Tag Archives: poetry

Want to be a Brilliant Writer? Attend a Reading!

Want to be a Brilliant Writer? Attend a Reading!

Readings are inspiring in more ways than one. As writers, we often think that writing workshops and classes are the best ways to improve our writing, but we mustn’t overlook the power of listening to words, and their ability to transform us.

In my case, my first poetry reading sparked a life changing event. It was fall of 1994, and I was still at the Art Institute flailing about with my visual artwork, when one afternoon my art history teacher (and fabulous poet), Bill Berkson, mentioned a poetry reading he was participating in at the Cowell Theater. The reading was to celebrate the release of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, edited by Paul Hoover.

I had never been to a poetry reading. I figured, what the heck? I’ll check it out. I went alone and brought my notebook. I was awed by the variety, complexity, beauty, breadth, and humor of the work I heard that night. This was like no poetry I had ever read or heard. I didn’t know poetry could be funny, or visual, or rhythmic without classically rhyming.

Something clicked, something transcendent was happening inside me, and for some reason I thought, “I can do this, I want to do this, I must do this”— and by “this” I meant play with language, explore the possibilities of language and words as filtered through my own mind. From that night, I set out to become a poet.

And every reading I’ve attended since then— while not being as life altering— has made me a better writer. Here are three benefits I’ve discovered from attending readings:


At the first poetry reading I attended, there were a variety of readers who were characters in their own rights: Larry Eigner in his wheelchair, moaning forth his disjunctively odd and sublime poems, then being translated by Jack Foley; Alice Notley and her beautifully insistent lyrics; Ron Padgett with his dry wit and humor; Bob Grenier flipping through his scrawl poems, reading them upside-down in a high-pitched growl. All of this was truly inspiring.

The opportunities to gain insights about character development, dialogue, cadence, and more abound at readings. Attending one can pull you out of writer’s block, help you write that hook you’ve been working on, and inspire you to get more creative with your characters.


Being a writer comes with its challenges, one of which is fear— in multiple shapes and forms. Fear is what causes us writers to back off from our writing, to distract ourselves from doing what we love most. There is fear of rejection, of failure, of being vulnerable, of sharing our personal struggles with the world.

But seeing writer after writer perform readings of their works is a useful reminder that if they can do it, you can do it, too. There is also something about seeing people achieve their goals that makes you want to achieve your own goals. So, if you’re lacking motivation, attending a reading is a great way to get reinvigorated.

Writing Skills

As many writers know, perpetual reading is an excellent method for improving your writing skills. Attending a reading has the same effect, but the author is there and available to interact with you. How many times have you read something in a book and wanted to ask the author where they came up with that idea?

Attending a reading gives you access to other writers. Sitting and listening are only part of what happens at a reading. The rest of the time is often filled with discussions about books, writing genres, and methods for improving writing skills. Plus tips and secrets about the publishing industry, if you’re lucky!

Do you have an experience or story to share? Have you ever attended a reading that’s changed your life? What other benefits from attending a reading can you think of? I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts!

Reach out to me through email, Facebook, or Twitter and let’s chat!

Write Your Way Around The Bay! Fall 2015

Write Your Way Around The Bay! Fall 2015

The autumn season is a wonderful time to visit the Bay Area. Festivals and harvests abound, the smell of apples permeates the markets, and the weather is almost always sunny but never too hot. My fingers itch to get to the keyboard and turn these autumn delights into poems.

Other writers must feel the same way, because autumn is a wonderful time to write your way around the Bay! This year you’ll find a truly remarkable writing event during each month of autumn, each one located in a different town in the Bay Area. If you didn’t already have an excuse to visit the Bay Area this fall, here are four more reasons below:

September: The Writing for Change Conference

The leaves are changing and so will hearts, minds, and lives at The Writing for Change Conference in San Francisco. On September 12th, writers, publishers, editors, and agents will be participating in this daylong conference in order to turn ideas into published words that will initiate change in the environment, technology, politics, human rights, and more.

The motto for this conference is “The event that shows you how your ideas can change the world.” Attendees will spend the day in workshops, listening to keynote speakers, and making connections that will take their writing to publication. If you’re looking to have your writing make a difference, this is the conference for you! Plus, you’ll be in San Francisco for the best weather the city has all year.

September: Petaluma Poetry Walk

Petaluma combines two of my favorite things on September 20th: walking and poetry. The 20th annual walk will showcase dozens of poets, including Phyllis Meshulam, Nellie Wong, Beatriz Lagos, Rob Greene, Lucille Lang Day, and many more. Enjoy a leisurely stroll through historic Petaluma and pop in to hear some poetry along the way. The event is free and open to all.

