“We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world.”
~ Albert Camus, French Algerian writer and philosopher
So, I’ll just make my one comment: the week of drama in Boston has reached its conclusion. I’m sure that in the coming days, there will be a lot written on the story, both prose and poetry, thoroughly exploring all points of view. There will be Boston-solidarity poems, triumph-over-evil poems, Chechen poems, victim-POV-poems, and poems that delicately move around the subject, circling the elephant in the text. I think all of these are valid expressions of dealing with the emotional chaos, but I often feel I have no right to it. My list of specific connections is short: I remember the war in Chechnya from my school days. All my friends in Boston are safe. One of my classmates from grad school hails from Dagestan. A student of my brother’s had been friends with Sean Collier. To get emotionally involved in writing, for me, would feel like appropriating the sorrow, relief, fear, and anger that belongs to others.
Of course there are abstract thoughts about terror, immigration, patriotism, community, and misfortune that form, but I find them hard to write about compellingly unless I have handled the lens through which they are being viewed and held it up to my own eye. I will not be writing any poems about this past week, but it doesn’t diminish my faith in the strength of Bostonians, my sympathy for those who lost life and limb and their families, and my desperate hope that the public reaction is measured, compassionate, and just. This is most of the reason why I don’t write news poems; I get too caught up in not being caught up enough, at least in the specifics. Others can take that challenge on themselves, and if you’re reading this, your extra challenge is to convince me, because I find these poems hard to read compellingly too. The world will continue to go on: there have been many other tragedies (Waco, Iran, Sichuan) in the last several days that we ought to remember, too, and there is still injustice and wrongdoing in the world. The lens of one tragedy must not become a blindfold to others; let your writing fight that urge.
And if you need news poems, Rachel Bunting‘s doing an excellent series. I recommend those!
That’s all I have to say about that right now. Meanwhile, a prompt is in order, I think. I was listening to Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” the other day (hence the title of the post), which might be officially my favorite LedZep song now. I’d been meaning to do a prompt themed around levee breaks for a while, and today seemed like the right time. For twenty days, I’ve been trying to give prompts that continue to bring in previous work, re-use drafts, reclaim cast off themes and ideas, running all the water and rainfall together into this monstrous channel of what I hope inspires you. But of course, it can get to the point where even human ingenuity can’t handle the raw force of the river. There is a critical mass of notions tumbling about the brain that we try and skim for material; when you pierce the walls and let it shoot out, the land knows flood. I want to try doing something like that with this prompt, despite what Camus says (and with whom I agree).
First of all, some gathering: get together all the drafts you’ve written so far this month, and all the ones you haven’t. Put together a word-list and/or theme-list, at least twelve items long. Look at the way you framed and contained each one: childhood friend’s death was contained with young magnolias, suburban flight represented in the context of bullet through the dining room window. The challenge is to re-use all of these items in a single poem, in each case allowing the power of the idea to fully express itself. Keep using images, but make them almost grandiose: instead of young magnolias, maybe you want the friend’s mother throwing glasses at the wall in angry grief, instead of that bullet, maybe you want truant boys setting fire to your car. Allow yourself to be almost — but not quite — overwhelmed. And one more requirement: free verse only. But you should still use sound and structure within the poem to make it musical; just no sonnets or haiku or anything. When the levee breaks, the water goes wherever it damn well feels like going.
Keep that list, because once all of that has been unleashed and let out of you, the challenge is to not use it again. You ought to have enough, at this point, to keep recycling and writing another ten days (if not, or if you’re using angles of one theme, there will be opportunities to refresh further downstream), so for now let the electricity of those ideas rip through the riverside towns, chewing whatever they come across. Then clip on the leash and drag the flood over here, so we can all read, if you wish.