While switching out bookcases this week, I found a pile of books that I had been missing since February. Many were books that I have already done interactions for, but one was Roll Deep by Major Jackson. As I think I'm ready to start reading poetry again, after a several month long hiatus, I decided to read this, simply as it was on the top of the pile.
I'll probably do a few different types of interactions with it in the next few days, but I figured I'd start by making a series of prompts that each poem inspired.
1. Reverse Voyage. Tell a story about the place where you live that mainly focuses on the architecture and geography. Not just rolling hills, cracked pavement, the ocean. Tell us about the stores that have disappeared, the ugly yellow fence that is older than you are, the faded yellow lines in the middle of your street. What does the physical landscape tell you about what it's like to live there right now?
2. Greece. Give us the opposite of homesickness. Show your reader a place that is important to you by intertwining at least one piece of historical importance of the area, one specific memory involving you and another person (if there was one) while you were there, and a sprinkling of that time's meteorology (was it raining? were there birds? could you smell trees or the local capitalism?).
3. Spain. Layers of morning pastries flaked gingerly/then fell, soft as vowels, on a china plate. Get your simile on and describe a conversation using food imagery. It can be a disccussion that changed your life, or it can be about how bored you were on a first date. Make us hungry with the wish that we'd been there, or let us journey into the meal with you to escape the conversation.
4. Brazil. How we move in our day to day lives is our own form of dance and martial art. Tell us about a particular motion you do (if you can't think of one, ask someone who would notice this sort of thing about you to help you out) and how it signifies your relationship to your everyday life.
5. Kenya. Write a security briefing about part of your day. Identify the threats around you, and how you intend to avoid them, imagine which information you contain is most likely to be targeted for espionage, and point out any suspicious behavior you encounter.
6. Italy. If someone were dreaming of you, what would they be dreaming about?
7. On Disappearing. If you were to suddenly disappear from the place where you lived, how do you think people would speculate your absence? Would the place be significantly different without you? Would anyone figure out where you'd gone?
8. Mighty Pawns. Tell us about someone you know who is an expert at something not enough people value. Maybe they can solve a Rubik's Cube in under a minute. Maybe they make the best mashed potatoes ever eaten. Tell us about them, why their skill is so impressive to you, and why they would still be impressive even if they lacked that skill.
9. Dreams Of Permancence. Walk around your building or neighborhood until you discover something you haven't noticed before. Tell us about it in vivid detail.
10. Stand Your Ground. I'm not usually a fan of poems that address the nation or city or neighborhood we are from. Too often, they get so large of scope that they feel generic and trite. But you're a good writer. You can handle it. Address a poem to a place that is important to you. Tell it some things you appreciate, and some things it needs to repair. Bonus points if you can make it a Golden Shovel.
11. Thinking Of Our Shame At The Gas Pump. What would you like your last words to be? What do you think that says about your humanity?
12. OK Cupid. Get yourself blissfully lost in a simile/list poem. Make a statement about how one thing is like another thing and keep chaining similes until you feel like you're finished. Then continue for five or six more similes.
13. Calypso's Magical Garden. If you don't own your dreams, who does? What are they doing with them?
14. Aubade. What things do you wish you could be doing rather than trying, and failing, to sleep?
15. Special Needs. In the mornings, I rub my hands together/back and forth summoning the angels/away from the orthodoxy of façades. Damn. Tell us about a morning ritual you have, what it means to you, and what happens if you are unable to complete it.
16. Inscription. Imagine the object of you affection is a place, a ritual, a type of clothing, a meal, a time of day. Describe them only in metaphor. Don't tell us how you feel about them. Let the images do your emotional storytelling for you.
17. Night Steps. If you've never spent some time staring out a window at night, then maybe poetry isn't for you. What have you seen or not seen when zoning out, your eyes pointed at the outside world.
18. Cries & Whispers. Over the course of a day, write down three things that you're fairly sure you'd forget if you didn't write them down. Let that list sit somewhere for a week. Now come back and tell us whether or not those three things were important, and why.
19. On Cocoa Beach. Revisit your relationship to a place you hate or fear. Is the emotion you've tied to that place rational? Do you think you could overcome it? Why should you bother trying to overcome it when there other, less draining, places to go?
