Four Writing Prompts from Queen of Cups

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One feature of my mini lit mag Queen of Cups is a weekly writing prompt. Sometimes I base the prompt on the week’s tarot card, other times I’m inspired by the featured writer, or I come up with something out of left field. As a poet, I’ve found prompts invaluable in generating new material. Here are four of my favorite from Queen of Cups back issues, all are accessible to poets and prose writers alike.

 

1. Write a piece that takes place in a structure, dwelling, or shelter. Think of Shirley Jackson who suffered from agoraphobia and wrote ghost stories and psychological thrillers where houses are not only haunted but become malevolent main characters imprisoning their inhabitants. Conversely, look to Rumer Godden who wrote at least five novels with the word ‘House’ appearing in the title. Godden’s dwellings also rise to character status but are more benevolent, becoming meaningful because of the accrual of inhabitants over the course of history. Like a beloved and ancient oak, Godden’s houses take on personalities of their own and tend to stand both within the passage of time and beyond it. Houses symbolize safety, nurture, and personal and family identity, but can also work in the opposite direction and quickly convey danger, imprisonment, and stultification. Your job is to write something with a physical structure in it, see where it takes you and what your structure reveals to you through the writing of your piece.

 

2. Write a piece titled “Grief Hallucinations” which incorporates the sentence: “You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.” (Epictetus)

 

3. The tradition of lachrymatory dates to Greek and Roman times, but was popular around the Civil War. Wives and sweethearts would collect their tears in small vials, called lachrymatories, in hopes of showing their returning soldiers how much they were missed. Lachrymatory was a common ritual in the elaborate Victorian mourning process which also included: ‘deep mourning’, ‘half mourning’, and, my favorite, ‘slighting the mourning’ the moment when scratchy crepe dress trimming could be removed. Mourning in dress was observed right down to the smallest detail: I own a small box of antique stick pins with black heads labelled ‘Mourning Pins’. Women collected tears shed over death into lachrymatory and would leave the uncorked vials on loved ones’ graves; uncorked so the tears would evaporate over time. Write a poem or prose piece where lachrymatory (or ritualistic mourning) appear.

 

4. Write a micro essay/story (about 500 words), or a prose poem about consciously throwing something special away, or about getting rid of something in a bizarre or unique way.

 

 

 

Reading at Smith College February 12

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**This even has been cancelled due to snowy Sunday forecast**

I’ll be reading, along with fiction writer MB Caschetta, in the Gallery of Readers Series this Sunday, February 12th at 4 p.m. in the Neilson Library browsing room at Smith College.

I’ll read from my newest collection Split the Crow (Parlor Press 2015) which Eleven, Eleven reviewer Sabrina Barretto calls: “a book that wrenches and haunts.”

Poet Mary Biddinger writes: “Sousa’s  work picks up where conventional history has left off, giving voice to urgent testimonies. Split the Crow is a collection of tremendous magnitude that calls upon the past as a way to reconsider our present moment.”

Review of Split the Crow in the Journal Eleven, Eleven

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My thanks to Eleven, Eleven and reviewer Sabrina Barreto for the close read and this generous review of Split the Crow.

 

SPLIT THE CROW, BY SARAH SOUSA
Parlor Press, 2015
84 pp.

Reviewed by Sabrina Barreto

I’m swallowing a story
that ends with blood-stained snow.
I know how this looks.
It appears to be true.

So begins Sarah Sousa’s second volume of poetry, Split the Crow. The opening poem, “Her Moods Caused Owls,” serves as an immediate sine qua non of the book: history, and the individual human stories at its core, is not an issue of fallacy and truth. History is a matter of accountability, and stories are accumulated moments that pivot into cornerstones.

Just as history braids the threads of human lives, so Sousa gathers multiple voices into a chorus that rages and laments. Her chorus is a mingling of Native Americans and European colonizers, speaking initially from the Contact Period in 1600s New England, then traversing Midwest in the early 1900s. The brutality and subjugation that are mentioned as abstracts in American history textbooks return to their breathing, bleeding bodies in Sousa’s hands.

All are culpable, and it is Sousa’s unflinching stance toward her personae that gives her lyric-narratives power. In Part I, which features several accounts of archaeological observation, she excavates the burial grounds and personal effects of children, denoting how objects like the “left forepaw of a bear” (8) and a medicine pouch “Small as a tablespoon” (18) carry their emotional heft: “Sometimes love is expressed with a stone / heavier than what lies beneath it” (8).

