Tag Archives: National Poetry Month

Who Are Your Top 10 Favorite Writers?

Today is a fun blogging day — a couple of “10 Favorite” lists.

I make these lists about once every, well, 10 years. They not only show who influences us most deeply as readers and/or writers, but also who grabs our hearts, minds and souls. The 10-year period between lists also shows how we’ve evolved as people. Several on my lists have remained the same over the years, but one or two invariably switch out each decade.

That said, who are your 10 favorite writers? Also, since it is National Poetry Month, who are your 10 favorite poets and/or essayists? Mine are listed below, with a quick bit about each.

Please use the comment feature on this blog to let us know who your favorites are, and why (at least for a few of them). We’ll post a composite of the responses at the end of April.

Bob’s 10 Favorite Writers, in no particular order (except for number one):


T.C. Boyle

Jack Kerouac — My all-time favorite. ‘On the Road’, and ‘Dharma Bums’ are classics of his tireless stream of consciousness writing. Did you know he wrote ‘The Subterraneans’ in 72 hours — and included a 1,200-word sentence in there?

T.C. Boyle — a mastermind of fiction and short story. He’s carried the mantle among American short-story giants since Raymond Carver died.

Anne Rice — I’m not so hot on her books (except for ‘The Vampire Lestat’ and book one of her ‘Christ the Lord’ series), but her writing is amazing. Who else can keep readers up for two nights with more chilling scenes?

Anne Rice, bewitching at a book signing

Anne Rice, bewitching at a book signing

Thich Nhat Hanh — This Vietnamese Buddhist monk has written some of the most beautiful, applicable books of the past 50 years, his style succinct and full of love.

Laura Hillenbrand — Journalistic narrative gets no better than ‘Seabiscuit’ or ‘Unbroken’, does it? She’s awesome.

Elmore Leonard — My man Elmore, a master of realistic dialogue and snappy, fast-paced storytelling. I read a Leonard novel every time I want to improve my pacing, or simply when it’s time for a great story and some laughs.

John Gardner — 90% of my fiction knowledge comes from the late, great novelist and author of the best book on the craft, ‘The Art of Fiction.’

Anais Nin

Anais Nin

Hunter S. Thompson — Forget how bizarre he was as a person; he greatly influenced me through ‘New Journalism’ (the grandparent of narrative non-fiction), his writing for Rolling Stone, and his two gems, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and ‘The Great Shark Hunt’.

Anais Nin — Classy, erotic, cultured, full of irresistible imagery and beautiful writing. Unless your religious beliefs preclude you from doing so, every man should read a Nin book if they care about the innermost worlds of their women.

Joyce Carol Oates — She’s written hundreds of short stories and more than 40 novels. She plunges us into her characters’ worlds within two pages; I feel like I’ve lost my skin and identity when reading her. And her storytelling? The best. In her classic book ‘Blonde’, she admitted she felt like she was Marilyn Monroe while writing it. Priceless.


Gary Snyder, in his element

Gary Snyder, in his element

Gary Snyder — My idol as a poet and steward of the land since I was 16. In my opinion, he’s the greatest poet/essayist alive (and a pre-eminent translator of classical Chinese poetry). He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. In recent years, I’ve had the honor of befriending and being mentored by him. Love the man.

Paramhansa Yogananda — As beautiful soul poetry goes, this Indian yoga master has the touch. ‘Songs of the Soul’ is a classic.

Wislawa Szymborska — She recently passed, but in 2012, Gary Snyder called her ‘the best poet in the world.’ Her winning the Nobel Prize backs his claim.

Wislawa Syzmborska, the Polish wordsmith extraordinaire

Wislawa Syzmborska, the Polish wordsmith extraordinaire

Mary Oliver — How can you not love Mary? Her incisive images and attention to rhythm and detail are beautiful and exact.

David Whyte — He brings the spiritual, natural and inner human worlds together seamlessly; I get goose bumps every time I read Whyte aloud.

Billy Collins — Roll up your sleeves, pour coffee, and survey the little quirks and bits of magic in the everyday world. Billy engages us in the most accessible poetry of the last 50 years. (His protégé, Taylor Mali, could easily fill this slot – but with more obvious humor.)

