oulipost 24: neighborhood boys

Getting my Oulipost on this lovely afternoon. Today’s prompt was to do a homosyntaxism, taking found text and converting words to other words with the same part of speech: nouns become other nouns, verbs become other verbs, etc. I decided to adapt the prompt a bit and call it a slow burn, where the poem applies these changes to the same sentence one iteration at a time, as you’ll see below. I’m sure there’s a better name for it, but I like “slow burn” because it applies to the content of the piece. The original sentence is the first one, and it’s from the Voice, and it’s a throwaway line whose provenance I can’t recall.

Neighborhood Boys Exchange Difference of Opinion

The conversation turned to us talking about the people and things that made our local spots great.
The conversation turned to us talking about the people and things that made our local spots deadly.
The argument turned to us talking about the people and things that made our local spots deadly.
The argument turned to us talking about the speedballs and things that made our local spots deadly.
The argument led to us talking about the speedballs and things that made our local spots deadly.
The argument led to us talking about the speedballs and switchblades that made our local spots deadly.
The argument led to us talking about the speedballs and switchblades that made our usual spots deadly.
The argument led to us talking about the speedballs and switchblades that left our usual spots deadly.
The argument led to us showing off the speedballs and switchblades that left our usual spots deadly.
The argument led to us showing off the speedballs and switchblades which left our usual spots deadly.
The argument led to us showing off the speedballs and switchblades, which left our usual day deadly.

poem-a-thon 13: next year in jerusalem

After writing a sestina for the Poetic Asides challenge first, this one was a friggin’ breath of fresh air for NaPoWriMo: the idea was merely to include some kennings in a poem. I did fudge them a bit, but I tried to play with the theme of shame and acceptance of self, in keeping with my Poem-a-thon theme. (The usual plug: please donate!) And then I went all Kay Ryan, which is what happens when I want some kind of structure but can’t think of what to do. So sue me.

(Kay Ryan, please don’t actually sue me, I heart you.)

Next Year in Jerusalem

Next year I will walk
out with the expectation
of being delivered.
Fear and predation and
the relatives’ talk
will thin like tea-breath
dripped in air. Next year
shame will be buried,
bobbing its death into
this city and its masculine
pearl-rivers. That same
boy who was sobbing
into his pillow at night
will have hurried to
an always holier land.
Its joyful embrace will be
plotted on my night-maps,
and a reason to be
desperate to get there.
Next year, my light will be
caught and sipped
from an ever gentler hand.

oulipost 12: local street artist

I did not really capture the essence of today’s Oulipost challenge, I think. The challenge was to do a sonnet using found lines in the paper, and when it comes to challenges like that, I get pretty purist. So while this has fourteen lines and what I consider a turn, more-or-less iambic with more-or-less pentameter, and some lucky rhymes… it doesn’t have a rhyme scheme, it’s not really a problem/resolution poem, and I really fudged some prosody.

But I kind of like how it turned out, nevertheless. Which is good, because I have no more steam in me tonight.

Local Street Artist Muses on Life Goals

A broken down, half-deserted city:
this visual flair for the dramatic is best.
Suggest that we move from house to house,
in every corner. (Not to mention our
home, it seems, is where the heart is this week.)
Redeem us, save us: we don’t really crave
“what would it be like to be evil?”
We always wanted to grow and do new things–
and almost all explode with color.
What we want is a new lease on life:
a muddled bowl of sweet crab, hazelnuts,
a convoluted friendship with John and his wife,
and Denzel Washington, who throws
himself into the role with reckless grace.

poem-a-thon 7: paraphernalia

I had trouble writing this one for a number of reasons. Obviously, the subject matter is pretty heavy and I don’t feel like I have a right to tell it, even though it connects with the other poems I’ve been writing for the challenge. I don’t want to get too preachy with said theme, even though I think I should. (I just don’t think I do preachy very well.) And I worried about pairing this with the NaPoWriMo prompt about love of an inanimate object, even though I think that’s the kind of twisted relationship that users have to their drugs, sometimes. But ultimately, it is a topic I want to address, and if I weren’t so tired/honestly kind of needing a pause from this month of writing, I’d try to project a bit more and do a better job. As it stands, consider this a preliminary, while I go pass out for eight hours.

In the meantime: please donate!


