oulipost 17: food cart veterans

Good thing, given my state, that the Oulipost prompt today was a relatively simple one: to haiku-ize three sentences from an article. I plucked a write-up of some of the Easter fare options in NYC, found my sentences, trimmed them to the (ugh) 5-7-5 format what’s standard for such things in English, and ended up with an amusing little pun in the title reflecting the two kinds of fare on offer at this phantom market:

Food Cart Veterans Explore Deconstruction

Vendors at market:
sour cherry, millefeuille with cream;
an alphabet brunch.

But then, because I never miss the opportunity to flex my Japanese a bit, I bastardized it into this, where some of the words have changed and some of the compounds (especially the last) would probably raise an eyebrow for the native speakers. But I think “ume” can be a seasonal word (though not sure which one: summer?), the images are pretty stand-alone, and I like the contrast between the second and third lines. So I’d consider it at least an honest attempt, and I believe I conserved the syllable structure in Japanese. Anyway, here you go:


ichi-dai ni
ume to dorayaki

(at the fair-tables
sour plums and custard pastries
an alphabet meal)

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.

The Refinery: andrew geary

Oh man, there’s a video of the reading from Sunday online. I won’t say where (if you dig, you’ll find it, I’m sure), because I’m super embarrassed. But I suppose it’s pretty cool. I’m watching myself be all gawky onstage, and thinking of things to work on for the next reading. (There will be others, yes!)

And at last, we have some Refinery business to attend to, with another one on deck that I’ll be posting in the next few days. This one comes to us from Andrew Geary, who says he’s been tinkering with the poem for a while, and feels it has potential that needs to be realized. So, without further ado, his poem, “The Poet’s Horse“:

The horse was awkward
as it tried to tear itself
from the mud’s grasp.
Gracefulness died
after its misstep, struggle
slumped into the ease
of slipping.

The poet relayed this tale
and told me it represented
humanity. He also told me
that an artist digs the dirt
of reality and uncovers
the pearl, receives the music
from the noise and breaks
the impenetrable block
to free its beauty. So the poet
pulled the horse from death
and gave what he thought
was true.

All right everyone, let’s do what we do best:
- The first thing is alliteration. Here’s a theory I have: alliteration works in very small, careful doses, but we’re taught in school that poetry should have more of it because a) poetry must be distinguished from “normal” writing and its rules, and b) Anglo-Saxon and other poetries ancestral to English made extensive use of it, so its traditional. But there is such a notion as too much of a good thing, and if you’re going to use alliteration at all, you should treat it like any other device: use only when necessary for the sake of, in this case, the sound. The subtler, the better. “Grasp” and “gracefulness” hook my attention and don’t let it go for the rest of the poem, to its detriment; I keep waiting for the next pair, and don’t listen to the content. Same with (maybe “struggle”,) “slumped” and “slipping”. Pairs like “tale” and “told”, and even “poet”/”pulled” are less noticeable, but in every case, one ought to think: is this necessary? Is there a better word that would serve the poem more? Which is more important at this point: advancing the piece, or the sound? The answer to that one may vary from line to line.
- While we’re on the subject of too much of a good thing and sparing use, metaphor also gets a pretty heavy helping in the piece. Our workshop moderator is fond of talking about the “of machine”, where “the (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)” is used descriptively. It’s a widely-used structure, to the point of cliché (“the milk of human kindness”, etc.), and not to say that you can’t use it, but think carefully before you do. Regarding other metaphors in the poem, the second stanza is chock-full of them, to the point that it obstructs what I think is the message of the poem. We see that the horse is not real, and so I understand that the metaphor helps build a reported-tale kind of frame. But this is poetry. You can get away with saying “X is” rather than saying “X is like”, albeit not too far. Think about how much more powerful the poem becomes if the theme and message are happening in the moment, raw and direct, rather than after the fact. The poet watches his horse stuck in mud, unable to free itself, and knowing that he cannot save it, begins to think about how he will immortalize this horse in verse. The way it’s presented now is just an object lesson, a metaphor built upon other metaphors– and you must be careful of doing this, lest it collapse like a house of cards.
- Some of the language seems slightly stilted to me. Overall, the vocabulary is fine: I’m okay with the occasional word like “impenetrable”, but some of the syntax is rubbing me the wrong way. I think the two which stand out the most are “Gracefulness died… slipping,” and “gave what he thought was true.” They have a vaguely epic feel that doesn’t seem to suit the subject matter, unless this was a kind of epic horse, or there’s a larger point to be made about the poet turning even a simple horse into something epic. And what’s going on with “struggle slumped”? It’s not that I don’t understand what it all means, in a literal sense, but you want a poem that arrests the reader for the right reasons. If I have to pause and figure out what you’re trying to say at a given point, and why you make the syntactic/metaphorical choices that you did, I’m spending time that could be otherwise spent moving through the poem, getting to other images that support your ergodic* imagery. You want them to pause only when they’re taken particularly aback by a particularly beautiful and unique line. This saves time so that they will go back and read it again! I think of musician Joanna Newsom as a good example for such stunners. Two favorites: “the sky was a bread roll soaking in a milk bowl” and “the hills are groaning with excess / like a table ceaselessly being set.” I don’t have to do any work to figure out why she chose these or phrased them like that (I know exactly what she means), but my breath catches for a moment as I’m swept by their beauty.

