resonance five

Egads, we’re a month into the year and I feel as though I haven’t been constructive enough. Although, the reading is going well (later — today maybe? — I will be posting a book review type thing, and I’m onto the seventh book of my reading rampage), the job is chugging along, and the new apartment/new office routine has settled into an acceptable level of comfort. But I need to wrap up a couple of January goals I didn’t get to, so that I can launch into the things I want to do for February. Send some work in for publication. Start some language lessons, maybe. Explore the new neighborhood a bit more. Go to the gym regularly. One new good habit at a time!

Workshop has ended for the time being, but there’s another one starting up on February 10 with a relatively well-known poet whose work I enjoy, and who is particularly known for being a good instructor-type. It’s not a guaranteed spot, but I’m considering applying, to keep the workshop love going. Few (if any) things have helped my poetic development as much as being in that kind of environment, and I do value the discussions I’ve had there. Last night I was at a reading populated mostly by MFA students; one asked me if I was in a program, and I rather wistfully replied that I was not. But I want that community aspect and that challenge of live bodies in front of you to get the creative juices going. I’m fond of blogging, but there’s a safety net built into the fact that I can just not log in if I don’t want to be involved. I want to have no choice.

This, plus the book of poems I was reading this week, have informed where I want to go with today’s prompt. (The poems were highly imagistic and, in some ways, disconnected from themselves, more chocolate boxes of curious and quirky turns of phrase and vision rather than narratives or poems with points.) Resonance five will therefore require you to go to a space where you interact with others and to put your ears on. I know that a lot of prompts require the following bit, but bear with me: pick out some phrases (let’s say, ten) that you hear from the din, hubbub, murmur, or other appropriate volume of chatter around you. Try to get some plain ones that have concrete nouns in them like “book”, “tree”, etc. Write them down if you need to; be discreet as needed.

Once you get that done, take some time later to freewrite a bit about each of the phrases. Pick apart each word and allow it to blossom into its own set of phrases an ideas. If somebody said, “Oh, I loved her dress,” make a list of times you’d use “oh”, write three lines on what “I” means to you, think of a truly unique metaphor for “love” (for you), think of who “her” might refer to, and consider the different meanings of “dress”, out of context. Again, with each little exploration of each component piece of a phrase — and I suppose you could leave out some of the little words like it and the — try to be plainspoken, but use concrete images again and again. Build a web of connections based on referents.

By the end of this freewriting (which may take at least a few hours, over a couple days; allow yourself to step away and then come back with fresh eyes) you’ll have a lot of material: ten phrases that break into pieces, each of which leads to three or four more, is quite a rich trove. Trawl through it for the richest and fullest you can, especially if you notice thematic links. “Oh, I loved her dress” might lead you to think about a particular great-aunt for “her”, while “Where did you buy that cap?” might lead you to think about a certain purple-green cap you saw in a store, and “I never know what she is thinking” could give you the connective tissue to have an eccentric great-aunt (make her up! give her a name!) finding/wearing peculiar clothing. Suddenly you have the meat of a line or two, an image for your incipient poem.

Gather some of these images together and to arrange them like a mosaic. Don’t worry too much about an overall story or point, beyond the thematic frame and whatever is necessary to get us from one image to the next; maybe you want to use the frame for your title, like “Thrift Shopping” or “Ancestry” or whatever. Construct a box and throw the images from your trove into it if they fit. You could probably construct several such boxes and re-use a couple of the images if you wanted. But the goal here is to grab hold of the little root-hairs of association that even common phrases tossed around near you can have, and follow them, up the roots, into their trunks and branches, until you have something really substantial to work with. If you want a bit more structure/challenge, cleanly divide the poem into stanzas of equal length (perhaps four or five lines); and just don’t let it go on too long or stray too far from the world of the concrete.

Then, as always, you’re welcome to share!

renovation twenty-one: vincent

I know I say this every day, but I warned that I’d be giving my least for these monthly prompts, didn’t I? (I’ve tried to give more than that as the occasion arises, but still, it’s been busy this month. It’s always busy.) Not much ado to be given, I feel. Here is the prompt (with two bonuses):

1. “I have watched you through windows and keyholes…” (Josh Bell, “One Shies at the Prospect of Raising Yet Another Defense of Cannibalism”)
2. “When I arrived, the elms had been shaved.” (Ruth Stone, “Romance”)
3. “Observe how we made a mess out of this.” (me, “(escondig at dawn)”)
4. a budget piece of modern art
5. Invent or relate a short narrative where you give away the end at the beginning, and then do not end at the end.
BONUS. Start every sentence (not line) with the same word AND/OR choose one vowel, and keep that vowel out of your poem entirely.
ALTERNATE (3). Use a line (either as a direct quotation, or just as inspiration) from another poem you have written in November.