October: Litquake

Get ready to shake things up at Litquake this October! From October 9-17, writers and readers can attend literary events and workshops hosted at various venues in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Festival visitors come from as far away as Australia and Europe; it’s the perfect festival for encountering both local and international writers. Meet authors, attend readings and workshops, participate in lit crawls, and join in on the creative fun!

November: Elizabeth Gilbert LIVE in Napa

A tried and true way to become a successful writer is to learn from the best! This November 7th, writers have the opportunity to learn tricks of the trade from best selling author of Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert. Attendees will enjoy an inspirational talk, writing workshops, a Q&A session, gourmet lunch, wine reception, book signing, and more at the Meritage Resort in Napa, California. Plus, a percentage of proceeds will benefit Bay Area Writers in the Schools Programs. Learn more here at Liz Gilbert LIVE!

Whether it’s a festival, poetry walk, lit crawl, or workshop there is something for every type of writer in the Bay Area this fall. I’ll be attending all these events and more, hopefully while sipping a hot cup of apple cider and enjoying the beautiful autumn weather. Hope to see you there!

**Photo credit: “”A tree in autumn season”” by Arivumathi – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Improve your writing skills at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference

Improve your writing skills at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference

One of the highest compliments that can be paid to a writer of prose is that their work is “poetic.” What does that really mean? You can find out at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in my class Explorations: Prose and Poetry”.

Since 1990, the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference has been connecting writers to community. Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry luminaries mingle with lesser-known first-time authors—each noted for teaching ability. Visiting faculty are accessible and eager to share their insights about literary craft and the publishing industry. Faculty members are available for “one-on-one” pitches. Participants mingle during informal breakfasts and lunches, conversing about literary craft, marketing, and networking.

“It feels like a big, happy family. It’s small and easy to make friends,” says former director Katherine Brown. Writing groups, book deals, lifelong friendships and possibly even a romance or few have grown from the conference over the years.

Both teachers and attendees come away with new connections, improved writing skills, and inspiration. I’m very much looking forward to sharing my many years of poetry experience with fellow poets. My workshop will explore the core elements of poetry and prose to help writers create more depth in their work.

The conference will happen August 6-8, 2015. More details at www.mcwc.org. Hope to see you there!

How to Write a Poem that Commemorates your Pet

How to Write a Poem that Commemorates your Pet

The grieving process that follows after losing an animal companion can be really heart wrenching. For most people, having an animal companion pass on is like losing a family member. There are many ways to cope with the grief, such as reaching out to friends and family, and there are also ways to commemorate your beloved pet so that their memory will live on with you.

A poem is perhaps one of the nicest ways to commemorate an animal companion. It’s personal and sentimental, and it’s something that is easily shared on social media, can be displayed in a frame, or be kept private. It’s also very therapeutic to put pen to paper and conjure up memories of your pet. The only tricky thing is actually writing the poem! The following tips and writing prompts will make the process of writing the poem go smoothly and easily so that you can focus on healing and creating a beautiful tribute for your beloved pet.

Write down facts about your pet

This is where you start compiling information that you can put into your poem. Writing down facts and details about your pet is also a nice way to remember all the good times and what you loved about your animal companion.

Include facts such as your pet’s favorite food, games they liked to play, and funny habits they had. Also write down details about your pet’s appearance. Did they have long or short ears? Did they have fur, feathers, or scales? Did your pet have any special behaviors or needs that made them unique?

Descriptive words

After you have a list of facts and qualities about your animal companion, make a list of descriptive words that can compliment the words in your first list. For example, if you wrote “brown” for the color of your dog’s fur, you could add “shiny brown fur that was the color of caramel”. Think about textures, sounds, emotions, and expressions.

Play around with making different sentences for the qualities you wrote down in your first list. Maybe “the color of caramel” didn’t sound quite right and you want to change it to “the color of milk chocolate”. Feel free to be as creative and expressive as you wish.

A picture is worth a thousand words

While it may be painful, looking at photos of your pet is a good way to come up with ideas for descriptive words and imagery. You’ll be able to see the expressions on your pet’s face and reflect back on the times when the photos were taken. This process can be very therapeutic. Just be sure to have some tissues on hand because it can really tug on your heart strings.

Poetry comes from the heart

The lovely thing about poetry is that you can really make the writing style your own. Poems do not have to rhyme. The only thing that truly matters is that your poem comes from the heart. You can include family members and friends and write the poem together. Or you can write it on your own. Either way, let the style come easily to you and don’t worry about form or layout.

