Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
I hope your summer is already nicely launched and that you are finding lots of time for new writing and submitting. For the submitting part, check out my lists of Summer Journals. These are journals that read during the summer months. Link below. For the writing part, try this month's prompt.
Poem and Prompt
This month's model poem is by Jeannine Hall Gailey. I found it in The Cincinnati Review.
But It Was an Accident
Yes, I was the one who left out the open petri dishes of polio
and plague next to the plate of pasta.
I leaked the nuclear codes, the ones on giant floppy disks from 1982.
I fell asleep at the button. I ordered tacos and turned out the lights.
How was I to know that someone was waiting for the right time?
I thought the radio was saying “Alien attack”
and headed for the fallout shelter, failing to feed the dogs.
I followed evacuation plans. I just followed orders.
I was the pilot of the bomber, I was the submarine captain,
I steered into the iceberg. I held the scalpel but I was shaking.
I was the one in charge. I was on the red phone saying “Do it” decisively.
I always imagined writing propaganda; how could I possibly see
what was coming when they dropped the fliers,
when the angry mobs began choking people in the street?
I was always good at creating a panic.
I never saw the Ferris wheel start its fatal roll.
I looked away just as the plane plummeted,
as the building burned. I shook my head at disaster, afraid to meet.
It was just an accident. It was fate. It was never my hand on the wheel.
When you point fingers, point them towards the empty sky.
—Jeannine Hall Gailey
In her mea culpa poem, Gailey has her speaker claim responsibility for all manner of serious misfortunes, e.g., causing the polio epidemic, leaking the nuclear codes, piloting the bomber plane. Of course, this catalogue is hyperbolic; we know that one person alone was not responsible for all the speaker claims credit for.
The tone is intriguing; is the speaker bragging or apologizing? And there’s irony in the tone as well. Who would claim credit for doing such terrible things?
Note the seemingly inappropriate touch of humor as Gailey effectively employs zeugma, i.e., the juxtaposition of the serious with the trivial as in the opening lines: Yes, I was the one who left out the open petri dishes of polio / and plague next to the plate of pasta. Then after she leaked the nuclear codes, the speaker ordered tacos.
The poem gains power from its use of anaphora in the many sentences that begin with I followed by a verb. The poem also gains power from the poet’s use of plosives, particularly the letter p. Look at the string of words containing a p in just the first two lines: open, petri, polio, plague, plate, pasta—and then throughout the rest of the poem.
A surprising turn occurs in the penultimate stanza as the speaker turns away from what she claims to have caused and instead denies culpability and blames it all on accident and fate.
For your own mea culpa poem, begin by first generating a list of misfortunes, disasters, and misdeeds. Create a mixture of global and local.
Begin your draft by getting right up in our faces with your bold claim of responsibility. Do not be wishy-washy. Be hyperbolic. Keep the draft going, line after line, until you’ve depleted your list.
Now go over your draft and add in some trivial misdeeds, just a few. Zeugma is a very effective technique but should be used gingerly. If used wisely, it adds humor and by contrast draws attention to the serious item. If overused, it loses its subtlety and surprise and diminishes the weight of the serious item.
Towards the end of your poem, bring in a turn, something that surprises both you and the reader.
As you revise, pay attention to sentence structure and sounds. Play with p, b, k, t sounds. Make diction choices to get better sounds. You might want to choose a single sound and let it predominate throughout the poem.
Maggie Smith is the author of The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press 2015), winner of the Dorset Prize, selected by Kimiko Hahn; Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press 2005), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award; and three prizewinning chapbooks, including the forthcoming Disasterology (Dream Horse Press, 2016). A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received five Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A freelance writer and editor, Smith currently serves as a Contributing Editor to the Kenyon Review and as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University.
Maggie's poem "Good Bones," first published in the online journal Waxwing, went viral shortly after being posted on Facebook. The poem and Maggie's comments about the experience appear in Slate.
