Empathy and Writing the Other Through Persona Poetry

Persona Poetry

by Dana Stringer

In the poem “Skinhead,” the poet writes, “No, I ain’t part of no organized group,/ I’m just a white boy who loves his race,/ fighting for a pure country. (51-53)”  Based on these three lines and the poem’s title, it’s not exactly difficult for a reader to identify the speaker in the poem.  However, for any reader unfamiliar with the acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, and the popularity of this particular poem, it may come as a surprise to some readers to discover that the author is an African American woman.  And that Smith’s white supremacist persona was created by her to speak the poem.

As poets, some of us are still inclined to follow the early advice we received from a well-intentioned instructor encouraging us to “write what you know.”  And in a society saturated in self-help psychology that primarily places emphasis upon self and I, our ability to shift our attention away from self and focus on other can be challenging.

So, quite naturally, when we put pen to paper, we immediately plunge into the familiar and write the autobiographical details of our lives.  Thus, our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences pervade our work.  This is neither wrong nor bad.  However, what Smith shows us, as well as other contemporary poets who abandon self to write about other, is that, by creating a character, embodying that character, and allowing that character to freely speak, a persona can give us insight and understanding about someone distinctively different than us, and perhaps elicit empathy in the poet and the reader.

Smith, however, may not necessarily be going after empathy.  In fact, some poets are not.  Poets rely upon the use of personas for many different reasons.  For instance, a persona is often used as a revisionist tool to debunk myths, subvert constructs, remake narratives, reinterpret history, and the list goes on and on.  But regardless of the reasons for creating and using a persona, the ability to immerse oneself in the life of another and adopt a different point of view enables us to gain a better understanding of other.

The poet and reader may not be able to relate to, identify with, or even share the same sentiments of the persona, but what happens is that the poet and reader begin to see things from a different perspective.  Such an undertaking requires sensitivity and consideration for another’s feelings, emotions, thoughts, desires, beliefs, and experiences.

In “Skinhead,” Smith puts on the skin of a white supremacist and walks in his boots, which goes beyond a mere impersonation or a staging of the character’s emotions, thoughts, and feelings.  When a poet exhibits the ability to become intimately acquainted with a character, so much so as to suspend judgment as well as any preconceived ideas and perceptions, the poet opens us up to a life experience that we might not otherwise be interested in knowing about.  Smith’s willingness to yield herself as a vessel in order to become the character is, in my opinion, an empathetic act.

The literary tradition of donning “the mask,” which is actually the meaning of the Latin word “persona,” is a long, rich, and interesting one.  Poets have been using personas as an artistic tool for a long time, challenging and changing how we see and don’t see things.  But more importantly, poets have been using personas as a way to enlighten us and promote understanding of other, which in many cases elicits empathy in us.

Dana Stringer’s course Mask Appeal:  Creating Compelling Persona Poems begins September 12th. Register today.


Dana L. Stringer is a poet, playwright, instructor, and freelance writer. She holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a Bachelors of Arts from Morehead State University. She is the author of In Between Faith (Black Picket Fence), her debut poetry collection. Dana’s work has appeared in anthologies and literary magazines, and she has served as a contributing writer for several cultural entertainment websites. In 2011, she served as an associate editor for Beyond Words: The Creative Voices of WriteGirl, a literature anthology. She also has been a featured poet in various venues. Dana is also a produced playwright. Her produced plays and staged readings include:Kinsman Redeemer, ID, The Costume Waver, Soloman’s Porch,Colored in Winter, Secret Life in a Sacred House, and Looter. For more information, visit http://www.danastringer.com.

Trying to Forgive Myself


by Patrick O’Neil

I walk onto campus against the flow of students and cars exiting the parking lot. I’m teaching tonight and the woman I teach with is sick, so it’s only me and I don’t want to be late. A cold wind is blowing, shaking the palm trees and bushes, as the streetlights cast elongated shadows across the sidewalk. I walk quickly with my head down, leather jacket zipped, and a scarf around my neck. It’s sort of eerie, reminding me of late fall or Halloween, but it’s only a full moon night in April.