Rhyming tips for poems

If you do want your poem to rhyme, there are some easy tricks you can use so that the words will flow naturally. First, make a list of words that rhyme with the type of animal you had. That way, you won’t have to try to think of rhyming words as you’re writing the poem. Second, make a list of words that rhyme with your pet’s name. Third, make a list of endearing words that represent how you feel about your animal companion, such as love, happy, and joy.

Lastly, look up examples of a variety of rhyming poems to see which style of rhyming you like best. Typically, a poem consists of stanzas that are four lines each. This does not have to be a rule set in stone. You can play around with the number of lines and stanzas until you find a pattern that is right for you. Pay attention to the number of beats per line so that your poetry will have a steady cadence and rhythm.

Finishing touches

After you’ve written a few lines of your poem, read them out loud to see how the rhythm is starting to form. It’s better to make adjustment in the early stages than to wait until the end. Continue to read your poem out loud every time you’ve written a few more lines.

When you get to the end of your poem, really focus on making the closing line count. Choose words that convey emotion and that pay tribute to your animal companion. Once your poem is finished, it is up to you if you want to share it with others. The poem is something you will have for always, so you can share it when you are ready.

By the time you’ve finished writing the poem, you will have spent quality time healing through the grief of losing your animal companion. It’s important to use things like poetry as a way take care of yourself through this difficult time, because the other place your pet will always live on is in your heart.

For more #BrilliantWriter tips follow Albert Flynn DeSilver at Facebook.com/Albert.Flynn.DeSilver.Author

A Poem for Cheryl Strayed

As host of the recent “Writing, Truth, and Community” event featuring best selling author and creative writer Cheryl Strayed, I was blessed with the task of introducing Cheryl, who has by now, been introduced in so many fabulous and interesting ways by so many fabulous and interesting luminaries, that I was wondering what little old me could possibly add to the mix? So in my poet-like bewilderment and terror, I couldn’t think of what else to do except what I always do with such surges of emotion. Write a poem! She was so genuinely touched, that she mentioned how when she met Robert Redford, though he kissed her four times, he did NOT write her a poem. My life is now complete, I can die a happy fulfilled man!! The poem is copied below. Enjoy!

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Cheryl Strayed (after Wallace Stevens)


Among twenty snowy mountains
The only thing moving
Was the eye of a woman with a blue backpack
Called “monster”


She was of three minds
Like a tree with three branches
Of grief, of hope, of love


The woman whirled in the summer winds
A tiny speck of brilliance in the setting sun


A woman and a mountain are one. A woman
And a mountain, and a grieving heart are one


I don’t know which to prefer, the beauty
of subtle thought, or the beauty of mountain dreams—
the woman weeping, or just after


Charcoal clouds drifted across the tops of the sugar pines,
oh dear future sugar. . .the mountains frowned
her solitude thickening, the trail steepened


Oh good people of the city
why do you imagine only golden words?
Do you not see how the blackbirds
nest in her trees, as in yours?


I know of noble songs, of grand ideas,
I know the woman with the blue backpack
is involved in what I know


When the woman took flight
as now a bluebird might, it marked the beginning
of many endings


The sight of the woman
in the blue backpack with her heart full of
birds, full of words,
would make the mountains cry out
in understanding


She walked the spine of California
on winged feet made of glass
on hammered feet of blood and pulp
the mystery and beauty eclipsing the fear
of an unknown. . .the pain of surrender


The river is flowing
the woman must jump in


It was daytime all night long
from then on, the blackbirds in the night tree were
singing for her, a song abloom with the clarity of love

The Greatest Writers Retreat

[This is from my Redroom.com blog, that I actually just won a contest for–free admission to the USC  Writers’ Conference–and I can’t go :(]

The greatest writers retreat is into your self, into books you love, into the wildness of nature, into the chaos and beauty of your deepest emotions. As for actual retreats, in the late 1990’s I had the blessing of being a campground host at a remote state park called the Sinkyone Wilderness on the Northern California coast. The folks who had been campground hosts, had been so for years, were super-attached to their position, and it was extremely rare to get the gig. I just happened to luck out and my timing was right when a long-time participant had a family emergency and needed someone to fill the spot. March was not a popular time for anyone to be out there, but for a poet and artist haunted by his past and enchanted by his present, it was perfect!

The following excerpt is from my memoir “Beamish Boy,” which includes a chapter from this extraordinary experience that became the ultimate writer’s “retreat” into my self! Enjoy!


