Lessons from the Writing Workshop #13 —Layers of Meaning

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #13 —Layers of Meaning

Poet Kim Dower (a former participant in Poets At Work and now the Poet Laureate of West Hollywood) came back from a week-long workshop with poet Robert Wrigley and couldn’t wait to tell the group about it. Slightly giddy with inspiration, she quoted him saying, “Every poem is about a thing and another thing. It’s the other thing that takes the poem into all the complexities — emotional, moral, etc.”

Poems work on more than one level. The apparent subject of a poem is only one layer of what the poem is really talking about. Ann Pibel, a member of Poets At Work, wrote a poem that begins to describe a garden setting, a house with its windows open to the outside. When suddenly she describes the blossoming orange trees as “lonely brides” we start to understand that the poem is also talking about the domestic relationships of those who occupy this house. This metaphor signals a deeper layer of meaning that underlies the description. That’s the other thing in her poem.

Some poets juxtapose more than one event to layer meaning. In his poem “At Risk,” from his book, City of God, the late Gil Cuadros describes the waiting room of a doctor’s office; the speaker is there to receive his AIDS diagnosis. Also waiting are a mother and young son, the mother brutal in her efforts to get the boy to behave. This puts the speaker in mind of his own mother’s brutal discipline, adding yet a third layer to the poem. These layers fuse and deliver a power to the conclusion {“I didn’t dare ask how long I’ve got, / palm over my mouth, / I say mother / softer than I ever did before.”) that could not have been achieved by any one of the layers alone.

If you’re reading along thinking, “I don’t write poems, I’ll just skip this post,” hold on. Wrigley’s wisdom applies to all literary writing. In the language of the prose writer, he is talking about the difference between plot and theme.

My first published novel, Bailey’s Beads, is about a woman, Bryn Redding, in a coma after a car accident. The central question is Will she awaken? On the surface, that sounds like the plot of a Lifetime movie, but I wove in a conflict between Bryn’s mother and lover over who gets to define Bryn while she is unable to represent herself. I also added Bryn’s writing, which reveals yet another aspect of her. Through the use of subplots, the reader is asked to contemplate whether any of us knows the people we claim to love, or if we just invent them for our own purposes. The plot is necessary to keep the reader moving through the story, but the theme is what rewards them for making the journey.

Setting is another powerful tool writers use to invoke theme. In her story, “Bobby Kennedy Comes to Town,” longtime workshop participant Pat Alderete explores the sexual mores of a group of young women in the late 1960s; you might have sex with your boyfriend in a moment of passion if you really love him, but if you take birth control you’re seen as a whore. Alderete sets this story at the moment of Bobby Kennedy’s visit to East Los Angeles, a moment of hope and pride for the community that ends the next night in Kennedy’s assassination. At this place and time, so much in the United States was about to change, and the girls’ dilemma takes on an even greater significance.

Essays also offer powerful opportunities to develop theme. The reflective nature of the form provides occasion to contemplate the meaning of events. Nina Rota, a former workshop member who works with me privately, is writing an ambitious book of linked essays. A recent essay, “The Wedding at Cana,” makes frequent use of allusions (referencing work by other artists) to create universality to the narrator’s search for some connection to the father who never acknowledged his paternity. Among other things, she invokes the train ride across the sea from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to describe the displacement felt by the speaker lacking this root to family, and The Wedding at Cana, a painting by Paolo Veronese stolen from Italy by Napoleon and returned to Venice as a reproduction, to talk about how we may feel connected to someone through their art, even a facsimile of their art.

Since hearing Wrigley’s quote, I often find myself asking students and myself, “Okay, but what’s the other thing?” It’s a great reminder to build those deeper layers of meaning into our work.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada
Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.



A Poem Created Just for You at “A Poem for You” to Celebrate National Poetry Month

Terry Wolverton holds magnetic poetry in her hands. Photo by Angela Brinskele.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Skylight Books teams up with Writers At Work to bring you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Five widely published and highly regarded poets — Brendan Constantine, Yvonne M. Estrada, Peter J. Harris, Lynne Thompson and Terry Wolverton — will create “A Poem for You,” an original poem written spontaneously and just for you or a designated recipient.

Just think — an original poem to give your loved ones; congratulate friends or colleagues on a new job, a marriage, a baby; commemorate a special moment. You can even request a curse poem for someone who did you wrong.

