November 09, 2006

More poem-building from A and Pam

A M wrote:
Hi Pam,

I revised the lines by combining sentences and details. Here is a new revised edition of the sentences. By the way, best of luck on your submission to Oberlin and to Graywolf Press. i know an essayist, whom I met at Brown two summers ago John D'Agata, for who had his essays Halls of Fame and The Next American Essay published by Graywolf. NAE is an anthology of essays of different authors where D'Agata writes the lead to each essay. It's all written in lyric poetry--all the submissions that is. Check it out if you can.


1) Choose a person you love, a friend you adore and respect and admire. What attributes do you see more of than her or his faults?

A: She notices little things like the way light falls on trees on a late August afternoon.

2) What particular quality or trait do you like most in this person? What does he or she do that most endears them to you?

A: She makes clothes out of chickenwire, old scraps of cloth, and colorful beads.

3) a) What reveals this trait, that is how does this trait show itself, by good deeds, fatness, a crooked nose, baggy pants, composting toilet, adopting children

A: She wears a black skirt with strings of bright beads and buttons sewn along the rim and a blue cabled hat knitted for her by her psychiatrist.

b) What does this trait do that you admire it so? What does it accomplish by being what it is?

A: She made a pair of sandals knitted with blue yarn, chickenwire, and ribbons and wore them to the bookstore she works in. She was paranoid people would stare, but they only smiled and complimented her on her courageous shoes. Her mother says she hates those “art” projects because they make a mess.

c) What is the significance or meaning of this trait, to you or to others? You can answer this in any way you choose.

A: Her outlandish clothing, the first sign of an oncoming mania for some, so in early autumn, at 34, they took her away to the hospital again, boxed her stuff, subletted her flat, and sent her to the crazy place where only old folks go.

4) How has this trait changed you and/or others? Try for something not obvious, something that takes the reader by surprise, or sums up the rest of the sentences with an AHA!

A: Before you left, we shared stories of your internal hauntings on the old, black futon in your flat. As I walked to your tea pot for more hot water, I tripped over a piece of jagged chickenwire, which scarred my bare right foot.


Pam's response:

Okay! Now then, combine all your sentences into a paragraph and then start breaking it up into lines of poetry, remembering that ends of lines are the most important places and that you don’t have to say everything, only suggest things, that conjunctions like “and” are often unnecessary and lists of phrases quite often effective...What else? Don’t switch pronouns, choose “you” or “she” and use it throughout. Name her or at some point give her an identity like a friend or Cat or something...though come to think of it, keeping her “she” could just work, and “you” always works without further qualification. I realize that Cat was afraid of being laughed at with her chicken wire sandals, but I think the poem would work better if she were not...After all, in mania usually one’s inhibitions drop away and such things as people staring do NOT matter...It’s just a suggestion. (You are allowed to “tamper with reality” if a poem needs it, though of course if you prefer not to, don’t! It’s ALL up to you and your preferences).

A word about “enjambement”: this is when a sentence is broken up in the middle, so that the end of a line is NOT the end of the sentence. Note that WHERE the sentence breaks is important and can do important things in a poem, including pun, surprise, contain two meanings depending on whether you read it alone or with the following words on the next line. Here are some (poor) examples. “At the end of the game/ I ran on the double/nut gum and got stuck/in the mud of the dugout.” I realize that is not a terribly good example, written on the fly as it was, and you can find much better examples if you look back through my blog’s poetry, but it gives you an idea...”on the double”...refers to running but also to stepping on the Doublenut gum so it is a pun and a double entendre. It has two different meanings, depending on whether you read it with or without the second word.(Oh dear, I there such a thing as Doublenut gum anymore? Hmmm. Well, if it doesn’t mean anything to you, forget it. Let me know and I’ll try again!BD) Ditto “stuck/in the mud”: you can get stuck on the gum or stuck in the mud...or stuck in the mud of the dugout because presumably the gum stopped you from catching a ball and the coach gave you time out...Or whatever happens in baseball...!I’m only guessing.

But do you get my drift? All of those three things are implied and implication is everything in a poem. It is MUCH better to suggest and imply something than to come right out and say it point blank. Give your readers credit for being able to go where you go in your mind...They will follow you better than you think.

Okay, I think that’s about all that I can tell you off the cuff about breaking the paragraph into lines, except to tell you to TRIM the sentences judiciously to make them flow and DO NOT SAY EVERYTHING! SUGGEST and IMPLY. And enough from me. We will work with whatever you come up with so don’t worry if your next draft is far from perfect. This will be the fun part. To start to really craft the poem! Oh yes, don’t forget to keep in mind the little story that you are telling, and the arc of the poem as it moves from one point to the next. This ought to be kept as you shorten the lines and tailor the paragraph into a poem form.

Enough is enough, Pam. Let her get to woik!

Good, then. Happy writing and feel free to e-mail me if you run into problems. You do not need to turn in a finished piece before you contact me if you need help, okay?


Pam W

PS One more suggestion: try not to begin each sentence with “she did such and such” but vary the subject and the construction. Okay?

Take a look at some of my poems to see how this is done, or at the poems in the Writer’s Almanac (did I give you the address?) each day to see what they do.

If I didn’t suggest this before, look into it. Go to American Public Media and from there go to Newsletters and choose Writer’s Almanac. Each day they will send you a new poem from (usu) a contemporary poet of some reknown, but certainly of high quality. It is well worth reading once a day to get some familiarity with the kind of poetry that is being written these days. Here’s the link:

Best wishes,


Posted by pamwagg at November 9, 2006 02:01 PM


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