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30 April 2012

DAY 30 Narrative poem

From the Tufts Daily: "Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate Rita Dove spoke last night about the relationship between lyricism and narrative in poetry, saying that she has approached her work with the view that the two should go hand in hand. 

" 'I grew up feeling that there were no hard-and-fast barriers between narrative and lyric," Dove said in her lecture, titled "Bead and Thread: Aspects of Lyric Narrative in the Poetic Sequence.'

"Dove discussed the connection between narrative poems, which generally contain a plot or story, and lyrics, non-narrative poems that focus on thought and perception and often lack a logical sequence of events."—Tufts Daily

—Rita Dove

One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others!  She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished.  No one heard her.
No one!  She had strayed from the herd.

(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don't answer to strangers.  Stick
with your playmates.  Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens.  This is how one foot sinks into the ground.

     I have a particular weakness for the story of Persephone, the young woman abducted and held captive. Her father only agrees to help Ceres/Demeter when she is unable in her grief to attend to her obligation to growth. The first time I wrote a sonnet was entirely by accident, telling Persephone/Proserpine's story from her own point of view. Usually we get the story from the mother's POV.
     A narrative poem tells a story, but like any poem, there is a density, and intensity about observation and language that prose only approaches. Poetry can tell a story, or in this case, use an old story to tell a new story. Use a myth, a fairy tale, or other familiar story to reveal something you know about how people go wrong, to give a warning, to shed light. Perhaps turn the POV on its ear or rest your sympathy in an unexpected place.

Any fool can write a bad poem in 30 minutes. I am such a fool.

29 April 2012

DAY 29 Naming

And because this is my favorite poem ever on names, I must share Marilyn Chin. The author of three collections of poetry, her most recent book is Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, a sassy, angry, funny, wild novel from a powerhouse poet.

"Marilyn Chin is an American poet who grew up in Portland, Oregon, after her family immigrated from Hong Kong. She received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. Her awards include two National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Stegner Fellowship, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, four Pushcart Prizes, and a Fulbright Fellowship. Her poetry focuses on social issues, especially those related to Asian American feminism and bi-cultural identity. She currently teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University."—Wikipedia

—Marilyn Chin

an essay on assimilation

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of "be," without the uncertain i-n-g
of "becoming." Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn."
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse—for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,

named after some tragic white woman 
swollen with gin and Nembutal. 
My mother couldn't pronounce the "r." 
She dubbed me "Numba one female offshoot" 
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die 
in sublime ignorance, flanked 
by loving children and the "kitchen deity." 
While my father dithers, 
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash— 
a gambler, a petty thug, 
who bought a chain of chopsuey joints 
in Piss River, Oregon, 
with bootlegged Gucci cash. 
Nobody dared question his integrity given 
his nice, devout daughters 
and his bright, industrious sons 
as if filial piety were the standard 
by which all earthly men are measured. 

Oh, how trustworthy our daughters, 
how thrifty our sons! 
How we've managed to fool the experts 
in education, statistic and demography— 
We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning. 
Indeed, they can use us. 
But the "Model Minority" is a tease. 
We know you are watching now, 
so we refuse to give you any! 
Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots! 
The further west we go, we'll hit east; 
the deeper down we dig, we'll find China. 
History has turned its stomach 
on a black polluted beach— 
where life doesn't hinge 
on that red, red wheelbarrow, 
but whether or not our new lover 
in the final episode of "Santa Barbara" 
will lean over a scented candle 
and call us a "bitch." 
Oh God, where have we gone wrong? 
We have no inner resources! 

Then, one redolent spring morning 
the Great Patriarch Chin 
peered down from his kiosk in heaven 
and saw that his descendants were ugly. 
One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge 
Another's profile—long and knobbed as a gourd. 
A third, the sad, brutish one 
may never, never marry. 
And I, his least favorite— 
"not quite boiled, not quite cooked," 
a plump pomfret simmering in my juices— 
too listless to fight for my people's destiny. 
"To kill without resistance is not slaughter" 
says the proverb. So, I wait for imminent death. 
The fact that this death is also metaphorical 
is testament to my lethargy. 

So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin, 
married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong, 
granddaughter of Jack "the patriarch" 
and the brooding Suilin Fong, 
daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong 
and G.G. Chin the infamous, 
sister of a dozen, cousin of a million, 
survived by everbody and forgotten by all. 
She was neither black nor white, 
neither cherished nor vanquished, 
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove 
minding her poetry— 
when one day heaven was unmerciful, 
and a chasm opened where she stood. 
Like the jowls of a mighty white whale, 
or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla, 
it swallowed her whole. 
She did not flinch nor writhe, 
nor fret about the afterlife, 
but stayed! Solid as wood, happily 
a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized 
by all that was lavished upon her 
and all that was taken away!