Mary Oliver, bringing her words to life

Mary Oliver, bringing her words to life

Percy Bysshe Shelley — Let’s dial back the clock. Shelley only lived to be 29, but he defined the 18th-19th century Romantic poetry period. Such beautiful poems, and he mastered the difficult combination of storytelling and lyrical verse.

Rumi — There were more than 100 great Persian, Arabian and other Middle Eastern poets from the 8th through 15th centuries; Rumi has lived on. Who doesn’t feel better and deeper after reading one or two of his poems? Honey for the soul.

Li-Po — Like Rumi, he stands tallest among China’s wandering poets in the 7th through 10th centuries. Want to be a Chinese landscape? Read him aloud.

Sappho — She brought written form to lyric and spoken verse 2,700 years ago, creating Western poetry as we know it (though she wasn’t the first; Sumerian Enheduanna penned her poems on cuneiform tablets 4,500 years ago). Sadly, only about 2% of Sappho’s work survives; she was as prolific as Shakespeare.

There are my lists. Looking forward to seeing yours!

ON SALE THROUGHOUT NATIONAL POETRY MONTH: Backroad Melodies, by Robert Yehling. $9.95 print, $1.99 Kindle, .99 Matchbook. Through April 30. http://amzn.to/1Hb62Ei

Low Res Cover Backroads


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The Intersection of Literature & Free Expression  

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

Whenever I travel to San Francisco, one of my favorite cities in the world, I make sure to pay homage to the roots of my craft near the intersection of Columbus & Grant, where North Beach and Chinatown intersect.

It is a simple little tour, really: just three places. The first, City Lights Books, is a wonderful patchwork of angles, stories, perches, step-ups, cellars and basements loaded with books you may not find anywhere else. It is also home base to celebrated poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who spent the 1950s writing poetry collections, turning a half-dozen unknown writers into the famed San Francisco Renaissance crew (or West Coast Beats), and taking on the U.S. Supreme Court when they censored his publication of Henry Miller.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Now 95, Ferlinghetti is a hawk of a man, tall, imposing and imperious when crossed. He and my old friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, still read together once every October. Every time we write a page, article or book with anything we want to say, and then publish it, we’re reminded of who won that landmark censorship battle that culminated in 1961. It wasn’t the Supreme Court.

City Lights is my favorite bookstore, the bookstore that City Lightssparks me every time I walk through its doors. Now 60 years old, it is what an independent bookstore is all about — distinct character and personality, books carefully chosen by a well-read staff, a sanctuary of the written word, and the hub of a great writing community and movement. It is the best store to buy Beat literature in the world. Its selection of poetry, novels and literature reflects an open-minded, story-crafting, intelligence-promoting approach that is, well, the only approach that should ever matter in a society.

My favorite City Lights moment came in 2001. I walked into the store with Marty Balin, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame lead singer (and founder) of Jefferson Airplane, as well as Jefferson Starship. During their San Francisco concerts in the wild 1960s, bands used to ask poets to open their shows — celebrations of light, spoken word, dancing and music. Ferlinghetti was the Airplane’s designated poet on several occasions. As we walked inside, there was Ferlinghetti, perched in the checkout area. Marty and Ferlinghetti hadn’t seen each other in twenty years. Immediately, I felt like the luckiest fly on the wall as they caught up and discussed music, literature, and reminisced about those early concerts at Longshoreman’s Hall, the Matrix and The (original) Fillmore.

If the walls of Vesuvio's could talk, who would ever leave?

If the walls of Vesuvio’s could talk, who would ever leave?

Across the street from City Lights is Vesuvio’s, the colorful two-story pub that served as Jack Kerouac’s watering hole during his trips to San Francisco. Hemingway had Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Henry James had the White House Tavern in New York City, and Kerouac had Vesuvio’s. He percolated large parts of On The Road, The Dharma Bums and other novels while sitting inside. Now, the place is lined with classic photos from the Beat generation, along with posters of Mae West, Janis Joplin, and other adornments that were part of the bar Kerouac knew. It looked like a few patrons and bottles of ancient booze on the shelves had never left, too.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio's and leads to Chinatown.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio’s and leads to Chinatown.

