Home sick from work today. Not like, really sick, just kind of sick: as has become the norm, the swollen tonsils are the clear early indicator of my illnesses. I’m going to try to become some kind of curandero of the savaged throat, able to divine the type and extent of any illness by how much it fills my lymph nodes. (Going between ping-pong and golf ball size: sinusitis, will last three sleepless nights and one week of days of tearful misery. Though I hope my prediction is wrong.)
Anyway, I’m a little bit loopy from not-eating (swallowing hurts), pills (all the Vitamin C!), and tiredness, but I’ve tottered over to the cafe to do some poetry. My excuse was that they would make me a pot of herbal tea with honey.
I’m continuing to think about poetic growth. I haven’t submitted anything in months, and I’m sitting on a big pile of poems that I’m proud of, ashamed for, confused by, or indifferent to. A friend of mine keeps suggesting we go to an open mic where I can read, and I think the fear has finally faded away into nonchalance. Prompts have ceased to tickle me when the same ones come round again and again without summoning up deep dark things that I can work with to create something truly satisfying. And I’m so distractable by all the other things in life that I feel like I need to take an extended vacation without Internet or other connection, to just write in a book with a pen, etc. That’s taking center stage in my right-brain, more than being productive…
But I want to share two poems that I love (and I hope Donna considers them for Poetry Mix Tape, if she’s not familiar with them already!) If you dabble in formalism, I hope you’ll appreciate the things the poets have done with traditional forms. First, have a look at Christian Campbell’s “The First Time I Made Curry”:
You left your scrunchee here that last time.
On the dresser, there forgetting your scent.
You only wore it when you smoked (slim, mint
Nat Shermans), to spare your hair. The first time
I made curry, there was smoke. Six whole nights
it stained the air – a thing in my kitchen
alive. I think you were gone by then.
But it was good, plenty channa, not too mild.
I stopped cutting my hair again, just in
time for the cold. Haven’t met any other
West Indians yet. I don’t have time to miss
a beat. Every dayclean I still swim –
like nothing. Like every Friday, Next Door
must still cuss out her married man and fry fish.
There are numerous things to love in here: the use of dialect and reference to heritage, hair as a symbol of affection/connection, the personification of curry, the allusions to private names and stories, etc. But also, there’s an undercurrent of sonnet in here, if you look carefully. It’s too easy to hold up Derek Walcott’s poetry as a mirror to Campbell’s, but (and I say this without knowing much more of this work, though here’s another three that break the mold a bit) the similarities are clear.
Another one is Patricia Smith’s “Hip-Hop Ghazal“. I can’t remember if I brought this up several Reveries ago as an example of an excellent modern take on the ghazal, but in case I didn’t, here it is:
Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.
As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.
Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping ‘tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.
Engines grinding, rotating, smokin’, gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.
Gotta love us girls, just struttin’ down Manhattan streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.
Crying ’bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.
Again, there’s dialect and casual speech in there (you have to read this poem out loud, it doesn’t work when you just read it silently), and there’s a clear sense of who the poet is and what she is claiming as part of her origin. But this also respects all the ghazal requirements: has a refrain and the rhyme before it, has more-or-less equal lines, has to do with unrequited love (or at least fanning the flames of desire), mentions the poet’s name in the last couplet, the right length… perfect!
I guess the point of this is to demonstrate that it is possible to strike a perfect balance between formal, traditional verse, and modern, boundless verse; and oftentimes the theme and voice can help create that balance. Formalist poetry’s blessing-curse is that it is intimately tied to the time and place it came from, and you have to find a way to adopt it without either destroying its elegance or watering it down. I think these two are excellent example of how to do it right; they’re an inspiration.
One more random thing to talk about: who is going to the Dodge Festival? I’d like to connect with a couple other poets if possible… I’ve never been (because it has almost always fallen on the weekend of my birthday), and as I’m right across the river now, there’s really no excuse not to go. I’ll probably get a weekend pass and just slum around Newark on the Saturday and Sunday. But if you’re a reader of this blog, and want to try and make time to have coffee, talk, etc., it would be neat to meet some people in person. Do let me know!
More tea. And then perhaps a poem… let’s see if I can do anything with this draft wiggling around in my head.