Been a busy couple of days, so I haven’t really had time to jump in and do some serious poetry. But now it is St. Patrick’s Day, and I have green hair, and I am relaxing at the cafe before going to work at the yoga studio, and I wish you all beannachtaí na féile Pádraig oraibh, as I am often wont to do this time of year. I’m simultaneously reviewing some Curio submissions (which are always welcoming more!), and trying to think of some prompt-based things I want to work on, but in the meantime…
This week: “not enough time”
I thought about doing an Irish-form prompt, for the holiday (yes, I am authentically Irish, as well as authentically Welsh, as well as authentically a half-dozen others, so expect this to be a theme), but thought that following hard on the heels of cynghanedd might be too much. So instead, I thought of Margo Roby’s series of prompts on place, and thought maybe I would try to complement them with a series on time. (And I think she might have done this before too, but why not do it again?) I’m still feeling out how this will go, so bear with me. (And don’t worry, I’ll be sticking to my world-poetry-prompt-every-four-weeks, so you have that to look forward to soon.)
(Fyi, the cafe is playing “How Soon Is Now”. I am in Smiths-ish heaven.)
What I want you to do is to make two lists of ten items: the first is going to be made up of events that are significant to your (or your subject’s) life, the second of events that are insignificant and commonplace, routine things. I might have “living in France”, “losing my virginity”, and “that rave in July 2006” on my first list, and “cooking pasta”, “sending a text message”, “buying subway tickets/tokens” on my second. Take a look at your list for a while and pick one of the significant ones, but hang on to the others: we’re coming back to those.
Now, take that event and consider how long in time it took. Living in France was two months for me, the rave was approximately twelve hours, and the, er, personal encounter was a couple hours. Break it down into component moments: “living in France” becomes an amalgam of “going to French classes” and “Paris Pride Parade” and “hopping a train to Avignon” and “sleeping under a bridge”; romantic encounters become a series of physical actions.
What we’re going to do is akin to connect-the-dots: describe that significant event without describing it outright. Instead, use two methods to draw an outline that dances around the subject. First, select the moment of the significant event that you want to be your focal point, and place it in time by alluding to the other ones. And second, actually narrate the negative space filled by the moment by describing a few of those insignificant events. Let me show you what I mean:
significant event: living in Paris for a summer (two months)
part of that significant event: Paris Pride (one day)
other parts: going to class, train to Avignon, sleeping under a bridge…
insignificant events: buying food from street carts, riding the subway, texting friends…
I have had my fill of reading Molière on this day
humming along the 5 line, running the Boulevards
with pliable light. On some idle sidewalk,
Algerian men stuff strawberry crepes with cream
and I triple-fold it like I’ve been taught,
minding the passage of dancers on tinselled floats
and the great banners of rainbow silk.
Every minute brings a mouthful of surprises.
The words “Pride” and “Parade” do not appear here, but it’s pretty obvious something of that nature is going on, I hope, even though the verse is ostensibly about ditching homework to go eat a crepe. The “Molière” and “like I’ve been taught” are allusions masquerading as random information: I had a class in French theatre (another part of that significant event of living in France) and had a cute French boy show me his way of folding crepes (another part). Homework and eating street food and trains have all been pretty common parts of my entire life. It took me a few attempts to really focus the lines away from the centerpiece theme, so keep at it.
Once you have these central bits in place, you can flesh it out with a stanza before, a stanza after, more lines worked in, whatever you want: but stick to the core principles. Place the mini-event in the context of the larger one in a chronology of moments that is the event itself; pretend no such grander scheme as month and date exist, or that there is anything else before or after the significant event. It’s up to you how much you want to position as memory, how much as foresight; whether you want to speak in the past or present tense; and so on. But try to make the only actual actions in the poems mundane things, and focus on the temporal aspect of them. Fill your poem with verbs like they’re going out of style. (I could have talked about the foamy aspect of the creme on my tongue, or the undulation of the silk banners, but that would slow things down too much.) Pull things off those two lists and strip them down into allusions that are a few words or phrases long (like the dots), or narrate the insignificant ones to form a chain of events (like the lines you use to connect them).
Because the last bit of the challenge is that we’re going to break the poem off, like a Kit-Kat bar. Either at the beginning or the end, you’re going to sever some of this. Cut as deeply as you can: if you can only bring yourself to chop out the last allusion (if I want to talk about reminiscing about all this while sleeping under that bridge in Avignon, maybe I will just talk about lying somewhere, reminiscing, divorced from place) or one of the events (I’ll leave out my whole cooking pasta as an intro, and start in media res with the lines above), don’t worry about it. And lastly, try to bandage that cut with a bit of significance about the title of the prompt “not enough time”. Such as:
…remembering the feel of Boulevards under my feet
while I have the prick of grass on my back–
I must rise if I’m going to know what it means
to walk a historical line again.
Those last two lines replaced some kind of deep thought about the reminiscence, and instead launches into the notion of moving again.
A few parting recommendations: title the poem after the frame of the memory, for example, I might call this one “Half-Asleep Under a Bridge in Avignon” instead of “Paris Pride Parade”. What I’m trying to get across here is that the theme that comes up from the significant event is obscured and superseded, at least in part, by the theme of memory, nostalgia, running out of time, and the like. Another trick is to use lots of time-related words to outline the frame: “minute”, “moment”, “day”, “afternoon”, etc. to keep the time images fresh in your reader’s mind. And you can always make this into a series of poems that allude to one another, and build a true chronology, each part stepping on the toes of the others to get resolved.
You may need a few false starts to get this to work the way you want, and I know I’m not being helpful by not knowing it exactly myself. Let’s consider it a learning process for you and me together. :)