The headshakers avert their eyes
and wonder how someone so young started
doing what they do, courting undertakers
with a rubber round the elbow, as though they
had never been broken-hearted, too.
Maybe they hadn’t, for long, maybe they had
a place to wait while the welts faded
from where the belt kissed their bared backs,
while these ancient children with no such luck
fled into the night. Every needle starts
with need, and at least the venous pump
never tempered its love with the nosebleed,
the open hand and the motherly sneer.
The headshakers drop a dollar here and there
when they walk down the runaways’ gallery,
which will give them something to talk about,
quietly, for days. And their glimmer of love
refolds and returns, peeled back from these
kids called sinners whose hearts might burst
from the sudden drop in airborne pressure.
But the past is all cigarette burns
and the souring of pleasure. Who said
these kids mean to last?

poem-a-thon 4: plagues of egypt

Two poems done before 2:00, woooo! Now I just need to get the Oulipost one done this evening… for now, should probably get back to work, aye?

This one is for the Poem-a-Thon/NaPoWriMo combination; the NaPo prompt today was to do lunes, the “American haiku” in verses of 3-5-3 words. I tried to get a little bit Ryanesque with the sound, and a little bit preachy with the topic, and ended up with something that doesn’t really work as well as I’d like. I think I need to stop trying to force the prompts onto the subject matter, or vice versa; we’ll see how the weekend goes, when I have more time to consider how I want to craft these. I never expect wonderments to come out of the April frenzy, but anything generative is good; I’ve written more new drafts in the last week than the preceding month, I believe.

Plagues of Egypt

Even here– now–
there’s blood in the water.
How many hearts
could be hardened?
Broken needles for their sons
and daughters sleeping
along the streets–
then awoken into more darkness,
faces grown scabbed,
hands weak. Something
unknown has mistaken its purpose.
The lambs suffer
the slaughterer’s curse.
Shaking with cold, begging change,
their backs bending–
still these plagues
multiply. Strangers pretend to forget
this story’s ending.

renovation twenty-two: cityscape with hope

Here’s your fact for Fun Fact Friday: I sometimes pretend, while listening to music and walking down the street, that I am in a music video. I’ve had several songs stuck in my head this week, and each time I start humming to myself, it’s all I can do not to execute some crazy acrobatic attempt on the scaffolding lining Broadway which would probably get me in trouble. That kind of feeling today precipitated this poem’s content, though not the prompt; I expected it to go a lot more miserably, actually, given these:

1. “…like someone trying to light a smoke with an empty lighter.” (Adrian Matejka, “Mural with HUD Housing & School Bus (1980)”)
2. “That splendid city, crown’d with endless day…” (Phillis Wheatley, “To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works”)
3. “The constellations of faces, coming and going…” (me, “Book of Hours”)
4. a wheelbarrow full of cement
5. Point out a flaw in something you used to regard highly.
BONUS. Even if you don’t quote one of the lines directly in options 1, 2, and 3, try to use one of them as a skeleton for your poem’s lines, in terms of sound, rhythm, and structure.
ALTERNATE (5). Lie to make someone feel better.

Instead I seem to have on honey-dew fed, and drunk the Kool-Aid of Paradise, because I ended up with this giddy, hopeful poem. Maybe it’s a foolish hope, and that’s the subtext of the voice in it. Either way, it is what it is, it’s Friday afternoon, and I am booking it for the train in the near future. So this is what you get from me:

(cityscape with hope)

As long as children keep pressing hands in cement,
as long as chess players, old men, summer in parks,
I won’t believe that we’re doomed. The light in the blood
diffuses through all the colors of skin and escapes
to every corner. The youths play music and sing.
The beggars gather up plastic. Rainwater comes
to claim us all, and the city leaps, and I feel,
for several moments, that airborne thrill. That promise.

renovation seven: what blood

Sorry for the delay today, you guys; it was kind of a hectic Thursday. I’m a little bit paranoid about saying why on the blog, but if the near future goes well, perhaps I will be able to eventually. How delightfully cryptic of me, n’est-ce pas?

Anyway, here is today’s prompt:

1. “Beyond the carrots and blind white worms…” (Rachel McKibbens, “deeper than dirt”)
2. “Bloody hell, the world’s turned / upside down.” (Cally Conan-Davies, “Ace”)
3. “One of these houses cannot be found on maps.” (me, “Moving Day”)
4. a long, broken zipper
5. Describe as best you can the palpable feeling of nostalgia in a particular place.
BONUS. Make the poem a series of grammatically complete sentences, each of which is no shorter than four lines.
ALTERNATE (5). Describe the palpable opposite of nostalgia: the anxiety at confronting something from your recent past that you haven’t had to deal with lately.