20. Ode To Mount Philo. How you travel through a place shows us a lot about your relationship to a place. If you take a subway through the city, you're going to have a different experience than walking, riding a bicycle, or driving a car. Take us on a small journey through a place that's important to you, using two different modes of transport.
21. Enchanters Of Addison County. Show us a place that's important to you as it travels through seasons. Even if you live somewhere equatorial, there is a difference between the winter and the summer. Physically, what changes about the important place? Are there different people there for different seasons? Does the way you feel about the place change as well?
22. Self-Portrait As The Allegory Of Poetry. What's in your trash can right now? Why?
23. Pathetic Fallacy. Ask a series of spiritual questions of yourself. Don't answer them.
24. Fundamentals. Write a three stanza poem where the first stanza is focused on something aural, the second stanza deals with how something is named, and the third stanza incorporates camera angles and perspective.
25. Canon Of Proportions. Tell us about a famous person born before the 20th century, and how they would interact with a piece of modern technology. For example, Jackson mentions that Thomas Jefferson was never a frequent flier. Tell us about Napoleon's arguments over fraudulent credit card charges, what games Mahatma Gandhi plays on his cell phone.
26. Energy Loves Here. Find an album or playlist that's important to you, and freewrite to it, occasionally making reference to images or lyrics that appear in the music.
27. Why I Write Poety. Let's assume you've already written a poem about why you write poety. Write a poem about what's keeping you from writing poetry more often.
The page where my interest was lost,
premier and pretentious,
a great grey gust of gibberish.
Phileas Fogged down in the derails.
Do you remember when we named the dog
Indiana? A wooden chalice chosen holy?
On the red line to work the other day
I saw people whose skin color was not
the same as mine, and that didn't tell me
anything deep about who they were
as people. I did not try and imagine
who they were. I did not smugly appropriate
their experiences. Whether or not they're American
is not important. I hope they had a phenomenal day
in the wondrous weather. Unless they're jerks.
Then, I hoped they all stubbed all of their toes.
Last night in the undulating darkness of the thesaurused night
my unconcsciousness theatred a script of fancy.
I shan't describe it to you.
Orwell says happiness can only exist in acceptance.
I am jubilant that this book is not for me.
My eyes are in the text while
my heart is in the kitchen
on a beach somewhere with a better book.
The exasperating sea of prose
summed up by the coda
where the writer admits having nothing interesting to say
He wins awards for writing about how he doesn't know how to write
beginnings or endings. The middles are choppy, too.
The difference between experience and writing about
experience is more than perspective.
Is more than let me tell you.
Is more than show.
No matter how much I enjoy a turkey
and cheese sandwich, no matter my fascination with
the post-credit adventures in Super Mario Odyssey,
if all I have to say is ass bounce reveals moon
twinkling over top hat
while the crumbs catch in my goatee,
then that is all I should say.
I'm not sure how to start
telling you how much I enjoy
sitting in the solitude of my air
conditioned house collecting purple
snowflakes while the turkey and cheese
sandwich that I am unsure how to describe
sits on the plate whose importance I am having
trouble describing to you reminds me of a dream
I'm not going to tell you about because I lack
the ability makes me wish I was white water
rafting while this book fell behind the shelves
confusing the lonely spider.
5. Yodaing Your Inner EE Cummings
The best E.E. Cummings poems (and they're not all great) are rhyming jumbles of misordered syntax that make complete sense the very first time you read them. The worst E.E. Cummings poems sound like pretentious, forced, classroom exercises. You understand why a bunch of publishers passed on some of his manuscripts.
You were probably smacked in the eyes with some Cummings poems in high school or college, if those were your thing. If not, there are a plethora of sources .
Try writing two or three poems modeled after his syntax and rhyme scheme. Know that the end result is not to have two or three good EE Cumming homages. Allow them to be awful, if you need to. If you hate them, pull some odd syntax from the wreckage of these poems and delete the detritus before anyone else sees them. Save a list of rhyming end words for lines that you didn't want to salvage. Maybe you can use them in future poems, if you decide to write something with internal rhyme.
Once you've filed away all the pieces of these poems that you want to save, take your favorite weirdly grammared phrase, and make that a title for your next poem.
