A Kiss from Far-off Eden

Today’s Miz Quickly prompt is to do sort of a cento of eavesdropped conversation, but since I find it hard to break text out of the conversations themselves (plus the fact that brunch with my family is the narrative equivalent of two freight trains loaded with chemical fertilizer colliding), I decided to just do one of my random-wandering Poets.org centi, as I am sometimes wont to do. The path just kind of unfolded delicately, and I’m not sure I have any deeper reading, but eh, it kept me occupied.

A Kiss from Far-off Eden

I know that David’s with me here again,
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
our right shoulders red, our wavering hips indigo–
but what does he know about inside and outside?
(I come up to him
in the land of missing pronouns,
and when it starts to get dark,
we hardly speak.)
I’d ask how such wretchedness came to cumber
all mistake. One world that shuts air into
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
whoever you are, holding me now in hand,
without you here, I’m viciously lonely.
Of all sweet passions, shame is the loveliest:
you are not me, and I am never you,
you with me, on me, in me, and you’re not.

Sources: Vachel Lindsay, “My Lady is Compared to a Young Tree”; Robert Graves, “Not Dead”; Denise Levertov, “In California During the Gulf War”; Traci Brimhall, “Our Bodies Break Light”; Li-Young Lee, “Immigrant Blues”; Galway Kinnell, “The Bear”; Marilyn Chin, “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony”; Alberto Blanco (trans. W.S. Merwin), “The Parakeets”; John Logan, “Three Moves”; Trumbull Stickney, “Mnemosyne”; Reginald Shepard, “Drawing from Life”; Li-Young Lee, “Eating Alone”; Walt Whitman, “Whoever You Are, Holding Me Now in Hand”; Aaron Smith, “Boston”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Praise of Shame”; Philip Lopate, “The Ecstasy”; Marilyn Hacker, “Coda”

Recursion Three: panning for gold

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
~ Marcel Proust, French novelist

In a stunning repeat of yesterday’s post, I am once again on a bus (headed back north) with an awful Internet connection. It took ten minutes just to get this page open, and checking my work email like I should be doing is practically out of the question at this point. So for now, I will just carry on with the promptmaking, since that’s something I can mostly do without needing to load webpages every few seconds. (How spoiled we are in the days of broadband!) Yesterday was caught up in a whirlwind of seeing friends and doing work-related business, so I didn’t get as much writing time as I hoped… I’ll make efforts to catch up and post a thing or two later this evening, so as not to lag behind with NaPoWriMo.

Hopefully, the last two days have been fruitful for your gathering of images and themes to use in some kind of poem-writing; today we’re going to take a different tack. T.S. Eliot famously remarked, “Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” or something to that effect. So, let’s practice being great writers by seeing what’s on offer in the hallowed halls of poetry and building a cento out of it. A cento, if you’re unfamiliar, is named after an old Roman patchwork cloak, and is a poem made up of lines taken from elsewhere: prose, poems, newspaper articles, spam email, wherever. Sometimes they’re built from the works of a single author, sometimes by the works of several. You can treat them as found poetry, or you can go hunting through particular works in search of material (as Margo is doing with her Pulitzer Remix challenge). Previous visitors to my blog may be familiar with the somewhat more random process of cento-building that I’m fond of, which we are going to use today…

First of all, head over to poets.org for the initial mill-grist. (I think you can use the Poetry Foundation website for this technique as well, but Poets.org tends to work better, I find.) You can either browse until you find a poem you like, or just nab the first Poem of the Day that you see. Today’s is “Yours” by Daniel Hoffman. Find a line that you like, one that sings out to you (which tends to be easier with a longer poem and/or poem with longer lines, but whatever you will). I’m going to stick with the last line of Hoffman’s: “What is an island without the sea?” Great rhetorical, there. Then, you go to the sidebar where it has similar/related poems by both the same author and by other ones. From Daniel Hoffman, I go to Muriel Rukeyser’s “Elegy of Joy”, and then to Kenneth Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another”, ending up with:

What is an island without the sea?
Not all things are blest, but the
one small complaint may hide a great one.