* I’m borrowing the term ergodic from Espen J. Aarseth, who uses it (thanks Wiki!) to mean text which requires a “nontrivial effort” on the part of the reader.

Now, all that aside:
- The theme is a good one, and should be explored. I don’t want to say explored thoroughly, as I like the length/terseness of this poem (see next point). Often, I’ve struggled with the same impulses of turning these life tragedies into something lyrical or artistic (trying, at least). As I said before, I think this could be driven home even more strongly by giving us the situation in media res, where the poet is the viewpoint speaker rather than this nameless narrator. That line about the horse’s struggle representing humanity is brilliant, and I want to see it explored more than the following line, showing these different art forms. (The concept is important, but it takes up too much of the poem’s mass.) And if the narrator is kept, I find myself wondering about the third dimension here: does the narrator agree? Disagree? What are the narrator’s thoughts on the poet’s opinion?
- Not that this is a haiku or anything, but there is an appealing spareness to the length and tone of the poem. Gracefulness is the only word that sticks out at me as anything other than natural, fluid, and simple, with the possible additional exception of impenetrable and slumped. (Not hard words, just more florid than the others in the poem.) Andrew has made good use of the economy of vocabulary here, though I think he spends too much of the time on elements I don’t care as much about (like that pearl, block, etc. line). I would want to see even more attention devoted to “show, don’t tell”, though I hate that dictum: if it needed to keep that reported speech element, the title would be a good place to hide it, which frees up at least a few lines for other, more interesting things.
- I want to zoom in especially on that first sentence, the first three lines. You’d be hard pressed to find a better opening, with the possible exception of replacing “was awkward” with a more animating construction. (Maybe “wriggled” or “flailed”? Or some truly jarring verb like “wrenched”? An adverb could fit in there too.) I think this is part of what makes gracefulness so offensive to me: it follows an excellent chunk of language. That, and, it could be reduced to just grace without losing its power. The third sentence and fifth sentence of the five in the poem are also fairly good, although the end loses its way a little bit, as I’ve already noted. The poem is at its best when it has that cool simplicity, and I wouldn’t want to see its length expand much, if at all; probably it doesn’t need to contract either, though.

A few more things:
- The digging pearls really bugs me. Pearls don’t come from the earth, right?
- I really like the sentiment of receiving music and art as something one must be receptive to rather than hunting for…
- …but really, we don’t need all those art forms. Keep the sentiment, stick with the poetry only, I think.

So, Andrew, I hope that was helpful. I think you’re right that the poem does help potential, and I think you can find it within the poem already, without having to turn elsewhere for additional inspiration. Keep at it! And for those of you who need a prompt, you are in luck because I have one just here:

Think about a tragedy that affected you, but not too strongly or deeply; free-write a bit about your creative thoughts that stemmed from it, for better or for worse. Try to come up with an adage or aphorism that states Something True about the world, which you could tell someone, and which your creative thoughts support. Work these into five sentences, with the aphorism at the end. In each sentence, have exactly one concrete image, and don’t let emotion show through anywhere except in your word choice. Try to delete the “I” entirely.

A little Zenlike and complicated, maybe. But I have full faith in you guys.


