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Married Poets Craft Love Poems by the Clock

Two married poets have taken a new approach to crafting their works, participating in a Web experiment that forces them to write their poems in just 15 minutes. On Valentine's Day, the husband and wife team write love poems to one another via the site.

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    Last week on a visit to Washington, Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser visited some favorite places, the National Gallery of Art and the National Cathedral.

    Salter and Leithauser are acclaimed poets, with over a dozen volumes and many honors between them. They're professors at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and they're married to each other.

    Poetry, in fact, is how they met, in a Harvard class of young would-be bards. They've been a team ever since, married for 26 years, raising two daughters.

    But on the day we met up with them, the poets were preparing to face off in a rather unusual competition.

    So it's a little like preparing for a big game here. How do you feel?


    Well, I think the best way to think of it is as a game, because otherwise, if I take myself too seriously, I won't be able to do it at all.


    Well, it's funny, when you get to your 50s, to be playing a big game at all.


    The game is called Quickmuse. Two poets are given a topic or prompt. They then have just 15 minutes to write. A computer program records every false start, every phrase, well-turned and otherwise.

    For the poets, it's an exercise in deadline poetry, to try to compress what is usually an extended process into a short, intense window. For readers online, it's a chance to see the mysteries of poetry-making in action.

    Ken Gordon, the founder of Quickmuse, spoke to us from his home near Boston.

  • KEN GORDON, Quickmuse:

    I think it's sort of a way of getting people closer to the idea of what real poetry requires. It requires a facility with language and an ability to edit oneself. It requires emotional honesty and the ability to really dig in there and find that metaphor that really speaks true.

    It gives regular people a chance to see poetry. So often poetry is held up as something that is beyond ordinary people, and this is a real democratization of the process, I think.


    On this day, with Valentine's Day in mind, Gordon sent a William Carlos Williams love poem as a prompt to Salter and Leithauser, and the two set to work. Salter, going first, used all of her 15 minutes.


    Actually, I got out of FireFox. I'll have to get back in.


    Leithauser focused quickly and finished with under seven minutes on the clock, a companion in his lap.


    To use the competition metaphor, you know, a football player, you're going long or short. And within about a minute, I thought, "I'm going short here."

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