6. Google Translate Is Just 21st Century Slang For Babelfish
In the early twenty-first century, several poets, myself included, had poems where we took source material, entered it into the Babelfish online translator in English, and asked for it to be translated into, say, Spanish. Then we had it translated to, say, Mandarin. Then we ran it through, say, Arabic. Finally, we translated it back into English.
What we were given was vastly different from the original input, and, oh, but wasn't it wryly amusing to see how the translation telephone game had changed our words.
For this exercise, run something you've already written, but maybe don't love (or maybe something you love, your choice) through at least three different languages via Google Translate. If you end up liking the poem that comes out of that exercise, cool! You've got a poem. But, if not (and it's probably going to be a not), find unusual phrases that you never would have come up with on your own, but make sense to you, and try building poems around those phrases.
Or, to put it another way:
In the early 21st century, many poets, including me, had poems using our original material that the Babelfish translator introduced in English and suggested to translate it into Spanish. Then we translated it and spoke to Mandarin. Then we went through it, we spoke Arabic. Finally, we translate it into English.
What we offer is very different from the original input and oh, but it's not ridiculous to see how the game of mobile games changed our word.
Before this exercise, run things you've already written, but you can not (or maybe liked your choice) like at least three different languages with Google Translate. If you like a poem from workouts it's very cool! You have poetry. But if it does not happen (and maybe not), find unusual words that you never get to yourself, but it makes sense for you and try to create poems about it.
Or also, to say:
In the 21st century, we introduced Babelfish Artiner in English, including poetry, including poetry, and offered it for Spain. Then we got killed and talked to the monitor. Then we left and talked in Arabic. After all, we ask you to speak English.
What we find is different from the original settings, but it does not prevent the tone of the sound changing the tone.
We've done things we've written before, but you can not (or maybe choose the best) with a Google Translator on at least three different occasions. If you want poetry from good works! If you are not a poet (and perhaps you are not), learn great words that you are not, but try to build poetry with and with you.
I laid out several recentish collections of poetry on my desk, and then formed them into a pile. I picked up the top book, and looked for words in the text that made for an interesting line, and then kept going until I was done with that particular poem. Then I grabbed the second book, shuffling the pile immediately. You don't have to do any of this. I just wanted to make this totally random.
I am writing these poems in a notebook which I've called "What I'm Currently Reading". I write each mini-erasure in one color ink pen, switching colors every time I switch books.
I haven't finished my poem yet, but here are my first two pages of mined lines/stanzas, and the corresponding text they came from:
Logic is ten percent recovered from bone
opened to crude reason
The brain monsters a residence
in the captive ritual of absence
imagine your head is god
soft fontanels of youth
break this smoking hole
beyond churchless quiet
deliver me past noticed
the abandoned bed of shy recognition
These days you sleep in an older language
Nothing pretending to be sick but comfortable
Behind angry forgiveless power
each death: a lost howling
There is no ruthless in blame
who sang a permission of filling pages
I'm barely made of childhoods
a form of architecture I found ragged
If I scratched forth yesterday's treachery
by factually exposing each death defying twitch
If I interrupt a word in fullest wiggling tumble
feathers made of plastic grace
singing clamor and providence
fragment unthreatened as a tombstone
dug up in sin
I am transparent in summer
Always speckled weird that tastes superior
I wonder if some seaside faded fireflies
will calmly mention the sleep they do not believe will arrive
Poems excised from:
1. Sam Sax "On Trepenation" (http://www.wintertangerine.com/on-trepanation/)
2. Rachel McKibbens "Deeper Than Dirt" (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/deeper-dirt)
3. Major Jackson "Dreams Of Permanence" (https://newrepublic.com/article/61818/dreams-permanence)
4. Matthew Zapruder "Poem For Massachusetts" (http://floatingwolfquarterly.com/5/matthew-zapruder/5/poem-for-massachusetts)
6. Rachel McKibbens "Letter From My Brain To My Heart" (http://quondam-dreams.blogspot.com/2013/03/you-have-my-permission-not-to-love-mei.html)
