[Note: The following review was first posted on Story Circle Book Reviews.]
There’s a brand new tarot deck in town, but this deck is unlike any you have seen before. The Poet Tarot and Guidebook has been designed by poets Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy, co-editors of Crab Creek Review literary journal, and co-founders of the small independent publishing press Two Sylvias Press. Their aim is simple—to help creatives in any genre, whether poets, fiction or non-fiction writers, artists, or indeed anyone working on an artistic project, to explore the nuances of their creative process.
Using the tarot to help generate writing prompts is not a new idea. What makes this venture innovative is that, instead of a book, we have a brand new deck, which (as anyone who is familiar with traditional tarot decks will appreciate), is a rather wild and wonderful thing.
The Poet Tarot uses poets to represent each card in the major arcana, and follows the traditional tarot deck with a few variations. The major arcana is in direct correspondence with the traditional tarot, and is made up of poets including Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov and Emily Dickenson, among others. The guiding criteria when choosing who to include were simple—an equal number of males and females, and American and English poets who wrote, or write in English. A lot of time and care obviously went into the consideration of which poet was best suited to represent each card, as evidenced by the choice of Edgar Allen Poe for the Devil. And who else but Emily Dickenson could be the Hermit?
The minor arcana represents the stages of the creative process, moving through inspiration (the traditional Cups have been re-named Muses), creation (Wands transformed to Quills), revision (Mentors takes the place of Swords), and completion (Pentacles becomes Letterpresses). The traditional court cards have been altered slightly, with Pages and Knights removed, while Kings and Queens remain as poets.
Included with the deck is an 80-page guidebook, with card explanations, layouts, and ideas for using the cards. The Poet Tarot is an excellent tool for writers and artists who are looking for innovative approaches to their creativity, new ways to generate fresh work, and assistance in focusing on long and short term goals.
The poets in the major arcana function in a similar way to the cards in all traditional decks, offering archetypal imagery which leads to ever-deepening layers of psychological insight. If you pull Edna St Vincent Millay, for example, from the Poets (major arcana) you are been called to explore the rhythmic cycles in your creative life, the highs and the lows. From a philosophical perspective your attention is drawn to ponder upon your attitude to change, impermanence and uncertainty. So what if you have received nothing but rejections from the publications to which you have submitted your work—the message of this card is never give up, keep submitting. The accompanying Guidebook poses the following set of questions for this particular drawing:
“Ask yourself: Am I able to discern whether setbacks are within my control or out of my control? At this moment, am I in an “up” period or “down” period? What is my reaction to the word “karma”? Where do I see my current manuscript / project a year from now?” [Page 16]
The minor arcana, on the other hand, offer more practical suggestions and hints. So, turning to the Muses suit for inspiration, I might draw Six of Muses. If I draw this card I am directed by the Guidebook to “consider how past experiences and memories are sources of inspiration for your writing / art.” This is followed by a list of various suggestions and prompts. The Mentors suit has many practical recommendations for the revision process, for example, the Ten of Mentors suggests that I give myself “creative permission to break out of a situation that is no longer working…” [page 57].
One common experience shared by tarot users has also been discovered by those exploring The Poet Tarot. If a particular poet or suit card keeps turning up, then you can take it that its meaning is something you definitely need to explore until you mine the message it holds just for you. This is the nature of the tarot!
The Guidebook concludes with a number of suggested spreads, from a single card reading to a five card reading, and ends with ideas on how to take The Poet Tarot further by pursuing resources for using more traditional cards.
The deck itself is both lovely to hold and behold. As pieces of miniature art (the cards measure 2 3/4″ x 4 3/4″, so they fit perfectly into the hand) they are quite lovely, featuring faded photographs upon collaged layers of varying imagery, and symbols specific in meaning to the card itself. An interesting game, especially for those familiar with traditional tarot decks, is to relate these Poet cards to the more familiar ones, an exercise which can only serve to deepen the experience of both.
Though I have only had these cards in my possession a short time, I have already experienced the depth of meaning and import they are bringing to my writing, but more especially to my attitude and approach to the process. Like any other tool, they gain in proportion to how well and how often they are used, to the extent perhaps, that the associations formed over time will render the drawing and pondering of a card, impetus and encouragement enough to forestall any writer’s block. I highly recommend the use of these cards in your personal writing process. My deck holds a place of importance upon my writing desk. Where will you keep yours?
Two Sylvias Press was founded in 2010 by poets Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy (Co-Editors of Crab Creek Review literary journal). Two Sylvias Press draws its inspiration from the poetic literary talent of Sylvia Plath and the editorial business sense of Sylvia Beach. We are dedicated to publishing the exceptional voices of writers. Read more on the publisher’s website.