…and here is the totally depressing narrative I invented out of it. Consider yourself forewarned! I kept repeating “the” and noticed I had left some a’s out, so I rolled with it. That, and I wanted to pick out some line from an earlier poem this month and make an implication out of it. The title is a maybe-too-obvious implication too.


The week before he committed suicide,
our fired neighbor broke up with his girlfriend,
drove up to Bennington one more time,
sold off on our stoop everything he owned
which would not be left behind in the will.
The money he collected in the pewter urn
would be sent to his mother for the plot
next to his brother, who drowned young.
The rest (the will instructed) would go
to the Vermont Forest Service, up north.
The morning he moved in, he’d sketched
our block in colored pencil: every grey,
peeling elm with their tissuey crowns,
the people hurrying in edgeless blurs.
The hour before he shot himself, sun
going down over the street, with nothing
left to give, he let the picture go for twenty
when we promised to mount it in our home.
The first moment we sensed something
might be wrong: his fingers clutched
round the corners of it, couldn’t offer it up
even with his will resolved, his eyes
set with their hopeless blue.

Where Were You When

Y’all know that I don’t really get political on here too much, or break out of the personal/observational very often into the “real world”. But We Write Poems is asking for poems that show our age, and this is one interpretation (the generational one, I suppose) on that theme. Probably there will be others. I don’t know that there’s anything deep and significant to this piece, except that it’s more of a general musing about the question being asked, removed (at least partially) from any specific moment. I have my specifics, and you all have yours. I hope at least that it’s relatable.

Where Were You When

It’s that Question you can only whisper at first,
afraid to be overheard. At least for a while. Then, years later,
when you’re shouting over the dive-bar din, clinking glasses,
shoving shoulders, or on the street hailing a cab, or summer,
smoking grass behind someone’s too-good-to-be-true apartment,
it breaks through. It cracks open that dam of silence.
My father talks about Kennedy and Woodstock and the moon
at arm’s length, remembering when they first started out
brilliant as the sun, spangled into our national narrative
and too dangerous to look at directly. For me,
it was to see two aluminum eagles drunk and stupid
plunge into the towers with terrible speed. All of us
glued to the TV set, watching again and again, too close
but not quite close enough, too old to be innocent
and too young to do anything that could make the world right.
The Question is not meant for the people caught in the spotlight.
But we all need to feel like part of something greater.
This tapestry in every color, knotted at one end to each tragedy
and flashbulb of wonder, we build with constant weaving.
It becomes a hood to ease the night. Or a banner to wave.
Or a blanket for the dead of winter, which we stretch
over ourselves, over candlelight and hushed love,
each of us there for our own reasons, but still there,
picking out the threads which are familiar and tracing them
to find the points where we cling together.


And you know what, here’s a poem. We Write Poems is nearly done their series of protagonist-poems, but once in a while the prompts are just fine for stand-alone works as well. This week’s is to a “sky dream” poem, which may get spiritual. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I ended up doing a catechism thought experiment or something, so here you go.


How long does it take for the dead to get
over each other? When they’re crawling
that upturned china bowl
and buzzing their wings,

once in a while they must encounter
old enemies, also dead. Sometimes,
it must happen before they’ve fully grown
into their angelhood, all acceptance
and understanding. Then you have
the deodorant stink of ozone, heat crackle,

sky piling up on itself. How they must
seethe. Eternity is for mending fences:
but first, the slash of accusations. Heaven
full of broken dishes.