Oy, it’s been a week. A few things:

First, there are two poets lined up for Refinery! I promise you both that I’ll get to them, and I have read both poems already. I just need to find some time to actually put the thoughts in order and craft them into a post. It’s been incredibly busy at work (the boss is away), so I haven’t been able to work on it then. The evenings have also been pretty chock full of things to take care of, with the roommate away. My hope is to get at least one up by Friday (so Margo will have something to report!), and the other this weekend.

Second, one reason the weekend was so busy is that, holy cats, I did a reading on Sunday evening. So I was freaking out for a few days leading up to it about what to read, would people like it, etc. (I’ve done an open mic here and there, but this was the first time I was a “headliner”, and people paid to get in, and I was up first.) I think it went fairly well; I read eight poems, which got various amounts of applause, and the almighty “Mm!” which is the reading poet’s best friend. Anyone can clap, whether they feel something or not; it takes an actual emotional response to get that Mm!, and you can hear how the audience feels in it. (Fantastic magical realism poem about my grandmother’s house? A wistful, charmed one. Poem about my friend who died of AIDS? One that was ripped out of their throats.) Hoping that there will be other readings to follow, at some point.

And then, the third wrinkle this weekend was a domestic dispute upstairs, followed the next day by a fly infestation in the hallway ceiling, which had me really paranoid for a little while. (I called my roommate from DC, who majored in forensic science, to see how long a body took to start producing flies.) The infestation has blown over, and I don’t think my neighbor killed anyone, but it threw me for a loop. That’s what I get for writing a poem about swarms of black insects, I suppose.

Enough housekeeping natter. Here’s a poem without much substance and originality. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” pretty much did the theme as well as it needed to be done, back in the 1600s. But I don’t have rosebuds, I have berries outside the window, and that’s that.


Every morning the temptation by the window:
rain dripping from leaves and berries from vines
climbing the trellis. White paint cracks,
green globes grow red-violet, and pockets
heaped with adverbs give up their loads:
slowly, eventually, soon. The sun escapes
to drop sugarcubes in a pale chipped afternoon.
Thoughts clip to modal verbs: I will, is promised,
I should, is said. A wrapped bolt of summer heat
and summer fruit dangles before the eyes.
Wet, then dry. Who allows the clumps of color
to blacken and fall? Who allows the sparrows
to swallow them, purple staining their beaks
and their music, their shit on the garden wall?
Then consequence closes in like evening glory.
Participles make mist from hot summer ground,
a backwards-traveling song. Its key is minor,
its moral threatening, going, is going, has gone.

The Subjunctive

You know, I bet I could write a better poem called “The Subjunctive”, but at the moment, this is an exercise for NaPoWriMo (and the last!), to take a short poem we like and turn every word/phrase in it on its head. A recent find is Ada Limón’s “The Conditional”, which you can read here. I liked it as soon as I saw it, at least partially because of the grammatical reference, so I went back to it for the exercise. I think my poem is more similar than I thought it would be, even though I did my best to really alter a lot of elements. Ah well. Language, she is the universal beast.

The Subjunctive

Let yesterday tumble in.
Let the sun unfold its tropical bloom.
Let rhubarb bend with reddened youth.
Let the moon glint as a pure blue monocle.
Let the cat’s nose flare valleys.
Let snakes coldly leave no trace.
Let his cap be a velvet planting-pot.
Let me always keep on watching: the squinted
past, trickling like water on rock, always
orbiting, always changing its light.
Let me meet him again and again. Always him.
Let me waste that first forever glancing away
from each other, back to shy back, catching
a butterfly and letting it crawl the cool sea.
Let it be worth something. Let it never be
enough. Let him say he’s done: not I, buried
elsewhere, ignorant with joy.

That Word

I admit I’m being straight-up cheeky with this piece, after a very long and dismal day that I’m trying to erase from my memory. Tried over and over to do the NaPoWriMo prompt, but the trouble with being a language nerd and translation industry professional is that I can’t just not-quite-translate a poem from an unfamiliar tongue. First, there’s few that are truly unfamiliar to me, at least among ones that you’re liable to find poetry in easily. At the very least, I can usually identify the language itself, the pronunciation, and hazard a few guesses about words. Then, I get very hung up on trying to capture the sounds perfectly into English words, rather than just mucking about with what the text looks like. So instead I did Miz Q‘s prompt to re-line a chunk of prose.