And here’s what I came up with, which kind of keys off a discussion I had a friend the other day about going back to the first house you lived in and doing the whole “excuse me, I used to live here…” thing. I imagine this doesn’t happen in situations where people grow up in apartments, but I could be wrong. And what do people feel if their building is just gone? My mother and I were talking about nostalgia last night; that informed part of this too.

(what blood)

When the city children return with children
of their own years later, to spell their own prologue
over a sagged thing of brick and wire and
a butternut-colored jalopy, what must they think
to see the old corner lot wrapped in yellow
plastic tape and COMING SOON signs.
The porches have all been ripped off like scabs
and replaced with people flashing by
going from this place to that, and the doormen
will not let these children with children in.
What blood must rush to their head after coming
all this way to draw a line in the dirt with a sword
and upturn a wriggling narrative with the point
as if to explain, no matter how far you go, you leave
the littlest hairs of your roots behind– only to be
turned away from a place that is not theirs,
nor their children’s. The front matter is blanked
from their biography, hanging wide
like a mouth with puzzle teeth that, having
opened too far, finds it cannot shut.

I have a free and clear evening tonight. Perhaps I will cruise around the poetry blogs a bit, catch up on some more writing, practice some headstands… you know, the usual Thursday rubbish. We’ll see.

renovation six: sonnet for matins

One-fifth of the way through the month already; where does the time go? Perhaps it’s used up creating prompts:

1. “To gaze upon the fatal / without commiserating gloom:” (Sharon Dolin, “Avoid Adapting Other People’s Negative Views”)
2. “The other says: I only know a thread is loose on my sweater…” (Hsia Yü, “To Be Elsewhere”)
3. “People are sinking into tea roses.” (me, “An Anthology”)
4. a bicycle wheel
5. Describe a sixty-second pause in your day.
BONUS. Include at least three lines of perfect iambic pentameter that are not next to each other in the poem.
ALTERNATE (3). Use a line from one of your own previous poems featuring an active, lush verb and a sensual, precise noun.

Some time ago, Barbara used the term a “sonnet with the seams let out”, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. This poem ended up being just such a thing, not quite blank verse, not quite sonnet, but still 14 lines and 10 syllables per line, with some pentameter thrown in for fun. I wish I could say there was more reality to what I wrote today than there actually is, but I did have particular places, people, and feelings in mind while writing it. I think I’m more fond of it than I expected to be (and probably still riding the wave of a positive reception at workshop last night):

(sonnet for matins)

Drifting to work, I stop by the fountain
to touch the morning glories and throw coins
into the water. My church is cement,
wrought iron, and vine. There are men with dogs
asleep among the bushes with their feet
gone red and lined from cold. This time of year
gets deadly. My two prayers are a penny
tossed for the last flowers and a dollar bill
stuffed in a coffee cup offered by hands
that shake. The cyclists roll through. The students
smoke in the shaded corners, their elbows
jutting through white sleeves. My blessings are this
square of city and visible breath, and
the parting hope of leading someone out.

If you’re feeling stuck by a prompt, I think the BONUS element is a good match to hold to the fuse. Form often helps us force our brain into a poetic space, I think, if it’s not overdone; I think it’s easy to get so caught up in the patterns that we lose some of the vision. But a little bit of form goes a long way, making bones for the poem, which is why I’ve tried to give these delicate, almost incidental hints of form as part of the prompts. Though, I might have gotten a little carried away myself with it today.


Well, it’s been a while.

There’s been a lot of turmoil offline: still looking for a better job, a place to live, grad schools, etc. Mostly I’ve just been too drained and gloomy to write, which is an awful thing. (I hate  being just kind-of-depressed, because at least when you’re wildly dejected you can channel it into some kind of creativity. Being in that grey place in between is just boring.) But I sat myself down and forced myself to crank out this nonsense, which is the first thing I’ve written in two weeks. Putting it up here before I change my mind.

Probably will continue to be pretty quiet for the time being…


Listen, I brought you in from the sudden rain.
When we sleep, we are traveling, and I caught
the shape of you in the thunder’s deepening line.
You were moving east. You were unraveling.
Listen, I took a cab as fast I could. I believe
once in a while we must all be full of mercy
and we desire to do something good. I let you
drowse on my knee while the city flew by.
Listen, the long hex of Broadway was opal and fire.
The timeless chain of here, of now. Leading home,
where your body curled and uncurled at peace
with the night. I wrapped my lips round you tight.
Listen, sometimes the flare of joy is more than I
can take; and I want to say, if only you’d been there!
If you’d only been awake!