After that, we took our haul of books a hundred yards to Vital Tea Leaf, located in the middle of Chinatown. (Gotta love the way ethnic neighborhoods run into each other in San Francisco, so effortlessly, without fences or borders.) Our old friend, the 83-year-old proprietor with a sailor’s tongue and a sage’s wisdom, greeted us with hugs at the door. We then spent the next 90 minutes tasting teas made of nectar and gold (so it seemed), and listening to him mix insightful history and preparation tips with playful poking at customers as they walked inside. I find Chinese tea opens up the creative pores in a way that makes verse and prose pour from mind, body and soul; it is always my chosen drink when writing. So, I loaded up with pu’erh, milk oolong, cloud mist and lapsang souchong (the smoky tea), heard our host’s stories about each (cloud mist grows at 8,000 feet, for example), and headed off to write a few of my own.

To me, Columbus & Grant is not only the junction of ancient and modern literature, or the crossroads of shih and Beat writing and poetry. It is also the shining beacon that reminds me of two endangered species — the independent bookstore and freedom of written expression. As we move into National Poetry Month, we’re reminded of the treasures men and women have written for thousands of years. And the inalienable right and freedom to do so. That’s worth honoring in the best way possible — by writing.Kerouac sign




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Previewing a Book for National Poetry Month … and A Book for Life

Closing out a month that I will forever remember as the Month of Voluminous Editing. Never have I worked on so many great books simultaneously – novels, memoirs, travel narratives, my own projects. It just goes to show that, in this age where traditional publishing, self-publishing and e-publishing all offer viable paths of publishing success, good writing will rule out in the end. There will never be any shortage of well-written, well-conceived books. In fact, from where I sit, it seems that we’re back on an upward curve when it comes to overall quality of writing. Let’s keep it up.

Now we come to April: . I want to profile a couple of books that are on their way to bookstores and online Print

The first is The Hummingbird Review, the literary journal for which I’ve been editor for three years (except for the Spring 2012 issue, when I was teaching at Ananda College). Publisher, poet and author Charles Redner, who always keeps part of his heart attached to his dramatic arts past, decided to paint a Hollywood theme this time – combining movies and literature. For his part, Charlie wrote a short piece on those dramatic arts days … and a fine actor who emerged from his class. (I’m not telling you: you’ll have to read The Hummingbird Review).

The result is the Spring 2013 issue, our annual National Poetry Month issue, which features Hollywood-themed poetry and essays by our esteemed cast of new and established authors, including Dances With Wolves author Michael Blake, extraordinary poet Martin Espada, screenwriters Adam Rodman and David Milton, and a special lyrics package from my friend and client Stevie Salas, who scored Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventurein the late 1980s as his musical career was beginning to take off. Now Stevie is producing a documentary film on Native Americans in rock and pop music. We also have stirring lyrics from the solo work of legendary X frontman, lyricist and poet John Doe, who has appeared in more than 30 films and TV shows and series. (We did ask John to furnish the lyrics to one of X’s greatest songs, “The Haves and Have Nots”, which also appears).

We also pay tribute to an old friend of mine, the late Idaho Poet Laureate Emeritus Bill Studebaker, a man whose outrageous humor and sense of adventurism (especially white water kayaking) was matched by two things: his love of family, and his poetry writing. He was a fantastic poet whose works will live on for a long, long time. We present a half-dozen of his poems in a special tribute. Bill died in 2008 in a kayaking accident.

In addition, the spring issue features three dozen fine poems from new and regular contributors from throughout the country. It opens with one of the more memorable conversation-interviews I’ve conducted, with former Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins. The interview features plenty of Billy’s trademark humor, while also touching on subjects near and dear to his heart – such as bringing contemporary poetry into the schools through his Poetry 180 project.

The Hummingbird Review will be available through bookstores, on Amazon.com and on the website at www.thehummingbirdreview.com in mid-April, which is National Poetry Month.

• • •

51wvY-lQbaLAbout 18 months ago, the person who would later become my literary agent, Dana Newman, asked if I would be interested in editing a very special memoir that she was representing. I took a look at the manuscript, and knew it was a book I would never forget.

