Return to Rockvale Writers Colony

An antique brown wood secretary desk with a brown chair, lamp, and a window behind it.

My desk

I am at Rockvale Writers Colony again, working (as ever) on Medea on the Bayou.  I am in the Giles Hill room, which has a four poster bed with curtains, tasteful furnishings including a wonderful antique writing desk, and a huge bathroom and wardrobe. It has been a lovely quiet week, and I’ve gotten both writing and revising done.  Maybe not nearly as much as I would have liked (it always takes a little while to adjust to being in a “room of my own”) but I am pleased with my progress overall.  What I really need right now is a beta reader (or two!)—someone who can give me real, structural-level and poem-level critique.  I’m not sure what the book needs right now.  I have some thoughts about how to make it more Louisiana-ish, but it’s unclear what the book needs to actually be good.

Look, I know I have a confidence issue, but this isn’t that.  My concerns have more to do with how individual poems work as poems.  Sometimes it feels like they are really just prose in disguise.  And that’s problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. This is meant to be a novel-in-verse. Emphasis on verse.  I don’t want to write prose.
  2. Prose is fine as a thing, but the world doesn’t need a novelized version of Medea. (But to be honest, I’m not sure the world needs a book of poems about a play that was already written in verse.)
  3. If I’m not writing poetry, what the hell have I spent the last 3 years doing? (I guess it’s possible that I’ve written another hybrid piece… and we know how well loved those are (not).
A chubby marmalade cat balances on a fence.

Oliver sits on the horse fence.

Anyway, you can see my dilemma.  For the most part, these poems haven’t seen the light of day (though I’ve sent many out, and even published a dozen of them) so I don’t know if they are working.  By the fact that so many of them have been rejected, one could say “they’re probably not working, JC.”  Or maybe they just don’t work as stand-alone poems.  Which is altogether another problem.  I want them to work as stand-alone poems, but sometimes you need exposition, and exposition isn’t very poetic.

The thing I tell my students about writing adaptations is that you have to honor the original source, but in the end the adaptation is a new piece of writing and it’s only about itself  I’m trying to do that; I honor Appolonius of Rhodes and Euripides by recreating scenes from The Argonautika and Medea, but I’m also adding new characters and new scenes and new information so that readers get a fuller image of Medea as a person. And I’m also trying to maintain a strong narrative voice.  How well I’m succeeding, I can’t be for sure.  But I’m trying.

An image of a lean and handsome black cat.

Pip the shy but sweet black cat.

One of the ladies I’ve met here at the colony (Jen Knox, check out her new book, We Arrive Uninvited, available as a signed copy here) read What Magick May Not Alter, which I had left a copy of the last time I was here.  She said she liked it (yay!) especially because of its strong narrative voice.  And I think that’s true about WMMNA—it does have a strong voice and it’s good with character development—but then it should be, because I invented everything.

Here with Medea, I’m not sure I’m delivering on the promise of creating something new and I’m not sure about the narrative voice.  She’s already a known quantity as a character—am I revealing something fresh about her by writing about the early part of her marriage (as well as the plot of the play), or am I just…wasting readers’ time?  I ask myself:  why should anyone read my Medea when Euripides’ play is so perfect?  My go-to answer—“Because I wrote it”—is not what you’d call a particularly compelling response.  Do I think that someday professors teaching a classics and adaptations class will teach my book (this is assuming it finds a publisher)?  Not particularly.  But it would be really cool if they did, right?  Who’s the audience?  People who like poetry and people who like Medea for sure…but is there a broader audience for it?  What if there isn’t?

A tortie cat (black and orange) standing on a wooden deck.

Lucy making a bee-line for my legs to wrap herself around.

I’m not sure what’s brought on this little crisis of faith.  I think it’s because I’m seeing the whole collection (it’s about 96% done) together finally and I’m worried that if it doesn’t work as a collection (or if it’s prose-in-disguise), then I will have wasted my precious writing time writing something that isn’t worth a damn.  Well, ok, it’s worth at least a single damn, but you know what I mean.

