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Unlocking the Poem is a way to think about writing poetry; it is also the title of a new book by Ottone M. Riccio and Ellen Beth Siegel starting from the premise that poems are out there, waiting to be found, opened, unlocked–by anyone with the interest and perseverance to do so.  I hope this blog will allow me to explore this and other ideas in dialogue with all you other poets out there.

Regarding the book: please go to the page entitled “About Unlocking the Poem,” for more information about a resource X. J. Kennedy called “a book that deserves a place on every poet’s shelf”–I think you’ll agree that this volume will be a valuable companion to any writer. And please read the blog entries that follow, and respond; let’s open a dialogue about how and what we write, and how to do it better!


Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken

I thought it might be fun to write stories about some of Ricky Riccio’s individual assignments that made their way into Unlocking the Poem—and this post will be the first of several to do just that.

One assignment that sticks out—in a distinctly positive way—consisted of a sentence Ricky gave to his students to use as the title or first line of a poem: Do not give me things unbroken. Like so many of Ricky’s assignments, this is but a brief snippet from which poems could emerge . . . and emerge they did! For weeks, students returned to workshop with additional “do not give me things unbroken” poems . . . and many of the poems were truly inspired.

We, the students, were so excited by what was happening that five of us decided to collect these poems and publish them. We put together a poetry anthology called (of course!) Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken, containing poems from 54 different authors; we dedicated the volume to Ricky and his teaching. (You’ll see this assignment as Assignment Number 417 in Unlocking the Poem, “illustrated” by several poems previously published in Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken.)

Among the poems produced in response to the assignment, we had free verse and villanelles, concrete poems, prose poems, sestinas and sijo—a vast richness of the many different poetry forms Ricky had exposed us to. (Ricky was the first to show me these forms, and I am deeply grateful; for those of you not familiar with them, you can find information about them all in Unlocking the Poem.)

Continue reading ‘Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken’


Reading and Writing and the Occasional Rondeau

Ellen Steinbaum, one of Ricky’s many students (and an excellent poet, now with two beautiful books under her belt) has a blog called Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe. All this week she has been posting assignments-from-Ricky for other poets to try their hands at. Not sure what response she has had so far, but she certainly encouraged me to reach back into my own mind!

The assignment Ellen picked for Wednesday (November 18, 2009) was to write a rondeau about the sound of waves crashing, and she provided some explanation from Ricky about the structure of the rondeau form, for poets who were not familiar with it. That got me thinking about one of the assignments we included in Unlocking the Poem, to write a rondeau based on the origin of the word “tuxedo.” My own poem from that assignment did not make it into Unlocking the Poem (we chose a sensual and evocative poem from the poet Carol Siemering instead) but was published in Concrete Wolf.

When I did some research into the roots of “tuxedo,” I found that the word came from an Algonquin Indian word, “P’tuksit,” literally “he whose feet are round,” and referring to the wolf, the tribe’s totem. My poem, which follows, went straight back to the wolves . . .

Continue reading ‘Reading and Writing and the Occasional Rondeau’


How Not to See an Elephant

Sometimes this world is weirder than I ever imagined. I was reading the newspaper and came upon the following headline: Couple sideswipes runaway elephant. WHAT??  I read the story and I just had to write about it.  What I came up with is far from a “great” poem, but it was fun to write (as doing writing assignments usually is) and I got a free-verse poem that the non-poets in my family were able to read without breaking out in hives. Anyway, I figured maybe other people might get a kick out of writing from a headline, as an “assignment,” and might get a kick out of my poem too:

Continue reading ‘How Not to See an Elephant’


Introducing Ricky

In my first post, I introduced myself; and in this second one, I want to introduce “Ricky” Riccio, from whose poetry assignments comes our book, Unlocking the Poem.

Ricky has the distinction of having been born just as his parents reached America. His first love was music, and in addition to playing the saxophone in swing and dance bands, he also studied music composition; he was even told his work was so good, it must have been professional! World War II interrupted his studies, and he served in the Pacific, acting as a lending library to his buddies who made sure to keep his duffel bag safe and dry so they’d continue to have books to read.

After the war ended, Ricky worked for a time at Baker Library at Harvard Business School, collecting experience that he would then put to use as a librarian working for the US government. In due course he went to Washington, DC where he had a job lined up at the US Army Medical Library. During the interval between his arrival in Washington and the day he started work, he kept warm in the Library of Congress, largely by feasting on the poems of Hart Crane—in fact, he copied out all of Crane’s poems longhand. As Ricky himself has written in a memoir entitled “Trio,”

“I don’t regret that work one bit. . . . While I copied that magic poetry something else happened to me. The fact of the contact between paper and pencil while I pored over those copies in the Library of Congress made me aware of Crane’s work in a way that would not have been possible by simply reading those painful but inspiring poems. . . . It was as if the lines and images penetrated my skin as well as my mind, and something of Hart Crane’s mystical vision—his very spirit—became part of me and will always remain so.”

Was it absorbing the poems of Hart Crane that helped turn Ricky from the pure sounds of music to the magic inherent in words? His in-depth absorption in Hart Crane’s work gave him an education in the forms and structures of poetry, and fed a new love for the music of language. Ricky was to prove a master of both sound-music and meaning, producing poetry with rich, rolling tones and a depth of emotion.