Alone in the Sinkyone


I had never ventured north of Sonoma County and was in awe driving west out of Garberville, California as I passed through a sweet little remnant old-growth redwood forest down by the Eel River, then followed the road out toward Shelter Cove, where it got more and more wiggly, meandering up and down through blond hills and densely forested patches of third-growth redwood and Douglas fir. I continued on through a couple of old settlements that have come and gone over the years. They were just clusters of houses with junk cars strewn about and old, rusty signs advertising a stopover for lunch or gas. Whitethorn is one of these places, once teeming with a tan-bark mill at the turn of the century and then for a while at mid-century, inhabited by Beats and hippies. It now appeared mostly abandoned, except for some back-to-the-land holdouts and pot growers hiding out in old school buses and VW campers being reclaimed by blackberry and wild ivy.

At Whitethorn, the road turned to dirt, met up with the headwaters of the Matole River for a while, then split at Four Corners where there used to be a stage stop and an old hotel. I took a slight right  to head into the Sinkyone Wilderness, named for the native peoples that roamed this wild land for thousands of years before European settlers showed up in the late 1800s. This is known as the Lost Coast, the one section of Highway 1’s coastal route that stymied the engineers. At the Usal Beach Road, Highway 1 gets diverted inland due to the exquisitely rugged terrain and the fact that this is one of the most seismically active areas of California.

I proceeded nervously down the Needle Rock Road into the heart of the Sinkyone, as the road narrowed to one lane and descended more and more steeply. I couldn’t help but notice that I was at the abrupt end of the continent. The land practically breaks off there, with the Pacific thundering a thousand feet below. The Ranger had told me it might be best to leave my car at Four Corners, as there are frequent mudslides, downed trees, and rockfalls throughout the Winter and early Spring. Down I wound, vultures flying below me through the fog and mist while I kept an eye out for elk who were known to trot lazily across the road.

Out my rolled-down window, I heard a redtail hawk shriek and watched him ride a thermal high above a tiny meadow. Lyle Lovett was on the tapedeck singing “If I had a boat, I’d head out on the ocean, and if I had a pony, I’d ride him on that boat, and we could all together head out on that ocean, me up on my pony on my boat . . .”

It took a good thirty minutes going fifteen miles per hour before I finally arrived at an open meadow a hundred feet or so above the sea, and there in the middle of the meadow sat the Needle Rock House. Once a homestead site, it is now a visitor center with an apartment in the back for a campground host. I was that host for the month of March in 1997 and 1998—two of the most magical months of my life. After my first visit in 1994, I had asked the ranger how to get on the list to volunteer. He said there was a three-year waiting list, but that sometimes people have to back out because of personal emergencies. I put my name down and followed up some months later. Sure enough, one of the longtime volunteers had to take care of an ill relative and gave up her slot for March of 1997. I stayed in the humble little Needle Rock House through the dramatic spring weather, sipping tea, reading books, writing poetry, painting, meditating, and hiking every nook and cranny I could find in thirty days’ time. I used to hike up to Chemise Mountain to watch the sunset, or head out to Bear Harbor to explore the rocks and shells. I’d walk the length of the beach (always negotiating the tides) out to Whale Gulch to birdwatch, whalewatch, or otherwise contemplate the great, infinite magic of existence. A poem from that time reads:



Needle Rock Mountain

from the tongue

of four

ravens spill cobalt cloud

shadow paintings

on the sea



The photo self-portrait (the one that ended up in my final show at the Art Institute) epitomizes my experience of being at the Sinkyone. My pale body is caught in a bright shaft of sunlight dancing blurred against the backdrop of a giant charred-black redwood trunk. I appear as an angelic forest sprite, almost lifting off the forest floor, blooming and ascending through a giant bouquet of sword ferns and into light, emerging from the darkness of the world and merging into the light of an eternal, more-awakened self.

When I arrived for my first month-long stay in 1997, the first thing I did was hike down the steep, washed-out bluff to Needle Rock. At the bottom, I was met with the bloated remains of a recently dead elk. The smell was incredible, and I couldn’t help wondering how the animal had wound up there at the base of the cliff. Had it fallen and broken a leg? Had it died of old age? During the month I was there, I visited the carcass almost daily and watched it decay, from distension and bloat to rot and animal scavenge down to the bones and head, which were the only parts left as I packed up in early April to leave.

I was about a week and a half into my stay when the ranger came down one day with the news that I had an important phone call.

It was Etoile. I hadn’t heard from her in years.


“Al, it’s me, Etoile.”


“It’s Etoile, Al, St. Luke’s, remember me? Helloooo!” She said sounding frustrated and serious.

“Holy shit, Etoile, oh my God, how are you?” I said excitedly, with a pang of nostalgia sweeping through my heart.

“I’m okay, but listen . . . I need to tell you. . . I don’t know how to say this, but. . . Raine’s dead.” Silence.