And she may recognize where I got it from. ^_^

That Word

By rights,
each line should have
a reason for being a separate line, a reason
for beginning where it does,
and a reason for ending with just
that word. Even if
that word is there,
as in formal poems, for the rhyme
or to complete a syllable count.
And if that word is there
in free verse because you want it to shout,
the word is still only
part of the line,
and the line is only
part of the poem.

Gauguin’s Washerwomen

One more before I quit the café, seeing as they close in twenty minutes, and I need to cook myself some wholesome food. Poets and Writers has some good-looking prompts this month, and as I am a subscriber and everything, I thought I’d give their ekphrastic prompt a try (from Day 2). The suggestion was to go to the MoMa website, where I found the Gauguin painting referenced in the title:

At the workshop on Monday, I brought an ekphrastic poem, and I do want to share a few musings that came up in that discussion. First and foremost, it is terribly important to move outside the frame of the painting; the poem should stand on its own. Pretend that the person has no way of seeing the painting, or even the title, for a clue. If you’re too focused on the images and things going on in the image, you may lose some of the power, and an ekphrastic poem should never diminish a poem’s power, only enhance or at least complement it. Secondmost, do this as soon as possible within the poem! In this piece, I got a little bit meta, talking about the artist as much as the poem itself, and the importance of both, which may not have been the best tack. Do what you have to do to immediately indicate to the reader that this is a poem about the poet considering art, not necessarily a narrative or exploration inside the painting itself. (You can do that too, but they tend to be more peculiar than the former.) And lastly, any references you do make to what’s inside the frame should be as universal as possible. Therefore, this poem ended up being a praise poem about ladies! And not in a romantic or objectifying way, or at least, I hope it doesn’t come across that way: it’s half a blazon-poem for the mothers (and I suppose wives), sisters, aunts, grandmothers, etc., without whom (and without whose Herculean efforts) none of us would be here.

Perhaps you would like to try this prompt as well…?

Gauguin’s Washerwomen

Praise be to the ones who take us, lightly,
by the chin, and turn our heads around
to see the history of labor laid out in our wake.
Praise be to those languages where machine
is a feminine noun, worn through as it is
with a thousand thousand pairs of careful arms
so used to the weight of a child and hands
that have memorized every inch of every home:
praise be to the ones who show us that.
Praise be to a woman’s work, which is never
finished, and to a woman’s strength, and to
the life-weavers whose names and faces
we cannot know, without whose loving patience
we would not exist to praise them now.
Praise be to the tired back and stooped neck.
Praise be to the ones who hold us
around the shoulders as they lay the angles
over each crooked bone, saying, look,
this is what you are the fortunate heirs to.
Praise be to the parade of history; praise be
to those who peel off hay-green squares of it
thin as gold leaf, slowing down time enough
for water to turn to stone and grow moss
as the first crisp of autumn forever folds
a woman’s apron into pleats, then lift the whole
river with its line of women and write on a wall
with a language that is all color: praise,
praise, praise.

A Bend in the Sound

I know I owe you guys a Refinery post and a Curio post. My schedule is fairly clear this evening (though I am forcing the Fellow to watch Twin Peaks, because honestly, how could I not?, so maybe that will take time), and I am hoping that I can get that done at least. Goodness knows the absolute last thing I’ll want to do is brave the elements, with wind chill reaching negative numbers. Ugh.

I am at work right now, writing poetry. This is a normal and everyday thing when I have downtime, and it doesn’t really impact my job. But, lately I’ve been getting very disenchanted with things around here, which (for a reason I won’t get into) was cemented yesterday. I’ve set a number of plans in motion to go with, and in a few months we’ll see how bad things get with the job. The other thing is, at the Winter Getaway this weekend and at the monthly writer-artists’ salon last night, I had occasion to talk to a number of people about life: bottom line, what good is a little bit more financial security and schedule regularity if you’re miserable? I would rather work three part-time jobs at odd hours and enjoy them, with writing in the free spaces, than struggle through the workday. Especially last night, when I was discussing all the non-text storytelling ideas I’ve had in the arts realm, and receiving enthusiastic support from the group, I felt that urge. So we’ll see how that develops, I suppose.

