Flirting with Your Reader

“Flirtation, attention without intention.” Max O’Rell

Mimi and Spoon-cropped, lightened 1500

Fill Her Up

You fill me up like a Pop-tart fills the toaster,
Sweet and hot.
You’re every recipe my grandmother made
And I forgot.
You’re all my lost relatives
Come home again.
You’re my old address, my old dress—the one I wore
To the ninth grade prom.
You’re my virginity come back to haunt me.
You’re new rains, old pains, cinquains I wrote
In the fourth grade. You’re every note
I ever passed.

You are a branch bank opening in my neighborhood
With free lifetime incomes to the first 100 customers.
You’re a high like exercise (if exercise behaved as advertised).
Like hitting butter halfway down the popcorn bucket,
Like staying in the movie for a double feature
I didn’t even pay for.

You’re a microscope that sees through my skin,
A telescope that lets me keep my distance.

You fill me up like premium gas at Costco
Caught before the cost goes up,
All that power in my tank—and at such a savings.
You fill me up like the first snow
Fills the junkyards clean again.
A million flakes to cover one defunct Caddy
And suddenly it’s young again,
It runs again.

Mimi Herman

Princess Leia copies Mimi
As a child, I was so shy and self-conscious that when the school photographer said, “Smile,” tears leapt to my eyes. So in every elementary school photo, I look like I’m about to cry.

As writers, we’re often stuck with those glossy-eyed photos in our albums—and a sense that we’ve never been socially “ept,” as opposed to inept. A lot of us grew up thinking we weren’t attractive or suave or charming enough to flirt. We say to ourselves, “Right, as soon as I get my self-esteem whipped into shape, I’ll be able to flirt.”

So here’s the secret. You don’t have to be perfect to flirt. You don’t have to be good-looking, though, of course, you happen to be stunningly gorgeous. You don’t need a perfectly healthy well-balanced self-esteem. You don’t need zenlike ease, a rapier wit, a stockpile of clever rejoinders. That stuff, by the way, will come with time and practice, as a useful byproduct of flirting. All you need is situational confidence, which is something you can put on at whenever you choose to do so.

Now what does all this have to do with writing? Well, I think we run the risk as writers of serious poetry and fiction, work meant to do more than “just entertain,” of leaving our best selves off the page—our witty, charming, devious, delightful, intriguing, entrancing, and enticing selves—when we write. These are the selves you play with, the ones that are available to you when you have a little extra ease and comfort, and you trust your reader to want to get to know you.

Flirting is always about balancing opposites in delicious tension:

  • generosity and reserve
  • mystery and openness
  • rapid-fire and lingering
  • desire and self-sufficiency
  • intimacy and distance
  • inviting and holding back
  • secrets and surprise revelations

Flirting is a gift, a way of sharing your best self, your most delicious and delightful self, with someone whose attention you desire. And isn’t that exactly what writing is?



Sonnetize Yourself


All right, fearless readers and writers. We’ve now explored sound and meter in poetry, so we’re ready to put them together to start creating formal poems. If you create something you really like, please share it with the rest of us. We’d love to see what you’re writing.

With every kind of formal poetry, you can follow the rules precisely and create strictly formal poems, or you can relax a little, put on those jeans with the holes in the knees, and create a looser version. Either way, it’s not about proving how good a rule-follower you are. It’s about using these forms and techniques to write the poems that matter to you and your readers.

Let’s start with that classic: sonnets. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for us. And besides, it’s only fourteen lines long.

There are two types of sonnets, each with two names, the Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnet and the Italian/Petrarchan sonnet. English is, unfortunately, a very rhyme-impoverished language, particularly as opposed to Italian, so the Italian sonnet has a lot more words that rhyme with each other. We’re going to go for the Elizabethan version, since if you’re reading this, I’m guessing your command of English is fairly strong.

All sonnets are written in iambic pentameter: ten syllables that alternate light and heavy stresses like this: ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM. If you want to know what this feels like, try limping around the room, coming down heavily every second step.

An Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains (four-line stanzas) often without a break in between, with alternating rhyme, followed by a rhyming couplet (two-line stanza). So the rhyme scheme for this sonnet looks like this:


To learn more about rhyme, go to Playing with Sound in Poetry, Part 1. To learn more about rhythm, go to Playing with Sound in Poetry, Part 2.