Ricky has always been a voracious reader, and it was through his reading that he met his first personal “muse,” Anais Nin. Enchanted by a recording he found of Nin reading from her book House of Incest, he wrote to The Phoenix Bookstore asking for a list of all her work, and for a biography of her. What he got back was a personal letter from Nin. That began a correspondence, followed by visits to her Greenwich Village home. Anais Nin—the well-known diarist and poet—kept pressuring her young friend to show her his own poems. Ricky was reluctant, but she persisted. With great trepidation, he finally brought her a sheaf of his poems . . . and she gave him important advice: start being-with other poets; start workshopping, the road to strengthening the poetic work.

Ricky took Nin’s advice to heart. He was then living in West Acton, Massachusetts. He sold his house in West Acton and moved to Belmont, Massachusetts, closer to Boston; and he signed up for a workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education—a workshop that, at various times, included John Holmes, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Sam Albert, and George Starbuck, all prize-winning poets (Sexton and Kumin were both Pulitzer Prize winners). Within the workshop, he developed his own poetic voice and began publishing his poems. Eventually Ricky moved from workshop participant to workshop leader, and found—to the joy of scores of other poets—what became a major vocation. He has now led poetry workshops for forty years, and in that time has nurtured thousands of poets.

Ricky has an uncanny gift for spotting the essence of the poem in the product a student brings to workshop. Gently yet incisively, he has taught scores of others to find their own true poems, even when those true poems were sunk in unnecessary verbiage. Ricky’s major teaching tools have included his ever-creative, ever-inspiring assignments. Students fortunate enough to sit in his workshops have found whole books of poems emerging from the stimuli these assignments provided.

I count myself lucky to have had the chance to learn from such a skilled and artful teacher—a true master, not just of the craft of poetry, but of the craft of teaching. I count myself as luckier still to have had the chance to write Unlocking the Poem with him, a book of his assignments and teaching, all “illustrated” by poems written by his students. For anyone interested in writing poetry: please, take a look; there are sample pages available for downloading from this website. I think you’ll want to use what you find there to start new poems of your own—and please share them with us!


Hello from Ellen!

I suddenly feel naked, entering an unknown world. Is anybody out there? My name is Ellen Beth Siegel, I am wearing clothes, and I am entering the world of blogs for the first time. Most of my writing has been in the very different universe of poetry, but this blog-in-prose will be about poetry and poems, all kinds of poems, and about how to write poems. About people who write poems. About why people choose to write poems. About what goes into writing in a particular poetic form. About finding new ideas—creative stimuli—for writing poems when faced by writer’s block, every poet’s most dreaded disease. I’m hoping to start dialogues with other poets about how to get published, and how to help more people become interested in—even, excited about—poetry. I’m open to using this blog as a platform for wherever it might take me—and us—in the world of poetry.

So, let me start by introducing myself. I have lots of fancy credentials, most of which have nothing to do with me as a poet. A Harvard law degree. A doctorate in psychology. What I “do” now, to earn my daily keep, is work as a clinical psychologist. It’s work that I love, because it allows me both to know others in a deep way and to help them (or at least to try to). I suppose that for many people, that would have been enough . . . but for me, there has always also been a love of words. I don’t have much of my childhood that I can go back to (possibly more on that later), but I do remember writing poems in second or third grade, being fascinated by rhyme, loving the differences in meanings between one word and the next, playing with language. Writing has been a lifelong companion—even, at times, an emotional refuge.

I started writing poetry in a serious way in the 1980’s. At the time, I was looking for a way to express feelings (one of the many things poetry can do). Those early poems were dreadful, shouting with angst, screaming words like “Pain! Grief! Unbearable sadness!” I wanted to do better and looked for tools; I found a wonderful book in my local library, The Intimate Art of Writing Poetry, by Ottone M. Riccio, then discovered he taught workshop classes practically in my own backyard. My heart in my mouth, I signed up for a class, nearly backing out a dozen times before the first meeting.

That was in 1990, and except for when I went back to school for my psychology degree, I have been working with Ricky, as he is called, ever since. How lucky I am!—because Ricky is really a gifted, inspired, and inspiring teacher. And it is through Ricky that I have earned my stripes as a poet, as have ever so many others.

I’m not a “big-shot” in the poetry world (at least, not yet!). With family, work, and all the other things demanding my time and attention, I can’t devote much time to sending poems out to journals, but I do have a fairly respectable handful of publications, including a Pushcart nomination, and I have two chapbooks that, although not yet published, have each won honorable mentions in chapbook contests. I have also co-written a book with Ricky, Unlocking the Poem, that I am enormously excited about and hope you will be too: it’s a teaching tool for writing poetry and a creative stimulus for the writing of your own new poems—for you to discover and “unlock” the poems waiting just for you—based on Ricky’s assignments over his forty years of teaching, and one of the things that makes this book unique is that it is “illustrated” with poems by Ricky’s students, ordinary people, people like me . . . people who have become poets. I hope you’ll join us in this poetry-quest. Download a free sample of Unlocking the Poem; try it for yourself!

Buy the Book!


Praise for the Book

“Unlocking the Poem brings both the creative writing teacher and the aspiring writer a trustworthy guidebook and a generous resource. . . . authors Riccio and Siegel have put together a book that deserves a place on every poet’s shelf. Its copies will become well-worn and dog-eared from future service.”
–X. J. Kennedy

“Riccio and Siegel deserve the gratitude of poets
and writing workshop leaders everywhere for their no-holds-barred approach to stimulating the imagination and unlocking the poems in all of us.”
–Sue Ellen Thompson

“For those who can’t get to [Ottone Riccio's] workshops this remarkable teacher, together with Ellen Beth Siegel, has compiled a book of inspiring lessons to help writers on their way to good poems.”
–Diana Der-Hovanessian

June 2023