Susan Cohen

Robert Eastwood

Aleta George

Jannie M. Dresser

Connie Post

Susan Terris

Susan Terris 11/6/21

Devorah Major

David Alpaugh


Susan Terris
at the ICC Contest

Hello Out There to all of You in the Ina Coolbrith Circle:

I am looking at you on zoom. Today, you are all little squares. Me, too. This is something we need to think about and discuss. None of us want to be Squares, do we? And I'm going to see what I can do about it.

Several years ago when I was your keynote speaker, I told you stuff and tried to make you laugh. But now our world is looking darker and more difficult. We are concerned about wars overseas, warring politicians here, the Covid pandemic, climate change, forest fires, drought. All around us we see unrest and chaos.

Yeah, I can see your faces. You're wondering if I'm going to lecture you in a confrontational way so you'll regret I was asked to speak here. Some of you are saying already, as folks did in vaudeville: Get the hook. Get rid of this wench!

BUT listen: what I want to talk about is what we as writers should be doing for ourselves in these crazed and troubled times. What I really want to talk about is taking risks as poets and writers. As the world distresses us, being a square, playing it safe is the wrong tactic.

Pause for a confession: I only watch television for news and sports -- both of which have much time devoted to advertising. So as I go forward, brain-washed by ads, I shall quote their aspirational themes as they refer to risks at the beginning of each section of my talk. Yes, you may laugh. . . .

It amazed me to find that so many ads sound as if they were written by poets. And the word "aspiration" -- a definition is: "the yawning gulf between desire and reality." And -- hey -- the word does come from Latin and has to do with breathing and seeking.

Aspiration #1

There are beautiful Ideas that remain in the dark. (Dell Technologies)

As writers or poets, we tend to find a comfortable niche and write the same kind of pieces again and again. You can raise your hands now if you are guilty of this. Yes, I'm raising mine, too. You see there are many of us who write about mostly gardens, our children, political rants, our dogs or cats, how we were abused as children, how we are in or out of love. All reasonable subjects except if we focus on one style, one theme or one idea and refuse to experiment.

Aspiration #2

Let's Go Places (Toyota)    Do it easy (Carvana)

How to get out of the comfort zone begins with paying more attention to what's beyond us. Read more books, magazines, newspapers, BART posters. Get outside. Visit places near or far. Observe vistas, streets, people.

How many of you are liars? Raise your hands. When you risk-write it's all right to lie to in order to make something true sound either better or worse. One day last summer I saw a man with a red fox on a leash. Then someone sent me a picture of author George Orwell with his beloved goat Muriel. Yes, both of these aha-surprises—with a few lies—became poems. As you are reading more and exploring, you should also go back to your file of poems that are half-finished or failures. Look for lines worth saving. I label that file of mine: expletive expletive, so I can't share it. But promise me you'll be adventuresome and begin to try things you've never done.

Aspiration #3

 If you want to be bold you have to go off script (Cadillac)

First let's consider taking a risk with poetic style. If you always use rhyme or meter, try something else. If you write in couplets (as I tend to do), don't. Write a poem that's a single sentence. Write with spaces where punctuation might be. Try prose poems. Write in forms you've never tried: like the sonnet, the villanelle, or the duplex poem created by Jericho Brown. I failed at all three. Adding words to make sonnet lines iambic meant my lines were full of junk-words that fit the meter but weakened the lines. When I tried the villanelle, my efforts ended up as farce because, for me, it felt silly to keep repeating the same rhyme. The challenge of a duplex poem terrorized me, but it did teach me something about saving lines from prior unpublished poems. All three of these forms shook me up, made me determined to look for other risks.

And for all of you: if you've only written short pieces, write long ones or visa versa. If you tend to write lyrical poems, try narrative ones. Try writing not only in the first person or omniscient person but use the voice as an address to "You". Take chances. It's surprising to see what happens.

Aspiration #4

Need Space. Got Space (CarGurus)   Think different (Apple)

(We won't discuss why the genius committee at Apple didn't understand grammar.)

So, if you have space and think differently, write about what scares you, about things and situations that feel dangerous. Write about something you've never told anyone. I was over 60 when I first wrote that getting

pregnant the first time was not an accident. I also wrote about a transgender woman I know who was undressed by a gang of boys in a BART parking lot. Tough stuff. Also consider the surreal as well as the real. Think about myth, fable, literary obsessions. My literary obsessions: Alice in Wonderland, Beowulf, and Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Think big.