Now, here it comes. Cracked … Not Broken is the story of Kevin Hines, a young man from San Francisco, diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, who attempted to end his life at age 19 by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. He survived. Halfway through his plunge, he realized he wanted to live, and by the grace of God, his body turned in such a way that he survived impact.

From there, Kevin started embracing life. It was tough, and painful, but now, he is a dynamic, nationally recognized speaker and advocate for suicide prevention, a man whose story has inspired countless thousands. Maybe millions. This memoir is a testament to the will to live, and to learning to fall in love with life – after nearly ending it. There’s no sugar coating in this book: it is tough, gritty, emotionally raw, and leaves nothing to chance or speculation. Which makes it a great book.

Cracked … Not Broken is available on pre-order from Amazon.com.

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It’s Time for NaNoWriMo!

What will you be writing for NaNoWriMo?

After nearly a year-long wait, NaNoWriMo has finally arrived. National Novel Writing Month used to be another convenient literary designation on the calendar where librarians, bookstore owners and people in the literary world paid a little special attention to the novel — like they do in April with National Poetry Month. 

However, a few years ago, someone came up with the crafty idea of giving National Novel Writing Month a clever acronym and a community-based

The month of November is a great time to dive deep and write a novel — or any kind of book.

website, designed to help writers actually spend the month of November writing a novel.

The result has been extraordinary: the advent of NaNoWriMo. Beginning Thursday, Nov. 1, more than 1 million writers — along with many college and high school writing programs, community writing groups and professional writers clubs — will log on to their personal pages on www.nanowrimo.org and take the wordsmith’s challenge: to write at least 50,000 words in one month.

I’m going to be among them. While my effort won’t necessarily be fiction — it will be the start of my memoir, working title Do I Have a Story For You! —  I’m just as pumped up as everyone else. During this month, I will spend a couple hours per day (or more, on some days) writing out the stories for my memoir, while also chatting with and supporting other writers in my NaNoWriMo support group. My goal will be to write about 2,000 words per day, to get to that magical 50,000 word mark. And I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it.

It sounds daunting to write 50,000 words in one month. If you’re soloing, it can be very daunting. Which leads to the beauty of NaNoWriMo: while you’re cranking out your novel, memoir or story, so are more than a million others. There is a group energy and consciousness that, I swear, you can feel. Everyone is elevating everyone else. For a golden month, we’re not the only writers engaged in the solitary act of writing a book. I sure felt it last year, when I jumped into the fray very late (because of teaching duties) and still put out the first 20,000 words of my novel-in-progress, Open Mic Night at Boccaccio’s, in the last 10 days of NaNoWriMo.

In 2011, more than 3 billion words were recorded on NaNoWriMo’s official count, which is drawn from the individual daily word count updates of each participant. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of minds stretching out to produce their works. Several of my writing support group partners started and finished entire novels; others really got into it and wrote 14 to 16 hours per day.

Do you have a story you want to write? Do you want to try this out? I sure hope so; NaNoWriMo is an absolute blast. Log onto the website, fill out your profile and a few words about your desired story — or collection of short stories — and be ready to log on Thursday and write, write, write. And let us know how you did!


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When Music and Writing Mix

(In honor of National Poetry Month – and the Muse)

The other day, while putting together the Spring/Summer issue of The Hummingbird Review, I was discussing lyrics and poesy (composing poetic verse) with publisher Charlie Redner (whose poetic spirit and enthusiasm inspires the heck out of me). It is always impossible for me to distinguish between the two, because I feel they are the identical core expression. The only discernible difference is that one is accompanied by vocal or instrumental music and the other is spoken. Maybe I’m crazy about this, a reincarnated Ancient Greek or something…

Which provides a good departure point to discuss the music of writing. So many of us seem to create separation between lyrics/music and our writing. All you have to do is walk into the nearest middle school or high school classroom or hallway to see what I mean: many kids will stick in their ear buds and listen to hip-hop or their favorite singers or bands all day long, but will fall flat on their bored faces when asked to write an essay, book report, paper or story. As for poetry? That’s dead man’s stuff to many of them. Not happening.