This is going somewhere interesting, although I’m not myself sure where. It’s best to follow poems that have lots of sidebar options, so that you can backtrack a bit if you need to. I called this prompt “panning for gold” because I think of it like standing knee-deep in a stream, knowing there’s plenty of treasure dust floating by, but hoping for a great big nugget of it. You must allow yourself to be receptive to what comes along, and build what you can out of it, because of course the trick after the fact is to see what thoughts the conglomerate poem summons in you. The cento can be a good poem itself, or it may be an oddity; this method usually leans towards the latter. But like a dream, sometimes the disorganized images can lead to great insight, and in the meantime, you gain practice with putting pieces together. (The best ones find new and inventive ways to completely transform the lines they borrow: look for ones that connect at words that could be either nouns or verbs, for example.)

As much as you should be observing the world around you for ideas, and going deep into the interesting ones, you also ought to pay attention to what you write as you write it. Poems transform in our hands like lumps of gallium. Be ready for it, and resist only as much as you think you need to. Try the exercise, and of course, you’re welcome to share if you like. Happy panning!

What Should Be Hidden

So first of all, thanks to those of you who sent poems for The Refinery: we have a few on deck that I can sort through now, and I shall try to get one out there this week. (Of course, more people are welcome to send stuff in; I’d rather have a list to work through than a stopgap every week.) And again, Curio has a new issue out, so you should go take a peek at it. Meanwhile, NaPoWriMo is coming, the book swap is happening again (post to follow), workshop phase II starts next week, and I am starting to feel like maybe, maybe, we can shake off this winter malaise and inject some raw life into the world soon. I hope so, at least. I’m thinking I might make a habit of going to Central Park and lying in sunny fields, writing; if this winter has taught me anything, it’s to cherish the warm outdoors whenever possible.

We Write Poems is looking for poems inspired by other poems, which led me to a cento mood, which led to one of my occasional scourings of poets.org to build one out of lines stolen from a chain of poems. (The process: find a poem and borrow a line for the title. Click on one of the “related poems” on the sidebar. Borrow a line. Repeat until complete.) It kind of veered off the prompt completely, and it’s just a clunky little beast of a poem, but I’ll adopt it. Like an ugly dog with three legs and a cute whimper.

What Should Be Hidden

The heart has no sense of humor.
That’s why I never smile, except when
I go out back of the greenhouse
to turn a midnight corner & never come back.
Autumnal evening chill, knife-edges of the avenues,
but I keep loving it
grazing my knee
as if we could be other people under the skin.
I have spent years tugging
this strange city, frozen to the back of the sky,
in search of something
for pleasure or pain like a bell.
No one can tell you how to be alone.
Revel in the squat luck of that unhappy tree,
and a constellation anyone could read,
lying on its back like a wounded soldier
pushing back into the dust.

Title and lines from: Marianne Boruch, “Human Atlas”; Monica Ferrell, “Anatomy”; Christopher Kennedy, “Ghost in the Land of Skeletons”; Garrett Hongo, “Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi”; Yusef Komunyakaa, “Blue Dementia”; Stanley Plumly, “Spirit Birds”; Claribel Algería, “Rain” (trans. Margaret S. Peden); Maureen N. McLane, “Passage I”; Naomi Shihab Nye, “Snow”; Carl Phillips, “Passing”; Joy Harjo, “Deer Dancer”; Tom Hansen, “Fallen Apples”; Pablo Medina, “At the Blue Note”; Michael Ryan, “Poem at Thirty”; D.A. Powell, “Abandonment Under the Walnut Tree”; William Meredith, “Starlight”; Anzhelina Polonskaya, “Sky” (trans. Andrew Wachtel); Roberta J. Hill, “Star Quilt”

Salad Days

All right, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is: if no one submits to the Refinery in the next few days, I’m going to do one of my own poems. I’d really rather not, for several reasons: I think it’s really tough to workshop (not just edit) your own work, I rarely enjoy going back to my drafts unless it’s to prepare them for submission/workshops, and it’s difficult to separate myself from my knowledge enough to determine anything that’s confusing/odd to someone who’s not me. (May rely on commented poems so I have an idea.) I’d really like to keep the exercise going, but there is a dearth of grist for the mill. Send stuff! I am happy to give you my email if you don’t have it, and/or you can link to a poem that I will critique.

