At the University of Northern Iowa I teach a course titled "Craft of Poetry" and from time to time I employ poetry imitation as an instructional approach in that class. Students read several books of poems by well-known poets; analyze each poet's subject, sensibility, and style; then write poems in imitation of specific pieces they have chosen from each poet. (I "inherited" this course model from Maura Stanton, from whom I took the exact same class at Indiana University when I was a grad student.
In my poetry-writing courses, I sometimes "do" the assignments along with the students, and in "Craft of Poetry" in Fall 2002 I wrote this imitation of Louise Glück’s poem "Siren."
Louise Glück opens her poem "Siren" with this line: "I became a criminal when I fell in love." Well, the most notorious criminal of 2002 was the Beltway Sniper, aka the Washington, DC, Sniper. I'm not quite sure exactly when I started writing "Sniper, 2002" but there had probably been several deaths already; in the sniper's killing spree, carried out "during three weeks in October 2002
I have had a healthy interest in crime-solving, especially forensics and profiling, for a long time. I originally started the poem in the voice of a profiler — in fact an early title was "Profiler" — trying to get into the head of the Beltway sniper who had not yet been caught, take on his persona, so to speak. If the FBI could psych out his "moves," he could be apprehended by knowing ahead of time where he would be and what he would do.
Imitating poetry in the way we were doing it in class, we also spoke about "moves": what moves might Glück conceivably make in writing a poem on a sniper, based on the moves she had already made in "Siren," a poem spoken by "the other woman" in a love triangle. That speaker says, "I wanted to marry you, I
I imagined that, mirroring Glück's "other woman," my sniper would be similarly self-obsessed; he would speak in ultra-bold and aggressive, even outrageous, first-person declarations, always starting with the word "I." Before I got too far along with the poem, the authorities arrested a man named John Allen Muhammad, who turned out to be a US Army Iraq-war veteran. That bit of info led me to abandon my FBI approach: profiler as speaker morphed into sniper as speaker, and the poem pretty much wrote itself.
If you compare "Sniper, 2002" to "Siren," you'll see there's not much of Glück's influence left. The poem quickly became my own poem — or rather a poem in its own right — rather than simply an imitation of her poem. In an epigraph, however, I do give props to Glück because she and her marvelously rendered and imagined speaker got me going and showed me the way.
Leave me a comment below, okay? Let's talk. Ingat, friends
One small footnote: if you're a regular reader of the blog, you know that I usually include photo or art images. In this case, I decided to use none. I just didn't know how to illustrate this post without potentially causing pain to someone or other. The victims, their families, the Muhammad and Malvo families have suffered enough (Muhammad had an underage apprentice, Lee Boyd Malvo).
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