Yet, what are they listening to? Poetry! Writing! They cruise through school corridors reciting hip-hop or singing their favorite songs, completely in rhythm, their vocal cadence (while often hilariously out of tune) hugging the meter that the words and beat provide. They sing or lip synch the lyrics with hearts, minds and bodies engaged, feeling the rhythm, embracing the words (for good or bad), diving deeply into the experiences, images or messages being conveyed. They do the exact same thing as spoken word artists, only it’s someone else’s words and it’s accompanied by instrumental sound.

And yet, from classrooms to societal conventions to our own writing desks, we separate the two. We put music in one corner, and writing in the other, as though they were opposing boxers. We keep them apart, to the point of distinguishing between good lyrics and good poetry. (Though Homer Hogan sure didn’t: his two-book The Poetry of Relevance remains, nearly 40 years later, an incomparable counterpoint anthology of poetry/lyrics by 1960s musicians and classic poets). I’ve even had writers at conferences, book expos and workshops, people who have been writing fiction, non-fiction or journalism for years, tell me that music and writing belong apart because writing is more noble, more learned, the thinking man’s art. Seriously.


I’m here to tell you: that’s a mistake. That’s part of the problem plaguing our society, making it less and less literary by the day. Writing was always intended to remind us of how connected we are to universal source, from where original music, thought and expression come. When the ancient poets and writers started laying down symbols and words on cuneiform tablets and papyrus, what do you think was moving through them? Music. They heard the music of words, saw images within melodies, and brought us the earliest verse and prose that became lyric, poetry, drama, story. Musicians and writers even use the same term to describe that inner prompting voice that visits and inspires us:

The Muse.

To me, the best writing – fiction or non-fiction – is deeply musical. I hear and feel the music in each sentence, in the rhythm of the author’s (or character’s) experience, in the flow of the narrative. As a writer and poet, I can’t roll any other way. As an editor, I can always tell when a writer is fully connected to their innermost heart and mind, to the original source of the words that I read on the page. That’s what connects readers as well, whether or not they realize it. I want to pick up your story, essay, poem or book, join the mellifluous cadence of words, hear the way phrases and images come together, and become part of the experience. I want to become part of your narrative music, your verbal symphony playing out on the page. You do that, and I am hooked. Your readers will be, too. My clients and workshop students are very familiar with how I compare Chapter One of a novel or memoir to the overture of a symphony. There’s a reason for that: it is the overture of your story. When we are in tune with the present moment (which we are, when we read something we like), we respond musically to life, to the word, to the experience as it presents itself on paper.

Why? Because that is how homo sapiens has been hard-wired as a species since Day One. We’re musical beings. The ancient shamans sure knew that, which is why they drummed and expressed the callings of spirit in rhythm and chant. I’m the last person to consider myself authority on this one, but when in the beginning there was The Word, and The Word was with God, I’m betting it was felt and heard musically. Or sung. When Enheduanna carved her tributes to the goddess Inanna on cuneiform tablets in Ancient Sumeria 5,500 years ago, becoming the world’s first written poet (yes, a woman was the first known poet-in-writing, since the even older Vedas of Ancient India were transmitted orally until Alexander the Great’s charges began recording them), she conveyed the songs of her soul. And, almost 3,000 years later, the Greek lyrical genius Sappho danced so deftly with music and words that she created a body of work comparable in size to Shakespeare’s or Goethe’s until 98% of it was destroyed by library burnings, time and the hands of men who misunderstood her and her work. (Can you imagine how enriched we would be today if all of Sappho’s works, or even half of them, had survived?)

This, for me, is the secret of great writing: to merge the musician, poet and creator within ourselves. When we bring these aspects together, we touch our greatness and our potential. We touch divinity. Our work resonates; it sings; it moves; it speaks truth; it touches others, deeply. We become one with what we write. Every paragraph, sentence and word of every page conveys the energy we feel when we type or handwrite it.

How do we get there? It’s very simple, but takes some practice and time: read everything aloud, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essay, novel-sized or bite-sized. Read every sentence. If the words flow and resonate, if they convey what we’re trying to say with pace and rhythm, then they will likely do the same for our readers. If they feel choppy or sound rough in any way, then we’re not attaining the music beneath the words, probably not connecting to the innermost point of the writing – calling for a little revision.

Who knows? You might find yourself singing the written lines. And your readers will be singing the song of your creation as they flip the pages.

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