Meanwhile: NaPoWriMo is coming. I hope that Kelli Russell Agodon does the book giveaway again this year, because I enjoy participating in that; I’ll be at the Rainbow Book Fair on April 13 in New York; I plan to do prompts at NaPoWriMo.net; and I am officially continuing the poetry workshop til Memorial Day. What I want to know from you all is, if I did daily prompts in April, is that something you’d dig? I have a few lying around, and I’ll use the next two weeks to come up with more. This will be my fifth year doing April poem a day, so I think maybe I should try it from the other side this time… feedback is most welcome. (If I don’t shake myself out of this funk by April 1, I am going to desperately need every electric jolt to the muse I can get, so I hope it will be helpful for both of us.)

A little something for We Write Poems here, based on a line by Irene Toh, since we were asked to borrow the lines of others for the prompt. The line really stood out to me for some reason, and became the first line of this one, and for some reason turned into a poem about… vegetables, I guess? And maybe it’s a metaphor of some kind? I’m not entirely sure, but it was a relaxation to write.

Salad Days

A poem isn’t the body of a green leek
that splits neatly when you press the knife;
you can’t trim off a word at a time
into green loops lit up with an early spring,
scattered carefully over a bowl of rice.
A poem does not grow in bunches.
And you won’t find it assigned to gardens,
bobbing its head in rank with tomato leaves
and basil. You can go to the Friday market
looking for poems through winnowing,
knowing only what it is not: toss aside
the first deformed potatoes and waxed lettuce
refusing to peel. Check behind the fennel bulbs;
rummage in the mushroom bin. Try honey
from the honey-man in a fingernail spoon,
a gentle orange sting laid on the tongue.
Look for the signs that say “FREE RANGE”.
The poems have crisp cores and many seeds
but no one seems to have them for sale.
They fall into your bag for you to find
when you get home; you consider, first,
how to cook them. Then, you may peel one
and eat it raw.

Reverie Forty-Five: finder, keeper

There is a great injustice to being sick on a weekend. I feel that it just shouldn’t be allowed; but on the other hand, I suppose I feel there’s a great injustice to having to come to work when I’m sick. I demand some kind of arrangement to remedy both kinds of injustice… in the meantime, at least I don’t have any crazy plan today aside from sitting here at the cafe writing away for hours on end. Still working at the old NaNoWriMo (almost caught up from my delayed start!), and still so much other stuff to do; thus does sickness make lazybones of us all, I guess.

This week: “finder, keeper

This isn’t a particularly unique prompt, and I’m sure that every prompt site has covered it at one time or another, but I don’t think I’ve ever focused on it as the entire scope of a Reverie. Let’s talk about found poetry. There are some truly clever found poems out there, that manage to turn the most inane segments of text into something beautiful: my favorite (when they actually work) might be the ones made out of spam emails. On the other end of the spectrum are centos (or more properly, centi, I suppose), where whole lines of other beautiful poems are specifically stitched together. We’re going to appropriate a few different ideas for the construction of our found poem, which will only be kind of a found poem: a Frankenpoem, if you’ll pardon the belated Halloween reference.

You must begin with observation. Many writers already carry around a Moleskine, scraps of paper, iPhone or whatever, to record the snippets of dialogue they overhear, the inspired slips of text around a city, or random thoughts that occur while waiting for the bus. Play that up! But try to focus on being extra-receptive to language, images, and happenings around you for a couple of days. There is a semi-Taoist principle that I always keep coming back to when I’m having a shitty day: to live in the world fully, one must love the world, and to love the world fully, one must love all the pieces of it. And to do that, try and spend some time being mutable, allowing the world to speak through you rather than trying to define it in your own poetic terms.

