Valuing Simple Creative Time

Valuing Simple Creative Time: The Night Under My Wing

Last week, I had the privilege of spending two days with some 6th grade students, when I was hired through the Arts Council to do a creative writing program with them. In only two days, you can only do so much of a program. And also, in two days, you can do and see and feel so much.

It has been nine years since I was a full-time teacher in a K-12 classroom, and those nine years did not feel as if they had passed at all. There are still awesome teachers doing the work with few resources, too little time, too many arbitrary rules and too many students.

AND, there are still students who are our beloved human beings who want to be heard and seen or desperately want to not be seen or heard, who want to do the right thing, who have no frame of reference for the right thing, who are diverse and annoying and joyful and worthy of so much more than we can ever do for them.

We wrote poems about their hobbies and mixed those with words about flowers and we drew pictures and illustrated a N. Scott Momaday poem and wrote their own “Delight Song” poems. I have very few rules in these activities so no one broke them, and they created things that followed no rules I could have given anyway.

One boy took a brief line from Momaday’s poem and added another line and then created an entire-novel-length story in his head about what his illustration of it all meant. He was very serious, and so was I as I listened to him tell his story.

One girl wrote no words but drew a lovely dragon-type creature for me. I wrote on it, “This is lovely, and I would really like to see some of your words to go with it.” The next day, she added these words to it, “I am a dragon who hides the night under my wing.”

“That is awesome,” I told her and tried to hand the paper back to her. And she said, “No, it’s for you.”

It is now hanging next to my desk in the museum office. I could go on with other examples, but they all go to explain how important reading, writing, listening, sharing, and creating art and poetry are to us.

We must make time for these things. We must value them every day. Finally, I refuse to believe we can’t find more and better ways to do these things.


How to Write a Poem

by Shaun Perkins

There is a wonderful French police drama called Capitaine Marleau, in which the title character solves crimes in a unique way, without “thinking” or “believing.” Her response to her colleagues who ask her, “What do you think?” is “I don’t think. I observe.” And her response to the question, “What do you believe?” is “I don’t believe. I’m not even baptized.”

Why I love this character so much is because she is poetry in action. There are two rules to writing poetry: 1. Observe something. 2. Write about it.

This is Marleau’s modus operandi. She comes to the scene of the crime, observes the situation, and then “writes” about it by putting the details of that observation together, without emotion, in a way that makes sense for understanding the crime.

Poetry is not about emotion. When Wordsworth said that a poem was “emotion recollected in tranquility,” he meant that the poetry came from remembering and writing about the experience that caused the emotion.

A poem is designed to evoke emotion in the reader and listener. The way to evoke emotion, to pull strongly at someone’s soul in the most powerful way, is to deliver the detail of an experience that shows you truly observed and witnessed it.

This is also the way you solve a crime such as murder. Objectively investigate the facts of the case and put them together without artifice to reveal the truth—the killer’s identity.

“Without artifice” is a key here, as a clever DA or lawyer can always twist the facts to make them fit a certain scenario. A poet will not twist facts or inaccurately use language in order to deceive, unless we are talking about satire and the like.

So, this is not a traditional explanation of how to write poetry, but it is the easiest way to explain something that is actually quite difficult. Many people are not that observant or understand that poetry demands this quality. Tons of bad poetry exists because too many people think that a poem is about how they think or feel about what they observed, not the actual observation.

It is much easier to describe how we think or feel than it is to describe a thing with effective nouns and verbs. That’s another way of defining what a poem is: A description of something with effective nouns and verbs. I mean, it’s not a lovely description, but it is apt.

Some might fear that using this advice would lead to a boring poem. The opposite is true. Be honest: Aren’t other people’s thoughts and feelings boring most of the time? What is interesting is the stories they tell, the observations, the details they have observed and share in conversation.

And also, be honest: Do you want someone giving you unsolicited advice, or even worse, feeding you propaganda? That is what happens when you forego the detail and go straight to the message. This is why Capitaine Marleau said she did not think or believe because in those things, mistakes are made if they take precedence over the event, the result of the processes of actual physical life.

Of course, a poem can have a message or theme and should definitely have some sort of emotional effect on the reader, but that theme and effect both derive from the poem’s effectiveness in creating a picture through sensory detail.

So here is how you write a poem: 1. Observe something. 2. Describe what you observed.

Try it and see what happens.


Don’t Fear the Poem . . . or the Museum

rompdoorI’m working at the ROMP Rummage Store today, and as always, I’m trying to get customers to go to the museum–it’s only 2 miles outside of town. It’s easy to find. The door is open, the lights are on, air conditioner going. A lot of people have no interest in poetry. One woman today said, “I’m scared.”

I said, “There’s no one there. The door’s open–just go in and look around at your own pace.”

I didn’t convince her.

But seriously, don’t fear the poem. Don’t fear the poetry museum.

This museum is for and of the people. You can touch stuff in there. Write on walls. Listen to a jukebox. Sit in an easy chair and read some old autograph books from 1930. ALL of the poetry in it is written by regular people like you. Don’t fear it . . . please.

It’s only called a “museum” because I wanted the acronym ROMP when I started this place 4 years ago.