Swapped chapbooks with another poet, Tara, last night, since we’ve promising to do that for months. And one of the other attendees (who is an author I grew up reading and admiring and get tongue-tied around) took a peek at my book, and said, “These are really good!” Chuffed to bits, I was. That got me thinking about the weekend all over again, and thinking about how to make more room for the creative in 2013. So: there is a weekly workshop by Douglas Goetsch (who I met at the Getaway, and who was way cool), starting next Monday. It is, for me, a pretty penny; but it could be worth the expense? I would rather wait until I have some cash saved up, but I’m not sure if there will be another workshop in the near future which I can attend. Also, it’s five minutes from my apartment, so that’s a nice touch. What do you guys think?

And at last, a poem. Donna‘s prompt to write about a place (but focus on the people) was filed in the back of my head all last week, and I finally finished this beast of a thing about it. Most of you are aware that this name of mine is a pen name, but you might not know that it is an old family name, and there is an island in North Carolina from the same ancestral roots. (The first section is the gospel truth.) I’ve thought about visiting, though I could’ve written more stanzas about how I expect it would be rather different from anything in my experience, and actually I might not get along with the people there. But there is something indescribable about the connection of family, and name, and language, that meshes with the vision of the sea and the land at war like that. It’s a concrete little pebble buried deep inside that isn’t going anywhere.

A Bend in the Sound

My professor says she was enchanted by this
postage stamp of an island, down the Carolina coast
where Back Sound squares its shoulders
against the loom of a hurricane. She says,
it’s the vowels.
The way a long ah will be half-swallowed,
caught under the tongue with pious humility,
while the flimsy ih is given a light shriek,
the long ee of the seashore
and the storm at night.
I’m writing a book on it, she says, and I feel
misplaced pride when I tell her half a lie, saying,
yes, I know, that is my island.

The body is a museum with a hundred wings
devoted to every genetic stitch: and I’d like to think
there is a fingerbone or narrow bile duct
that I could say, here is the part I share with you,
great-grandmother, counting back growth rings,
finding a name and three lines of a story.
I cling to that when the water
rises. And some well-gardened ancestor
split into pieces, one of them carried southward
thanks to longshore drift, to this place
I have never been.
He planted our name in the reeds and marl,
unfurled it to wave in a stranger salt breeze.
Sometimes, a ghost comes to each of us
to whisper heirloom ideas when we do not
expect it. Then, we must decide
which histories matter to us the most.

Somewhere, I have a cousin
who gets up before dawn to smear white paint
across the prow of a splintered boat, dragging
patchwork nets to the beach and stumbling
when the wind kicks down the dune.
I remember reading that we are all related,
if you count back far enough:
aunts and uncles, terribly removed.
But blood-iron is magnetic too, twitching direction
towards its kin. If I stood among the marram grass
watched the lanterns wink on the choppy sound,
I would lean forward, heartfirst.
Somewhere, I have a cousin
with the same right iris, the same tender rib.
She is smoking a cigarette and reading Elijah;
she is cutting up cucumbers for a midday snack;
we put consonants at the ends of our names.

Cape Lookout could be gone in a hundred years.
No predictions: but that wildcat water gets crazy,
drinks deep in the summer.
Then, the dock piles and the church doors
and the stacked creels and the power lines
will know oceanic mercy. I dream of rock people
eroded, resigned, carrying on floating.
But I worry about how maps change at that bend
in the sound. Who will share my named body
when the storms split the living room walls?
At sunset, the wind threatens
an orange light speaking exodus, watermark
change, things that are inescapable.
The only glimmer in my dream is that the past,
having happened, is inescapable, too.

If you stand at the mouth of the inlet
that digs into the southernmost cape, you can
see the barrier shoals, the ocean just beyond.
Hollowed-out vowels and old, old stories
bob in the slosh like big-bellied pottery,
laughing their mouths up just once
before they tip, fill, and hide from view.


I read the We Write Poems prompt wrong, a little bit. I think they were asking for twelve words to keep, but I ended up doing twelve words to ditch. I could have picked ethnic slurs or sexist epithets, vulgar slang or awful philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but instead I went for the common vocabulary, right in the jugular. This poem went through about ten revisions, and still has at least ten more to go before it feels right, but I suppose it’s a start, at least. Some of these choices are a little bit nebulous, perhaps… but I think they’re all defensible, to a degree. If I had to pick twelve to save, I don’t even know where I’d start; there are too many beautiful words in the world.