There’s a young woman in a wheelchair stopped on a pathway by the arts building. When she checks her phone it illuminates her face and I notice she’s pretty. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen her, but it is the first time I’ve looked at her this close. She’s almost always here when I’m on my way to class, usually running past her because I’m late. No matter the weather she patiently waits, obviously for someone to come and get her. Seeing her pulls at my heart, because my sister uses a wheelchair, she has cerebral palsy, and when we were young I was the one that picked her up after school or other places she needed rides from. And having been an irresponsible drug addict and a total mess, I imagine the times my sister waited for me. Waiting on a cold night alone somewhere in the dark. And then the image goes haywire, into a horror film of what possibly happens to women in our society alone in dark places and a wave of shame and guilt washes over me. I can no longer look at the woman in the wheelchair. I turn my head and walk faster, my insides twisting.

It’s two in the morning and I’m lying in bed, staring at the ceiling; a low level of depression is coming on and I’m trying not to go with it. As I close my eyes wishing sleep would overtake me, I drop into an ancient memory—I’m standing in a bank, my gun pointed at the teller as she fills a bag with money. She’s terrified and almost crying. I tell her to hurry up, and nervously glance over my shoulder. I’m so loaded on heroin I feel nothing for this woman. But as an observer, now, many years later, I’m detached from my then self and I see the fear I’m instilling. In a rush of emotions my eyes jolt back open, I sit up gasping for air, my heart pounding.

It was something that was said. A slight, a put down, nasty words, in reality I can’t even remember what it was. But either I said it or it was said to me, and I remember. I remember how it cut to the bone, and there was no way to take it back.

Such journeys into guilt and shame are a mainstay of my psyche. I remember and relive horrific past events and basically torture myself with regret. I’m suddenly aware of how others felt, when before I was numb to their feelings.

I was telling my girlfriend Jennifer about the woman in the wheelchair and she asked, “Have you ever forgiven yourself?” And she might as well have inquired if I’d won the lottery for just how far removed that is from my reality. I’ve made amends and forgiven everyone in my life for all the bad shit ever done to me. But to forgive myself seems impossible. No matter how many times I work the steps, I’m still left with my memories and misgivings.

These days, I work hard to not create more damage as I try to practice the principles in all my affairs. But unfortunately I still hurt people. I still say stupid shit. I’m still me. I’m not referring to the really lame stuff like the other day when sending Jennifer an explicit text regarding black panties and the curve of her hip reflecting in the mirror and I inadvertently, due to not wearing my reading glasses, sent it to the last person who’d texted me instead—a good friend that didn’t need to read my heartfelt yearnings of amour. That kind of stuff is awkward, but funny and really, who cares? But I’m talking about when I hurt people’s feelings even though I’ve told them the truth and they chose not to believe it, and then yeah, shit happens and I’m the bad guy, stuck with feeling blame. Or worse, I have a conscience, and I care about other people. I care to the point where it’s way past sympathy and empathy. I care to where it’s close to killing me. Like when I come out of a coffee shop and there’s a bag lady passed out in a pool of vomit and it hurts to see this. Or I read the newspaper and some yahoo has gunned down a bunch of folks because he lost his job, or a deranged mentally ill mom drowns her baby, or a cop has shot an unarmed teenager. It wears me down. I might not understand them. I might not like them, care for them, or want the best for them. But I know what it’s like to be trapped in a situation. I know what it’s like to be insane.

Class is over. The campus is deserted. I walk back out retracing the way I came in. The woman in the wheelchair is long gone. And I stare at the spot where she was. I wonder if she waited long. And then it hits me: how the hell do I know anyone was late picking her up? Why do I make up these scenarios? Why do I try to find a common thread of pain that just might not be true?

