Evolving Origins: Origins Are Very Much Alive with Rosebud Ben-Oni

Welcome to our first lesson! I first came to this idea of origins as evolving when examining my own: a childhood shuffling between two families, my mother’s Mexican family on the U.S.-Mexican border and my father’s family whom are, for the most part, Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. My mother herself converted from Catholicism to Judaism before I was born, and while I was raised in an observant Jewish household, the influences of border culture and my Mexican relatives continually made an impression on how I viewed the world. Those two very different geographies were never as simple as leaving for another, and this made for quite an often contradictory, sometimes explosive evolution of self as I negotiated more than just identity among my extended families. Uneasy, uncertain, devil may care: that has been my world.

After many years of looking toward the pasts of my heritages, I have come to the conclusion that origins are not past at all. Rather, origins are very much alive. Origins are a living thing, and often both a resolute and reactive manifestation of personal racial, ethnic, sexual and religious beliefs and ideas. And above all, origins do not exist in a vacuum; no matter how resolute our individual beliefs, we each react to the world and sometimes, we change, both ourselves and our own point of departure. In this case, do origins themselves not evolve, especially for poets?

This week we will focus on the idea of Belief. Let’s take a look at NPR’s popular series “this i believe,” which has published and produced essays on the idea of Belief, ranging from a 14 year old’s experience with Asperger’s Syndrome to novelist Amy Tan’s making peace with her belief in ghosts  to one doctor’s creed that “Health is A Human Right.” Feel free to explore the series, reading or listening to the different essays, before continuing onto the selected poems.


Reading Assignments

adam-zagajewskiSelf-Portrait” by Adam Zagajewski As Zagajewski contemplates time and self, constancies and preferences, that compose his “self-portrait” at this point in his life, he ends on an examination of his own “childhood”/origins as  poet—not of “ocean” but “air”—and his growth as both poet and human.
kearney_bygparkerCreed” by Meg Kearney Like Zagajewski, Kearney looks at both the significant and seemingly minor details of beliefs that shape how she experiences and views the world. We are going to play with this idea, but with a twist.
Tomaž ŠalamunHere are some more poems that explore the idea of belief in various ways:Ships” by Tomaž Šalamun (trans. by Brian Henry) “On Living” by Nazim Hikmet “Zone” by Guillaume Apollinaire (trans. by Donald Revell) “Walking Around” by Pablo Neruda (trans. by Robert Bly)

Writing Exercises

Writing Exercises for Your Own Exploration and Reflection

  1. Read or listen to 7-year-old Tarak McLain’s “Thirty Things I Believe.” Now, looking back at your own past (whether back to you own childhood or as recent as a year ago), list 10-15 things you no longer believe in. They can range from small to large in significance, and of course are not limited to religious beliefs.
  2. Choose 7 out of the 15, and write 1-3 sentences explaining why, where and/or how you lost these beliefs. If you need to explain more for some, that’s fine.
  3. Choose 5 out of the 7, and write 1-3 sentences how losing these beliefs has affected you as a person and a poet now. How are you different?  How has your writing changed? Again, if you need to explain more for some than others, that’s fine.

*Once you’ve completed these exercises, review in depth your answers to all 3.

Writing Assignment for Submission Using your answers from the previous 3 exercises, write a poem about belief(s) lost. You can focus on one of belief in particular, or you can write a poem more like Kearney’s “Creed,” exploring multiple beliefs.  You can also write a “Self-Portrait” in the vein of Zagajewski, and how losing certain beliefs has shaped you as a poet and person. And lastly, you can use any of the poems from Reading Assignment #3 as inspiration as well.

rosebud.ben.oniBorn to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a graduate of the Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater in NYC. She is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013) and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review. Rosebud is the founding talent and voice behind “Evolving Origins.”

Poetry | Free Verse Poetry

Let’s be real. Most of us, the majority of the time, write free verse poetry. Traditional rhyming metered poetry still has its fans, but some of those forms have almost a negative connotation in the poetry market. Many magazines even have a line in their submission guidelines about how they are selective about their rhyming poetry.

So what’s the point of talking about form?