Recursion Twenty-Seven: city by the sea ii

“We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it.”
~ Zhuangzi, Chinese Taoist philosopher

Another delayed prompt, but at least I have a good reason this time (instead of being busy at work) (which, actually, I guess is also a good reason, I just loathe that it happens). My faux-niece’s first birthday party was today, and I have to say, she is quite the charming ham. Most infants-transitioning-to-toddlers are, I guess. I do take a measure of pride that aside from the kitchen playset, a part of my gift was the best-received: a purple-sequined zebra-striped fedora, which I’ve decided is her pimp hat. And we had a drum-off on the picnic table, which was pretty cool. I’m a fan of kids, and I think I’d like to have one in the future, but not for some years yet. I’m lucky enough to have seen comparatively little of all the fluids and screaming that I’m sure most child-rearing comes with…

I’ve resisted bringing in characters because I don’t like to force them into a prompt. I’m of the opinion that their voices — and certainly personae, if you decide to appropriate and speak in character voices — should happen organically, without prompting. But sometimes it’s good to consider an independent person who is some Other, some Not-You, moving within the landscape you’ve created. I keep asking people to come back and share the fruit of their labors, but of course people will paint what you write with their own meaningful brush: introducing a character helps you direct the narrative a bit better. (Of course, then readers will move up a little and paint the character him/herself with that same brush, but we do what we can.) And a city, after all, is swarming with characters for the taking. As I said yesterday, eventually they all get pulled to the banks of the river running downtown and outward, whether it be to admire, to cross, to jump, to work. Cities are defined by their active patterns of motion; a city is a flower that opens inward. If you follow the moving life, whether animal or hydrological, you find the skeleton of the place.

So let’s come back to that final watercourse again, channeled perhaps into flat-cut stone slabs or metal pipes. We will reach the sea proper tomorrow, with its harbors and piers, but for now let’s do twofold work. First, rather than pick apart the powerful theme that’s been vibrating along for the last several days, we should consider that the overall theme of this poem. I recommend using it (mine: biological process in the world) as the title, just for now, to be changed after the fact. You can keep it a bit abstract at the moment, as you do some free-writing about what that general theme means to you. Get as deep or broad as you want, but keep it short: one solid paragraph, maybe.

Then you’re going to have the casting call for other people in the poem. Try to gather ten personages, give them faces and names and brief histories (where they’re from, what they do, what physical deformities they have, what breaks their heart, etc.) You can gather these people from life, or people you pass in the street, or other literature, or just whatever comes to mind. Do the brief sketches of each, then pick a couple that keep you interested. Arrange them around the idea of the theme, and decide how they would write about it, almost as though you’re channeling for additional free-writes. How will their voices come through? Will you take them on completely, are they friends/family/enemies who will contradict or support you (in different ways), will two of them converse with each other? Will you erase direct opinion entirely, and show their thoughts and feelings through action and appearance? I leave it to you to determine how the population of this little thought-city will deal with what the city, ultimately, is known for. You may wish to place them in a situation to see how they react, or simply have them consider quietly, as you are doing for the work of the poem.

This may help you to get across to the reader more clearly what your intention is behind writing what you are writing. As readers, we search for lenses we can relate to in some way, to understand where the poet is coming from: we see how the images and thoughts are collected and distilled, but we don’t always understand the lesson or the mechanism of it. Show us and tell us in this instance, before that purest expression of the river-of-consciousness’ water is lost to the sea; let it run into the Comments box so we can read for ourselves.

The Refinery: barbara young (ii)

What, you thought I was done for the evening? Not a chance. Well, at least, I’m not done hanging out online, so I might as well do something constructive while I’m here, mightn’t I. And since I was reminded that the Refineries should still be going, I am carrying on through the chronology of poems languishing in my inbox. Tonight’s victim…

In a Peninsula of Restaurant Windows” by Barbara Young

Most of us know Barbara already, as she is a poetic dynamo on the blogosphere scene. One of her poems was featured in the Refinery back in January, and I’m going to not look at what I said about her work previously when I say: she has one of the most unique minds for crafting images and personal voices that I’ve seen out there, with a very down-to-earth kind of dialogue punctuated by curve ball metaphors that bonk the side of your head. We all could take a page from her in that regard. The poem she’s sent this time is longer than her usual work, so let’s see what we can do to help (at her request) give it some firmer foundations to stand on:

Precipitously descend the big rain-y drops.
The indeterminate time of gray
resolves to nine AM with rain.
And watches without passion the woman the rain coming, come.

a series of events
some shy, some bold hard flashing, the mob mindless, only
following physics.