My car is under a streetlight in a campus parking lot, and as I near I notice the shadow from a huge dent in the fender. Someone has pulled a hit and run and bashed my car. Hitting it couldn’t have been easy. It would’ve taken a lot of effort. The driver had to cross the entire parking lot, executing a last minute U-turn just to hit my car. And so now I’m thinking someone hates me. Someone did this on purpose and wants to hurt me. Mess with me. Mess with my car. Yet, how do I know this? And why do I assume this instead of accepting it as a random accident that no one meant to do?

Traffic is light as I drive toward home—the full moon bright in the night sky. I whisper, “I forgive them, I forgive them, I forgive them…”

But when the hell am I ever going to forgive me?

Patrick’s memoir class, Putting the Creative in Creative Non Fiction begins July 25th

Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books), and the excerpted in part French translation, Hold-Up (13e Note Editions). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including: Juxtapoz, Salon.com, The Weeklings, Razorcake, Sensitive Skin, Fourteen Hills, and Word Riot.

Patrick is an editor for the NYC-to-California-transplant-post-beat-pre-apocalyptic art, writing, and music anthology Sensitive Skin Magazine. And a two time nominee for Best Of The Net. He is a regular contributor to the recovery website AfterPartyMagazine, and has been blogging at Full Blue Moon Dementia for over ten years. Patrick holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, lives in Hollywood, California, and teaches at a local community college. Check out Patrick’s web-site for more information www.patrick-oneil.com and his blog Full Blue Moon Dementia http://patrick-oneil.com/blog/

Two Basic Considerations When Writing for Young People


by Erin Darby Gesell

“Tell me a story,” I asked my parents every night before bed. I wanted picture books. I wanted stories from their childhoods. I wanted stories from their own imaginations. All of my earliest memories involve stories from my parents, making books with them, or playing make believe.

Once I could read for myself, I picked up everything I could. I had to live most of my days in my own world, my free time was spent escaping into the world that authors created for me. When I entered high school and started leading a summer camp and coaching children’s sports, I became the creator of stories. These kids wanted to know what I was like when I was their age.They wanted me to read to them. They wanted to hear my stories of my life. This is when I began to realize that a child’s imagination and desire to learn are two of the most inspiring things in this world.

Because I was with these kids all day, I continued to read their books. I read picture books at camp during the day and my own, age appropriate, novels for teens at night. In college I majored in Creative Writing with a concentration in Fiction with the intention of writing for young people. These were still the stories that interested me most. The language, the situations, the characters all floored me as writers of children’s, middle grade, and young adult books are competing against school, friends, video games, movies, TV, the internet, riding bikes, and a million other things that kids have to stimulate their brains.

In grad school I was finally able to narrow my concentration to study Writing for Young People. When starting a draft of your story for young people, consider two things:


1. Who is your target audience?

Kids read books about characters that are their age or slightly older than them. Teens will not read books about toddlers as they are already past that stage of their life. Eight year olds will not read books about college students–college is too far away. Remember, these stories are about children. If there are adults in the stories, these adults are not solving the conflict. If there are adults in stories for young people, they are merely bystanders and the young protagonists are doing the work.

Once you know who your readers are, there are some formulas to remember about each age division:

Picture books are intended for early readers. Standard picture books have 32 pages (however, only 24 of these are used for the story) and, generally, less than 700 or so words. Let your pictures help you tell your story. Give your words cadence and rhythm.

Middle grade books span audience ages 8-12. Protagonists can be up to age 15/16 depending on content. These stories usually focus on the protagonist and their relationships with their friends, family, and the world immediately around them. Characters tend to react to what happens to them with little inward reflection. They learn, grow, have conflict, but these stories end with closure.

Young Adult stories span an audience of 13-18. Protagonists can be 15-18 but generally not in college. These novels focus on the protagonists’ place in the world outside of their friends and family. There is more inward reflection and focus on analyzing the meaning of things. These books can have more open ended endings as young adults are on an open ended, launching point in their own lives.