7. Li-Young Lee "Trading For Heaven" (https://books.google.com/books?id=W2WcAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA41&lpg=PA41&dq=li young+lee+trading+for+heaven&source=bl&ots=65nbEzC0w3&sig=h0RkP4aLLzGb0wdWuraPQJIxxYI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiG8aKSmbPYAhUQMd8KHexGAlUQ6AEISTAF#v=onepage&q=li-young%20lee%20trading%20for%20heaven&f=false)
8. William L. Boyd "Backup For A University"
9. Patricia Lockwood "The Hunt For A Newborn Gary" (https://books.google.com/books?id=g7SKDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA20&lpg=PA20&dq=patricia+lockwood+hunt+for+a+newborn+gary&source=bl&ots=fp-3C-zzQS&sig=pjvUfxocm0oC9hY6xB68W2BLIY8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFg6b7mbPYAhVCZN8KHXThAfgQ6AEILjAB#v=onepage&q=patricia%20lockwood%20hunt%20for%20a%20newborn%20gary&f=false)
10. Danez Smith "Faggot Or When The Front Goes Up"
11. Matthew Zapruder "I Drink Bronze Light" (https://pen.org/i-drink-bronze-light/)
12. Major Jackson "Tour Of The Food Distribution Point, Ifo"
I often find myself getting stuck in the same writing patterns. Even when I'm writing about people or subjects I haven't tackled before, I use similar verbiage, images that cropped up in previous poems. And that's okay. Lots of writers get famous by having a style that allows themselves to repeat images across entire manuscripts. Self-referentialism isn't the worse thing that can happen, but it can be tiring to write, especially if you're not doing it on purpose. So for January, my goal is to write at least eight poems that don't necessarily sound like poems I've already written. Here are the eight prompts I'll be working with to alter the way I write:
1.) The Grand Erasure. Erasures can be great, but they're tough. Typically, an erasure takes an existing poem, or essay, or speech, or story. The poet then takes a marker or scissors or some implement and whittles the words in the poem down until it creates an entirely new piece of art. (examples: Form N-400 Erasures, Trump Inauguration Erasure, Louis CK's Apology Erasure, and this entire website of erasures)
We're not getting that specific at all.
Take at least five books of poems. Open the first book at random. Locate a word on the page that speaks to you, then find another word nowhere near it that might follow, keep doing this until you have at least the beginning of a phrase, maybe as much as a stanza. Now open a second book and do the same thing. This second book that you've randomly opened to might continue the theme or it may not offer anything remotely similar. That's ok. We're not trying to get a whole poem out of these erasures, we're mining for images and phrases we may not have come up with. Don't steal an image. If a poem says:
A bear opens a refrigerator with an app designed for otters
but the refrigerator doesn't care
It opens for anyone hungry
It does not care who calls it cold
Sometimes we have to be cold to preserve the parts of ourselves
other people need
you should not take "a bear opens a refrigerator" or "the parts of ourselves other people need". Instead maybe "a bear...designed for...hungry...calls...to preserve...need"
That's probably not something you would have come up with without seeing it in someone else's poem.
The idea of a Grand Erasure is to get maybe ten of these phrases or stanzas, and then use as many of them as you see fit to write a new poem or poems. There's no rule about using all of what you've scavenged. You can rework the phrases or images you find however you want. Don't be a slave to what you've removed, let it guide you to a poem that you wouldn't have otherwise written.
2. Remix To Sing
This is a pretty basic prompt that I don't use as often as I should.
Take a piece of your own work, or a poem you love by someone else, and create a new poem using only the words from that text. You don't have to use every word, but use as many as you can to say something different (not necessarily taking the opposite stance from the original...make it surreal...take a poem about frogs and make it a love song to Florida if the text allows it). As with any of my prompts, don't feel boxed in by the rules. If you want to use a word more times than it appears in the actual text, go for it. Is it lacking the preposition you want? Add it in.
You might not end up with your finished product purely by remixing. You may get done with the remix, and think it doesn't do what you want it to. That's okay. Now you have the beginning of something you wouldn't otherwise have. Tear out what you don't what. Add transitions that are absolutely not from your original text. Scrap 3/4s of the poem, but keep a series of images or phrases that you like. Discover that, out of this three page poem that you chose, that there's only a five line section that you like. Congrats, you have a five line poem. Save the rest in a word doc or notebook for later.