Mrs J___, a thrift-store-purchase man’s white shirt,
four thin silver bracelets,
spreads the second-to-last crust of toast with peach puree.
no plans for rain or sun,
no pressing need for plans
Mrs J___ watches windless raining rain

Hello, my soul, my tethered soul, my fluttered kite
without me: brain and pain, complaining, shame and dreaming
what are you? Indistinguishable fleck from the head perfection
of cosmos discarnate, are you
alt-enjoying absolutely clear ideally amber perfectly Earl Gray
from the concept of a yellow teapot with a brown replacement lid
the pattern of a woman watching rain land bouncing and disintegrating
on the first gesture of factory paint faded below loving polish on
the pure form of 1967 Karmann Ghia Pastel Blue, loved
within the mind of god, driven stoned into a ditch one slow summer evening,
dented and repaired and passed from hand of god to hand of god
through years (constructed in the mind of god)

and listens to the sound of water like a stream rushing somewhere
over and under the clank of flatware.

There’s a lot of richness here, and a lot to pick apart. Probably I could find several things in each of my usual categories to talk about, but I’ll keep it to the usual modest three, for fairness:
– It seems as though there are several different threads here, which I think are competing for attention, like we have three poems wound into one rope. First we have an establishing scene (those raindrops), then a character sketch (Miss J), and finally an internal monologue (perhaps Miss J’s). I think something as simple as labeling each part “1”, “2”, “3” could help, but I suspect what would help more is separating these three into different poems, and focusing — at least, at first — on the strongest. Alternatively, the strongest individual aspects could be picked out from the three parts and joined together, allowing the rest of the poem to be discarded. I often find myself in this predicament too, unwilling to sacrifice any of the themes I want to get stewing together; but if the poem as a whole isn’t being served by the assortment, it’s time to let something go. The two elements I’d cut here are the at-times-too-fancy vocabulary and the at-times-too-chaotic stream of consciousness in the penultimate section. Not to say there isn’t a time and place for them, but too much can turn into a James Joyce kind of thing. I love James Joyce, but he’s great at keeping the reader at bay. Poets don’t (or shouldn’t?) have that luxury.
– To dig deeper into the word use, there are two things going on that I think take away from the poem. Right from the start, that word precipitously bothers me. Beginning with a five-syllable word is very risky, beginning with a Latinate word is very risky, and beginning with an adverb is… well, not that risky, but a little bit. I get the pun (rain/precipitation), but I think it’s too much to begin with. And there is a line of words I almost stumble over: indeterminate, indistinguishable, discarnate, disintegrating, etc. It may be Barbara’s intent to create these obstacles and demand our attention, but I don’t think the poem demands them, so we ought to let them wither into something more manageable. The other thing about word use is that there is some repetition I’m ambivalent about. (Some of it I love, which I’ll get to.) The word rain comes back again and again, but then there’s that plans section, and the coming, come up top… maybe my issue is that there are anaphora that seem to float, without a structure. Sometimes repetition is meant as almost a hysterical device, to beat something into our heads, but this doesn’t have that feel; I’d recommend either filling out the poem in between any given repetition (with a couple exceptions!), or using some other image/synonym.
– And a note about syntax. Messing with it is always tricky, and even when you get away with it, you are always giving your poem a layer of difficulty that you may not want. Some poets build their career around that element of their voice (W.S. Merwin, e.e. cummings, Frank O’Hara, etc.), and Barbara has a pretty keen sense of it, but I think it’s shifting too much here. The needle moves back and forth between language that is sparse or inverted, where nouns and verbs aren’t always needed in their proper order, if at all, and immensely lush, where subordinate clauses hook together like monkeys in a barrel. Again, it creates a particular effect that may have been intended, but which I don’t think serves the poem well; probably it’s better to move in one direction or the other (and I’m leaning towards the sparseness of the second section, with Miss J).