DAY 29 How we are called

"Patricia Fargnoli is an award-winning American poet and retired psychotherapist. She was the New Hampshire Laureate from December 2006 to March 2009.

"Fargnoli's books of poetry include Necessary Light (Utah State University Press, 1999), winner of the May Swenson Book Award; Lives of Others (Oyster River Press, 2001); Small Songs of Pain (Pecan Grove Press, 2003); Duties of the Spirit (Tupelo Press, 2005) which won the Jane Kenyon Literary Award for Outstanding Poetry by a New Hampshire poet, and most recently, Then, Something, (also from Tupelo Press, 2009) which won the 2009 Foreword Review Best of the Year Silver Award in Poetry, and was an Honorable Mention for the 2009 Eric Hoffer Award in Poetry."

—Patricia Fargnoli

In the Uruba tribe of Africa, children are named not only at birth but throughout their lives by their characteristics and the events that befall them.

The one who took hold in the cold night

The one who kicked loudly

The one who slid down quickly in the ice storm

She who came while the doctor was eating dessert

New one held up by heels in the glare

The river between two brothers

Second pot on the stove

Princess of a hundred dolls

Hair like water falling beneath moonlight

Strides into the day

She who runs away with motorcycle club president

Daughter kicked with a boot

Daughter blizzard in the sky

Daughter night-pocket

She who sells sports club memberships

One who loves over and over

She who wants child but lost one.

She who wants marriage but has none

She who never gives up

Diana (Goddess of the Chase)

Doris (for the carrot-top grandmother 

she never knew)

Fargnoli (for the father 

who drank and left and died)

Peter Pan, Iron Pumper

Tumbleweed who goes months without calling

Daughter who is a pillar of light

Daughter mirror, Daughter stands alone

Daughter boomerang who always comes back

Daughter who flies forward into the day 

where I will be nameless.

     In the West, names are mostly given at birth and are chosen for the sound or popularity, or by family tradition. Traditionally, in most cultures, names are earned through life experience. Name someone according to how they behave and what happens to them—give them all the names they deserve. Do this for yourself or someone else, but choose someone you know well enough to create an impressive list of appropriate names, names that are meaningful.
     Like Fargnoli, create names that are literal—“The one who was born two weeks early. The girl baby when they were expecting a boy. The woman who traveled the world.”
     Create some names that are metaphorical—“Son who turned the world. He who sang the moon from the night. He who stands before lightning.”
     Borrow some names as allusions from myth, history, and popular culture—“Thor, the wielder of hammer. Jack who climbed.”
     Add names that are literally true, and some perhaps that offer hope or predict the future.
     Farignoli arranges her list more or less in chronological order. Rearrange your list until it falls in an order that makes sense for the person you are naming. 

Any fool can write a bad poem in 30 minutes. I am such a fool.

28 April 2012

DAY 28 Dressing up

I first met Toi Derricotte at The Flight of the Mind and during her evening her poetry so dug into my heart that I sobbed and shook. I have always enjoyed poetry, but that evening was a new experience for me. She is a generous poet and a cofounder of Cave Canem who lives on the other side of the country from me. But when she shows up in the NW I try to get to her readings. The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey (1997) is one of the first memoirs I read that knocked me over with its honesty and wisdom. The poem that follows is from her 1990 collection, Captivity.

—Toi Derricotte

My mother was not impressed with her beauty;

once a year she put it on like a costume,

plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,

in one rope-thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,

and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,

with tortoise pins, like huge insects,

some belonging to her dead mother,

some to my living grandmother.

Sitting on the stool at the mirror,

she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her,

as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless it was weighted and bound in its mask.

Vaseline shined her eyebrows,

mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;

her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.

Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even then were old from scrubbing,

whiter on the inside than they should have been,

and hard, the first joints of her fingers, little fattened pads,

the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens,

painted a jolly color.

Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away, prayed

for the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.

And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her

pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify

every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside.

But once a year my mother

rose in her white silk slip, 

not the slave of the house, the woman,

took the ironed dress from the hanger—

allowing me to stand on the bed, so that

my face looked directly into her face,

and hold the garment away from her

as she pulled it down.

