I Tackle the Pantoum!

I wanted to learn more about poetry from the eight-week seminar I’m taking at WriterHouse, and I certainly have moved beyond my college acumen at iambic pentameter. Last week it was the “persona poem” entering my lexicon. This week it’s the “pantoum.”

The text we’re using for this seminar is Ordinary Genius, by the poet Kim Addonizio. It’s full of reflections on creativity and exercises and prompts to stimulate the reader’s creativity. Much of what she offers in this book can be useful to prose writers as well. For example, Addonizio described one of her favorite exercises to enhance creativity: Wherever she is, she makes a conscious effort to observe and notice three specific things, which she writes down. They may not show up tangibly in a poem, but the concept each observation evokes will.

The reading for week five of the seminar contained many different exercises and prompts, including the “pantoum,” which is a fifteenth-century Malaysian verse form later adopted by Western writers. A pantoum consists of quatrains (four-line stanzas), and lines two and four of the first stanza become lines one and three of the next stanza, and so on until the final stanza, whose last line is the first line of the poem.

Confused? So was I, but Addonizio provided her poem, “Aquarium Eel,” as an example, as well as other pantoums by Charles Baudelaire, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Marilyn Hacker, Carolyn Kizer, and Anne Waldman. I was intrigued enough to give the pantoum a try.

Another part of the reading included a chapter on “Race, Class, and Privilege,” with prompts to encourage us to either explore our ethnicity or reflect on our white privilege. Ever since Thomas Duncan was the first person to be diagnosed with ebola after coming to the United States, I’ve been fascinated by a man from Liberia who shares not only my last name but also the first name of an uncle. Rather naively, I wondered how the name Duncan came to Liberia; then, a forehead smack later, I realized I knew exactly how.

Slaves were often known by their masters’ surnames, and Duncans in Virginia in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries owned slaves. I’ll never know for certain, but from Mr. Duncan’s surname it’s likely some of those slaves freed from Duncan land migrated to the new country of Liberia. Unlike some others in my “clan,” I see that as enhancing the family name: Duncans helped to build America, and Duncans helped to build Liberia. And yes, I understand as well there is a possibility Mr. Duncan and I share DNA. I won’t excuse the reason for that; that would be specious. I do, however, embrace family no matter the color of the skin.

Mr. Duncan likely contracted ebola when he drove an ill woman to a hospital not long before he took a plane to Texas to be with his fiance. He could have refused to help a sick woman, probably someone he suspected had ebola, but he didn’t. In that moment, I knew he and I were family. I knew as well I would have to write about him someday.

So, bearing in mind this is a very, very rough draft of my pantoum, here’s what I wrote for my cousin, Thomas Eric Duncan:

Brown Warrior

I know what our name means.
I’ll always wonder if you knew.
After all, “brown warrior” fits you,
But the battle was already lost.

I’ll always wonder if you knew,
When you went to hospital,
The battle was already lost.
Hero became villain after death.

When you went to hospital,
Did you have the will to survive?
Hero became villain after death,
And how did our name get to Liberia?

Did you have the will to survive?
You helped the sick, who never asked
How did our name get to Liberia.
I know the distasteful answer.

You helped the sick, who never asked
If you were frightened of them.
I know the distasteful answer
Why in death you were feared.

If you were frightened of them,
Those who couldn’t save your life,
Why in death were you feared?
Were you Thomas or Mr. Duncan?

Those who tried to save your life
Didn’t think of you as just a name.
You were Thomas or Mr. Duncan.
I know what our name means.

~~~

As usual, I’d be interested in what real poets think, and suggestions for improvement are always welcome.

I Got the Persona!

In my last post, I wrote about having to write a “persona poem” for this week’s poetry class. My classmates received it very positively, as did the instructor. The poem is below; then, I’ll go over some of the comments I received.

Unrelenting

I am the thing you wish to ignore;
The monkey on your back,
The elephant in the room.

You think if you ignore me
I’ll give up trying,
I’ll mind my own business.

Your business is my business.
My nose will be in it;
My ears will be attuned.

You think denial will obscure me,
That if you turn your back
On me, I’ll go away.

Monster beneath the bed,
Boogeyman in the closet,
Ghost face in the mirror–

You think they are imagined.
I am real, ever so real,
And I am unrelenting.

~~~

Everyone agreed it was a persona poem, even if it was unclear who, or what, the “I” was. Some thought I should provide more clues (details) so the “I” could be identified; others liked the fact it was amorphous. They liked the strong voice and thought even though I used some cliches (monkey on the back, elephant in the room, monster under the bed, etc.) I had given them new meaning. As for that, I considered them tropes more than cliches, but that didn’t come across.

So, now the edit. What will I/should I change? Frankly, I don’t want to include details so the “I” becomes defined–because I don’t know who–or what–the “I” is. As I wrote this poem, I didn’t have anything concrete in mind; I wanted the persona to be undefined. I wanted the persona to be a little scary and ominous. One classmate referred to the persona as an “invisible bully.” Yeah, I rather like that. What I would change is the final stanza, based on a classmate’s comments about inserting a “they” after all those “yous” and “I’s.” The antecedents of “they” are the things mentioned in the penultimate stanza: monster, boogeyman, ghost-face. However, as grammatically correct as that line might be, it’s also passive voice. So, how about this change:

You think you have imagined that.
I am real, ever so real,
And I am unrelenting.

or

You think you have imagined us.
We are real, ever so real,
And we are unrelenting.