Eh. It’s late, and it’s better than nothing. My brain feels pretty tapped out this week.


Give me a blade and a dictionary.
First, the pronouns: I and you and they
lit up in firefly scraps, leaving nothing
but we, to teach us each other.

And then better and worse, so we can know
each beauty and each sorrow for itself:
cracking crème brûlée with a spoon,
the blue sweep of night coming over the horizon,
every wonder teased out like knotted hair
and considered one pearl at a time.

Yes and no will be tossed aside
so we can unroll our reasons in tapestries.
And there won’t be a way to ask for more
so we’ll learn to settle for enough and too much.

Enough of love and faith, good and evil,
fingernail syllables clipped too short.
Cut deep to peel up the paper for these,
full of definitions that keep changing shape.
Instead, let there be stories and actions
delicate as webs, unbound by such little words.

Then in the empty space there will be room
to dance out those nameless things lurking through
our history. What will be the word for
the happy ache of a suddenly weightless heart,
the turbulent shape of the sparrow’s path,
the first thrill of snow on eyelids?

Give me adjectives and verbs
with flexible ends. Give me the revisable page,
a roll of Scotch tape, give me a pen and ink
and the still-unspoken corners of the world.

Reverie Forty-Nine: i’ve got rhythm

Have to type quickly today, as there are things that need some doing around town. This week has just been interminable, and I worry that the next will be even worse. But here’s to keeping a stiff upper lip and hoping that it all works out, and that I can make it through to the other side (vacation!) intact. Got such a headache, though…

This week: “i’ve got rhythm

After talking about punctuation and line breaks, and different ways to use sound repetition, I want to wrap up this little three-part series with some talk about meter, vocabulary, and the broader level of sound structure. The usual caveat: this is all my own opinion. The secondary caveat: I have this habit of spelling meter as metre sometimes, à la the Brits, I suppose. Please pardon me in advance if I weave between the two spellings.

It can be easy to throw meter out the window, especially when doing free verse: with all the delicately crafted images and carefully placed sound devices, attention to grammar and punctuation (or breaking them apart), and other structural tricks, who has time to worry about the stressed syllables? Leave it for the sonneteers. But the truth is that meter can serve you well in any poem, whether it’s in a particular form or not. The basic types are as follows, described by each “foot”:
iambic – unstressed syllable followed by stressed (the caffeinated beverage…)
trochaic – stressed syllable followed by unstressed (anybody want peanut?)
spondaic – two stressed syllables in a row (stand back!)
dactylic - stressed syllable followed by two unstressed (come to the carnival Saturday)
anapestic - two unstressed syllables followed by stressed (in the silence, a cry)
amphibrach – unstressed, stressed, unstressed (the moon is the coin that bought nighttime)

There are others, but you’re most likely to run across entire lines of feet in one of these meters, or a few types mixed together. Pretty much everyone knows iambic pentameter from the sonnets; but what about amphibrach trimeter/dimeter? (That would be the limerick.) Or dactylic dimeter? (See the aptly-named “double dactyl”.) See what each line summons up in you and how they feel: try to give a name to the rhythm, whether it’s gallop, plod, trudge, sprint, flitter, crash, parade, etc. When you’re writing formal verse, you don’t often have a choice, but in free verse, you can mix and match these freely. If you want a particular section of the poem to move more swiftly, a lot of unstressed syllables often helps; similarly, if you want to stop the reader dead in their tracks, a spondee can be very effective, especially when combined with a subtle rhyme, a period, and a line break.

Even in formal verse, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could mess around with metre. Try doing a trochaic sonnet, or even a dactylic one. Is the sonnet more than just the sum of its parts? If you change the rhythm, you still have the rhyme scheme to follow, and the all important octet-sestet combination, with that important turn in the middle. (And if you don’t know what the turn is, please review the definition of the sonnet.) We are often told to use iambic rhythm in English because the language normally falls into that pattern; but part of the joy of poetry is to explore how far outside that pattern you can flex language.

