How I Read a Poem

I’ve written before on how to to write a poem. Followed by how to truly write a poem – study Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and then practice.

But reading a poem is a whole different pack of monkeys.

I developed this weird method to help me absorb the poems I read. It slows me down, so I don’t rocket through the lines. The aim is to bury the verses in my subconscious.

See if it works for you.


First I read the poem to myself. From the first verse to the last, all the way through.

Then I’ll read the poem from the end to the beginning. I read line by line, from the final verse, back up to the opener:

From Over the Fence, Emily Dickinson

Reading it backwards is like reverse engineering. It helps me see the poem’s structure. How each verse builds up to the final one.

After that, I’ll read the poem beginning to end again, but this time out loud.

Reading out loud helps you find the poem’s rhythm. I’m sure there’s things like meter and tone involved as well, but I won’t pretend to know how.

Then I’ll read the poem in reverse order again. But this time in full blocks. Starting from the bottom of the poem to the top:

From Again his voice is at the door, Emily Dickinson

While reading I’ll keep a pencil close. If the poem rhymes I search for the rhyming pattern by underlining all the rhyming words.

From Again his voice is at the door, Emily Dickinson

Once finished, I’ll log the date, author, and name of the poem in my steno book. Keeping a record gives me a sense of progress.

It’s a practice I stole the from director Steven Soderbergh who publishes a yearly log of what he’s watched, read, and listened to, on his site.

This how I read a poem. You may read a poem once and bin it. And that works too.

City Witness


Around January of this year I started noticing Jehovah’s Witnesses appear downtown.

They set up on street corners and DART stations. Their plastic magazine racks filled with Watchtowers. Some copies in English. Some copies in Spanish.

I thought they’d be there for a week or two and then disappear.

But instead they kept showing up.

EVERYDAY.

At first I walked past, head down, avoiding eye contact.

But after a month or so I realized they weren’t stopping anyone.

They weren’t trying to stop anyone.

They stand and wave hello and smile. No matter the circumstances or conditions.

They stand in the middle of July, sweat bleeding through their white oxfords.

They stand shivering in October, their cotton skirts sweeping below their kneecaps.

Everyday they stand for something.

Everyday they show up, peacefully, and stand in public for their faith.

I respect that.

Walt Whitman – The Myth…

I’m trying to get into Walt Whitman’s work. But I underestimated the length of his poems.

So, I’m starting with his shorter poems. And typing them out into smaller, manageable pieces.

Seeing what I can find.

Great are the myths….I too delight in them,

Great are Adam and Eve….I too look back and accept them;

Great the risen and fallen nations, and their poets, women, sages, inventors, rulers, warriors and priests.

Great Are the Myths, Leaves of Grass. Whitman, Walt

On Index Cards – the Sharks of the Stationery World

A few thoughts on the enduring usefulness of index cards:

I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange enough worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it. Sometimes, if I overhear or think of an exact dialogue or a transition, I write it down verbatim. I stick the card in my backpocket. I might be walking along the salt marsh, or out at Phoenix Lake, or in the express line at Safeway, and suddenly I hear something wonderful that makes me want to smile or snap my fingers-as if it has just come back to me-and I take out my index card and scribble it down.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott, pg 134

Ivan Brunetti also incorporates index cards in many of his exercises from his book Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice. He suggests:

try orienting your index card horizontally instead of vertically. “Going wide” has two immediate benefits. First, it more closely approximates our eyes’ field of view and (perhaps not coincidentally) correlates with the proscenium’s composition space, seen not only in stage plays but also on film and computer screens. Second, it damningly highlights those unconsidered compositions that focus on the figure to the detriment of any surrounding environment. We’ve all seen examples: a character is cut off at the ankles and surrounded at the top, left, and right by an undeliberate emptiness, a vast halo of nothing, a rickety non-space, or what I call the Arch of Uninterestingness.

Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, Brunetti, Ivan, pg. 42

I’ve used many types of notebooks. Moleskines (anyone else think that’s a gross name?), Field Notes, Composition books, Evernote, but index cards are the sharks of the stationary world – they adapt better than any note taking invention.

Their size allows me to scratch out a poem or sketch on the run without elbowing fellow passengers on the subway.

They are easy to catalog and store.

And they make perfect bookmarks, especially for library books. You can take notes without marking up the book.

For a short history on index cards. Yes, if you’re that much of a geek, that you would be interested in such a topic, click here.

Just Blaise

Matchstick legs ignite

a Parisian son. Midfield

light illuminates.


Blaise Matuidi is my favorite midfielder to watch right now.

He doesn’t pirouette, or flash a thousand step-overs. You won’t see a croqueta, or metronome passing.

But his tackles, endless running, headers, and enthusasim for football gives an aging amateur midfielder an example to aspire to.

Patterns and Murals at Twisted Trompo


Welcome to Twisted Trompo.

The food is bite after bite scrumptious. But visually, the Twisted Trompo is fun to look at too.