Erin’s class, Playground: A Workshop for Middle Grade, YA and Children’s Authors begins begins July 18

Erin Darby Gesell is a writer, personal trainer, ultra marathon runner, yogi, and lover of chocolate, dogs, and all things fictional from Norfolk, Nebraska. She now lives in Omaha where she obtained her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2011 and her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Young People from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2014. Erin’s short stories have appeared in various journals including The Magnolia Review,  Riding Light Review, and A Sharp Piece of Awesome. A section of her Young Adult Novel “Where You’re Going and How You Get There” appeared in For Books’ Sake anthology in February 2016.

5 Basic Pro Tips on Writing Screenplays


by Kate Maruyama

I was raised on movies and books. My dad taught film at Wesleyan University before VHS was around, so rather than count on the one or two movies shown on the Sunday Matinee on television, I was exposed to all movies always. Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelley, the Marx Brothers, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford traipsed through my living room on a pop up silver screen on a stand as the 16mm projector clickwhirred sprockets along and Frankenstein, Dracula and the Invisible Man joined the parade. We also had a Saturday ritual of going to any movie that was out, good or bad, sometimes terrible. Hunkered down with junior mints and popcorn—popped at home and smuggled in enormously embarrassing but tasty and greasy paper bags, I saw the seventies unspool, Star Wars, Close Encounters, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Grease, Superman, Dog Day Afternoon, All the President’s Men. As I got older I was allowed to watch the movies unfurling for my dad’s classes, or the Wesleyan’s film series, Ford, Coppola, Capra, Donen, Cukor, Frankenheimer. As a college student I moved onto Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, John Waters. I became a student of auteurs and camera angles, scenes told in dialogue, scenes unfolded in imagery.

Sometime in college, scrambling for what to do with my life, I realized that film was a language I already spoke because I was raised in it, versed in it. So in the early nineties I moved out to Los Angeles to give it a whirl and I started writing screenplays immediately. But, as I needed to make an immediate living, I started working at William Morris as an Assistant. I then moved to Jon Peters’ company to work on the Warner Bros lot and later to Universal to work for Sylvester Stallone, which seemed an odd fit, but taught me more than any industry job I’d held yet. I learned more than I knew I could about screenwriting from the work I was doing in development. I started recognizing the scripts that caught the imagination, saw the scripts that went on to get made, the scripts that, despite being interesting, would never sell. By the time I was a junior executive, I had read and covered thousands of scripts, given notes on what would make them stronger, gotten inside scenes to see how they tick and given pointers to shore them up. There was so much to learn even in writing coverages, which is where you summarize a script into a page and a half. There’s something about how a summary cracks along that lets you know if the script has done its job.

The gatekeepers of Hollywood, the ones who decide if your script meets the eyes of a producer or executive or an actor, they are all people who read thousands of scripts for a living. And they are tired. And they have seen it all. They are looking for something new, different and engaging.

Here are some takeaways from reading two decades’ worth of scripts. Some simple things that can make or break the read of a script.

1. Format is everything. Your script is going to be read by someone who reads scripts for a living–which means dozens of them a week. You need them to see your words and your characters, your scenes and your world. Because I promise you, if your font is weird, or you’re being creative with your page layout, or you add pictures, they have taken points off your script before reading the first line. You can find screenplay formatting and free software to write with here: https://www.celtx.com/

2. Your first ten pages need to sing. Your reader, having ten more scripts to get to, needs to be sucked into scene in those first ten pages. They need to feel firmly anchored in your character, the scenario and what’s happening to them. If it’s an action movie, it’s generally a seat-gripping action scene. If it’s a romantic comedy, it’s usually funny, engaging and showing your character in full. If it’s an independent movie, it may be simpler, but it is always engaging: sometimes a quiet scene where you find your character doing something curious, sometimes it is a pickle they find themselves in later in the story, but it is always, always a good read. If you have spent ten pages simply on ambience, setting, or putting together a situation, you have lost your reader already and trust me, they have other scripts to move onto.

And on that note, skip the epigraphs. A famous author’s quote is not going to help your screenplay if it’s already good and will only emphasize what’s not working in a screenplay that isn’t cracking along.