OK. All that being said…
– That second section is marvelous. The “plans” thing and the “raining rain” are the only things I’d immediately change, though maybe with careful tweaking of the rest of the poem, the middle would also need some work. Look at that portrait with the second-to-last crust of toast; beautiful! With only a few lines, we get an immediate sense of who this person is, what she’s doing, what her relationship is to where she is and what’s going on in the world around her. I would like to see more of her in the poem, because she seems to be the centerpiece (both literally and figuratively), and she is compelling. Note also that no fancy words or structures are needed for her to be powerful: “peach puree” on that crust is powerful because it is specific, not because it’s fancy.
– Despite the fact that I think the stream of consciousness in the latter half of the poem becomes a series of whitewater rapids, I do love some of the turns of phrase that appear. My fluttered kite / without me, the pattern of a woman, passed from hand of god to hand of god, a stream rushing somewhere / over and under the clank of flatware… all lovely. I think I understand the intention here: this simple moment is full of inner voice and a chain of specific memories that key other specific memories, leading to what we call in interactional sociolinguistics a nexus predicated on all kinds of previous information. What I fear is that some greater point is being obscured by the information; can we pull away some of the clumps that are only there to give substance, and not lyric? I don’t think we need absolutely, ideally, and perfectly all in the same line, and while I like this Platonism in “pattern of a woman”, there is also a concept and pure form overdoing the concept a bit.
– Overall, the theme of the poem is one I like, because I’m a sucker for those momentary-slice-of-life poems that dig deep to show there’s always more going on underneath the surface than you expect. (Hell, there’s that whole journal devoted to the idea that I’ve been doing.) If that is the kind of tone we should be drawing out of the poem, I think it’s coming across. It’s just a matter of cleaning and clarifying the bits that don’t serve the poem’s purpose. For Barbara, I would ask two questions: what is the intent of the poem, and what is the tone of the poem? By this I mean, first, it’s important to decide what you’re trying to convince us of/illustrate on a hidden level/arrange in a three-dimensional pattern, and then try to get in the reader’s shoes to see what effect the poem has towards that goal (and whether it’s what you want).

A few minor things:
– Not sure about the title? I suppose it was the setting of the thing, but the title is prime real estate for tackling theme, intent, or tone, or maybe all three at once, with brevity the soul of your wit.
– The notion of 1967 Karmann Ghia Pastel Blue being “loved within the mind of god“, moving from the highly specific to the broadly religious, is fantastic.
– There are so many poems waiting to be spun from this one! Why not split it?
– Sound devices are usually pretty cool, but I think that in a poem with so much else going, you might want to drop them. Specifically I’m thinking of brain and pain, complaining, shame. It’s a bit jarring.
– Coming back to that specificity: the contrast between it and the universal is great, and flows nicely through the poem. I would say, draw it out into the open even more.

So, Barbara, I hope that helped! And for the rest of you, if you’d like a bonus prompt in addition to the daily Recursions that are going on right now (which I hope you’re finding helpful!), try this one on for size too:

Write a poem in three stanzas that features a place, a person in that place, and the thoughts going through their mind. Include at least one image that is both highly specific to each of those three, and one description for each that is very general. Try to keep it colloquial, but also try to include any of: a car model, a color name with a proper noun in it, and a specific time of day. Don’t meander all the way through: have a point by the end!

And that is that. OK, now I’m really done for the evening, at least on the blog. Too much computer makes Joe a headached boy.

Prosthetic Conscience

Eh, feeling a little bit better about this one. And at least I managed to get two down today… I might have one more short one in me when I get home. Even if they’re crummy!

NaPoWriMo gave a list of spaceship names from the delicious novels of Iain M. Banks, and suggested using one as the title of the poem, which is where this one comes from. I found out, unfortunately, that Mr. Banks yesterday announced he has terminal cancer, which is rather advanced; he may not be with us a year from now. He is about the age of both my father, and my parents’ good friend (my brother’s godfather; maybe the best man at my parents’ wedding? I can’t remember) who passed away last fall from, eerily, the same sort of cancer. It’s a depressing and unsettling kind of thing, and I feel more depressed and unsettled that the only thing I can get out of it is this mediocre scrap of writing that is just me pumping the bellows to keep the fire going. But I suppose it’s more of an effort than nothing at all; these are the things we must do.

I think the weekend, and a sustained gasp of spring, are needed.

Prosthetic Conscience

He wore it after the original was severed,
fearing that its absence would show
between two ribs, or flared in his nostrils.
He always kept the lights out during sex.
If anyone got close enough to notice,
it would be too dark to see.
From time to time he felt phantom pains
deep inside his chest, a coppiced stalk
trying to sprout something stunted
but generous. He read philosophy.
He took communion and waited for change.
But it was the small hesitations
that quivered his hand or his tongue
which gave him away. Then it would slip
and expose his abbreviation.
What could he call himself?
Not a person: maybe the kind of person
who knows why he no longer deserves
that title. Some word that means,
“used to have slow warmth inside him”,
but not anymore. Now there’s only
an indifferent blood, just a few degrees
too cold.