Try to gather words from the most unlikely places: fast food menus, advertisements for sales, crazy old men ranting on the street corner, greeting cards, the publishing information in the frontispiece of a book, photo captions in a magazine, news website headlines, blog comments, etc. (Barbara had a blog comment recently which I insisted was a poem in turn.) Glancing around the cafe, I can see start with a banana and scoop of tuna on the menu (not in the same dish; ew), Col de Vence as the name of a photo on the wall, documentary moviemaking on someone’s textbook, and first aid for at the top of a Heimlich maneuver poster. None of these are particularly elegant, and they aren’t that interesting in context, but the trick with good found poetry is to transform the meaning and use of the phrases, rather than try to find a prettier way to say them. So what if I used scoop of tuna as the taking of a killer whale’s mouth, rather than an ingredient in a salad? What if first aid for was followed by a breaking heart? And can Col de Vence be interpreted as the proper name of a wine, a house, a memory, rather than just a (photograph of a) hill? Using scraps of found text doesn’t mean you can’t let your imagination play with them a bit.

When you have a nice little heap of interesting pieces (maybe thirty bits of language?), expand the field a bit. You may wish to use the cento trick to actively go hunting for a line or phrase or two from a poem. As the classic proverb goes, good writers borrow, great writers steal outright; my process for a cento is usually to go to poets.org and click through randomly until I find something. Another option is, if you have lines lying around from drafts that haven’t become full poems yet, you can try clipping them and splicing them into this piece. Again, believe in the transformative power of a desperate poem: you might have a draft that uses the phrase smiling coffee flower in its botanical sense, but use it now as a metaphor for a person, or the scent of a cafe. At this point, we are moving the pendulum back from allowing the world to speak through us wholesale to actively choosing which parts we want to come through.

And finally, fill in the gaps. Arrange all those lines and words however you want, and use (as little as possible) of your own individual voice to give the bones some flesh. If I took Col de Vence and smiling coffee flower and first aid for and — to grab one more as I’m looking out the window — “this is the best place to start” and — to grab two more unused, unusual lines from poems I have lying around — kiln-fired body and white wine evening, I might end up with:

This is the best place to start
first aid for a kiln-fired body
in pieces: a white wine evening on
Col de Vence, a smiling coffee flower
evening, breathing in relief.

The blue text is really the only part that was created for this poem, though “evening” was borrowed and re-applied twice. Your poem doesn’t have to be very long, and indeed found poetry can be difficult to keep up, which is why I recommend getting such a hefty list of phrases first. Beauty and interest comes from how the words are used unexpectedly, rather than the amount of them.

To go in further directions: in a sense, all poetry is found poetry when it’s observational. People that you pass in the street become found characters, and images that you see in the world around you become found images. The difference is that you have freedom to put these abstract things into your own words, while being forced to use the words of others works a different muscle of adaptation and re-appropriatation. Try to work in reverse; instead of coming up with ways to describe the things you come across, come up with images and people to fit the words you’ve gathered. And the last step I want to suggest is an inversion to the prompt: leave your poem somewhere for another person to find. (There were some really cool ideas when we tried this before, and I suggest presenting the poem in a distinctive way. Maybe you want to sew it onto fabric, or tramp it out on a beach, or typeset each borrowed line differently before printing it out and stapling it to a telephone pole.)

Keep your eyes and ears open, and your recording device of choice handy! Then put the pieces together and show us the mosaic you’ve made.

Reverie Twenty-Nine: d.i.y.

This is perhaps the most beautiful Saturday of the year. The temperature is perfect, last night’s rain has been banished, there is a cool breeze and the low hum of life. Trying to knock this prompt out before traveling home for the weekend and my aunt’s birthday, so we’ll see how it goes. I made a point of bringing books to occupy myself on a recent long train ride, and I need to do that more often… I realized how much poetic work I could get done when I have nowhere to go for two hours.

This week: “d.i.y.