Think of a poem as a building, and every stanza is a room (the word “stanza” even means room). A building’s structure is important for obvious reasons (namely that it doesn’t fall over) but the structural style chosen says a lot about what’s being built: its function, as well as its character. Why might someone choose a colonial style vs. an art deco style for a structure? What do each of those accomplish, both functionally and aesthetically? Those are the sorts of questions we want to be asking ourselves when we select a form for a poem.

Forms are like tools in a toolbox. Being familiar with a number of forms gives you more things to play with when you’re writing your poems. Sometimes I try on different forms when I have material I’m having trouble getting into a strong poem. Each form can contribute towards aiding or juxtaposing a poem’s content and meaning, or its mood. They can also create a certain visual or auditory experience. Repetition can create an experience in the poem, or even be used to help the reader remember something about the poem.

As you consider which forms to play with, think about what this form could accomplish, and how that could mesh well with material that you’re working with. For example, the repeated lines of pantoums makes this form great for recreating the act of storytelling, diving into memories, regret and guilt, as well as conveying a sense of obsession. Sestinas invite a sense of play with their line-end repetitions, allowing for a constant transformation of meanings through punctuation changes and using homonyms. Sonnets are largely used for expressing love and devotion, while ghazals invoke love of loss and longing.

Whatever form you use should be justified. The repetitions of a form shouldn’t be “because the form says so”, but should be transforming with each use—repetitions should propel the poem forward, not hold it back. Like prose, the poem should have a heightening, climax and resolution—this can be narratively or abstract. But the form should be creating that tension, that climax, that resolution. Another thing to consider with form is how it presents itself on the page. What does it look like?

Forms vary in their rigidity. The pantoum for example has no meter or rhyme restrictions, but is rooted in repetition. This was a realization to me as I began to work in form—not all forms require strict rules, and rhyme and meter. I began to enjoy form when I realized that rules in poetry are made to be broken, and that the form should be working for me, not me working for the form (AKA: I should be wearing the dress; the dress shouldn’t be wearing me). A great example with playing with form on a conceptual level is Pablo Neurda’s Ode to Common Things. Forms don’t have to just be played with on a technical level (e.g., using a sestina’s repetition of the word “tea” as “T”) but also on a conceptual level. Retranslate what an elegy is, what an ode is—what it is to praise and mourn. Tell a ballad about a mundane event. Try to figure out what a prose poem is. In the end, the most important thing (I’d argue) is to have fun. A form shouldn’t be a restricting harness but a shaped vessel for a poem to thrive in.

Poets may also create a form to suit their content. For example, Patricia Smith’s 34 uses 34 sections to create a voice for each victim in a nursing home flooded during Hurricane Katrina. In Conversation with my Mother, April Naoko Heck creates a form that visually marks when she or her mother is speaking, allowing the conversation to flow without bulky speech markers. If it doesn’t feel like there’s a form created yet to fit your content, then make it yourself!

If we’re talking about form, we should also mention free verse. Just because free verse is “free” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have structure. Free verse poems still need to think about how they utilize sound, line length, repetition, enjambments, internal rhyme and slant rhyme, meter, and stanza size. In fact, because there isn’t a set “rule” on what free verse poetry looks like, it means we almost need to be more attentive to these elements. The form should be an appropriate vessel for the “fluid” of the poem. We have to ask ourselves then: what should the free verse form look like for this particular poem?


Poets may also respond to or imitate work that’s meaningful to them. Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong is Ocean Vuong’s tribute to Roger Reeves and Frank O’Hara. Eugenia Leigh’s Psalm 107 is both a response to and an imitation of the biblical psalms. This might seem weird or irrelevant to address in a lesson based on form, but I would argue that imitation is a type of form. Look at Psalm 107, and how Leigh takes on a biblical form of parallel structure, using the title to draw us back to the biblical Psalm 107. Imitation of another poetic work makes us as poets have to think more deeply about what’s going on structurally and musically in the piece we are imitating.