The Refinery: virginia layton

Three-day weekend, you are a harsh mistress, but I think I’ve got this down to a science by now. I managed to juggle four different social event type things (coworkers, friends, family), stayed off the computer for a whole day yesterday, got some free books and board game time out of it, and finished my laundry + groceries by noon today. And now there’s another 36 hours of uninterrupted hum to enjoy: poems, job applications (what a way to spend Labor Day), etc.

I am getting evicted, though. Not for another couple months, but still, it’s on my mind and needs some attention… damn landlords renovating and whatnot. We’re looking at November for a probable move-out, which I like: in theory, we’ll be able to tell where there’s functional heat, but it won’t be so cold that moving is absolute misery yet. Still, it’s likely I’ll have to leave Chelsea/Village area. Who knows? It could be the making of me; or, I suppose it could be just the obvious. What if I move to Brooklyn and have to learn how to ride a bike? You’re nobody in Brooklyn unless you can do that.

But let’s talk Refinery. Today’s poem is, “Teaism” by Virginia Layton!

Virginia says this piece is a composite of a couple different ones that have appeared on her blog, and sent two version of this one; I’ll use the revised version for the purposes of this post. She has also helpfully included translations of the two Tagalog words that appear in the text: umaga means morning, and áraw means sun. I’ll add that to the list of dozen words I picked up when I had a Filipino boyfriend many moons ago (like when I started this blog; yikes).

I drink my Irish Breakfast from a bowl
and look out the iron-clad
window into the once lushly
overgrown garden district, waking up umaga.

I dredge the river, brown with silt or soot,
straddle the Mississippi with careful
dirge and scat-skittering trumpet; its scent
a stiff drink makes my vision
cloudy, reminiscing my search fruitless
for those ephemeral moments on the park bench when the page
was love supreme: job security, maternity leave, levees broken never entering
the labyrinthine archways of the city where
our souls played hide and seek through back alleys, crumbling
stone chips squalor—áraw

glints from the ring on my left
hand, as I press gently the desiccated leaves unfurling
in tepid water; I sit on this stool with uneven legs
and I can’t let myself go
soft or move too much without losing—
what was it? Art Tatum scampers in my head,
his fingers tapping it, yes, fleet arpeggios jive
into the Duke’s Mood Indigo and I forget
strident cries, “Life separates us!”

I get ready to leave, slip
into the cool, emerge soap-slick hands slack.
What-to-do’s top heavy sink,
what-if’s submerged
bubble slowly.
Water hot and scald shock
discharged as hands wring: deliberate
pain disseminated, regret vaporizes.
The door’s locked ‘cause no one’s home.

And then off to the café where lonely rumors fly
in an earthy aroma, aphrodisiac for Fiona, legend
of naughty enticement,
a machine well-greased like Angelina
(Creole at ease with her sexy)
or like the way Yo-Yo handles a cello
(bravado upended) and the vision of the Crescent
City is a love flung far, a distance imminent…
craving undrenched.

All right, there’s a lot going on here. Let’s do what we can:
– The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t like this in two parts. I know it’s a composite, but here’s a rule of thumb I recommend: only separate the poem into discrete chunks like this if you feel that the themes/angles you’re working with are completely unable to be woven together. (And then, in that case, always err on the side of the ratio of one part to one such angle.) Take a look at all we have in this poem: a meditative experience with tea, a wistful (tragic?) portrait of the narrator in a city (New Orleans?), this musical angle, mixed with the domestic and moving from place to place (house and café?), and a sort of tension between loss and desire. Lots to work with, but I think it has the potential to be all married together. What I’d recommend for having multiple themes like that is to examine the arc you want them to take, then decide whether each stanza of the poem will advance that arc a little bit, or examine the entire thing from a unique point of view. Only break it into sections if you don’t have confidence the reader will consider it one unified whole, because that ends up being the effect.
– The risk we run with such a complicated poem is becoming too cryptic for our own good. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and with such a piece of machinery as this poem, it takes a lot of effort to find ways to keep it trim and moving. It’s not a problem to make personal allusions the reader won’t get, or refer to events that have significance for the author only. However, you have to make up for it by making those images equally enticing, with the potential to be meaningful to the reader in their own way. Take a look at the Art Tatum section, for example: even if you don’t know who he is, you’ve got his full name (Google away!), what he does, and how he relates to the overall narrative. There is emotion and connection in the way he’s presented. But in the last stanza, I have no idea who Fiona is, all I can think for Angelina is Angelina Jolie, and Yo-Yo is, I assume, Yo-Yo Ma. I’m not sure what they’re doing in here and how they relate to the narrative. Sometimes it’s better to cut things altogether than to leave them half-cryptic, and make room for the ones which can develop further.
– And thirdly, there are a few odd moments with the language. Overall, I’m very happy with it (which I’ll get to below), but the poem rockets pretty strongly a few times between a casual, everyday mode of speech, and a florid one. There are plenty of poems that do this, and generally it’s not a problem: but I suspect the effect created here is not one Virginia wants. (I could be wrong.) “I drink my Irish Breakfast from a bowl” is a killer opening line, very plain yet distinctive, with that highly specific gem tossed in the middle. To go from that style into “reminiscing”, “ephemeral”, and “labyrinthine” makes me wonder if there’s a focus on the elaboration of memory and vision; I think that distracts from the meatier themes in the poem. Some of the lines also get a lot longer as a result and disrupt some of the poem’s flow. I’d rather see more Tagalog (maybe a whole line?), and more of the pattern with very simple language elaborated through unique structure and sudden detail.