3. Curb your descriptive language: Beyond creating tension in a scene or physically describing action, keep your descriptive language to yourself. I can’t tell you how many times, as a jaded script reader, my eyes rolled to the ceiling as a writer waxed rhapsodic for paragraphs about a farm, the light against the eaves, the fireflies, the flock of birds. Little visual signposts are lovely if kept to a brief sentence or two. What you are there to describe is the scene itself. Give us the time of day and the light, perhaps, a nod to what sort of evening it is and go with your characters and where they are in the scene, what they are doing with their bodies. Give your reader characters, scene and dialogue that they want to get into. Give the scene purpose from its first breaths.

4. Don’t physically describe your characters. This is a weird one and counterintuitive to any writer. But the truth is, your characters, beyond age and stature, and perhaps the way they hold themselves or their station in life need no further physical details. Think of your characters as indelible personalities imprinted on a blank canvas. Any producer, executive and (if all goes well) actor wants to project someone specific on that character and wants to do it all the way through. If you describe your heroine’s “blonde hair falls in her face” you’ve just lost five brunette actresses or actresses of different races and the potential for your script seeing the light of day has gone down exponentially.

5. Don’t write to the market. This also may seem counterintuitive, but please, for the sake of your precious time and the effort of the writing itself, take heed. I always heard it, what types of scripts are “hot,” from when I started, “People are buying cop dramas now” to later when I was writing “People are buying sex thrillers now.” As a reader, I would suddenly get an onslaught of one kind of script and by the time they got to us, that description of “what’s hot” was passe. It was while I was reading my 50th crappy cop drama that I read THE MATRIX, which flipped my lid. It was when I was reading my 70th sexy thriller that quiet, character driven independent films started breaking through. You don’t know the market and the people who put these buzzwords out there don’t either. Write the script that is the movie you want to see. Write the story that has captured your imagination, that you can see in your head. Write the script that is different. Because the most magical words in any scriptreader’s vocabulary is, “I haven’t seen this before.”

If you want to jump start your script idea, the one that’s been nagging at you to get it written, the one that you can’t get out of your head, you can get a good head start in my class, which starts May 30th: “Laying Down the Tracks: Jump Start Your Screenplay in Four Short Weeks.” The class is online and can be taken at any time of the day or night. All you need is access to a computer!

Kate Maruyama’s twenty years in the film industry started when she was an agency assistant at William Morris, where she learned the ins and outs, from contracts to deals, indie movies to studios films, indie releases to negative pickup. She moved on to Jon Peters Entertainment where she worked as a development assistant, developing pitches, giving notes on screenplays and finally was Director of Development at Sylvester Stallone’s company White Eagle at Universal where she worked with writers and executives developing pitches and screenplays for production. She was a script consultant for Demarest Films and for Village Roadshow Pictures for ten years. She then quit to write and learned the other side of the screenwriting world, with a number of scripts in development and had one screenplay produced. She has consulted on numerous screenplays since and has a knack for developing them into the type of material producers and actors are looking for.

Her first novel Harrowgate was published by 47North and she appears in numerous print and online journals as well as in anthologies.

Kate holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles in fiction where she is adjunct faculty in the BA program and Affiliate faculty in the MFA program. She teaches with Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is part of the team behind Antioch’s inspiration2publication program.





How to Look at a Solar Eclipse: A Trick on Writing for Social Change


by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

I remember when George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. I remember being devastated and posting the news announcement on my Facebook with the caption, “No words.” I couldn’t stop thinking about how Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old kid walking back from a convenient store with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea, never made it back to his father’s house, and how wrong that was. I had no words.

But then another poet commented on my post with something to the effect of, This is exactly when we need words. Write.

When writing about a societal injustice, I see two hurdles: one, finding a way to spend time with a tragedy that is hard to face long enough to write about it, and two, figuring out how to hook readers into spending time with you too.

For the first, my advice is to trick your mind.