Here’s one of my favorite Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnets:

If I Should Learn      

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again –
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man, who happened to be you,
At noon today had happened to be killed –
I should not cry aloud – I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place –
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face;
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

Try reading it while you limp around the room.* Maybe do it several times to get the rhythm in your body.  Now try writing one, just as an experiment. About anything. I wrote one about yeast once and another about apnea, so you can see the world of sonnet subjects is vast.

Remember, you can follow the rules strictly, or play with the form. If you’re just starting out, I recommend aiming for about 10 syllables per line (allowing yourself to have 9 or 11, as needed), in 14 lines, rhyming ababcdcdefefgg as above, and giving yourself the freedom to use as many slant rhymes as you want. The form is not nearly as important as taking the chance to play with different techniques, so you’ll have new ways to write the poems you want to write.

*If you want a real treat, go here to hear a Youtube version of Edna reading another of her famous poems, “Recuerdo.” I can’t get enough of her voice!

Shakespeare Portrait from
Edna St. Vincent Millay photograph by Arnold Genthe, Mamaroneck, NY, 1914

Playing with Sound in Poetry, Part 2


Last week in “Playing with Sound in Poetry, Part 1,” we experimented with rhyme, alliteration and other word play. This week we’re expanding into meter and rhythm. But never fear, we’ll take it one step at a time.

Like most of us, formal poems have feet. Unlike us, their feet don’t have toes attached at the end. A poetic foot is the basic unit of a line, a small segment of rhythm. It is often repeated throughout a poem to create a consistent rhythm.

Look below to find some different types of feet, with the name, pronunciation, rhythm (light on Te, heavy on TUM), and a word or phrase to demonstrate each foot.



  • Iamb (EYE-am): Te TUM (“again”)
  • Trochee (TRO-key): TUM te (“wander”)
  • Anapest (AN-a-pest): te te TUM (“understand”)
  • Dactyl (DAK-til): TUM te te (“happily”)
  • Spondee (SPON-dee): TUM TUM (“show me”)
  • Pyrric (PIR-ik): te te (“of the”)

The most common foot – found in sonnets, Shakespeare’s plays and many other types of formal poetry – is the iamb. Place your hand on your heart or the inside of your wrist and you’ll see why some people believe we’re drawn to iambs: we have a steady pulse of iambic heartbeats keeping rhythm for us throughout our lives.

Each of the feet above can be made into meter by adding a little “ic.”

  • Iamb=Iambic Meter
  • Trochee=Trochaic Meter
  • Anapest=Anapestic Meter
  • Dactyl=Dactylic Meter
  • Spondee=Spondaic Meter
  • Pyrric=(oddly enough) Pyrric Meter

When you put a bunch of the same kind of feet together, you get meter. We use the Latin prefixes to count the number of feet in a line, and that tells us the meter of that line (and generally the poem). The most common meters are below:

  • Monometer: one foot per line
  • Dimeter: two feet per line
  • Trimeter: three feet per line
  • Tetrameter: four feet per line
  • Pentameter: five feet per line
  • Hexameter: six feet per line
  • Heptameter: seven feet per line

We generally use three to five feet per line, in other words, something between trimeter and pentameter. When you put the type of foot together with the number of feet in a line, you get the name of the meter, such as “iambic pentameter.” Perhaps you’ve heard of this one?

Here’s an example of how the same poem can be written in the meters above, using iambs. Try reading these out loud, pausing at each line break. How do they sound different from each other? It’s pretty warm outside, so I thought you might want to cool down by playing with a winter theme.

We could
not meet
for class
this week
the snow
had fall-
en thick
the streets
and ev-
ery tree.
It made
me sick
at heart
to see
our chance
to meet
had dis-
a dir-
ty trick.
The wea-
ther jeered:
a fit
of pique.

We could not meet
for class this week
because the snow
had fallen thick
upon the streets
and every tree.
It made me sick
at heart to see
our chance to meet
had disappeared:
a dirty trick.
The weather jeered:
a fit of pique.