Some Cool Forms to Try

  • Calligram
  • Ballad
  • Ghazal
  • Ode
  • Pantoum
  • Terza Rima
  • Prose Poem
  • Sestina
  • Triolet
  • Villanelle
  • Sonnet


Homework: Pick a form and try it. If you want some good books to help you navigate the world of form, I strongly recommend Strong Measures by Phillip Dacey and Poetry Dictionary by John Drury. Write one paragraph about your experience with form—was it easy/hard? Why did you pick this form? Was it to aid/juxtapose content, or not related to content? 

Optional Prompt 2: Find a poem from a poet you admire and imitate the poem, or respond to it (see Ocean Vuong’s Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong).

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of eighteen books, which include VOW, PETRARCHAN, and SCORCHED ALTAR: SELECTED POEMS AND STORIES, 2007-2014, which is forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books. Her writing has been described by literary critics as “haunting,” “mesmerizing,” and “complex.” Poet and Kenyon Review editor Zach Savich writes that her body of work is a “singularly graceful and stunningly incisive exploration of poetic insight, vision, and transformation.” 

Mindfulness + Writing | Lesson No. 2: Outside World as Writing Prompt

*if you look around, you’ll be amazed at what you see.  There are muses everywhere.

Welcome back!

Last week we looked into the body and breath for inspiration and deep paying attention.  Out of this deep paying attention (practiced over and over again) we can create from a centered interesting place.

This week we will look outward at the world around us.

Remember that body scan we did?  This is about a world scan.  Really taking in what’s around us.  I feel this especially is important to consider in our day and age when in any settling 90% of the people seem to be plugged not into their surroundings, but their iPhones!  (we’ll talk about how to use our phones to plug into the actual world around us, vs. the virtual, later on)

It’s important to remember the tools we try in this workshop are presented as things to try….but then continue trying.  If something resonates with you, work with it over time, as a practice.  If you fall out of your practice, just hop back in when you’re ready.  In mindfulness and creating, it’s about PRACTICE not PERFECT.

(As yoga teacher and writer Sharon Gannon says:  “Through repetition the magic arises.”)

“…poetry is paying attention to life when all the world seems asleep to its beauties and truths…”

-John Geddes (and all writing! not just poetry)

“Pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it. We’re soaked in distractions. The world didn’t have to be beautiful. We can and should think about that beauty and be grateful.”

-Mary Oliver


Watch this video by poet CA Conrad.  He’s been video-ing his surroundings, as poem prompts.  This is a great place to begin our exploration.

Notice:  were you able to simply watch?  Or where you thinking “why am I watching this?”  and analyzing the whole time?  No judgement either way, just interesting to see. More of his work.

Reading Assignments

Writing Assignment

Let’s try CA’s (Soma)tic meditation writing instruction, with the above film:

Watch the film above again.

Take notes as quickly as you can for 15 minutes after viewing.

Type all your notes into one document and print it out.

For the week, carry it wherever you go and use a highlighter pen to find the words to shape your poem.

Send the poem my way!

Optional Writing Assignment

Use your iPhone for the week (or any camera you have) to take photos of interesting things around you.  The idea is that by photographing, we can begin to train our minds to really notice and take in our surroundings.

At the end of the week, use one of the photos you’ve taken in your own environment as a writing prompt for a story, poem or essay (I can help you shape it later)

Buy or borrow a fashion magazine.  Find a photo that strikes you, and use the image as a writing prompt for a story, poem or essay.  In fashion, these spreads are called “stories” anyway, so it’s great to use them as visual inspiration for new written work!

Discussion Questions:

Are there certain places that are YOUR places?

Tell me about your environment.  What do you find inspirational, where you are, right now?


Sarah Herrington’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Writer’s Digest and she was named a Poet to Watch by Oprah Magazine. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Always Moving (Bowery Books, 2011) and several nonfiction books, including Om Schooled (Addriya Press, 2012), and Essential Yoga (Fair Winds Press, 2013). In addition to writing, she is an advocate for mindfulness and creativity and is the founder and lead facilitator of OM Schooled Teacher Trainings. Sarah is a graduate of New York University’s English and Creative Writing programs and holds an MFA in Creative Writing through Lesley University.  She is a grateful member of the Bowery Poetry Club community and has worked for Gotham Writers’ Workshop and Girls Write Now. She divides her time between New York and California.