I am afraid I might have another albatross around my neck.  Last year, I didn’t sell one copy of WMMNA—not one single, solitary copy.  (In fact, Madville took a net loss of two copies, which were apparently returned.)  I don’t want Medea to be in the same situation. I want her to find an audience.  I want people to know her as someone besides a child-killer. I think my book shows her in a rich full way…I think.  (But what if it doesn’t?)

Anyway, that’s where I am with this project.  I say I’m 96% done because I have a few plot holes that need to be addressed, but I think the collection—whatever it is—is really coming along. (There’s still revising to do, which drops my percentage down to 46% done, but I’m working on that too.)

In other news, tomorrow is Mother’s Day (probably not Medea’s favorite holiday), so make sure that you tell your Moms how much you love them.  They do so much for us—mine is perfect—and they love us just as we are.  Even when what we are is a confidence-lacking, attention seeking, desperate-to-be-adored-by-the-masses writer of poetry.

P.S.  The cats are Rockvale’s super-sweet barn cats.  (Doesn’t it figure that’s what I’d take photos of?)

A large orange marmalade cat with piercing green eyes.


A sleek black cat sits in the middle of the grass.

Pip the Panfur in the grass

The Poetic Stylings of Chat-GPT

A newspaper drawing of a wild cat

Le Chat Sauvage, from NYPL Digital Collections

Goofing around with Chat-GPT (the chat sauvage?), I asked it to “Write a poem in the writing style of JC Reilly.” First, it didn’t know who I was (ugh), but when I gave it a link to one of my poems, this is what it came up with:

In this moment, I am but a flicker
A mere flame in the grander scheme
My life, a mere fragment in the picture
Of the endless and infinite dream

I am a creature of light and shadow
Walking the tightrope between day and night
With each step, I sow a seed to grow
Towards a future that’s ever so bright

I take comfort in the impermanence
Of all things that exist and persist
For I am but a brief remembrance
In the memory of what will persist

The sun rises and sets, the tide ebbs and flows
A rhythm of life that moves ever on
I embrace this dance, as the story goes
For in each moment, I am reborn

So let me be a spark in the darkness
A beacon of hope in a world of doubt
Let my light shine forth, with no less
Than the radiance that life is about

For in the end, all we can do
Is to live, to love, to dream, to be
And let our light shine, ever true
As a reminder of what it means to be free.

I think it goes without saying that I would never write such drivel. I might write some crap poems, but at least they are original crap. Among the things that bother me about this “poem” include the fact that it uses “persist” as a rhyme for…”persist.” Like, please try harder, Chat- GPT.  Also, the clear amount of cliches included strikes me as incredible.  You’d think a computer would have a lot more language to draw on, which could lessen the cliches.  That said, I do like the slant rhyme of “ever on” with “reborn.” I wouldn’t think to make that choice, and I kind of like it.  But the rest of the poem hurts my soul.

I also asked it to write a poem in the style of Ilya Kaminsky and honestly even if I had never read Deaf Republic or Dancing in Odessa, I can be sure it’s nothing like his writing.  Still, it’s a much better poem than what Chat-GPT wrote for me (and by “better” I mean “being incrementally not as bad”):

A poem in the style of Ilya Kaminsky:

The night sky is a canvas of stars
Each one a beacon, a guidepost
In this world of darkness and uncertainty
A reminder that there is light in the darkness

But what of those who cannot see the stars?
Whose eyes are shrouded by the fog of war
Or the darkness of the soul?
Do they too have a guidepost to follow?

Perhaps it is the sound of a loved one’s voice
Or the touch of a hand, warm and reassuring
Or the memory of a time when all was right
And hope burned bright, like a flame in the darkness

For even in the darkest of nights
There is a glimmer of hope, a spark of light
That can ignite a fire, a passion
And lead us out of the darkness, into the dawn

So let us hold onto that flame, that spark
And carry it with us, wherever we may go
For though the night may be long and cold
There is always the promise of a new day.