We could not meet for class
this week because the snow
had fallen thick upon
the streets and every tree.
It made me sick at heart
to see our chance to meet
had disappeared:
a dirty trick.The wea-
ther jeered: a fit of pique.

We could not meet for class this week
because the snow had fallen thick
upon the streets and every tree.
It made me sick at heart to see
our chance to meet had disappeared:
a dirty trick.The weather jeered:
a fit of pique—-

We could not meet for class this week because
the snow had fallen thick upon the streets
and every tree. It made me sick at heart
to see our chance to meet had disappeared:
a dirty trick.The weather jeered: a fit
of pique – – – – – – –

We could not meet for class this week because the snow
had fallen thick upon the streets and every tree.
It made me sick at heart to see our chance to meet
had disappeared: a dirty trick.The weather jeered:
a fit of pique – – – – – – – –

We could not meet for class this week because the snow had fall-
en thick upon the streets and every tree. It made me sick
at heart to see our chance to meet had disappeared: a dir-
ty trick. The weather jeered: a fit of pique – – – –

As you may have noticed, by the time you get to hexameter or heptameter, it’s a bit hard to say a whole line in one breath. These longer lines tend to be a bit unwieldy and breathless, so they’re rarely used.

Try this on your own, figure out which meter you like best, , and let me know what you come up with. And tune in next week when we put this all together to play with formal poetry.


Photo Credits, in order of appearance:
“Feet” by Jason Scragz is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“feet” by Charli Lopez is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“feet” by Lydia Pintscher is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Playing with Sound in Poetry, Part 1


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I like to think of poetry as a balance between sound and meaning, though not necessarily in exact measure. Think of a seesaw on a playground. A child and an adult can balance on a seesaw, even though they’re different sizes. So too, sound and meaning can wiggle around to find the best positions to balance each other in a poem.

You probably have a pretty good idea of the meaning in your poems: the things you want to say, which you hope your reader will understand. But since formal poetry has become somewhat unfashionable, we don’t talk about sound as much as we used to. Poems are often ideas or feelings spilled out on the page and chopped into line breaks at the places where we would naturally pause for breath. These can be wonderful poems, but you may also want to play with using the sound of language to amplify meaning in your poetry or cause tension between meaning and the sound.

This brief series will give you some tools you may want to use in your poetry. In this post, we’ll listen to the sounds of words. My next post will delve into line breaks, meter and rhythm.

So find a pack of Q-tips, clean the wax out of your ears, and let’s begin.

Rhyme: words with the same ending sound.
We all know about rhyme, of course: cat/hat/bat/rat. When I’m teaching beginning poetry to kids – or even to adults – I often tell them they’re not allowed to rhyme. After the moans and groans (How can it possibly be poetry if it doesn’t rhyme?), I ask if they’ve ever written a poem where had to force the meaning to fit the rhyme. Most of us have. But rhyme can be useful, whether you’re writing formal verse, free verse or something in between. We’re generally think of rhyme as one thing, but it actually comes in a variety of flavors.

True Rhyme: words with exact same ending sounds
(Also known as Full Rhyme, Exact Rhyme or Perfect Rhyme)
Examples: cat/hat/bat/rat, pillow/willow, quotation/rotation/flotation
I tend to go through the alphabet, trying out various beginning letters until I find a rhyme I like, but a rhyming dictionary can also be helpful:

Identical Rime or Rime Riche: a word that rhymes with itself.
pale/pale, will/will

Slant Rhyme: words with similar ending sounds
(Also known as Near Rhyme, Half Rhyme or Off Rhyme)
Examples: odd/bad, pillow/follow, quotation/Canadian
Try this fun tool: Insert a word, and it will offer you perfect rhymes, near rhymes, synonyms, antonyms, definitions, a thesaurus and syllable count (which will prove useful later, when we play with meter and rhythm).

End Rhyme: rhyme that comes at the ends of lines in a poem.
Now that so many poets write in free verse, there’s a tendency to think of end rhyme as old-fashioned and sing-songy. Still, I recommend trying it out, and working your way through a variety of rhymes until you find the ones that best express your meaning.