Here’s how it works: Come to Skylight Books on Sunday, April 6, 2014, between 2-4 p.m. You’ll be matched with one of the poets and have the opportunity to tell them the content you’re looking for. The poet will go to work while you browse the store, and within 20-30 minutes, you’ll receive a signed copy of your poem.

Poem-seekers will be assigned to poets on a first-come, first-served basis. Poem-seekers will give input, but poets will maintain their poetic license to interpret as the muse guides them. Poets will retain the copyright to their work (they can publish it; you cannot).

Skylight Books is located at 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, Calif.

Participating Poets

Brendan Constantine is the author of Letters to Guns, Birthday Girl With Possum and Calamity Joe. He is poet-in-residence at Windward School and has brought poetry workshops to libraries, hospitals, foster-care centers, correctional facilities and shelters for the homeless. He is also proud of his work with the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. He currently curates a reading series in partnership with the Craft and Folk Art Museum. www.brendanconstantine.com

Yvonne M. Estrada is a poet and photographer. Her recent chapbook, My Name on Top of Yours, features both poems and original photographs. Her poetry has been published in Emerging Urban Poets Workshop Anthology (vols. 1-3), … and in fact there was no ceiling fan, (en)closures, San Gabriel Valley Quarterly, Catena, Mischief, Caprice & Other Poetic Strategies, Pulse Magazine, GuerrillaReads, Verse Wisconsin and the Poem of the Month 2011 Calendar.

Peter J. Harris is founding director of The Black Man of Happiness Project, a creative, intellectual and artistic exploration of Black men and joy. He has published poetry, essays and fiction in national publications; worked as a publisher, journalist, editor and broadcaster; and been an educator and workshop leader for adults and adolescents. Bless the Ashes, a book of poetry, will be published in fall 2014 by Tia Chucha Press. He’s author of the joyful book The Vampire Who Drinks Gospel Music: The Stories of Sacred Flow & Sacred Song. www.blackmanofhappiness.com

Lynne Thompson won Perugia Press’s First Book Award for Beg No Pardon, which was also awarded Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Sou’wester, Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review and the anthology New Poets of the American West. Her latest collection, Start With a Small Guitar, was published by What Books Press in October 2013. She is the reviews and essays editor for the literary journal Spillway.

Terry Wolverton is the author of ten books of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, most recently, Wounded World: lyric essays about our spiritual disquiet. She is the founder of Writers At Work, a creative writing studio in Los Angeles, and Affiliate Faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is currently collaborating with composer David Ornette Cherry to adapt her book Embers as an opera. www.terrywolverton.com

For more information, contact Terry Wolverton, 323-661-5954, wtrsatwork@aol.com.

February Poem of the Month — Ruth Nolan



—Kelso Sand Dunes, East Mojave Preserve

My ten-year-old daughter is feeling brave, so
we go rock hunting today, explore far beyond
the last dirt road, just she and I, no dad.

We see the sand dunes from miles away,
some hallucinogenic scene from the Sahara,
camel humps rising from the flat desert floor.

My daughter wants to climb them, but
there’s no sure way to guess how far away
they are, no sure measure to tell how tall,

I tell her it’s not safe to hike mountains so
unstable, hills that shift in light winds,
our boots would fill with sand and we’d

sink like thirsty prospectors come to find
buried treasure, lured by promises of silver
and gold, the rattlesnake’s hypnotic charms.


“Mirage” was previously published in “No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday Books, 2009.)

Ruth Nolan is poet and writer living in Palm Desert, where she teaches at College of the Desert. She blogs about the desert for KCET Artbound LA and Heyday Books  Her poetry has appeared recently in Rattling Wall Issue 4.

December Poem of the Month – Yvonne M. Estrada


From My Name on Top of Yours

Read the writing on the cinder block wall:
Joker, Jasper, Dopey, Termite, Tokes, Crow.
It’s not an “is it art?” debate, at all;
these are the monochromatic zip codes
of my gangster, tattooed, sharp-creased, cousins.
Scribbled in black on a bus bench, strangled
names crossed out, over names crossed out again,
red under yellow under green tangled
like wire. Memo, Cowboy, Flyboy, Topper.
Neil Armstrong planted a flag on the moon;
it can’t be seen from their clearly marked world
where, if you don’t live there, you better run.
Tight fence of paint, like barbed wire that’s hidden.
Trespassed borders end lives, I’m not kidding.