Some tragedies are so heartbreaking that to take a long look at them hurts the soul and can even physically turn a person ill. Sometimes the only way to write about injustice is to play a trick on yourself. “Tell it slant” is how Emily Dickinson put it: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—”

When I was a kid I experienced my first solar eclipse. My father was with me, and he let me wear his giant welding mask and made me a pinhole projector out of a cardboard box. I remember standing barefoot on my front lawn, my face pointing to the sky, the heavy mask pressing down on me, preferring its tinted glass and weight to the tiny hole and shadows on cardboard. Going slant can be like finding your welding mask, or making a pinhole projector. In poetry, this can be playing with a classic form, counting syllables, using a rhyme scheme, or arranging a found poem. These tricks can free, or protect, the poet from the subject—acting more like a game than a duty—long enough to write about it. To be clear, I’m not saying to make light of something serious. If you are reading this article, and you are looking for tips on how to write for social justice, then it is clear you are a person who cares, so what I’m saying is, give yourself a break.

In August 2011, I traveled out to the Sonoran desert to volunteer as a desert aid worker with the direct humanitarian organization, No More Deaths. For nine days I camped in the desert along the Arizona-Mexico border in 100+ degree temperatures. I often worried for my safety, but I knew it was nothing compared to what the people crossing into this country were experiencing. Everyday my heart broke with what I saw and heard, and every night I cried myself to sleep. I volunteered with the intention of writing about the border, but when I got back my home, writing was the last thing I wanted to do. It took me six months to a year to finally start writing poems, and when I did, I played tricks. I wrote a villanelle, I played with repetition, and in one poem I stole lyrics from a Katy Perry song. I was in part inspired by Kate Durbin’s collection The Ravenous Audience, which is teeming with different forms. Her collection showed me what could happen with a little experimentation.

“Our Lady of the Water Gallons” is a poem I wrote about the process of leaving fresh water on migrant trails. All summer long volunteers patrol the desert borderlands looking for people in distress and placing fresh water supplies in strategic locations. Volunteers write messages in Spanish and draw images like butterflies and crosses on the water gallons to communicate to those crossing that the water is safe to drink and not a border patrol trap. I found my way into this poem by experimenting with a made up long form created by my friend and formalist poet, Scott Miller, that uses repetition similar to a crown of sonnets.

To this day, anytime I know I’m going to read this poem in public, I have to practice it several times at home so I don’t cry, but I kind of hope every once in a while someone hears it and is inspired to donate money to humanitarian border causes, or even volunteer.

For more pinhole tricks and for strategies on hooking your reader, join my workshop on Writing Poetry for Social Change with inspiration2publication on May 21, 2016 at 10am on the Antioch Campus. We will be writing poems inspired by the poetry of Martin Espada and Carolyn Forche, and taking a look at social media/poetry movements such as #blackpoetsspeakout and Poets Responding to SB1070.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner and a 2015 Barbara Deming Fund grantee and a newly minted Steinbeck Fellow for 2016. She has work published in American Poetry Review, crazyhorse, CALYX, and Acentos Review among others. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Chicano activist and Hollywood director, Jesús Salvador Treviño can be viewed at latinopia.com. She curates the quarterly reading series HITCHED and co-founded Women Who Submit. Her debut poetry collection, Built with Safe Spaces, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.




Passion in the Picture: Ekphrastic Poetry


by Adrian Ernesto Cepeda

When I walked into Francesca Lia Block’s Antioch University seminar, The Importance of Social Media for the Contemporary Writer, I had no idea my life would be changed and inspired. Francesca highlighted the growing trend of the most successful writers linking to their fans, followers and other writers by using social media as a tool to express their creative message. I know if it wasn’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t have been introduced to the writers, poets and artists I now call my friends. Francesca reemphasized my belief that the point of a writer is to connect with an audience. She said it best, “Don’t just journal, you are here to write, get your voice out in the world.” Not only did she open my eyes specifically to the world wide web that was reverberating all around me, but she helped me focus and I realized how much the internet was the essential ingredient to all my creative writing endeavors.

