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A Blog by Poet Elizabeth Oxley

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  • Elizabeth Oxley

Mirrors, Mirrors Everywhere: Day 5 - Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Poetry Retreat

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

June 19, 2020


Welcome to day five of our poetry retreat. As writers of poetry, we're also readers. I think it's critical to deviate from our discussion of craft for a moment to touch on the spirit that we bring to our reading of poetry.

Poet or non-poet, I believe we're driven by a desire to see ourselves reflected in the world. It's why we paint, cook, write, travel. It's why we arrange our furniture a certain way. We want to be able to look around and think: I am here. I see myself in this.

I believe this is also why we come to poetry. Whether reading or writing it, we're looking for ourselves in those lines. We're looking to see ourselves as we were, are, or want to be.

At a Key West Literary Seminar poetry workshop, poet Greg Pardlo spoke about becoming a generous reader. Instead of calling a poem we dislike bad, he suggested we hold the following thought: This poem is outside my canon. Resisting the urge to label a poem good or bad—and to automatically equate that assessment with like/dislike—allows us to examine the poem objectively and seek an understanding of the poet's project. It also leaves the door open for us to change our minds about it.

I gravitate naturally toward lyrical narrative forms. Recently, I became a reader for a literary journal. Many of the submissions I read take lyrical narrative form. Occasionally, some deviate from it. At first, I didn't know how to enter those poems. My first instinct was to step back. Over time, I've grown excited to see them come in. Repeated exposure has resulted in a familiarity that's erased the need for caution.

Now, I can step inside those poems more easily, look around, and find something of myself. Simply recognizing my changing relationship with the poems means that I've learned something about how I'm situated in the world. This is valuable information, not just for my life as a poet but for my life in general. It helps me adjust how I move through the world. It enables me to adapt and evolve.

We've spoken this week about being generous writers. I haven't used that phrase, but that's what I believe we're doing when we write explicitly, cultivate meaning and music, and clear a path through our poems for our readers.

Being a generous reader, too, means we're willing to expose ourselves to forms and content that initially lie beyond our comfort zone. As we do this regularly, we push the boundary out. We roam more freely. We find new ideas for our own writing. And at the point where our boundary extends and then overlaps with another's, we stand together—readers and writers—in a hallway of mirrors.


In Iowa Once

by Seamus Heaney

In Iowa once, among the Mennonites

In a slathering blizzard, conveyed all afternoon

Through sleet-glit pelting hard against the windscreen

And a wiper's strong absolving slumps and flits,

I saw, abandoned in the open gap

Of a field where wilted corn stalks flagged the snow,

A mowing machine. Snow brimmed its iron seat,

Heaped each spoked wheel with a thick white brow

And took the shine off oil in the black-toothed gears.

Verily I came forth from that wilderness

As one unbaptized who had known darkness

At the third hour and the veil in tatters.

In Iowa once. In the slush and rush and hiss

Not of parted but as of rising waters.


Verily I came forth from that wilderness, writes Seamus Heaney in the poem above.

Who doesn't know the feeling of coming forth from wilderness, darkness, or a period of difficulty? I see myself reflected in this line. I bet you do, too. Reading that line, what wilderness in your own life comes to mind? How did you exit that difficult period? Was it by a dramatic turn of events, or did it occur by degrees?

Turn your answer into the introductory line of a new poem (e.g., I came out by degrees, or I exited screaming). Seamus Heaney saw snow heaped on a mowing machine. What did you see as you left the darkness behind? Use concrete details so the reader can stand with you inside the poem.


Frontier Poetry is a poetry magazine and publisher based in Portland and Los Angeles. Its Editor in Chief, Josh Roark, is among the kindest souls in poetry. The Frontier website has this to say: We warmly invite all voices to join us. The frontier land of poetry, that far territory where all voices are equal, pushing toward the vast unknown spaces of the human spirit—we will plant ourselves there & report back to the world the beauty found.

Submissions for Frontier's 2020 Industry Award close on July 19th. Click here to read more about current submission opportunities.


Check out some images from Concrete Poetry: Words and Sounds in Graphic Space, a Getty Research Institute exhibit. From the website: Drawn principally from the Getty Research Institute's collection of prints, artists' books, journals, and manuscripts documenting the international concrete poetry movement, this exhibition focuses on the visual, verbal, and sonic experiments of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

For more examples of concrete poetry, click here. For instructions on writing your own concrete poem, check out these tips from


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