3. The iPod Shuffle
You can use Spotify, or a CD shuffle, whatever technology you have that allows songs to show up at random.
Take the first ten (or twenty, or whatever number you like, it's your life) titles of songs that come up. Use all those words in a poem. But it can't be a love poem. It can be about something or someone you love, but it can't be about A Nebulous You, or a pick-up line poem. It can be surreal. It can be about work. Anything but a love poem.
Ok, and then also use all those words for a love poem. Who am I to tell you what to do with your words?
And remember, if you don't like the first ten (or however many you choose) titles that come up, shuffle again.
4. Taming Your Thesaurus
There are prose writers and poets who cherish their their thesauruses. They utilize the most ornate lexemes to manufacture profound testimony from tedious abstractions.
They make me tired and unimpressed.
Find one of these fancy poems, and thesaurus it down to its most base language.
(Here's one of my favorites.)
Take that poem skeleton, and use your thesaurus (or thesaurus.com if you, like me, burned your thesaurus in a fit of rage during the 90s) to find synonyms that you would never use. Now use them. Choose the five (or ten, or two...it's your life) words that most repel you, and find a way to work it into a poem you don't hate. It can just be a random word in your poem, it can be the title, the whole poem can just be about how much you hate that word/those words.
I buy most of my books in bookstores. When I do order a collection of poetry online, I tend to order the cheapest copy available. Not just to be frugal, or to take the most advantage of online shopping, but because many of these books come used, often by students who have filled the margins with notes.
These notes are usually Hella Basic. Which is fine. It might be their first time experiencing poetry. Or they were forced to take this class and have been told to take notes, but have no idea what parts of a poem are important. Or they are experts and their notes are well-researched and fascinating, and drive me to explore more.
The copy of Yusef Komunyakaa's Talking Dirty With Gods that I received was Hella Basic. But without me having to do any editing, they produced a poem I quite like. These are the notes with the linebreaks, punctuation, and capitalization as they appeared in the book. Stanza breaks occur when there are many notes for one poem, although there are some stanzas that represent several poems, which only had one note in them.
A Young Reader's Guide To Yusef Komunyakaa's
Talking Dirty With Gods, As Written By A Young Reader
Judas in the Bible
hanged himself on.
He stands for a betrayer
-a skinning knife
monster made of different parts
God of doors that had 2 heads
formalist - relation to title?
sociological - sum up main points?
river of the dead
consequences of childlike behavior --> (indecipherable)
copy animal's abilities
-King of the gods
off as the victim
-fire center of attention
-large disastrous fire
-used many disgui - bull
Zeus = Jupiter
by wolves & are
the founders of
the city of ROME
-a museum in flame
}we start believing
<strike>he gets aroused</strike>
-act of having weight
to her children
:City of the dead
b/c that's where
all the artifacts
are: The sarcophagi
vials of ash, etc.
-b/c its the
city of angels
wealth, <strike>& business</strike>
-partial shadow <strike>+ an eclipse</strike>
-egyptian god <strike>the end</strike>
of the afterlife/death
-a stone coffin
-a sailor that was always drunk
-A faun-like God
of sheep & flock.
He was <strike>in</strike> linked to
God of <strike>Isis</strike> Thionisis
Also known as the one
that discovered music
[He made people fall
in love (like Cupid)]
- you are in
on it. you're
part of the
-------difficult to define
}He wAs pAn
being moved on
in love affairs.
-touch - sexual
die > obstacle
For her to
to hear her
T: women try to escape
the fate lives they live
---out of the dead
curled milk - sour
action of having sex
-action of having sex
sounds? of sex?
- Americans - open to sex
pain of last love
sin + temptation?
-->demon in the form
of a man (indecipherable) woman
to seduce one in dreams
-not 1st time!
50s & 60s
--inability to move on
doves in chimney
-found in chimney
Sadly, poet John Ashbery died this week. He wasn't a huge influence on me or my writing, but I often enjoyed how he chose to evoke feelings rather than use a traditional narrative.
To celebrate his memory, I read one of his more recent collections, A Worldly Country . Here are twenty prompts based on the first twenty poems from the book.
1. Worldly Country: Imagine a day where complete chaos has run over the world. Not a violent apocalypse, but a day of complete inexplicable weirdness. But just One Day of it. The next day, everything's back to normal. What caused that day? And what happened during it? Will we ever know how it got back to normal?