Aspiration #5

Dig safely (PG&E)   Lifetime dreams shouldn't take a lifetime  (ETrade)

Another way to take a risk. If you know and speak another language think about trying to translate someone else's work. Maybe to publish or maybe just to find out how hard it is. Aside from English, I know only Latin and French. As a would-be translator, I failed at both. Latin because my vocabulary wasn't broad enough. Failed at French because I could not deal with the complexity & dual meanings of the French words. But I did learn something that helped me to examine English grammar and sentence construction. Try translating. Many of you will do better than I did.

So, a few words about failure. I am the mother of 3, grandmother of 12, and great grandmother of 6—and I have always tried to teach them from the time they were babies that it's all right to fail. Yes, this section is not just about translation. It's here to remind you that the rejections you receive, as I do too, are reminders that trying something new might be a great idea.

Aspiration #6

How far you go shows how far you are willing to go (Delta Airlines)

I'm almost at the end of my take a risk topic, and my next observation may make you uneasy. Raise your hands if you are part of a writing group. We love these groups and their critiques of our poems, but the other writers in the groups often come to love us so much that the critiquing isn't strong enough. So, think about finding a trusted and reliable reader outside your group to offer suggestions.

How many of you have a freewrite group. I do. And this is a super place to start taking risks. Both Gayle Eleanor and Robert McNally are part of this group of 9. Each participant brings a poem by someone else and a writing exercise. For each exercise, we have just 10 minutes to write. We can read them to one another or not, but we don't criticize such raw drafts. The drafts we take home are often out of our comfort zones. I recently had to write one about drinking, and I don't drink. Now, I'm having a moment of extreme indecision and can't figure out how to use Gayle's prompt about "a moment of extreme indecision". If you don't have such a group: try it.

Aspiration #7

Be curious about the world around us (Viking Cruises)  

                                                Start fast and last (Nertec for Migraines)

The ultimate risk is sending out your work for possible publication. Do it. Keep doing it, despite rejections. Rejection letters goad me to write more than safe little poems or essays. This is my proof and can be yours that you are looking for risks and considering them as a positive challenge.

Yes, we're getting close to the end, but we have a kind of game coming up.

I've asked that all of you be unmuted for this. Barking dogs and crying kids will be ignored.

Aspiration 8#

Reflect on the Past. Celebrate the Future. (Audi Automobiles)

Coolbrith Friends: Sometimes the poems I write are so risky, that I am unwilling to submit them anywhere. I have five of these poems here. First I'll read the titles. Then I'll repeat each title and ask for a show of hands, because I'm only going to read you one of them:

People Say It's Off Limits to Write About Presidential Children

Remember Never to Let Your Lover Move In

Untold Story of Noah's Ark

What the Church Lady in the Red Hat Said

Closet Phobia in the Time of Covid

Okay -- so you've chosen: Remember: Never Allow Your Lover To Move In

Or you didn't. I may be both a liar and a cheat. Never was going to read you the poem about President's Childrenin the voice of Barron Trump. Had decided that the Noah's Ark poem (animals eating animals on the ark) or what the Church Lady said (expletives!) because I felt it might offend the religious poets among you. As for the Closet During Covid: too depressing.

So, WE or I chose: Remember: Never Allow Your Lover To Move In

If I tell you I don't have a lover I may be lying or telling the truth. But if I do or did have a lover, I'd never ever let him move in. . . .

Remember: Never Allow Your Lover To Move In

                        To love completely is annihilation

                                                      --Rollo May, from Love & Will

He will begin to say he loves you only if you say it first

He will drop jock straps and tennis socks on the floor

Soon he'll begin to find his laptop more amusing than you

Sometimes in bed he will call you by her name

He won't ever offer to take out the recycling or the garbage

His children won't like you any more than yours like him

He will not remember if your birthday is the 6th or 8th of May

Sometimes you'll talk and he won't seem to hear you

Then sex will be at 9:30 PM Sunday after he answers his emails

He may squeegee the shower door but will not use the toilet brush

Nor will he reminisce — that's over — how tight you two were

Soon he'll wear ear buds 24/7 and blink when you walk by

And one Friday he will leave for a meeting and fail to return

Thank you for listening. To close this time with you, I've put together a short little cento of these inspiring advertising lines. A few are ad lines I haven't yet used. This cento is probably better than the poem I just read.

Imagination at Work

This is who we are   This is what we want to do

If you want to be bold go off script

There are beautiful ideas that remain in the dark

Let's go places   Start fast and last

Lifetime dreams shouldn't take a lifetime

Once each day   There's a secret worth sharing  

Go all in for the lyric

For what matters   Prepare for what's around the corner

You'll find a better life   Everything you've ever wanted

Open each others minds   Just do it

Need space   got space

How far you go shows how far you are willing to go  

It's about time   Let's just enjoy the moment


So, thank you again, and let's all enjoy the exciting moments of the rest of the day!