Internal Rhyme: rhyme that appears within a line.
More subtle than end rhyme, this can be a wonderful echoing note to weave into free verse.

Alliteration: same starting sounds.
Examples: wake/would/wiggle, cable/could/Kant
This doesn’t necessarily mean the same starting letters. Cat and children are not alliterative, though cat and kangaroo are. Alliteration can provide a powerful sense of purpose, or a pop of playfulness.

Consonance: the same consonant sounds, which may appear anywhere in the word
Examples: deck/kid/ache, wasp/slither/ask
Consonance is a subtle way of connecting words with one another. You can use consonance in consecutive words, or sprinkle it throughout the poem. It gives a poem a certain sense of coherence, though it can sometimes feel forced or overdone.

Assonance: the same vowel sounds (though not necessarily the same vowel), which may appear anywhere in a word
Examples: wonder/undo/comfortable, bake/able/okay
Assonance (a lovely, slightly naughty-sounding word to say aloud) is an even more subtle way of connecting words within a line or throughout a poem.

Onomatopoeia: words with sounds that are identical to their meaning
Examples: bang, pow, sizzle, slither
Very popular with the elementary school set, this tool can also be useful for adult poets and anyone who writes graphic novels.

Letter sounds: the sounds that individual letters make
We often talk about word choice. You can also experiment with going more granular, by paying attention to letter choice, to evoke different emotions.

If you hear a poem with a lot of “t,” “k,” and “p” sounds it’s unlikely to be a love poem, unless you’re writing about friction in love, or want to create a contrast between the sound and the meaning.

If you hear a poem with a high frequency of “l,” “m,” “w,” “n,” and “sh” sounds, it’s probably not going to concern itself with conflict, though it may have a certain passive aggressive tone. Again, you can play with reinforcing the meaning, or contrasting with it.

So now you have a “starter kit” for using sound in poetry. Try out these tools, play with them, revise old poems by paying attention to sound, or experiment in the next ones you write. And tune in two weeks from now – same blog time, same blog station – to explore line breaks, meter and rhythm in poetry.

Photograph from the New York Library Digital Collections


Arts Integration in Action


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School’s out, and the United Arts Council Arts Integration Institute (Now that’s a mouthful!) is in full swing. This is one of my favorite weeks of the year, when elementary school teachers from all over Wake County, North Carolina converge to draw, print, paint, dance, write, sing, play and act out the curriculum in a week of hands-on workshops and lesson planning. We created the Arts Integration Institute way back in the dark ages of 2006 – when we used to write our poems on stone tablets with chisels – and it’s been going strong ever since.

IMG_0667Over the years, our teachers have learned to make their own shadow puppets to bring fables, myths and fairy tales to life. They’ve danced the water cycle, the rock cycle, pressure systems and punctuation. They’ve acted out civil rights, become immigrants to America in 1901, and written letters overseas from the home front in World War II. They’ve ventured on treasure hunts into the world of Multiple Intelligences and made colorful three-dimensional maps of their brains. They’ve built bugs from plastic bottles, created Claymation ecosystems, and extracted poetry from scientific concepts. They’ve written their own blues and released the composers trapped inside themselves—even those who didn’t believe they could carry a tune in a bucket. They’ve explored Cuba, Ghana and Zimbabwe through music, and Appalachia through photography and poetry. They’ve written and performed a 1920s musical in the North Carolina Museum of History in a mere three hours and used their X-ray vision to conjure poetry and paintings from satellite maps of their favorite places.

525798_10151215435082388_2003705076_nAnd everything they’ve done, they’ve brought back to their classrooms to make magic of the curriculum, to get their students excited about learning, and to remind themselves of why they became teachers in the first place.

Can you tell I love this week?

This is the week when I get to extend my love for poetry into all the arts, to be both Piedmont Laureate and Pied Piper.

It’s a treat for me to make sure these teachers are well-fed (okay, we make sure they’re spectacularly well-fed, with a steady stream of tasty treats from mid-morning snacks to a feast at lunch to mid-afternoon snacks) in body and – as you can see from the types of adventures I’ve listed above – in their minds and spirits. And it’s a treat for all of us who create this institute each year to make sure that all these teachers are treated as the professionals, the artists, the musicians, the dancers, the actors, the writers and the all-around creative geniuses they are.

