I long for the days again when I have time to write poems, read poems, surf blogs, answer comments, and generally keep my head above water. (I know, I gripe about this a lot… it’s on my mind a lot, though.) But, after a tempestuous week at work, I finally am on vacation! So my hope is that (as long as I can find wi-fi) I’ll have a bit more flexibility to do just those things. Before going out daytripping, I’m trying to get this prompt out there, and I hope to hop back on tonight for some follow-up time. A solemn vow of not checking work e-mail has been made… oh, this modern world we live in.
This week: “elsewheres”
Last night, I saw a production of The Tempest, which is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. (I’ve seen five different versions, and while this one wasn’t bad, I found it a little bit lackluster compared to others I’ve seen.) This, coupled with being on vacation, got me thinking about how we conceive of other places, how our perceptions can change, and how geography doesn’t always correspond to reality, both in the sense of the map and what this or that place is like/contains. And then I remembered a poem I wrote for high school English as a pastiche of Emily Dickinson, about finding the whole world within four walls, recluse that she was. John Donne did this too in “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is”. I don’t want to say that the world we carry in our heads is any less valid than the real one, but it’s interesting to see how they interact.
Therefore: let’s do a crafty poem activity. First, you’ll need a blank piece of paper, preferably with no lines or anything, and a second blank piece of paper. On one of them, make a list of places. They can be places you have or haven’t visited; real or imagined ones; cities and countries, or houses and streets, zooming out or in. Try to get at least five together. Then, next to each element of your list, put the following three pieces of information: the first impression you had of that place upon visiting/learning about it, the most recent impression you have of it looking back, and some unique physical feature of it. For example, if I said “Notre-Dame de Paris”: I’d think of a dark, Gothic, historical space, which became a lively place that’s still very much a part of the community once I saw it, and noted the incredible sculptural details over the giant doors.
Once you have your five places, use that second sheet of paper to make a map. Let your inner cartographer run wild! You don’t have to correspond to reality here. France can be next to Japan, your mother’s house can be in Atlantis, the Bodhi Tree could be in Times Square. Part of the fun here is creating the artifact itself, so embellish it as much or as little as you want. Maybe you want to give it an illuminated border, draw the places in elaborate detail, and connect them with winding roads. Or maybe you want to mimic the old Renaissance drawings of heavenly spheres, having one location nested inside the other. However you do it, I recommend taking a picture/scanning it and including it with your poem.
Because what we’re going to do is basically a travelogue poem moving around the map. The trick is to defy reality: let’s say I’ve placed Japan just to the east of France. I don’t want to say “and then I crossed the Alps to Tokyo” in open defiance of reality, so I’m going to couch it in metaphor:
…and in the morning, the sunrise took me
in its warm crimson fingers, cupped me like a lily,
drawing me towards its face. And the light parted
on the streets of Tokyo, and I took two steps
down the mountains into a cauldron of life.
Much better than saying “then I went east”, and the actual distance between the two doesn’t matter. Try not to let your connections between places be roads, trains, etc. Get there through beauty and physical action. Narnia was reached through a cupboard, wasn’t it? Think of the legends of seven-league boots; grow a pair of wings in your memory, from your bedroom to a desert island.
Take us around the map with words. Let’s say I ended up with the following five places:
Notre-Dame de Paris: historical Gothic, an unexpected community center, sculptural details over the doors
Tokyo: lots of tea-houses, bustling metropolis, Harajuku costumes
the woods behind my house as a kid: infinite, terribly small, a compost heap
Borders bookstore in NJ: last outpost of civilization, a cave of literary wonders, the round cafe
Greek island of Symi: storybook town, windswept mountaintop, lots of random cats
Say my map has Paris, with Tokyo to the east, the woods to the south, the Borders to the southwest, and Symi to the far west. Paris to Tokyo, the sunrise caught me; from Tokyo to the woods, I followed the summer heat. From the woods to Borders, I traveled the Delaware River (which flows SW near me); and to Symi, I searched for paradise. (I always think of paradise to the West, but that’s Tolkien’s fault.) These are the kinds of transitions you can use, while the places and their details can form the main stanzas.
Really pay attention to how you internalize a place, and let the progression through the poem show how that has changed. Don’t be just descriptive of its physical elements, though those are important. Mention what stood out to you once upon a time, and what stands out to you now, in this moment, writing the poem. This is a poem of constant motion, both through an (imagined) space, and through time, as those spaces change. You can try to layer in some broader meaning (was The Tempest just a fantasy set on a desert island, or were there colonial allegories running through it?), but you don’t have to. The way we interact with places can be intensely personal, and if you focus on the metaphysical parts of them, it will resonate with your reader.
I know this will take a lot of thought and effort, and I don’t expect anyone to turn this around in one day or anything. But do take some time and really cogitate on it… I look forward to seeing what you have to offer!