Make It & Break It
The balance of mystery and clarity in a poem is always tricky. For me, a big part of revising is knowing when to say when. Sometimes the best thing I can do to improve a poem is to loosen my grip on it. It sounds a bit counterintuitive, but if you tie up every loose end, if you scrub all the strangeness and wildness out of it, you can revise the life right out of a poem if you’re not careful. You can put its light out.
So if a poem feels stale or stiff to me, I’ll sometimes shift it into prose to revise it. Why? We poets love the line. We love to make them and break them. How many of us, working on a prose poem, are tempted back to lineation? I for one feel like I’m writing with one hand tied behind my back without lines; a whole set of possibilities is out of my reach.
On the other hand, though—the hand I can still use—I have every other element at my disposal: metaphor, image, syntax, diction, assonance, consonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and so on. Because I am acutely aware of my inability to rely on line breaks for double meanings, emphasis, and pacing, I tend to shift more weight onto these other aspects of the poem.
Recasting a poem in prose takes my focus off the lines as such and helps me focus on the music in the poem, and on syntactical variety: statements versus questions, fragments versus grammatically complete sentences. It often helps me loosen up the diction, too. I’ve had some major breakthroughs with poems by taking line breaks off the table.
I suggest giving it a try. When you’re satisfied with the poem in its (temporary) prose form, return to lineation. Now you can turn your attention to line length and how you want the poem to move. We each have our own tics and preferences in our poems: default line lengths, stanzas, even types of sentences. On the bright side, these aspects of craft make our poems recognizably ours. They’re how we can instantly distinguish a Glück poem from a Berssenbrugge poem from a Zapruder poem. But we should continue to question these choices, too, and make sure they serve the poem at hand.
When you return to lineation, consider James Longenbach’s types of lines: end-stopped (lines which end with punctuation), annotated (lines in which enjambments “annotate” the syntax of the poem, emphasizing parts of the sentence that would not be emphasized otherwise), and parsed (lines in which the sentences are broken across lines at predictable points, according to natural divisions in the syntax). I think of parsed lines as being broken with the grain of the sentence, while annotated lines—what we might call heavily enjambed lines—cut against the grain.
Each kind of line comes with caveats. Parsed lines can feel too expected. Annotating lines can feel too self-conscious or gimmicky. When you return to lines in your draft, use a variety to propel the poem and to enact meaning. In a poem with primarily parsed and end-stopped lines, occasional radical enjambments could be used for emphasis and to enact a shift in thinking or action within the poem. In a heavily enjambed poem, end-stopped lines will put the brakes on and draw attention to those moments. The same applies to syntax, when short sentences or fragments may be interspersed with long, complex sentences. Remember: it’s not only the line that breaks; it’s the expectation that’s set and then broken.
13 Aesthetically Beautiful Journala
5 Exercises to Help Boost Creativity, Divergent Thinking
Three Pieces of Advice to Writers
Three lists of print journals that read submissions during the summer. Links to each list included at bottom of each list.
Interview with Adele Kenny at Schuylkill Valley Journal
Review by David P. Miller for the Boston Area Small and Poetry Scene
Review by Grace Cavalieri in the Washington Review of Books
Review by Karen Craigo at Better View of the Moon
Review by Glynn Young at Tweetspeak
"The Phone Call" featured in Every Day Poems
Click Here for B&N
Diane Lockward exemplifies Garcia Lorca's definition of poet as the professor of the five bodily senses. She revels in sensory language, often lip-smacking language, and she can make the language of terror and loss as spine-tingling as the beauty of a last stab of sunset before it disappears. —Kathryn Stripling Byer
“I make beautiful the moments of terror,” Diane Lockward announces in an opening ars poetica. In The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement, she transforms occasions of deception, cruelty, guilt, and grief in her fierce determination to name the truth. —Chana Bloch
These are irresistible poems—bold, often refreshingly funny, and spiked with hard-won knowledge. —Lee Upton
Review of The Crafty Poet by Christine Swint at Balanced on the Edge.
Review of The Crafty Poet by Christina Veladota at Maybesopoetry.
Lynn Domina reviews The Crafty Poet.
Grace Cavalieri reviews The Crafty Poet in the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Martha Silano's review of The Crafty Poet at Blue Positive.
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