So now let’s talk about choosing vocabulary. Again, free verse has a bit more liberty with this one, as there are normally a couple different options for the pacing of your lines, and therefore more options for the word selection. In a sonnet, the rhyme and the iambs keep you fairly set; you may have to say absurd instead of cockamimieridiculous, ludicrous, etc. even if you’re feeling wordy. But I want to draw your attention to word length, which is a different aspect that isn’t considered as often. In Japanese poetry, we hear about how haiku are not counted in syllables, but rather in “morae”, a nebulous linguistic concept. The short-and-sweet version, though, is that it’s about the number of sounds you’re cramming into one syllable. Think about be and strengths; they are both one syllable, but which takes longer to say? The latter has more morae, and would take up several “syllables” in an authentic Japanese-style haiku.

Use this perception to your advantage. Remember to change the flow of the poem. If you want to keep your reader moving at a clipped pace, you could write:
the river is serpentine, lapis lazuli singing its song

But if you want to slow that line down a bit, you might choose deeper vowels, syllables heavy with more consonants, and a metre with more stressed syllables:
wide-flowing water streams and falls; oxbow lake meets mire and sighs

Lots of monosyllables mixed in there, and “bow” is the only syllable that has less than three sounds in it. Rather than worrying about which words you can dig up that have the most syllables or the proper ones that fit the rhythm, try to find words which have the right balance. Try this: I can’t believe I’m about to suggest this, but open a thesaurus. Pick a word like “water” or “river”, and just make a list of everything in that entry. For each word, pick apart the stressed syllables; what meter could this fit into? Rate it from 1 to 10 on how heavy and slow (or light and quick) it is. Does it convey a particular tone? Sometimes, making a list like this can be very well-suited to replacing a word that you know is wrong for its location in your poem, but you can’t figure out why.

And a side note: you’ll want to stay away from the rarefied words, of course. And you don’t want to force a word into place. The cardinal rules of choosing language in poetry – get specific, but comprehensible, and don’t break the word too much – are paramount. But when you have your specific, comprehensible, flexible words, sometimes there are still several options, and the one whose sound matches your mood in that place in the poem will be the best one.

Lastly, sound structure in general is an important consideration. To develop what I said above, different metres, vowels and consonants will have a different effect. (And the rub is that different people will have myriad reactions to the same sounds.) You may craft a line perfectly, and then discover that the next one you want to write is completely different in rhythm. But instead of seeing this as a problem, use this to your advantage: what changes in the poem’s tone do you come across as a result? If you’re writing a poem about snowfall that starts out light and airy, and suddenly you want to insert an image full of deep, wide sounds:

…while thin-fingered flakes gathering between the twigs
make a bored yawn whose snobbery crumbles to the touch…

Roll with it! Here, the lines go from an almost childish glee at the snow to a disinterested unfriendliness, and the sound reflects that. (Note: “bored yawn” = spondee.) And look at the lines: they keep stopping and starting (like snow, perhaps?) with iambs rubbing against trochees, fading into a nice little pair of iambs at the end. Allow your lines to echo each other with their pace, but contrast in sound quality, or perhaps vice versa. Most importantly, allow yourself to discover things about the poem by reading it, over and over, as you write it, and tweak it to allow the sonic devices you love to come through.

There are poets for whom the overarching sound structure is the primary concern, but if you’re not one of them, then I urge you to keep it in mind. It might come after finding those perfect images and getting the rhymes just right, and writing in your particular voice, but it’s just one more component of the puzzle in a memorable poem. Formal verse takes advantage of this fact by forcing you into one pattern or another; it makes finding an enchanting skeleton to your poem easier, but can get stale real fast, or prevent some of what you want coming through. Write what you want to write, but then go back and write it again to see how it talks and sings. You will surprise yourself when you think about how lines rub against one another, how metres match within a poem, how the weights of different syllables will pull the poem in one direction or another.

A bit of reading, again:
- Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” (again, I know!)
- Langston Hughes, “Harlem
- Rafael Campo, “Love Song for Love Songs

These are more or less chosen at random (okay, Fern Hill was not), but try reading these paying attention only to the sound. Look specifically for any change/shift/regularity in meter, any repetition of sound structure (not just rhymes!), and words that seem curious at first glance, but upon closer inspection bring the feel of the poem to life. (Relating back to the last Reverie, all three of these do also do interesting things with rhyme.) Free-write a bit: what ideas do these three poems generate in you?

And then once you’ve gotten those juices flowing, try either revising and old poem to pay more attention to meter and sound — change some of the words around! — or craft an entirely new one where you do make it your primary concern. Happy writing!