“She died last week in a car wreck in Florida. I thought you’d want to know.”

“Oh my God, I, I, I, I—wow, this is fucked up. What the . . . Jesus . . . I’ve been so out of touch— but I didn’t even know you two were close.”

“Yeah, we became friends when I was in Denver, and then we actually moved back to Connecticut around the same time. I saw her three months ago, before she left for Florida. She got back with an old boyfriend who was doing a lot of drugs, and— I don’t know what exactly happened.”

“I, I, I, I . . .” I couldn’t stop stuttering.

“I know, I’m so sad, Al.” She broke down, which inspired me to burst into tears.

“I’m so sorry, Etoile,” I said, sniffling. “Is there anything I can do from here?” I was at a loss of what else to say.

“Me too,” she said, “me too—I don’t know, maybe you could write to her family, tell them you were a good friend, and tell them what she meant to you.”

I was shocked and devastated, and flooded with reignited guilt. But I set aside all the conflicts and confusion of our past, and did write to Raine’s family with awkward, yet sincere condolences, then went down to the beach and wailed and screamed into the waves.

The ocean didn’t care, my dead elk friend didn’t care, the sky didn’t care, but somehow they all listened, and held me as I lay in the black sand, sobbing. In the days that followed, I made little altars for Raine on the beach. I prayed for her peaceful passage, and I prayed for her forgiveness. I filled my notebooks with a wobbly poetry of grief, regret, death, and rebirth.



We Kiss Ourselves Against This Thorny Mirror


We kiss ourselves against this thorny mirror

face our punctured lips

clean up our deflated kiss                   against

this thorny mirror       begin

again in the name of love . . .


. . . I will beam ecstatic float and drown

and resurface once again against that thorny mirror

upon which we kiss ourselves

release the wounds and embrace the world!



While in the Sinkyone, I kept obsessive notebooks that were not only filled with poems, but also drawings, watercolors, favorite words, journalistic drivel, and various quotes. I had endless amounts of time on my hands. The park was quiet at that time of year, though an occasional local might come by to visit. Otherwise, I just hung out and read, wrote, ate, slept, meditated, and walked or hiked. Thinking back on it now, one day at the Sinkyone was like a month in my current life. A year these days seems to fly by in the span of a single month. Out there in the Sinkyone, each day I was meeting eternity face to face, keeping time by the sun and stars, the shouting waves, and the sound of the singing rain.

The other thing I did a lot of was read. I read five hundred pages of dialogues with the obscure Indian mystic Nisargadatta Maharaj, called I Am That. Twice. I read Lorca’s biography and collected poems forward and backward about twenty-seven times. I read Gertrude Stein until my brain started to burble and seep out my ears, until I would run naked, laughing hysterically, into the meadow, tears of confused joy streaming across my face like frayed silver ribbon. I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, lamenting how I had missed the boat on a life of serious Euro-bohemianism. I read books on physics and the origins of the universe, and then a terrific book called An Everyday History of Somewhere, about the history of this most remote stretch of Northern California coastline: the Native Americans, the miners, the loggers, the hippies, and the back-to-the-land pot growers.

All this time of reading, writing, and just being, was heavenly. There was such an intense immediacy to the landscape, and a lack of regular distractions (TV, the computer, socializing, making money). I became emotionally raw and open, clear of mind and filled with an inspired happiness and joy. Around this time, I had begun to ask those great, timeless human questions: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? These questions enchanted and sometimes haunted me. In a way, I felt as if I was finally living them here in the Sinkyone, in this space of wild simplicity. And yet, like everything, it was temporary. Temporary, with a taste of the eternal.

One evening, I was hiking down Chemise Mountain at sunset when I came around a slight turn in the trail and I found myself on the edge of a steep cliff more than a thousand feet above the ocean. The waves were crashing below with their little foam doilies shifting across the sand and then disappearing—and suddenly facing me, was a huge male elk with a massive rack of antlers. Our eyes met and we stared at each other, frozen in time, suspended in the salt air in a kind of magical embrace, species to species. I don’t know how long we stayed in our embrace, but it was a brilliant sliver of eternity.

At that moment, my heart burst open, and my vision became incredibly clear. The elk finally wandered into the brush and I kept walking, and my surroundings continued to glow—the ocean rushed into my eyes and receded, the redwoods laughed, the clouds breathed in sync with my lungs, the alder leaves shimmered electric green. I started to cry and I didn’t know why, except that I was just overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this merging experience, by the simple yet profound lack of separation. At that moment, the self I knew as Albert merged into elk and alder, ocean and sky. In that moment, I became awake to the immense presence and infinite beauty of this world, and instantly realized, yes, I am that!