The second stanza is pretty decent (minus “the darkness of the soul”). Still, some achingly bad abstractions (“darkness and uncertainty”) and worse cliches (“the touch of a hand, warm and reassuring;” “lead us out of the darkness, into the dawn” “glimmer of hope”) doom this piece to the trash bin.

I’m not too worried that poetry is dead now that Chat GPT can write poems, because all it can write is really bad poems.  And I think most teachers are savvy enough to spot crap poetry when it’s presented to them.  Honestly I also think students wouldn’t want to turn poems like these in because they inherently know they’re bad as well.  If I were teaching poetry, and a student turned in some work like this, I wouldn’t get mad.  I’d just get really NITPICKY about their revision work, and they’d have to write a new poem because I’d mark all the places where the poem fails. (Which is about 95% of places.)

Here’s one more:

This one is supposed to be à la Billy Collins:

The world is full of mysteries, he said
As he looked out the window, lost in thought
Like the way a tree knows when to shed
Its leaves, or how a bird knows when to take flight

And there are secrets lurking in every corner
Like the way a cat curls up in a sunbeam
Or the way a flower turns to face the sun
Or the way the moon appears in the sky

And then there are the things we take for granted
The everyday wonders that we barely notice
Like the way a pen glides across paper
Or the sound of a kettle as it comes to a boil

But there are also the things we cannot explain
Like why some things are meant to be
Or why we find ourselves in certain places
Or why we feel a certain way at a certain time

And yet, even with all these mysteries
The world still manages to spin on its axis
And we still find moments of joy and wonder
As we journey through this ever-changing world.

This one at least has a few good images (“like the way a pen glides across paper/ or the sound of a kettle as it comes to boil”).  But it’s also not funny, and I think of humor as being a hallmark of Billy Collins.  Still, over all, the poem is kind of lifeless, and that last stanza is so leaden it may as well be made of concrete.

I think “lifeless” is the operating word here.  These are poems by something that clearly has no life of its own, and can only replicate what it thinks a poem is.  But it must have really bad models to produce examples such as these. This seems hard for me to believe when there are hundreds—maybe thousands—of years of poetry available online.

What is also surprising to me is that it doesn’t actually borrow lines from the poets—lines that must be floating around the internet.  That at least I could understand—a little plagiarism.  Maybe I’m even a little nostalgic for plagiarism—there is a certain art to doing it that is completely bereft in what Chat-GPT does.  Plagiarism at least requires the plagiarist to look things up to copy; Chat-GPT just makes it all up.

But I can’t be too hard on Chat-GPT.  It gave me this great recipe…which looks pretty legit:

Carrot cake is a delicious dessert that many people enjoy. Here’s a recipe for a classic carrot cake:


      • 2 cups all-purpose flour
      • 2 teaspoons baking soda
      • 1 teaspoon baking powder
      • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
      • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
      • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
      • 1/2 teaspoon salt
      • 4 large eggs
      • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
      • 1 cup vegetable oil
      • 2 cups grated carrots
      • 1 cup chopped pecans
      • 1/2 cup raisins (optional)
      • Cream cheese frosting (recipe below)


      1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
      2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and salt.
      3. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together until thick and pale yellow, about 2-3 minutes. Gradually add in the oil and mix until well combined.
      4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and stir until just combined. Stir in the grated carrots, pecans, and raisins (if using).
      5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the tops with a spatula.
      6. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
      7. Allow the cakes to cool completely in the pans before removing and frosting with cream cheese frosting.

Cream cheese frosting:

      • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
      • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
      • 2 cups powdered sugar
      • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
      1. In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy.
      2. Gradually add in the powdered sugar and vanilla, and beat until smooth and creamy.
      3. Use immediately to frost the carrot cake.

Enjoy your delicious homemade carrot cake!