Among interred bodies, foreign voices soon rise. The recurrent “Remove” poems, written from the perspective of captive Mary Rowlandson, provide visceral insight into the terrors experienced by settlers’ families seized and marched in raids: “Nine days on my knees. I leave / jelly-red bowls in the snow when I stand” (13). In her trademark forte, Sousa’s images subvert tenderness with violence: “I watched the goodwife, heavy with child, / stop and have a game of ring-a-roses / played with hatchets on her skull” (20).

But the most horrifying voices belong to the men who condemn: Puritan missionaries. Roger Williams’ hypocrisy appears first, succeeded by John Eliot’s pseudo-Algonquin Bible and his suggestive translation that “cleave is both / cut and cling to” (26), then cemented with a Christianized native’s confession “Satan makes me homesick… Reverend, I believe Satan is easier / with me” (29).

In comparison, the most captivating voices belong to liminal women: the native midwife complicit in infanticide, the native mother who bears a colonizer’s “mottled” stillborn (25), and, in Part II, a slave adopted by the Cherokee as “a gift given”(45) juxtaposed with a slave impregnated by a native and rejected by his tribe.

If Part I of Split the Crow was the Civil War, then Part II would be the Reconstruction. While the first half delves into decimation, the second half deals in “Survival and Other Skills” (56). No longer driven towards death, Native Americans live in death’s presence: the asphyxiation of their way of life. In response, tribal elders gather the living and ghosts alike, while they are caricatured against the “clever cowboy” in the “Indian Exhibit” (53) and their children are “Renamed at Boarding School” (54), where “Speaking Kiowa could get a boy thrown / across the room, collar bone snapped” (55).

Yet, in a longing for past rituals, there is more space for warmth in Part II: a “Courtship scene drawn on an envelope” (39), a lacemaker’s hodgepodge scrapbook of remedies and censuses, and daughters who still “cut hair, make light biscuits” (56) like their grandmothers. Sousa explores how memory is processed and contained not only in the body, but moreover through tradition – traditions that she draws upon from her female forbears in poetry.

In particular, there are four poets that inform Sousa’s work. There is Dickinson, with her crystalline diction, and Bishop, with her quiet details and narrative sequencing, but there is especially Plath and Glück. Sousa shares Glück’s sharpened sensitivity and intense adaptation of persona, and creates incantations reminiscent of the “Vesper” / “Matin” poems in Iris. Like Plath, Sousa streamlines fury, harnesses “quick and liquid” (26) sounds, and accentuates the energy of death, with a strong sense of fracture.

Split the Crow is a book that wrenches and haunts, “dark / and sweet as a raven’s wing” (19). In excavating the remains of a past life and culture’s lifeblood, Sousa’s reaffirms indigenous force, if not authority: “Sad because extinct but still / possessing mythical teeth, legs, claws” (6). History doesn’t slumber – it is couched in shadow, waiting to emerge from dust.

 

 

Sabrina Barreto is a Bay Area wordsmith and MFA Poetry candidate at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She is currently the International Editor and Poetry Coordinator of literary journal Eleven Eleven. She has received the Academy of American Poets Tamara Verga Prize, two consecutive Ina Coolbrith Memorial Poetry Prizes, and two Shipsey Poetry Prizes. Her work has appeared in The Bohemian, the Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle, the Santa Clara Review, and explore Journal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wisdom of the Tarot’s Death Card at This Moment in History

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La Miseria by Cristobal Rojas, 1886

***The following reading of the Death card is excerpted from the mini lit mag Queen of Cups. This week’s issue can be read in entirety at the link. You can subscribe to Queen of Cups for free. Issues are delivered every Wednesday to your inbox. ***

 

 

 