Yvonne M. Estrada’s recent chapbook, My Name On Top of Yours, features both poems and original photographs: http://tinyurl.com/mzx7fd9. Her poetry has been published in Catena; Mischief, Caprice & Other Poetic Strategies; Pulse Magazine; GuerrillReads.com, #8; Verse Wisconsin; and 2011 Poem of the Month Calendar.


Apologies for being CRAZY LATE with this, and no disrespect intended to the poet or the poem. — TW


November Poem of the Month — Kim Dower





She hears it in her sleep
Ruining each dream like
The punchline of a bad joke
Sweeping of Santa Anas
Branches flying over the roof
Sparrows driven from their nests
Patio furniture tossed like confetti
Garbage flying like chunky crows
She wakes up to the drain pipes moaning
Remembers a night of falling through
Noise, shaken through her dreams
Let’s go see, she tells her dog
Let’s go look. Let’s see
What the wind did

Kim Dower’s new collection, Slice of Moon, in which this poem appears, was published in September this year.  Her first collection, Air Kissing on Mars appeared on the Poetry Foundation’s Contemporary Best Sellers list. Kim’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Seneca Review, Barrow Street, Eclipse, and Two Hawks Quarterly. http://kimdowerpoet.com.



October Poem of the Month — Mary Fitzpatrick




The heart of the spirit world
lives and churns and its wake
is a house of smoke rising
and billowing out of the ground
The walls of the house
are scrim for the pantomime
silhouette — folly, vanity, lust —
and a little box is lit
like a lantern at the heart
of the house of smoke. The box
flickers and wavers, stays lit,
is tended by my fox, fox
color of smoke, fox whose tiny
fine features belie
a boundaryless burst of tail. What
in the spirit world wants us
this badly? over and over to come
churning up from the ground?…
I carry the little box lantern
from place to place in the house;
It shows shapes that build
then dissolve in relenting
intentions. Smoke heaps
and gathers, then loses
resolve. I clean my whiskers,
lick my paws
hold the lantern, snap
my jaws. I want
what the spirit world wants:
another chance, another chance.

Mary Fitzpatrick’s poems have been featured in Mississippi Review, Agenda, Dos Passos Review, ASKEW, Georgetown Review, as well as in A Bird Black as the Sun (Green Poet Press) and Cancer Poetry Project 2 (Tasora Books). She holds a BA from UC Santa Cruz and an MFA from UMass Amherst. wordfitz@aol.com

September Poem of the Month —Alicia Vogl Saenz



It started during the fires.
Northeast city crested in flames.
Door to your house is open, you stand
framed, shock of white hair.
Smoke has infested the walls,
we’re slightly light-headed. And
in the blue of your bed, we fall just how
I fall into that Sam Francis painting
I’m in love with. Toward Disappearance.
Wall of canvas, mostly white, except
a vertical movement of blue,
with moments of red and green thrown in.
It does seem Sam threw paint in one simple
gesture. But it is never as easy as that.
Oil paint translucent as the blue glass
of water you hand me. Or the deep saturation
of paint in cell shaped forms moving on canvas.
It had to have taken months.
Which is how long it feels this afternoon,
us here, in this house of refuge while the hills
burn and the fan overhead moves September heat.
I have loved you for fifteen years,
you say. I know that isn’t true and I don’t care.
You’re here to end the dormant years, just
how last time you woke me in the sad years.
There’s a low murmur from your yard,
barely audible. Blue agave is witness.
Out of the black char on the hills, seeds germinate,
burst painfully from their hulls, reach for the sun.

Alicia Vogl Saenz’s poems have appeared in Grand Street, Blue Mesa Review, and Mischief, Caprice, and Other Poetic Strategies. She authored the chapbook, The Day I Wore the Red Coat. Most recently, her translation of Spanish poet Mariano Zaro’s book, Tres Letras, was published. She has been a practitioner of Shambhala Buddhism for 7 years.

August Poem of the Month — Pam Ward




        For Trayvon Martin
        with respect to Cypress Hill   

Here is something I can’t understand.

I’m just walking home from the store
Crazy Ass starts a civil war
Hoodie’s on cuz the street is chill
Seventeen, trying to get some Skittles
But, here is something I can’t understand.

Crazy Ass thinks black skin is whack
Calls the cops, they tell him, “Stand Back!”
Girlfriend tells me to “Run away!”
“Hell no,” I say, I ain’t afraid!
But, here is something I can’t understand.

