the full syllabus for the class, including due dates for submitting your own writing this month and all year long.

Poetry is deep. Poetry often is misunderstood as a result of its depth. I sometimes think that there's a conspiracy against poetry in our schools because so often poetry is taught as something "hard" and "difficult." But the truth is that while poetry asks us to go deep—into language, our emotions, and the ways we perceive the world—poetry can actually be a dynamic and easily approachable medium for communication.

There's a reason, for example, why the spoken word scene is so powerful today. It also connects to why poets around the world have been the spokespersons for revolutions and voices of social outcasts. Poetry is deep because, like the root of the word "radical," which itself comes from the Latin word for "root," it takes us down to the core: to our roots, and to the structures that create who we are.

In this month's column, I'll "break it down" for you. That is, I'll break a poem down into components so that you can see the deeper elements of poetry at work, and learn to use these in your own writing, while gaining a greater understanding of poetry's radical power.

Let's start with my poem, "Writing is like this," which appears in my book, This is how honey runs, and which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010.

Writing is like this

I write with a yellow pen from a place I have never been.
Writing is like this, I say to you. It will lead you where
you did not know you would go. Desire has nothing
to do with it. The Buddhists are right, I say, at least
when it comes to this. Each word is a stream that pushes
our leaves to a larger river. We learn to swim. Sometimes
we float. Sometimes we sink. Sometimes we rise like salmon
and then turn around and jump back in. It is this easy.
This hard. There is really nothing to it. The only thing is begin.

Listen to the audio for "Writing is like this":



I wrote this poem, and the others in the book, during my work with clients who came to me for writing coaching. I call this Co-Creating because when I ask a writing client to write, I write, too. In this way, we create a safe and sacred place in which to listen to our deepest voices of wisdom together.

So this poem was written during one of the writing coaching sessions for a particular client, but it is also for all readers who come after. This is our first important point for this class: A poem is written for a particular occasion but you want to make sure that it rises above this to be applicable to other readers in other situations.

Let's look at the title of the poem: "Writing is like this." That like is our second lesson: poetry works through metaphor, through a comparison of one thing to another, which allows the reader to make connections and see the larger meaning.

We do this in everyday life: "That meeting was like getting a root canal." Or, "Your room is a pig sty." In poetry, we do it on purpose to bring the reader images, feelings, and scenes so they can be present within the poem with us.

Now let's go to the first line of the poem: "I write with a yellow pen from a place I have never been." Two things to notice here: first, the rhyme. Poetry doesn't have to rhyme, but reading poetry should be more like hearing music and dancing to it than reading a newspaper. Many poets I know "hear" a line in their head first, even before they have words that go along with the sound, and this is the signal to them that a poem is coming.

Second thing to notice: writing "from a place I have never been" means that you don't have to know what the poem is about before you start writing. In fact, if you follow what the high school English teachers taught you about outlining, you'll probably ruin the music and magic of the poem before you even start. Just start.

In the second line of the poem, the title is repeated, but with an additional phrase: "I say to you." Poetry is often addressed to someone else. The trick is to take it beyond ditties and wedding toasts to something deeper. So you may want to think about who the speaker is (which is not necessarily the poet) and whom s/he is addressing in your poem.

Now, look at the third line: "you did not know you would go." What I really appreciate about poetry is the way it opens us up to memory—even, as in the case of traumatic memory, when we do not remember what happened. (For readers who want to delve into this in more detail, I wrote about this is my book, We Heal from Memory.)

Another aspect of this line is that poetry takes us places—through desire, imagination, and a sense of becoming who we are meant to be. Poetry goes beyond the literal meanings and allows us space to be ourselves in a deeper way—that deep self of dream and desire, life and death, war and peace, love and loss.

When we open ourselves to these deeper meanings everyday life becomes infused with such depth. The pomegranate at the grocery store in the fall, the vase of flowers on the Thanksgiving table, the slant of sunlight on a late autumn afternoon—these are not just ingredients for a poem, but a way of living a poetic life.