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I don’t usually shuffle the deck and pick the weekly card feeling like I need some kind of guidance or a relevant message. I usually just shuffle and pick, take what we get and set to work. This week, however, I found myself shuffling slowly, heavily. After several stressful, anxious, angry, post-election days, a torpor, a complete lassitude, had settled over me. I shuffled absentmindedly and picked a card about three or four from the top of the deck, without much thought. I was surprised to see the Death card and immediately recognized it as appropriate and powerful. I’m not going to be able to help putting this card in the context of recent events. I would like QOC to be as much of a haven as possible, where we can all think about art, focus on art, read good literature, write a little and have some spiritual/philosophical fun with the tarot, a place to be introspective and centered. But….. Sometimes the complicated and challenging aspects of life intrude, and art can’t really be separated from life anyway, nor would we want it to. Many of us have been knocked off our centers and spiritually dislocated, come face to face with our own fear, anger, and helplessness, and, sometimes even more painfully, face to face with the fear, anger, helplessness and suffering of those around us who we love, respect, and wish to support. Although the appearance of the Death card in B films always portends doom, Death in the tarot doesn’t signify literal, physical death, but a powerful metaphor. Metaphor is another reason I love the tarot. The Death card can be read in both positive and negative ways depending on the context but also because the idea of death as change contains both positive and negative elements. Both readings see Death as an ending, an inexorable force which may feel overwhelming, a time of significant transition and transformation. If we accept this analogy, there is also likely to be struggle, fear and pain. The idea of denying death or forestalling it isn’t really relevant. Literal death is not swayed by either denial or reasoning. This card is certainly speaking to what many of us lived through on November 8th. The election of any new president and handing of power from one to the next is always a mini-death in the metaphorical sense. There’s trepidation as we watch this fragile construct called America enact its every four-year ritual. This year there’s a sense of dread in half the population, and the very fact that the population of our country is literally split in two over its beliefs, ideals and direction is heightening this dread. Half of us are mourning the impending loss of advocacy and care for our environment, health, education, religious freedoms, equal rights, tolerance, liberty, and moral fiber. Many of us feel afraid for ourselves and even more afraid for friends and family who, because of their skin color, or sexual orientation, are more vulnerable to being targeted when hate speech incites violence. I have taken comfort in friends telling friends ‘I’ve got your back’. Not a cliche in this context, but a real promise that’s not easy to make. I’ve got your back, as in: I will call out racism when I see or hear it. I’ve got your back, as in: I will call out misogyny and homophobia when I see or hear it, I’ve got your back as in: if a Muslim registry is established we will all register as Muslim, I’ve got your back: I will use my talents, my energy and resources in the fight against fundamental injustice, I’ve got your back: I will stand beside you because, as many of us know from experience, we’re stronger and safer in groups. We, writers and artists, are in a unique position to use our work on behalf of humanity, for equality, fairness, integrity. Art-making is truth-telling, which in itself is a powerful and subversive act. You don’t have to write activist or political poetry for a poem to send a profound message about the human condition. And it’s also desirable for art and craft to sometimes be a balm, an object of beauty, joy, and gratitude, that allows its viewer to breathe deeply and feel, for a moment at least, that life is going to be ok. It’s alright to feel that in the presence of death. We should offer each other, our readers, our viewers, and ourselves, that empathy. I felt this as I worked on the doll I donated to the Standing with Standing Rock fundraiser I told you all about last week. I created her in the days leading up to the election and half of election day itself. The blog post I wrote with photos of the process received a powerful response. People need art in dark times. They need to make art and interact with art. Some of the warmest, most genuine, and bonded groups I have spent time with were informal ones come together around art, craft and writing. We need to keep doing these things on small and large scales and count whatever good results as more light in the darkness. An ancient and enduring ritual of death is that of sitting vigil, from the Latin wakefulness. A loved one commits to sit, awake, beside the bed of the dying for comfort and to bear witness to the life and death of this one individual. It is a commitment to being present, seeing what has to be seen, feeling what has to be felt and staying put. Sitting vigil occurs in non fatal struggles too, as when we sit with a person severely depressed, heartbroken, in physical or emotional pain, the woman in labor, the loved one betrayed or spiritually bereft. It’s one of the hardest roles to fill and one of the most basic. It is a job that has often been taken-up by women. I have sat vigil in nearly all of these ways in my life. I like to think of sitting vigil as the act of space holding, one person holding a forcefield of safety and love around another who is too devoid of lifeforce, weak, or in pain to do this for herself, but also holding a space of reverence for the hard work of suffering, letting go, being human. I think this is what the Death card is calling us to do. There are days of action ahead, they’re knocking at the door, right now we take time to sit vigil for each other and for the loss of something greater.

Standing with Standing Rock Through Art on Election Day

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The week before election day I was asked by a local herbalist friend if I would be interested in donating one of my poetry collections to be auctioned off at a Standing With Standing Rock fundraiser, to be held this Saturday, in support of the Standing Rock Reservation and the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. My small town just waged, and won, a battle of our own against Kinder Morgan and a proposed gas pipeline which would have torn through the working farmland, protected forests and waterways of western Massachusetts. One of our town selectman was arrested at an anti-pipeline protest in DC. A local timber framer constructed a Thoreau-like cabin on a friend’s property, which was in the proposed  pipeline’s path, as a form of non-violent protest. It seemed everyone did something in protest or in support of protesters. Now, the rural communities that would have been violated as a result of a pipeline in my neck of the woods are throwing support behind protesters in North Dakota: sending food and warm clothing, bringing supplies and raising money. So, when I was asked to donate a book I wholeheartedly said ‘yes’ and then ‘I can make and donate a doll too’. Me and my big ideas! That’s how I found myself focused on wool and needles in the days leading up to the election.