2. To Be Affronted (directly from the text of the poem): Imagine a movie that is the same/as someone's life, same length, same ratings./Now imagine you are in it, playing the second lead,/a part actually more important than the principals'./How do you judge when it's more than/half over?
3. Streakiness: Imagine that it's not people who prefer to go out in good weather, but weather conditions that prefer to come out only for certain people. What's their criteria? Do clouds have a different agenda than the wind?
4. Feverfew (directly from the text): What if we are all ignorant of all that has happened to us?
5. Opposition To A Memorial: Describe, in detail, the quality of an intangible concept. For example, what would "I can't find my cellphone" look like if it were a house. How would you envision "How am I going to explain this to my mother?"
6. For Now: Forgive yourself for something you did out of ignorance. Still keep yourself accountable, and lay out a way you can, in some way, account for that mistake.
7. Image Problem: If your life was a novel, let's assume it was divided up into chapters. Where does your fist chapter end? Why there?
8. Litanies: Make a short list. A list of days, or seasons, or flavors in a single packet of Skittles. Something manageable. Now decide which of those things is The Best of them, and offer that thing praise, and excuse it any shortcomings it might have.
9. Like A Photograph: Everyone reading this has, at some point tripped, and then carried on as if nothing had happened. If you have mobility issues, maybe your transport very temporarily stopped working. What was your inner-monologue like immediately following the issue? Did any part of your actions or speech betray that monologue?
10. A Kind Of Chill: Even non-human animals must get bored of their jobs from time to time. Narrate a nature documentary of an animal with ennui.
11. One Evening, A Train: Dismiss someone or something from your presence. Let it know, in no uncertain terms that they/it is not only no longer needed, but no longer allowed near you.
12. Mottled Tuesday: Something is about to go horribly wrong at a grocery store or retail establishment. Watch it unfold. Tell us about it.
13. Old Style Plentiful: Passive Aggressive Notes was a popular website about a decade ago. Write an extremely passive aggressive ode to something or someone you like, but which is driving you crazy.
14. Well-Scrubbed Interior: Is there a part of you that you feel is understaffed? Maybe your temper could use more employees, or your heart needs a new manager. Write a want-ad to fill the positions you can afford to fill.
15. Cliffhanger: In all plays, even Hamlet, the scenery/is the best part. Describe the scenery in your favorite play, movie or book. Focus on the scenery. If you can somehow make that tell the story without using any dialog or describing people's actions or motivations, then you are a true professional.
16. The Ecstasy: If history was a single building, what would it look like? Would you want to stay there? For how long?
17. Filigrane: Give an evacuation order for part of your past. Explain how it will benefit from leaving you. If the spirit moves you, give it conditions for the possibility of its return.
18. Ukase: Write a celebration of nature using a thesaurus for at least 1/3rd of the words in the poem. You don't have to slot the frilliest words, just the vocabulary you wouldn't commonly chisel.
19. Casuistry: What would happen if morning didn't come when it was expected? What would come in its place? How would you handle it?
20. Andante Favori: The end of summer can be a depressing time, particularly when you're a kid and have to say goodbye to all of your summer friends (or are summer friends mostly a construct of living in a seasonal economy tourist trap?). Tell us about how the change of a season affected your emotional well being.
My John Ashbery books mostly sit on the shelf, muttering softly to the neighboring books. I think A Worldly Country could tell by the way I lifted it from between its neighbors that its author was dead.
I read through it, maybe for the first time since I bought it. Maybe for the first time ever. I came up with a series of prompts based on the writing. And now, here is a poem that was slated to be a Maggie Nelson interaction. It may also end up being a Maggie Nelson poem , but for now it is definitely a John Ashbery interaction.
2. Burying My Head In The Pillow
The capital of sleep has been walled off
whatever tyrant is currently
wearing the shiniest tiara.
The passengers on the train
that no longer stops
don't even bother
to look up from their crossword puzzle
to reminisce about what isn't
so much lost
as currently unavailable.
is a thirteen letter imaginary
word for the shade of whatever color
you imagine represents the exhaustive
collapse of willpower to try and improve
society. No one has solved it yet.