– Continuing my previous point, there is great value to linguistic quirkiness. I don’t mean the SAT words that turn up in poems just because they are, admittedly, wonderful words that deserve a second chance outside a sophomore English class. In my opinion, the goal should always be to use words everybody knows in ways they’ve never considered ordering them before (with the possible specific or unknown word they have to reach for, woven in, naturally). Lots of spaces in the poem demonstrate this: I like “slip into the cool” better than “deliberate pain disseminated”, “I dredge the river… straddle the Mississippi” better than “crumbling stone chips squalor”, “off to the café where lonely rumors fly” better than “a distance imminent… craving undrenched.” As I said above, both modes are fine, and even having both in the poem are fine if that’s the effect you want, but in my opinion, the poem as a whole works better with just that first mode.
– And part of the reason for that is, it creates a more believable Voice, with a capital V. There seems to be very little contrived about the poem: I can completely picture the speaker in my head as the center point around which the poem is revolving. Consider that combination of daily domestic and meditative relaxation; the careful description of her surroundings blended with memory; the details of Tagalog and proper nouns to define her setting. Always ask yourself when you write a line in the first person, “would my speaker (who doesn’t necessarily have to be me) say/write this?” I think this poem only breaks down in that regard when it goes out of its way to use these long, fancy words.
– Finally, there are also some nice things going on mechanically in the poem. With one huge exception (see below), I think the line breaks follow the general rule of good line breakage: end with an interesting word always, start with an interesting word if possible. There is some carefully done alliteration and sound similarity that might have even been subconscious on Virginia’s part: “once lushly overgrown garden district” has a lovely chain of vowel harmony and L, G, D alliteration in there. (This is, to me, always preferable to in-your-face alliteration; “soap-slick hands slack” is a bit much.) And there is a rhythm to the poem that keeps it moving at a nice clip. We lose steam at a few points, but always come back, an important quality in a poem of this length. I’d hazard that trimming some of the fancy language that isn’t needed, and maybe entirely removing some of the distracting references the reader won’t understand, would help even more.

Whew. A lot to get through. But of course, I must throw a few more things in as well:
– Is the stanza break after áraw an error? It’s so distant from “glints”. Not fond of this.
– The poem’s title calls to mind a tea shop in DC I used to go all the time, and a play on the word Taoism. If either of these was intentional, well-done, I say.
– An ellipsis! Get it out get it out get it out.
– Although the narrative is sometimes tough to tease out for the reasons mentioned above, there does seem to be a simple (but thoroughly explored) narrative here. I dig that. This is getting an after-mention because pieces of this concept are already covered in the longer talk.
– I’m not wild about a couple of the grammatical structures, though. “Silt-brown” might be better than “brown with silt or soot”; and how about “what-if’s bubble slowly / as they’re submerged”? What would the poem’s narrator say?

That’s a wrap. Virginia, I hope this has been helpful, and gives you the confidence to further tweak the poem; you’ve got something good going here! And for everyone else (who are, of course, always welcome to send poems as well…), here is a prompt to get your brain-juices flowing:

Pick a mundane event during your day and describe how you do it differently from everybody else, in whatever small ways: use specific, but not uncommon, words. Then pick an event you (sometimes) do/that happens immediately afterward, and describe it in the same way. Free-write for a bit, and explore the tension between the two, and what memories/emotions they summon up: separately, together, and placed against each other. Let this be the basis of your poem. Try to write in a voice that is the Most Honest Version of yourself; try to get at least three points where a complex chain of sound similarity (several vowels and consonants alliterating and in harmony) sneaks in under the radar.

A lot of work, for this one! But I think you all can handle it, you superstars, you.