I have been making needle felted dolls for about 8 years. The process of needle felting is fairly simple, needles with barbs on the end are poked repeatedly into loose wool resulting in a tangling and interlocking of the wool fibers, otherwise known as felt.  Many people are familiar with ‘wet felting’ where the wool is felted in a process involving hot water, soap and agitation. That’s a quicker process, but can’t be applied to the making of a doll. This is the first time I took photos throughout the process. I began with a few bags of wool in different colors and about 12 (non consecutive) hours later had a little lady. On Tuesday night when I was feeling stunned and sick, along with half of the American population, I felt really grateful that I had spent the the previous days focused on art-making, creating a symbol of serenity, kindness and nurture. I made this doll and had her out the door on deadline, so didn’t get to spend much time with her, or name her, which I sometimes do. I’ll say a few more things about the process: I always use Merino wool for the head/face of the doll. Only Merino results in a smooth, refined look. This time I tea-dyed the Merino. Her hair is mohair from an Angora goat named Nora I owned years ago. Her face is tinted with pastel chalks, applied with a small paintbrush. She is 100% wool. She’s holding a nest containing one white egg, also wool. The body is only felted enough to hold together, but her face is heavily-felted to hold her features and feels hard like a small ball. The making of the face is the most time-consuming and stressful part of the process. As you can see in the photos, even when she begins to look like a person, her features transform again and again until she reaches her final form. I’m pleased to share these photos of the process with you. The differences between the photos near the end of the process are pretty subtle. If you look closely you’ll see the point at which I shaded around her eyes and how that adds dimension and completes the look. Love and peace to all.

 

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Page of Wands for Writers and Artists

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Every Wednesday in Queen of Cups I pull a tarot card of the week and give both a general reading and one tailored to artists and writers. This week’s card is Page of Wands. I’ve included the reading for artists and writers below. But, you can read the whole issue and subscribe all for free!

 

 

Page of Wands for Writers and Artists: This card is pure creativity for creativity’s sake, it’s experimentation, play, making without judgement, spending the day not only painting but dwelling in your imagination the way children do in imaginative play. As adults we don’t marvel enough at the ability of children to imagine worlds, sustain them, and then act within the worlds they’re imagining. I can see my boys at seven-years-old, wandering around the yard holding some kind of prop: lego creation, deflated beanie baby, stick, (maybe a beanie baby on a stick) or whatever was at hand, sometimes mumbling quietly, other times running, crouching, jumping off of rocks and stumps, or striking odd poses, all happening in a world that was a mix of the physical one in front of them and some other imaginary world being created on the spot. Think of the creative stamina and power in that! The same behavior in an adult is bound to be labeled eccentricity, escapism, or delusion. But for an artist, that ability is pure gold, and I don’t mean the monetary kind. I’d argue that the ability to create worlds and then act in them, a kind of wakeful lucid dream, is true magic, the vestigial whispers of which writers tap into and readers respond to in such works as The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy, among others. This was a magical power we once wielded with complete confidence and faith and have all but lost with maturity. It’s heartbreaking for a parent to witness the first falterings of imaginative magic in their children. The day comes when your child goes through the motions with legos and beanie babies, makes the sound effects, imagines the storyline, but can’t seem to fully enter the imaginative world. You see him sitting on the bedroom floor surrounded by the props and realize he knows he’s just sitting on the bedroom floor with a clutter of toys. I guess it boils down to a growing consciousness that comes with maturity, but from the outside looks like loss, a death. I can barely remember what it feels like on the inside. Without the intrusion of consciousness and the loss of our early imaginative magic, we wouldn’t have Harry Potter, because that series is both a striving back for its author and the fulfillment of a deep need for its readers. Our imaginations and creative abilities do come back, just in a more refined, mature, productive, some might argue less potent, form. We naturally move away from the desire to swing sticks at imaginary monsters, to less pure, often more creatively ambitious, forms of imaginative play. Those years of possessing magical creativity can never be fully retrieved, but we couldn’t be adult artists without that apprenticeship and without the loss. That emptiness makes us yearn and work to restore something of our former abilities, resulting in art. Page of Wands reminds us that every human has artistic potential in any given moment, as a birthright, that creativity and connecting through creativity are soul-healing, dignifying acts.