For those who are not up-to-date with punk/hipster aesthetics or the latest crazes in home decoration, “d.i.y.” stands for do-it-yourself. (I think it’s a Briticism originally? And of course the French have had the term le bricolage forever.) But it’s more than just the sum of its words, as all good catchphrases and acronyms are: there’s a sense of frugality, repurposing the old to service the new, using some elbow grease to transmute those found bits into something just a little bit closer to the ideal you were envisioning for this or that task. It applies to clothing, furniture, home improvement, arts and crafts — so why not poetry? Although trying to figure out how exactly to apply the same principles to poetry might be a bit difficult.

First and foremost, similar to the foundry prompt two weeks ago, you’re going to need some raw materials. I’m going to talk about two versions of this prompt, so be attentive: you’re going to either need a pile of words or some other poem. Taking craft into your own hands is an admirable business, but you always need some element from elsewhere to work with. This prompt was forming in my head as I stumbled across today’s poem at poets.org, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s sing-songy and veers into a Christianity cul-de-sac, as most of his poems do, but the first line is quite nice:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.

This, in my opinion, demonstrates a d.i.y. principle that might be the most basic and my favorite: make things (including words!) do what you want them to do. (I also call this the Humpty-Dumpty principle, after Lewis Carroll’s version.) While the line could be highly visual and metaphorical (the small fish snatched up by the kingfisher become scraps of fire; the dragonfly, with its wings, reflects light in fiery patterns), take it in a more literal, almost mythic sense. The natural purpose of the animals here is to interact in particular ways with fire. Metaphor is a way of shifting readers’ brains towards an interpretation that we’re looking to express. For this prompt, I want you to approach words not by what they mean, but how you want them to function, and the two can be rather different.

No d.i.y. excursion would be complete without a shopping trip. If we’re talking about individual words as resources, allow me to drop seven semantic fields here, from each of which you might draw one word: flying animals, celestial bodies, rooms, sports equipment, vehicles, utensils, and art objects. Try to come up with a list (scarab beetle, the constellation Lyra, boudoir, ski poles…). Then, try to get away from what the object is/does, and give it a more metaphorical purpose: the scarab beetle doesn’t buzz loudly across the room, it plays a deep blue violin through the air. The boudoir is not for dressing and putting on makeup, it is a gatehouse of truth and secrets.

This isn’t quite found poetry, and you are welcome to use words you stumble across from anywhere, but the idea is to re-invent them. And once you feel a bit more practiced with that, using metaphor and personification and ambiguous shades of meaning to your heart’s content, try re-appropriating whole lines from elsewhere. That line by Hopkins already has a lot of music in it, so let’s say I want to take that and push one interpretation of it into a new poem thing:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flames
with long brushes on the sky. And the birds all pose like
town square fountains, spit burning flowers,
magnesium flares almost too bright to behold.

Where can a stolen, re-woven line carry you? If you want to go a little bit further, you might try a mini cento by plucking a line from each of several poems, and then making each line into a couplet or tercet, re-creating it to summon a particular mood or narrative. You don’t have to plan out the poem beforehand (although you’re welcome to: most d.i.y. projects have at least an idea of a final shape, even if they don’t get there the way that’s expected), but rather allow the words or lines themselves to build the poem up for you. Roll with whatever springs to mind.

Two final important points. First, if you do steal lines, be sure to cite your source to be polite; the advantage of spinning individual words into their unexpected uses is that you have more freedom to do what you want. And second, you can take the aesthetic even further by getting off the computer and coming up with an actual crafty project to build your poem. Maybe you can cut up an existing text and choose a few random words, then glue them to another page and write the lines of your poem around them. (Include a few images too: do it in a truly indie zine-style.) I know that it’s not the most intuitive process, but that’s kind of the point: d.i.y. is supposed to be a break-away from the easy trade of having other people do the work for you. Get away from pre-determined forms and styles of poetry, and single meanings for language; create your own and take on new perspectives. And by all means, if you have additional suggestions to jazz things up (I am not a zine-maker, myself), feel free to share.

As always, we look forward to see what you come up with…!