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Christopher Luna by Alisha Jucevic for the Columbian

Christopher Luna by Alisha Jucevic for the Columbian
Christopher Luna by Alisha Jucevic for the Columbian

Monday, April 6, 2009

Shawn Sorensen reviews Sage Cohen's Writing the Life Poetic

WIDE EXPANSE: THE POETIC CANVAS OF SAGE COHEN A Review of Writing the Life Poetic by Shawn Sorensen While reading Sage Cohen’s guide to creating poetry, Writing the Life Poetic, I saw a bridge open up before me, crossing the Willamette River into western Portland. I was on one side, ruminating about my literary insecurities, my smooth poems and the many that, to put it politely, needed work (read: jackhammer and saw) and what my writing voice could become. On the other side of the bridge was Cohen, waving at me to come across, where all the words I had put to paper and would put to paper were floating around, like the trees going up the hills of Forest Park, where in fact an entire poetry community was waiting for me like an welcoming, empowering Verizon Wireless “It’s the Network” commercial (but without the two year contract). I found a quote in the middle of Sage Cohen’s book that I kept returning to:
In a culture where we like things black and white, right and wrong, poetry says YES. What if there were no right or wrong - only poetry? What if everything we could possibly dream up were acceptable? Fabulous? Enough? Poetry can be your own personal oasis of invention, where you can do no wrong.
What Cohen strives for is no less an encouraging, powerful, limitless manifesto to poets and writers everywhere. Instructional without being text-bookish, inspirational without being preachy, suggestive without being demanding, Writing the Life Poetic goes beyond the assemblage of quality how-to poetry books to become a work of art - with endless rows of blank canvasses on either side for the reader’s own brush strokes. I was most impressed by Cohen’s adroit ability to turn so many poetic stereotypes on their head and give them a welcome burst of light and warmth. Not knowing everything about writing or other poets gives one an endless set of possibilities. Not making much money from poetry means one is free of editorial trimmings a novelist, for example, often gets. Having writer’s block means the writer can sit there, quiet down, let everything just be as it is - and let the inspiration to create slowly seep back in. Sets of poetry rules - and comments about one’s work from other poets - can be used or discarded freely. Above all: write. Cohen provides numerous questions this reader felt encouraged to answer, exercises that were fun and instructive to complete, and a plethora of great poems as examples. One of the book’s eighty short chapters is entitled “Finders Keepers: Found Poems.” Cohen describes getting one of those irritating spam mass emails and turning it into an opportunity to write a poem slightly outside of her usual boundaries and with a lot of creative vocabulary. I found myself trying this exercise while shopping in a Japanese grocery store. Words found on the shelves and in my mind: “origami action”, “rice counter” and my personal favorite, “elite banana”, all grist for a future poem. It’s also rare to have a book address the need to calm down and trust one’s own voice. Without the need for approval, a poet can produce more work - and find additional outlets for it. “Authenticity is a kind of homelessness I am learning to live inside of”, Cohen writes. When the work pours forth, the craft is honed and shaped, empowering the person and their creations. Cohen again:
I have been writing poems and thinking of each one as practice…. Every poem you write benefits from the poems that came before it.
Adam Kirsh, in a recent issue of the journal Poetry, asserts that poets mainly write for recognition. Cohen’s book suggests many more reasons to create this kind of art. At its very least, poetry helps us smooth out the rougher edges of our character and get closer to finding out who we really are. Cohen also suggests the outlets provided by blogs, open mics, classes, critique groups, literary journals, websites and kind words for friends, all with instructions and encouragement. Part professor, part companion and part Zen practitioner, Writing the Life Poetic walks along with us and increases the directions, dimensions and paths we can take while writing meaning into our lives. It is a monumental addition to the writing community, whose ranks should swell and build from this amazing treatise on art and all of its possibilities. Writing the Life Poetic is being released to bookstores nationwide in April. It can be purchased now at or Shawn Sorensen is a published, award-winning poet whose work can be viewed at, Winter 2008 edition. He just won 1st place in the Spring 2009 Oregon State Poetry Association Spring 2009 contest, New Poets category. Dozens more of his complete book reviews - including 16 for poetry titles - can be found at This review first appeared in the Oregon Writers Colony Colonygram, March/April 2009 edition.

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