Hmm. I don’t know about either change. I’ll have to give it some more thought. What do you think? Comments? Suggestions?

Oh, and I learned a new poetry term–tercet, which is a stanza of three lines.

Poetry Class Update

I’ve had three sessions of the poetry class I signed up for at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. Time is flying, and I am having fun. I’ve received some great and helpful feedback on the two poems I’ve workshopped, enough to make me want to write more poetry.

The second poem was the one I wrote for #FullMoonSocial2014, and the suggested edits were spot on. However, Jeff Schwaner, who came up with the idea of #FullMoonSocial2014, had asked if he could include my poem, “Web of Fate,” in an anthology he was putting together of the poems written for that social media paean to the moon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the edited poem to him in time, so he went with the original. If you’re interested in seeing the anthology and reading the other poems, you can download a copy for free by clicking here.

“Web of Fate” was actually my fall-back poem. I wrote a sonnet (fourteen lines in three quatrains and a couplet, where every other line rhymes, as does the closing rhyming couplet. I have a friend who is terminal with kidney failure, and I intended it to honor her; but I think I bit off more than I could chew. I wanted to work on it some more (a lot more!) before I workshopped it, so “Web of Fate” stepped up as the designated hitter.

For this week’s class, we had to write a persona poem–terminology which sent me to the Google for a definition and some examples. A persona poem is defined as “a poem written from the point of view of the object or person being written about.”* Sounds easy, right? Frankly, I was stymied, but a line came to me during our weekly SWAG Writers’ write-in on Monday: “I am the thing you wish to ignore, and I am unrelenting.” I found that line intriguing, especially when I split the sentence and made “I am the thing you wish to ignore” the opening line and “And I am unrelenting” the last line.

We’ll see on Thursday if those and the sixteen lines in between actually do constitute a persona poem.

*Willow Hambrick – Educator, Literacy Coach, Writing Coordinator, Royal Spring Middle School

Get Ready for Some Poetry!

Last week I started an eight-week poetry class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. I’ve always wanted to write poetry, but perfectionist that I am I rarely set pen to paper to give it a try. When I saw the poetry course offered, I figured it would be a good impetus. The instructor, Aime Whittemore, didn’t cut us any slack; we got homework the first class: Using the first line of another poem, write your own poem. And not only did we have to write a poem, but it got work-shopped today. Oy! We had a list of first lines to choose from, and I selected “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks” from “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. His poem, written about World War I, is pretty stark, but I’d never read it until after I selected that line. However, the first line brought something else to mind.

Oh, and just be prepared. I’ll probably post my poems, good and bad, and your comments would be appreciated.

Family History
(Prompt: First Line of “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen)

by Phyllis “Maggie” Duncan

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Their burdens hunger and homelessness,
They fall dead by roadsides and in ditches,
Teeth and tongues the color of chewed grass:
Why I don’t smile at the wearing of the green.

My grandmother hoarded food and money;
A century later the memories were too fresh
With recollections of lost uncles and cousins,
Who left and no word ever came again,
Their empty place settings sacred at table.

Always spoken of in the present tense,
As if they would one day reappear,
Pockets full of coin and victuals to share,
To tell their stories of streets paved in gold
But never mention “No Irish Need Apply.”

To America, that was a choice.
To Australia, the price of passage
Was a loaf of bread taken in desperation
From a windowsill where it cooled
And reeked of survival.

Those memories ride in my blood,
Renew in my marrow.
My grandmother made no waves,
Asked no questions,
So she wouldn’t have to go back;

Fear of deportation stretched
Across decades to my mother,
Who dreaded applying for a passport.
In our house no talk of Auld Erin,
No parsnip or turnip eaten.

Bone and sinew bespeak my history,
And it’s undeniable in my skin
(Never tanned but freckled),
The shape of my cranium (round);
The color of my hair (red).

Barely a note sounds before my feet
Move to the music of bodhran and pipes.
I don’t set out bread and milk for the wee folk
Like the other Maggie, my grandmother,
But maybe I should.

#FullMoonSocial2014

A writer friend of mine, poet Jeff Schwaner, came up with the great idea of celebrating October’s full moon. We’ve had a bunch of super moons this year and an eclipse yesterday, and, besides, the moon has inspired a lot of poetry, good and bad, over the years. Why not come together and have a Full Moon Poetry Party?

Now, I’m not a poet–though I am taking an eight-week poetry class–but I decided to give it a try.

Web of Fate

I have stared at the Moon a thousand times
Or more.

In a line that goes back to the African woman,
Our mother,

I stand with everyone who has gone before and
Will come.

In my life the moon changed, bearing the footprints
Of men.

The names of all its deities are female, from Aega
To Zirna;

Yet, no woman’s feet have disturbed that smooth
Ancient dust.

And even now we still say we gaze upon the Man in
The moon.

How lonely he must be. Did he leave Gaia behind
On Earth

When Theia struck and buried its iron in Earth’s core
And hurtled

Molten rock into space to form what we look on now?
The Moon.