Even the birds obey
the wall's strict existence.
The trees argue over whether
the sun will even bother to show up tomorrow
since all of mornings checks have bounced this month.
Don't forget your sweater.
Not that you're forgetting things. I'm just saying that
today would be a terrible day to start.
Visual formatting is important to me, so when I first opened Jon Pineda's Little Anodynes, I was skeptical. All of his poems are little gutters of words two inches wide. All of his poems. I was skeptical. The quotes on the back of his book are arranged in two two inch gutters. I was skeptical.
But I like his amuse-bouche style memoirettes. Though the poem they inspired ended up being much longer than his.
A History Of Smoke
The third time your roommate almost burns
down the house
in a grease fire You wake up
to a smoke filled bedroom Worse than onions
rotting on the kitchen counter Inexplicable
spoons buried in the soil of house plants
There is no fire yet
Turn the stove off and douse the pan
obviously before you go to work
smelling like irresponsible
Like the failing restaurateur
desperate for insurance Work all day
with that resin of averted tragedy
clinging to what you will later remember as what used to be
your favorite shirt When you get home
blow out each room
Soak the curtains in perfumed soap
Buy a new filter for the vacuum Mop
every surface in the kitchen until every sponge is kombu
Keep the roommate
Evict the behavior
Try and remember
a brand of cigarette that you both hate
the smell of Say parliaments are your father’s
whiskers left in the sink Newports are
the last roommate who tried to burn
down your house Not with a grease fire
but with candles and grief
and the haunting of a dead mother Grieving
with smoke Cooking
with smoke Everyone you love is charcoal
briquettes Wood chips at the base
of your temper Everyone kindling
camels are tomato flavored
fruit roll ups People forget
tomatoes are fruit Don’t linger on fruit
as an insult Don’t consider yourself
a tomato Don’t imagine
your past as smoke
Say salems are You know what
don’t say salems at all
not because of its proximity to
witches Their burning Their smoke
Don’t say salems
because of course another ex asked you
to buy salems and hide them Openly
gay Closeted smoker Only in emergencies
you were to produce a single salem He already had
a lighter waiting He was a state of constant emergency
You were a telemetry nurse
A cigarette machine Say
you never love the fire just
the aftermath The stench Say cling again
but don’t know for certain if you speak
of the lovers or the smell
Stay up all night trying to understand yourself
Lose your sense of chronology until you can only remember
when you are by the flavor of cigarette wisping or pluming or whatever
word describes the barely visible traces of burning tobacco but fail to
consider the weight left in its tiny wake
Remember the camel lights who lived
in your bed just long enough for you
to quit smoking You hated the smell of camel
lights for a decade
You hated the smell from the moment you met him
You were always a marlboro man
Masculinity dreamed up by an advertising executive
who believed filtered cigarettes were too feminine
The circumcised cock as a cowboy hat Your addiction was
always rock hard They say
you never quit wanting cigarettes
and mostly you think
they’re right After two hours in a dead car
with a stranger who had ruined her life
ruining one of your friend’s life you called the man you stupidly loved
and begged a cigarette for the first time
in ten years The first inhale was like kissing him again
Wrong the moment
your lips parted so you kept them together
for as long as you could
Breathing each other
You made it halfway
through the cigarette before giving him the option of taking it from you
or letting you crush it beneath your shoe
He didn’t want it back
You haven’t wanted a cigarette since
But you buried you face in his pillow
every time he left his bed that you slept in
breathing in everything killing him
as if it was keeping you alive
It was so familiar
The first man you stupidly loved was the same
brand But you were so younger
enough to be happy dying
with each other You couldn’t taste the rot of you
The first day the world turned without him
you slept on the couch with his fucken marlboro
spiced sweatshirt over your face to block out
the unrelenting morning He told you he’d call you
and maybe you’d beach day Or maybe
you’d smoke on the patio
until night wisped You waited by the phone
until you couldn’t decide whether you were angry or sad
And when you found out he decided to die without you
you soaked his sweatshirt with the butane of your grief
This is the second part of prompts written by Zanne Langlois based on Devon Moore's Apology Of A Girl Who Is Told She Is Going To Hell.
Part One is here.