Douglas Adams once said: “Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you.” My whole life I’d been learning if you, as a writer, write down what you see, fear and love from your own universe, you will make the reader want to live inside your mind, your vision and your own creative voice. It was like a lightbulb exploded and I realized that if you’re a writer looking for ideas on what to write, go on Pinterest or Tumblr and write an ekphrastic poem, a poem reflecting what you see and feel from a photo or work of art. I discovered that my main source of inspiration was the internet footprint I was creating daily around me. We are unique and no one has the same online presence; harness that distinctive spark that inspiration is everywhere online for your creativity…that is your power as a writer.

The World Wide Web is much more than watching videos, spreading chatroom chisme, and surfing the internet. I follow the lead of poets like Nayyirah Waheed who’s Instagram and Tumblr posts shows how a poet can reflect an online presence creatively while inspiring their audiences. I have also discovered many poets like A. Van Jordan and Gary Jackson who have published collections about their pop culture passions. Jordan’s book The Cineaste merges his love of cinema with his gift of verse and Jackson’s Missing You Metropolis combines Gary’s affection for graphic novels and comic books with his talented poetic voice.

Poets like Francesca Lia Block, Nayyirah Waheed, A. Van Jordan and Gary Jackson have inspired me to connect with my love of vintage black and white photographs and classic film stills and create my own style of ekphrastic poetry. I wake up every morning and log into my Tumblr account and scroll through my dashboard and usually a photograph or film still will grab my creative intention and I stop, open up a word file and let the visual inspiration spark a new poem. Although I’ve written poems inspired by paintings, like one I’ve had published this year at Ekphrastic California inspired by The Blue Boy, (1770) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) oil on canvas on display at The Huntington Gallery in San Marino, California and often write poems inspired by color photographs found on Facebook and Instagram, there is something about trying to write a poem from a black and white photograph. As a poet, it’s more of a challenge. There are no colors, so we as poets, need to dig deep inside while trying to connect with the photograph and conjure up an interpretation that satisfies the creative curiosity of the reader.

I’ve written and had poems published inspired by photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. I have to admit, one of my favorites poems, “Take Me to the Aquarium and Make Out with Me in the Jellyfish Room” was inspired by Dmitrijs Belokons black and white photo of an elderly couple kissing at an aquarium was published in a collection called Getting Old. It was only the silhouette of this couple, as I poet, I had to fill in the lines and create a portrait, bringing their ageless passion to life on the page. Most of the times, poems like this “Take Me to the Aquarium” flow out from my fingers and magically becomes verse.

But it takes dedication to search, scrolling through my dashboard and being open to every picture that appears in my feed. I have a philosophy that I follow when I am online:

When inspiration calls, you must accept the charges.

When I’m Tumblr, it’s to work and I have to be ready to write when the right photograph speaks to me. There’s a connection that wants to be made and most times the images connect with something I need to explore on the page. Bringing color to these images with my poems, is never easy but I love challenging myself, trying to expand my writing voice reflecting verses from these vintage photographs.

Bringing these images into focus with my poetry is a passion I’ve discovered online and one I am excited to share with other poets. I know I’m not the only writer who goes online to seek inspiration for their writing voice. As a poet, I always heed the words of Poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera who said, “Do not wait for a poem; a poem is too fast for you. Do not wait for the poem, run with the poem and then write the poem. And of course immerse yourself in a sea of books and poems. You want to be in that parade, that’s what you have to do.”

My course Internet your Senses and Tumblr Towards Creativity is for writers are eager to explore the art of writing poetry by using Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr as your spark of visual inspiration. If you are visually inspired by photographs and artworks, then my class is for you. We will learn the craft of ekphrastic poetry, taking those images and reflecting our impressions on the page as poetry.

I wouldn’t be teaching Internet your Senses and Tumblr Towards Creativity without Francesca Lia Block’s inspiration. Thank You to Francesca for making me realize I needed to embrace technology, connect with my writing audience, harness my creative energies, and share my knowledge of using the internet to inspire poetry.

Adrian’s class Internet your Senses and Tumblr Towards Creativity begins Monday, May 2nd. Sign up here!