The paisley patterned tiles give the bar a flourish.

The painted cement between the cinder blocks light the walls. How did they get the color to come out so vivid?

And the mural above the bar had me staring and searching for new techniques.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the artist’s name. But shoutout, whoever you are.

I dig the thick, strong lines around each subject. It’s part comic book panel, part fine painting. Question though – What’s the top’s significance?

Twisted Trompo is a reminder that what surrounds you while you eat – friends, strangers, staff and art, is as important as the food.

Menu recommendation: If you’re a carnivore, order the Torta Cubana. It’s a meat theme park you’ll never forget.

Cartooning Advice from Matt Groening

I stumbled on this list flipping through a random Simpson’s comics collection at Half Price Books. A lot of the tips apply to writers as well.

On tip #7, I agree. Most how-to-cartoon are terrible. But Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, and Comics: Easy as ABC are indispensable guides to the craft.

Matt’s main homie Lynda Barry has Making Comics coming out soon too.

Be on the look out, and keep drawing.


  1. Don’t draw with cheap felt-tip pens. The ink in drawings made with felt tip pens will fade in a few years, and all you’ll be left with is a bunch of ghostly images, then nothing at all. And these drawings fade even faster when exposed to sunlight. So wise up and use pens with permanent ink, and try to draw on paper that’s not going to yellow and fall apart. (I learned this the hard way.)
  2. Finish your work! Drawing complete stories is really hard, especially when you’re a kid, but there’s nothing like having a finished story-with beginning, middle, and end-to amuse yourself and your friends. Unfinished work just doesn’t cut it.
  3. Save your stuff! Often, as your drawing and writing skills develop, or you get older and start having other more “mature” interests, your earlier cartoon work starts looking lame and clumsy. The usual urge is to toss it-but resist that urge! I guarantee that later in life you’ll be glad you held on to your cartoons, no matter how stupid they look now.
  4. Don’t let your mom throw your cartoons out! Moms have a tendency to do this. You go off for a weekend visit to Aunt Gladys, or you get shipped off to summer camp, or you turn your back for a second, and poof! There go your toys, your comic books, and your brilliant artwork. And no amount of squealing is going to bring that stuff back. So take care of your treasures-keep ’em out of the way of anyone who has some weird hatred of “clutter” – and make sure everyone in your family knows you’re insanely possessive of your stupid, worthless junk. If you make your stand early, before permanent damage is done to your goodies, they may learn not to mess with your mess.
  5. It’s okay to copy other cartoons, but it’s easy to get obsessed with a particular style that you can never master. I spent a solid year trying to draw Batman when I was eleven, and have nothing to show for it but a bunch of crummy-looking, vaguely Batmannish ghosts (see Item #1). So my advice is to copy from a whole bunch of different sources-eventually you’ll figure out a style that fits you.
  6. Get a sketchbook. Do lots and lots of drawings. Fill up the sketchbook. Repeat.
  7. Most how-to-cartoon books are terrible, so don’t get discouraged by their lousy advice. Remember, if the people who put together how-to-cartoon books knew what they were doing, they probably wouldn’t be doing how-to-cartoon books.
  8. Check out the original artwork of cartoonists you admire. You may be in for a surprise. It doesn’t look as slick as the printed stuff, does it? It’s full of smudges, pencil marks, erased lines, and covered-up mistakes. Most young, would-be cartoonists end up getting totally bummed out because their stuff doesn’t look as slick and perfect as the stuff they see in print. But the original work by the pros themselves usually don’t look that good, either. So it’s okay for your original artwork to look a little smudgy, too.
  9. It’s not horrible to be a crummy drawer. There’s room for all sorts of styles in the world. All I can draw are people with big eyeballs and no chins, and I can’t even do that well-but look at me. I get to blab about how to cartoon, and you get to listen to me.
  10. And finally: Be original. It’s okay to copy the cartoons you love, if you must. But please: Eventually edge toward your own ideas and stories. That way I won’t have to track you down and sue you.

Dear Mother…A short writing tip from John McPhee


“You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whisper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

Draft No. 4: John McPhee On the Writing Process, McPhee, John, pg 157,158

A trick to help loosen up your mind and get some words down on the page.

I’m hoping posting it here will help me remember to return to it when all feels impossible.

First Sentences

The prisoner in the photograph is me.

Hole in my life, Jack Gantos

On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

I noticed writing out first sentences is like sliding them under a microscope.

By removing them from their natural habitat – the paragraph they’re resting on, you can see what they’re up too.

See what their hiding.

These three sentences all establish a world. A tone. They all introduce a character and a problem.

Efficient!

Seductive!

Come read more, they beg!

Jack is in prison.

Ashima is pregnant and alone in an apartment that doesn’t feel like home.

And while cloaks of invisibility exist in Ingary, apparently being the oldest of three is a problem.

This makes me think of the first sentences I’ve written.

Did they create the same effect?