Devon Moore: Apology of a Girl Who Is Told She Is Going to Hell Part II For the rest of Devon Moore’s collection, I’m going to base these next prompts on themes and patterns, rather than connecting them to specific poems.
The most fundamental theme in the collection is loss. An alternate title poem for her collection could have been “For the Lost.” Many of the poems are like negative space drawings, in which Moore defines the outline of the space a person leaves. In most, but not all of the poems, the lost person is her father. It is in many ways an elegy, but without the pastel shades and blurred edges of the the filter we often apply to the lives of the recently dead. At various places, she refers to the task of the poems as resurrection, taxidermy, and patricide, revealing the complexity of grief over the loss of a parent, particularly a parent who had been missing from their child’s life in crucial ways even when they were alive. Many of the poems walk the line between grief and regret, and show the ways in which the second amplifies the first.
Prompt: Write a negative space poem. Describe the shape of the hole left when a person close to you either died or left. It doesn’t have to be grief-shaped. It could also show what there is space for now that there wasn’t before. Maybe there’s a new appreciation for something, or something you started together has stayed in your life even after the person is gone (as in “Gardening with Gravity”).
Prompt: Find a small item left by someone who has died and imagine it as a sign of their presence. What is it? How and where do you find it? What do you do with it? What do you do because of it?
Another theme is miscommunication and misinterpretation—what we think we are saying vs. what it heard, and vice versa. Some of the poems explore the way kids misinterpret things because of their naivete, while others focus on the miscommunication between adults, especially those in romantic relationships.
Prompt: write a poem in which every line could be interpreted two ways, and those two ways would cause conflict between the people communicating if one was meant but the other was heard. Perhaps have the gap between the two possible meanings be a harbinger of what is to come. Bonus: use a few homonyms to show the nature of a relationship. “Going to Ocean” uses current and currant. Explore the different things two words that sound exactly the same can mean, and explore miscommunication and mismatch through them.
Here it occurs to me that I’ve been focusing almost entirely on content, as opposed to craft or structure. Most of Moore’s poems are written in free verse, with the exception of one villanelle, which I’d read a number of times before I realized it was a villanelle, which made me like it even more. But for the most part, I can’t really identify a structure in the poems. What does come through is a specific voice. The speaker in Moore’s poems often has a slightly breathless sound, like a child who is telling a story they are excited about—run-on sentences, non-sequitors, illogical or overly logical conclusions. As when a child tells a story, all the details get the same level of importance, even if their significance varies greatly.
Prompt: Describe two or three specific emotionally charged moments from your childhood. Your parents announcing their divorce, the arrival of a new sibling, the loss of a relative or a pet. The first time through, describe the event from a place of adult understanding, to capture the bones of the moment. They go back and translate it into the thought patterns / speech patterns of a child at that age. Maybe 6 year-old you is explaining what happened to 30 year-old you. Maybe they are even trying to comfort 30 year-old you with their explanation.
Prompt: Identify someone in your life who has a very distinctive way of speaking, in terms of cadence, diction, sentence structure. Write a poems in their voice, in which you directly address the reader. Think about what filler words do they use between their ideas, how long their sentences tend to be, where they pause, etc. If possible, write about a topic they care about.
Moore’s poems are full of everyday objects that pin the poems to a particular time period— Okinawan saucer, ruby slippers, Nintendo, mandarin orange scented soap, Bouncing Betty, snowglobe, etc. These objects do a lot of the emotional work in the poem, sometimes as talismans, sometimes as symbols, sometimes as props that identify the setting of the poem.
Prompt: List 20 objects that define the first decade of your life, both personally and culturally. Some brand names, some items specific to your family. Items at your relatives houses that you coveted, items in your house you were not allowed to touch, items you touched every day, items that only came out on holidays. Food items, toys, clothing, furniture, etc. Now use at least 10 in a poem. Here are some places to start: 1) Find the time capsule you buried in yourself as a child. Pull out each item and explore the memories it evokes. In what part of your body is each one stored? Maybe it’s an archaeological dig. 2) Create a museum diorama of your childhood. Maybe a series of them. What do the descriptions on the wall next to each exhibit say? 3) Where are these objects now? What happened to them after they disappeared from your life? What disappeared with them?
An ongoing conversation between writers and the text that they're reading.