This brings me to the next key word in the poem: "Desire." Yes, love poems are a big part of poetry, but in this poem, we read, "Desire has nothing to do with it." This means that living a poetic life can bring us into a deeper relationship with desire. We all have impulses and cravings and wants and wishes. But when we begin to see the deeper meanings in our existence, it somehow becomes easier to make wiser choices in our lives.

That bag of salt and vinegar potato chips that calls to me from the grocery shelf after a hard day of work and mothering? Its song is not quite as loud when I am also listening to my wise voice within that says, "Take time for yourself tonight, Cassie. A bath. A walk. A little time with your journal." These are the poetic impulses that steer us toward that "larger river."

And through poetry, we can learn to "swim," "float," "sink," "rise," and "jump back in."

Sometimes we swim, putting one word in front of another, one breath after another, living in the present, moment by moment. Poetry can teach that.

And sometimes we float, take time to simply be where we are, in the space of a poem, or in the space of a day in our life. Poetry shows us how to do that, too.

Sometimes poetry allows us to sink, to go deeper into the murky depths of pain and death and loss and grief. Poetry welcomes all of these feelings, and welcomes us with open arms in that dark river.

Poetry gives us a way to rise, as well, as we make meaning from our experiences, the pain and the joy, the small and the grand. A baby's hand in yours at birth. The final goodbye in a grandmother's touch. Poetry holds one of our hands at these moments, and in the other hand, she gives us the gift of beauty.

And we jump back in. Whether after a great loss or simply a long and lonely night, poetry is there. In the morning, poetry can wake us up to the fragility and temporality of our lives, and we can serve breakfast to our kids with a little more patience and loving kindness that day. In the afternoon, we can read a poem in the carpool line, start to finish, and then jump back into mothering after a long day at work with a renewed sense of purpose. At night, poetry can be a lullaby, allowing us to rest at the end of our tasks and to-do lists. We drift into deep sleep and dreams, knowing she will be there in the morning with a pen in hand, urging us to "Write about that. Make meaning of that. Take time for that."

Poetry is both easy and hard because life is both easy and hard, but when we are in the presence of the poem, as we can be fully present in our lives, it is neither easy nor hard, but simply breath itself, coming in, letting go, and going on, making meaning, taking time, finding rhythm and rhyme, and becoming who we are meant to be.

That's deep.

That's poetry.


Call for Submissions:

Submit an essay of 800—1200 words about claiming yourself as a mother poet for the next Birthing the Mother Writer Class Column. Due November 30, 2014. See below for submission guidelines.


Birthing the Mother Writer Class Syllabus (with “Due Dates!”)

Photo credit: Susanne Kappler

Here is the syllabus of the class for the next year so you can look ahead and think through the genres, elements, and themes we are covering. And, just as you had a due date for the arrival of your baby, we've got them, too—for your writing for the Birthing the Mother Writer Class! Below are the submission deadlines for your writing. Feel free to send things in early (just like some babies come early!) Pay particular attention to the submission guidelines at the bottom. I look forward to reading your writing and I'm so glad you're in this class!

Unit 1: Poetry


Unit 2: Fiction

  • January—The Arc/Ark of Narrative
  • February—Reader Response to The Arc/Ark of Narrative (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that demonstrates the principles of narrative timing and scene making. Due February 1, 2015.)
  • March—The Role/Roll of Dialogue
  • April—Reader Response to The Role/Roll of Dialogue (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that shows an adept use of dialogue. Due March 29, 2015.)


Unit 3: Creative Non-Fiction

  • May—The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction
  • June—Reader Response to The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction (Submit a creative non-fiction piece of 700-1000 words that exemplifies the qualities of a good essay. Due May 31, 2015.)
  • July and August—Summer Break
  • September—Life is a Book
  • October—Reader Response to Life is a Book (Submit a memoir piece of 700-1000 words developed from old journal entries. Due October 4, 2015.)



Reader Response Submission Guidelines

Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter (at) gmail (dot) com by the due dates listed above. Be sure to do the following:

-Put BMW and the month of your submission in the subject line of the email. For example, if you are submitting writing for February’s column, your subject line should read “BMW February.”

-Include a brief bio of up to 50 words.

-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within five days.

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.

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