Duck and hide, ditch behind a tree
Don’t want no Cracker tracking me!
Finds me, fight but he won’t let go.
Neighbors Watch but nobody shows
“Come on, man why you sweating me?
Daddy lives in this community!”
Struggle hard when I hear
Blam!   Blam!    and…
Zimmerman just kills me, man.
Zimmerman just kills me, man.
Zimmerman just kills me, man.

Pam Ward, author of “Want Some, Get Some,” and “Bad Girls Burn Slow,” Kensington, is a writer/designer. Her “My Life, LA: The Los Angeles Legacy Project” documents black Angelinos in poster/stories. www.pamwardgraphics.com

July Poem of the Month — Andrew Wessels


An Older J.A. Sitting on the Covers in a Tropicana Guest Room Watching
a Re-Run of Bones & Praying

Give me the strength to walk Heaven
across the casino floor with the strength
of the room attendant carrying my cheeseburger and beer.
I watch myself in the ceiling mirrors trace seams
on the bedspread. I should be decorated with flowers.
How does it matter whether I sleep?
The mountains outside the window surprise me, turn
to watch my friend walk into the bathroom
his towel dropped to the marble floor.
Now all is different without having changed.
When I will be that: hard
like the daisy and white like the stone.
When I will be the cleanliness of picked bone.
In the end there was fire and in fire the whiteness of bone.

Where the young man is now, pushing
more grilled steaks up the service elevator
or taking his break at the slot machines in the next hotel.
Now all is different without having changed.
Mud on the shoes leads to the beginning
what we find in the end. The body was mummy
in a funhouse discovered by a boy. Look me<
into this death, discover the reason, explain me
into a report. Write me into the words of this world.
Anything happened. We are beautiful
in the mirror. Wool-dyed flowers. Plastic flowers. Plastic
flowers. The original cover peels back
a scented sock. The fast-moving station car.
Call me this man in a room, bones, as if he knows I am watching.

Andrew Wessels splits his time between Istanbul and Los Angeles. His poems, translations, and collaborations can recently be found in VOLT, Witness, Fence, and Colorado Review. He is the managing editor of Les Figues Press and edits the poetry and poetics journal The Offending Adam . This poem was previously published in Handsome, Vol 4 Issue 1. Photo by Zeliha Sahin Wessels.



June Poem of the Month — Mehnaz Sahibzada





I ask my mother about Apa’s painting
in English, she answers in Urdu, then it’s
my turn to speak, but there at the crosswalk
between Lahore and Los Angeles, I pledge
allegiance to nothing though sometimes
I mix the two languages, even throw in a little
high school French, or the Arabic I learned
reading the Quran, my nine-year old head draped
in a scarf pulled from my mother’s dresser.
I peer up at the canvas: ocean waves thrash
an archipelago of rocks.  My mother tells me
Apa painted it before I knew how to say
fish or pani or Pakistan, before I became
this chest of torn up maps.  In my body the Pacific
edges into Islamabad, Hollywood’s lodged
in the throat of the Punjab.  My grandmother’s
painting lives in this garage in Woodland Hills,
propped up against a box of fashion magazines.
The image speaks in twelve shades of blue,
like a storm of languages without a tongue.
The sight engulfs me, unpledged.
The coastline shadowed–no words, no light.

The coastline shadowed–no words, no light.
The sight engulfs me, unpledged.
The image speaks in twelve shades of blue,
like a storm of languages without a tongue.
My grandmother’s painting lives in this garage
in Woodland Hills, propped up against a box
of fashion magazines. In my body the Pacific
edges into Islamabad, Hollywood’s lodged
in the throat of the Punjab.  My mother
tells me Apa painted it before I knew
how to say fish or pani or Pakistan, before
I became this chest of torn up maps.  I peer
of rocks.  I ask my mother about Apa’s painting
in English, she answers in Urdu, then it’s my turn
to speak, but there at the crosswalk between Lahore
and Los Angeles, I pledge allegiance to nothing
though sometimes I mix the two languages, even
throw in a little high school French, or the Arabic
I learned reading the Quran, my nine-year old head
draped in a scarf pulled from my mother’s dresser. 

Mehnaz Sahibzada is a 2009 PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow in Poetry. Her chapbook, Tongue-Tied:  A Memoir in Poems, was published by Finishing Line press.  She lives in Sherman Oaks. “Apa’s Painting” previously appeared in the Journal of Pakistan.