If you came out to the first museum, this one is quite a bit different. It’s in a different building, across the pasture from the old one. The exhibits and your interaction are different. Come see.

There’s no one there who’s going to tell you how to read the poems or write a poem or what to look at or think or feel. It’s a trusting place. Go in and see.

Don’t fear the poem.

–Shaun Perkins



Emily’s Day

IMG_0756It’s her day. Dec. 10, 1830, she came
Into the world and lived in its hands
The way she wanted to live and died
In its hands the way she wanted to die.

What she did not want is for us to see
Her witchery with words, but in the end,
The poetry breathed stronger than that wish
And we breathe stronger for her words.

In November, I got to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum and Homestead. I had a wonderful tour guide and met the museum director Jane Wald and spent an entire day in poetic euphoria. Please go visit this museum and/or support its work in any way that you can. It is truly a wonderful, personal, and lyric experience. Like ROMP, it is a museum, but not a cold, institutional-like environment in any way.

I also got lost a while in Amherst Books and visited the cemetery where she is buried and where a wonderful town memorial has her as a centerpiece.

[NOTE: I saw the word error in the sentence below but decided to keep it.]

Since following in love with E.D. when I was a teenager reading

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there’s a pair of us–Don’t tell!

They’d banish us – you know!

she has been in and out of my life. I did not understand her poetry for a long time, still don’t understand a lot of it, but that doesn’t bother me anymore. I have developed a taste for the image, for the economy of words, for the beauty of the stroke of syllable that teases and leaves unsaid what lives inside.

Happy Birthday, Emily. We continue to weave your web.

–Shaun Perkins

Some of my photos from the day are below:


Dickinson grave plot

Portion of the mural at the cemetery where E.D. is buried.

Front door at E.D. museum


Back of the E.D. house

There is a basement full of used books in this place!

Home of Austin Dickinson, Emily’s brother. It was also on the tour. It is full of the original furnishings and has not been restored–peeling wallpaper and all kinds of ambiance. Unique.

At a strip mall across the street from the museum


This shop is across the street from the E.D. house.

That corner room on the 2nd floor is where magic happened.

Lovely tree in the E.D. yard to the east.


Parking sign



A tour participant took this photo of me with E.D. house in background.

Musings, Poems


printsbeginning2I wrote a poem on a piece of a grocery sack today. A few months ago I bought the above two pieces of artwork, or as they are called on the back “wall accessories” at a thrift store. They are both prints from 1972 that are titled “We Are Engaged.” I altered one of them and am waiting on inspiration to do the other.

I like the idea of a wall accessory. I suppose a rug is a floor accessory. Is a porch a house accessory? A hanging plant an air accessory? An ice box magnet a refrigerator accessory.

Apparently, I just like the word “accessory.”

–Shaun Perkinsbeginning to learnbeginning4



Blanco-R-Photo-High-Res-HEADSHOT-20131Home. Place. Belonging. These are the three words poet Richard Blanco repeated during his June 11th talk in Lousiville at the Convention Center. Blanco, President Obama’s inaugaural poet who penned the very popular “One Today,” described how he became a poet, how he . . . became. He did not start out as a poet, and, in fact, still works as a civil engineer, the career he trained for. But civil engineering report-writing took him to poetry and poetry took him . . . back to home.

Blanco asked, “What is home to you?” This question has propelled his writing life. Memories of his mother, grandmother, father, and brother, filled with grainy Polaroids from the 70’s, highlighted the talk, interspersed with Blanco’s characteristically sensory-rich poetry of object, place, family and harmony.

He joked about one photo featuring a vinyl green couch which he said was an “Ode to My Plastic-Covered Sofa” and described his grandmother in loving, ornery detail as a woman who shunned the Winn Dixie as being elitist and who was good at backward compliments, such as, “I love what you did with your hair . . . finally.”

He read his poem “Mother Country,” which ends with the beautiful lines in his own mother’s voice:

” . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. You know, mijo,
it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where
you choose to die–that’s your country.”

I had just read Blanco’s memoir of being chosen as the inaugural poet–the process and the poems that came from it–For All of Us, One Today (which I highly recommend for anyone interested at all in the power and the call of poetry)–before the event, and ideas of poetry’s place in our world were uppermost in my mind. It is the reason I started the Rural Okalhoma Museum of Poetry (ROMP), after all—to keep expanding that place in the lives of people from all walks of life.

Near the end of the memoir, Blanco said that he makes a “conscious commitment to keep connecting America with poetry and reshape how we think about it.” During the Q&A, I got to ask him about how he is doing that. He responded that one way was talking to the audience he had right then: A roomful of teachers, all of us in the city to grade AP exams for a week.

Children, we can hope, are first exposed to poetry at home–through riddles and rhymes, wordplay and narrative poems, songs and nonsense poems. Children are poets. And then . . . something happens. The reading and writing of poetry gets lost in the way that so many schools compose their curriculum, divorcing this essential journey with words from its natural place–which is in every aspect of our lives.

ROMP exists to remind people of all ages that poetry is essential to their lives. IT IS ESSENTIAL. It is still the best form of communication for reminding us of our common humanity and our need for home, for place, for belonging.

Thank you, Mr. Blanco.

–Shaun Perkins