This year, teachers researched nocturnal animals and recreated them in drawings and prints, delved into Westward Expansion by creating characters and scripts (and performing them) using photographs from the time, became literate in art through sketching and poetry, danced about weather and rocks, found rhythm in their hands and feet and melody in the voices and the oh so delightfully named boomwhackers, and wrote lesson plans that will – when these teachers return to school this fall – entice their students into a delightful land of learning they’ll want to inhabit for the rest of their lives.

What’s Your Writing Routine?


“What’s your writing routine?” If you’re a writer, you’re going to get this question or one of its derivatives: “Do you write every day?” “When?” “How much?” “For how long?”

I wish I could describe myself as the kind of person who gets up at 4:30 every morning and writes for two hours. Well, maybe 5:00. As far as I’m concerned, 4:30 is not an hour of the morning. It belongs to the night before. The truth is I’m a sporadic writer, an episodic writer, a make-a-new-resolution-every-few-months writer. I’ve only had two routines that have ever worked for me.

The first is to sit down with my calendar at the beginning of a year – which for me is August or September, since most of my other work is based on the school calendar – and block out a week every month just for writing. I actually put it on the calendar as if it’s work or a social engagement. For that week, I park my car around the corner, turn off the phone and the Internet, drink endless cups of Earl Grey tea and write, sometimes at my desk, sometimes on the couch, wrapped in a throw. When I’m describing this to other people, I often tell them “I have a writing month every week,” as if that were possible in this particular time-space continuum. Wishful thinking.

During my writing weeks, I write ten poems or ten pages of whatever novel I’m working on, each day. My poet friends get a very peculiar expression on their faces when I say phrases like “ten poems a day,” so I hasten to assure them that most of them are truly awful, mere exercises that warm me up and get me ready to write a decent poem or two. I have to sneak up on poetry, pretending that I’m not trying to write anything worthwhile, until something I like suddenly appears amidst the dreck. This means writing a lot of very bad poems. With fiction, it’s different. As soon I’ve tapped into the voice of my narrator, I’m usually good to go.


If I’m writing poetry, I sit crossways on the couch and write very messy early drafts by hand with a fine point (0.7 mm) Uni-ball Vision Rollerball pen on a white legal pad, with lots of crossings-out and arrows to move lines to different places. Journal entries go into a notebook or bound book – in unpacking my books and other office materials from storage, I recently discovered that I have over twenty-five notebooks awaiting me, all clean and fresh, so maybe I should stop buying them for a while. A few years ago, I broke my attachment to writing fiction by hand, and started composing my novels on my computer, either at my desk or in the living room. I’m a fairly fast typist, so I can keep up with my thoughts, but I tend to take a “two words forward, one word back to correct a typo” approach.

I have to be very careful not to break my commitment to myself in any way during my writing weeks. If you’re a workaholic, as I am, it only takes one sniff of work to lure you to some dark alley where you’ll find yourself hooked on responsibilities again – a meeting attended, a workshop taught, even an email answered – and there goes that writing week. I wrote a note to myself several years ago, which I post when I’m fearful of sacrificing my writing for other work. It reads: “No phone, no electronics, no other people before 1:30 pm.” I recommend writing something like that for yourself. Feel free to adjust the time and admonitions as needed.

The other writing routine that sometimes works for me is to write fifteen minutes a day, every day. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be smart. It doesn’t have to connect with what you wrote yesterday or what you’re going to write tomorrow. Just fifteen minutes sometime before bedtime. If you miss a day, you don’t have to write thirty minutes tomorrow. Just start again with fifteen minutes. I invented this process when I finished my MFA, a time when many people stop writing for a while to recover from all those words. I wanted to keep myself going, so I started with the fifteen minutes a day plan – and wrote my first novel that way.

So now it’s your turn. When do you write? How much? By hand or the computer?

Share your own writing routine with the rest of us in your comments, and come join me at the next Piedmont Laureate event:

Flirting with Your Reader: A Workshop for All Writers
South Regional Durham Public Library – Meeting Room

June 15, 2017
7:00-8:30 pm

Find out more about this and other events at