Adrian Ernesto Cepeda is an LA Poet who is currently enrolled in the MFA Graduate program at Antioch University in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and their cat Woody Gold. His poetry has been featured in The Yellow Chair Review, Thick With Conviction, Silver Birch Press and one of his poems was named Cultured Vultures’ Top 3 Poems of the Week.

To date, Adrian has eighty poems published in over sixty different publications. One of his poems “Buzz Me” has been nominated for Best of the Net 2015 and, also in 2015, his poem “How She Kills Me” won honorable mention in Cultural Weekly’s 3rd Annual Jack Grapes Poetry Prize. Adrian also had one of his poems “Longing for our airport reconnections” featured in Shinpei Takeda’s Poems of Arrival for the Inscription Installation Exhibit at the New Americans Museum in San Diego, California.


Everyone Loses Their Minds: Writing Your Way Out of the Labyrinth of Your Own Imagination


by Eduardo Santiago

In recent years, neuroscientists have determined that the average human brain has between thirty and fifty different thoughts per minute, with each thought lasting approximately three seconds. Add to that the daily distractions of day jobs, children, pets, traffic, noises, doctor and dentist appointments, visits from in laws, the ding ding ding of texts and sexts, tweets and memes, and still, many of us try to tame that beast by playing music in the background, often with lyrics, in order to stay seated at the keyboard and try to keep a complicated storyline vibrant and alive on the page.

In addition, most novels and memoirs contain a vast array of characters, which take up residence in our brains, where they do battle with imagined judges, critics, that embarrassing moment in high school, and that agent we have not heard back from…yet.

With all of that going on between our ears every single day of our lives, it really is a wonder that anyone can finish writing a book. Yet it happens, people with busy lives and crazy brains do set amazing works of art on the page, they manage, over a series of drafts, to write fully engaging, flawed yet fabulous stories. People just like us, people who regularly misplace their car keys, their wallets, their passports, their children.

In fact, it’s often the people who misplace everything, the people who, when they get a flat tire, call suicide prevention first and the tow truck next, who most often write the better books.

My class Headlights in the Fog: Re-energizing Your Novel or Memoir is for those of us who get lost in our own neighborhoods, who get distracted by a memory from high school and suddenly forget why they walked into the kitchen in the first place. Because, interestingly, we do manage. We do eventually figure out why we’re in the kitchen ( a day-old muffin is the best known home remedy against writers block). We do get through the day and very often accomplish much more than we ever thought possible.

In this workshop, we will learn how to focus on fine writing, how to use our 70,000 daily thoughts to our advantage, we will learn how to mine that embarrassing memory from high school for literary gold, and above all, we will create a creative, innovative structure that will get you out of the weeds when you inevitably find yourself there.

Getting lost in the wilderness of our own thoughts is inevitable, and so is the frustration that comes along with it. But if we equip ourselves with the tools that help us find our way out (compass, smoke signals, and screaming til you’re raw are not viable options for writers), we come to realize that we are never truly lost — and that we are free to carve a path that no one has ever traveled before, that we are free to write the book no one has ever written before.

A work of art that is truly and magnificently ours.

Eduardo Santiago’s first novel Tomorrow They Will Kiss (Little, Brown & Co.) was an Edmund White Debut Fiction Award finalist and a Latino Book Award finalist. Mr. Santiago’s next novel, Midnight Rumba, was awarded top honors at the prestigious New England Book Festival 2013, the Latino International Book Awards, and The Beverly Hills Book Awards.

His fiction has been published in ZYZZYVA, Slow Trains, andThe Caribbean Writer, and his nonfiction has appeared inLos Angeles Times, The Advocate, and Out Traveler Magazine. Mr. Santiago earned a BFA degree from the California Institute of the Arts and a Creative Writing MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. He has taught writing for UCLA’s Writing Program and at Mt. San Jacinto College.

He is the founder of the Idyllwild Authors Series, and a two-time PEN Center U.S.A. Fellow (2004 & 2008). His many personal appearances include CBS News, NPR’S All Things Considered, The New York City Book Festival, The Miami Book Fair International, The Los Angeles Times Festival Of Books, and The Tucson Festival of Books.