     Derricotte uses a specific event, dressing up for a special occasion, to show how she admired her mother, and to contrast with the way her mother was taken for granted most of the year.
     Choose someone or something you know—a family member, a worker, a holiday, business such as a coffee shop, an institution such as the DMV. In three stanzas, describe the details of he, she, or it on a best day and on a typical day, and finally return to that first day. Explain what the contrast between these two pictures teaches you about the person, business, or institution and what it teaches you about yourself.

Any fool can write a bad poem in 30 minutes. I am such a fool.

27 April 2012

DAY 27 Reflection

—Sylvia Plath

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

     Write a poem from an object’s POV. What does it see, what secrets does it know? Then in a second stanza choose another object’s POV and again, develop a view of the world that is revealed to this object only. Include a characteristic or perspective—a specific word, as Plath does with darkness—that each object possesses and reveal how this colors the world described. The object is both itself and what it observes. [Thank you, McKenzie Peters, 2011]

Any fool can write a bad poem in thirty minutes. I am such a fool.

26 April 2012

DAY 26 a success

—Terence Winch

My clothes are perfectly contoured

to my body. My shoes & socks

fit just right. My cat is a delightful

intelligent animal. My apartment

is great. The right location,

cheap rent. I eat the best food.

My friends love me. I adore them.

My lover is terrific & beautiful.
The sun is shining. There are trees

even in the slums in Washington.

I have tons of money & a gorgeous 

air conditioner. Great art hangs

on my wall. I live a spine-tingling life

of delirious sex & intense happiness.

from The Great Indoors.

     Winch seems at first to be bragging about a perfect life, but when you look closely, it’s obvious that he’s being ironic. It’s clear that Winch has an idea of what success looks like, and that his life doesn’t measure up. Yet, there still seems a genuine contentment here, despite his self-criticism.
     Describe your own notion of success and how your life measures up. Be satirical or sincere, but be specific as Winch is about his own success. Or choose some other abstraction to define by contrast. Notice Winch’s use of enjambment. Use enjambment to place significant words, most often nouns or verbs, at the end of lines rather than the verb “is” or an article such as “the” or a preposition such as “from”—he sets up what he’s talking about, and completes the sentence in the next line. Notice too that Winch uses stronger verbs when he can, and always in present tense. 

Any fool can write a bad poem in 30 minutes. I am such a fool.

25 April 2012

DAY 25 Mistaken identity

—Alden Nowlan
On the night of the execution
a man at the door
mistook me for the coroner.
"Press," I said.

But he didn’t understand. He led me

into the wrong room

where the sheriff greeted me:

"You’re late, Padre."

"You’re wrong," I told him. "I’m Press."

"Yes, of course, Reverend Press."

We went down a stairway.

"Ah, Mr. Ellis," said the Deputy.

"Press!" I shouted. But he shoved me

through a black curtain. The lights were so bright

I couldn’t see the faces

of the men sitting

opposite. But, thank God, I thought

they can see me!

"Look!" I cried. "Look at my face!

Doesn’t anybody know me?"

Then a hood covered my head.

"Don’t make it harder for us," the hangman whispered.

     Write a poem about a time the narrator (not necessarily you) were mistaken for somebody else. Include dialogue.  At the end of the poem, feature an ironic twist, a surprise that was not expected. [Thank you for the assignment, Sam Nelson, 2011.] 

Any fool can write a bad poem in 30 minutes. I am such a fool.

24 April 2012

DAY 24 Crossing over

—Adrienne Rich

Either you will 
go through this door 
or you will not go through. 

If you go through 
there is always the risk 
of remembering your name. 

Things look at you doubly 
and you must look back 
and let them happen. 

If you do not go through 
it is possible 
to live worthily 

to maintain your attitudes 
to hold your position 
to die bravely 

but much will blind you, 
much will evade you, 
at what cost who knows? 

The door itself makes no promises. 
It is only a door.

     In his memoir, The Hunger of Memory (1982), Richard Rodriguez argues that the new American must choose—remain attached to the birth culture or separate him or herself, painfully and permanently. 
     In her memoir, To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969), playwright Lorraine Hansberry has a different perspective. She believed it was possible to glide back and forth between the people and cultures she loved—into the mainstream culture and home to the community that birthed her. 
     If you have immigrant ancestors close enough to know their story, tell how they came through the door—or use some other metaphor to explain what was preserved, what was lost as they became American and ceased being Chinese or Italian or Honduran. Did they cease? Did they straddle two worlds? How was it for them? Or consider your own journey as an American. Explore the compromises we each make throughout our lives in order to pass muster in the world we've chosen—what remains of us and what is sacrificed, what we regret and what we gain.

Any fool can write a bad poem in 30 minutes. I am such a fool.
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