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Craft of Writing

The poem “Outside Yet Another Window” was written at the beginning of 1984 when I worked for the BBC Monitoring Service in Reading as a Russian monitor listening in to Soviet radio broadcasts. I’d left the Soviet Union in 1971 at the age of twenty one; my monitoring work brought back many memories, images and words from my childhood and youth, with the immediacy of all my senses, alert, bared, vulnerable.

Born in Estonia, brought up in Latvia and educated in Moscow, in all of which...

I get most of my ideas when traveling, in a car, on foot, on a plane, no matter.

On the interstate one day, I was passed by a Doritos 18-wheeler. I liked the graphics. Then a truck pulling a trailer piled high with milk crates. Soon after at a rest stop I noticed a young man playing guitar at a picnic table in the shade. These images struck me as peculiarly American, anecdotal evidence. Of something.

It’s usually just one, the image or thought that inspires the conceit for a...


A pun, nearly everyone agrees, is a play on words.  Apart from the fact that the phrase “a play on words” is a good working definition of the art of poetry, this definition conceals more than reveals the functions and achievements of the pun.  In fact, defining a pun that way is like defining a dictionary as an alphabetized and annotated word list, for most readers not only find that volume often useful, but we also regard the dictionary as a monument of discovery, wonder, and entertainment...

I wrote my first book manuscript, Return of the Lost Son, in nine years over a fifteen-year period. It’s a memoir of my father’s life told through an ensemble of characters. I began writing the book in Mexico City in 2000. I was 28 years old, living in Mexico for a stay of six months, with my wife, Jennifer Jolly, an art historian. We had traveled to Mexico one or two times, previously, for about a week. In “My Own Lost Mexico,” I wrote about those first pressing questions about...

Today, e. e. cummings told me to “let go of your anxieties and take more risks in your creativity and artistic expression.” Of course, e. e. cummings didn’t walk into my writing studio to tell me this, but I had drawn my morning tarot card from The Poet Tarot: A Deck of Creative Exploration. I have always loved to roam through cemeteries, retracing the steps of the writers who have gone before me. Using The Poet Tarot is...


Coincidentally, this invitation to submit to NAR’s blog comes shortly after I shared “Class Trip” (the poem they generously published back in 2011) at a local reading, so I was already thinking about the poem, and the mindset I was in when I...

I often tell my poetry students that all poems are elegies, in the sense that even the most celebratory ode or heartfelt epithalamium has within its lines traces of that darker brush. We cling tighter to any moment of joy or celebration because we know it’s fleeting. The loved one is made all the more precious by the knowledge that he or she might leave us. Every poem tips its hat to this most basic principle, what Elizabeth Bishop called the “art of losing” in a poem I’ve often turned to in...

My poem “The Cheshire Cat Effect” reflects my interest in the intersection of quantum mathematics and poetry. This is an interdisciplinary field that’s really got me excited these days because I feel like there’s a lot of productive thinking to be done about the relationship of the arts and the sciences. And also our culture, whether it’s reflected through the arts, or through psychology or religion, still has barely begun to come to terms with the implications of quantum physics although it...


A few years ago, a writer named Matthew Batt (check out his great book Sugarhouse) visited my school in Florida to read. As part of the gig, he talked to my creative nonfiction class and opened with the question: What pair of shoes do you remember best?  Students I had been trying to coax out of their shells all semester long finally emerged to share vivid, funny, and...

Childhood dream



Nobody tells you this:

Every day is a creation story.


You’ll make a dome of light over waste and welter

some of the time, then wake one night


on your side of the bed and remember:

There weren’t many happy endings.


First the ripe fruit. Then the way he turned from her,

said it was her idea.


Nobody tells you this will happen again



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