Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wound, Burn, Glacier ... Revisited


One of the things I love most about blogging is meeting excellent writers I didn't know before. Earlier this year, I met Catherine Pritchard Childress, who took on a teaching exercise I described in a blog post in May 2011.

Wait, let me back up a little. It might help if you read about this in-class exercise in that post — especially the ad hoc, impromptu, improvisational way it came about — but basically the exercise asked my students to write a 12-line poem based on the following paragraph from the story "VIVA!" by Erin McReynolds.

My boyfriend sleeps beside me, and his face is peaceful in
the blue light of my laptop. His lashes are long and I bend
down to kiss them. Because I'm used to telling him every-
thing, I whisper aloud the things I find on the Internet.
Things like, "A wound to the carotid artery results in a loss of
consciousness in under a minute," and, "They burn the organs
they remove during autopsy, unless the family wants them put
back in, for religious reasons." When he startles, his glacier
eyes wild with panic, I stroke his head. "Sssh," I whisper, "it’s
me," as if that should comfort him. He blinks at me and then
grabs me around the ribs and crushes his face to my chest. I
keep stroking his hair, whispering, "The human body contains
about five liters of blood."
                                            — North American Review (Winter 2011)
                       

The tricky part was that you had to pick one word from each line of the paragraph and use it in the matching line in your poem. A word from McReynolds' first line would go in your first line, then a word from line 2 would appear in your line 2, and so on. Small changes in the words (remove to removing, say) allowed. I left line 13 from the paragraph out of the game because it had too few words in it, and I didn't want the word blood to unduly influence what the students might write. And me too, because I did the exercise along with them.

Well, I was impressed — flabbergasted, even — by the exercise poems my students dashed off in about ten minutes ... and the two poems I wrote weren't bad either. That experience was the inspiration for that blog post in which I shared the exercise, its backstory, and a couple of the students' exercise poems, as well as my own.

So, back to Catherine ... after reading about the exercise, she was inspired to try it and then shared what she'd written in a comment to the post. Here it is, with the "borrowed" words from the McReynolds paragraph in gray at the right.

Ragdoll

Peace eludes her hard-earned sleep,
she lashes out incoherent words, flailing
limbs tell long-buried secrets of a past
he tries to whisper away with hush nows,
there theres, croon clear the blighted artery
of memory that burns clean to the surface —
a childhood. Family forgotten by light, encircles
her with startling clarity in the void of night
wild as the twisted vines heavy with grapes,
where she blinked tears drawn by mama's hand,
clinging to crushed remnants of whiskey-free days,
stroking the pale straw hair of a faceless doll.

—Exercise by Catherine Pritchard Childress     [do not copy or quote ... thanks]


peaceful / sleeps
lashes
telling
whisper
artery
burn
family
startles
wild
blinked
crushes
stroking

This is quite an amazing poem, actually. Catherine wrote this in ten or fifteen minutes. And notice how she uses two words in her first line. (Catherine, I hope you won't mind too much that I edited this a little, adding a hyphen in lines 1 and 3 to match your hyphen in "whiskey-free.")

Even more amazing, Catherine then shared, a month later, another exercise poem that, as she put it, "resulted from working with this exercise and a little more time."

Oeuvre

A real boyfriend would've cared I was only twelve,
that it would be a long time before I wasn't jailbait,
never had a slow, wet kiss full of wrestling tongues,
been able to find my G-spot or even know I had one,
that what he had planned for the backseat would wound
more than the pink crescent between baby-fat legs. Minutes
of his pleasure would remove the thin layer of dignity
I cleaved to with the zeal of backwoods religion,
sacrificed for a few quick, dry strokes of his manhood.
Would have offered a rag for the blood and comfort
in his arms, instead of flopping his chest on top of me
again and again pounding out his body of work.

—Exercise by Catherine Pritchard Childress     [do not copy or quote ... thanks]


boyfriend
long
kiss
find / I
wound
minute
remove
religious
stroke
comfort
chest
body

My response to Catherine, in our conversation through blog comments, was this: "I really appreciate the seriousness of the poems, how they deal with such personal topics with dignity and elegance." Absolutely ... dignity and elegance.

Since she had written such fine exercise poems, I challenged Catherine to take even more time and try it again. Here's what she sent me two months later.

Hush

I parked beside a winding mountain road to gather my thoughts
before rounding the next bend, a sharp left onto my father’s farm
where I'd hide in the hayloft with Jason Martin so we could
take turns reading aloud, poems we were ridiculed for reading
in view of the real men. Those lost afternoons buried a secret
deeper in me than the paperbacks hidden under tawny bales,
the one I'd come to tell Dad now. He wants me to marry a nice girl
from a religious family, raise a couple kids, work at the mill,
Sssh crying babies while the woman gets supper on the table.
Wishing for his sake I wanted that too will provide little comfort
when I see his face in my rearview mirror, broken
after I've laid my future that began whispering in his barn.

—Exercise by Catherine Pritchard Childress     [do not copy or quote ... thanks]


beside
bend
I'm
aloud
loss
under
wants
religious
sssh
comfort
face
whispering

Just a tremendous poem. The phrase "dignity and elegance" is again apropos, and perhaps even pales. In this persona poem, Catherine affords her character such dignity, such pathos, as he faces up to coming out as gay to his father who will, he knows, be broken by it. Hmm.

There's plenty more I could say about any of these lovely poems but I've been holding back. I'd really like to hear what you have to say. Please write me a comment below. And Catherine will be "listening" as well and I'm sure she would be happy to reply. As will I.

Incidentally, Catherine recently wrote me on facebook that "My poem 'Oeuvre,' which was inspired by your online writing exercise, was accepted in its revised form, along with another of my poems, for publication in a journal based in Hawaii, Kaimana. Thanks for the inspiration." Congratulations, Catherine! I'm glad and proud that my little exercise had such a grand result.

Again, friends, do leave a comment below, please. Thanks.

Happy New Year, everyone! Manigong bagong taon!



Added later on 2 Jan 2012: After I posted this, it occurred to me another lit mag editor might see the poem "Hush" and snap it up. All because of my hosting it online. Well, I had been thinking about publishing "Hush," so I contacted Catherine and asked if the NAR could have it. And this was on the three-day weekend, no less. (I very rarely do this kind of thing; the great majority of my selections are from work already submitted to the NAR.) Anyway, happy ending. I've made a couple of suggestions and Catherine is considering some revisions. Watch for "Hush" or whatever its eventual title will be in the NAR! Stay warm, everyone!

 

7 comments:

Donna Miscolta said...

Great source material, great exercise and really lovely poems.

Vince Gotera said...

Donna, thanks a lot. Did you read the earlier post with the same exercise? Good poems there too. Come back and read more from my blog!

Catherine Pritchard Childress said...

Thanks Donna for your kind words! Erin's original paragraph opens the imagination to all sorts of possibilities.

Jen said...

What an evocative passage. It is interesting to me to see its influence - that even some of the words and lines not included in the poetry still resonate. "Hush" is a beautiful poem and a great choice. Thanks for posting this.

Vince Gotera said...

Jen, thanks for the comment. And you're welcome. Come back soon.

Catherine Pritchard Childress said...

I am so glad my work resonates with the reader. Thanks so much for your kindness.

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