Week 9: Duel Task (Poem Revisions!)

Week 9: Duel Task is a two part assignment for the remaining Project Verse contestants. Below you will find the poems from the revision portion of the assignment.

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EMILY VAN DUYNE

ORIGINAL:
Elegy

Oh My God, the angels
wear white gloves on their left hands!
Eternity’s a big fat fucking show
tonight, vacuous black churned white

& glittering. I can see it
from my little clammy foxhole. The sky
is vintage celluloid, the hell with digital.
I hope you didn’t think

you’d make a nice clean break!
For’s Christ’s sake, don’t fail
us now— the stars went scuttling when
they heard you coming! You wouldn’t

leave us with no light
to top the bill? You couldn’t leave
us in the dark. We need another
comeback, need to know this isn’t how it ends—

(if you can end, then so can we)
& trust this Jersey girl who stalks
the sky— we never cared for your humanity.
The world’s no

stage these days, it’s just a screen,
some dumb flat firmament; convince me
why your death would break the mold.
Look up— even the moon’s turned out

for you; old hag of rag & bone,
she’s donned her crescent gold, she’s
donned her best. She’s know
tonight she hosts an honored guest.

REVISION:
Elegy

Oh My God, look up! The angels wear white
gloves on their left hands! A chorus line of shimmy

hipping seraphim. Eternity’s a big, fat blazing
show tonight, vacuous black churned white

and glittering. The sky is vintage celluloid, the hell
with digital. The world’s no stage

these days, it’s just a screen, some dumb
flat firmament; why should heaven break

the mold? Even the moon’s turned out! She’s donned
her best, crescent gold. She hangs in wait

for your arrival; the stars are milling in the aisles.
Mars has snagged the house’s choicest seat. So sorry,

but there isn’t time to sleep! Look, there— the lady
moon’s sashayed into eclipse for your debut:

your show will go on, with or without you.

Emily revised her poem from Week 3: Simile Vs Metaphor, and her strongest line selection is and glittering. The sky is vintage celluloid, the hell.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I’m glad to see this revision as well. The original was somewhat confusing and the revision seems to me more easily applicable as a general elegy and reads as more sad and more powerful to me because of that. The end “your show will go on, with or without you” is lovely and could be said for and to many who have died, not just Michael Jackson (which I think was the inspiration for the poem). I like the revisions of the beginning too, though I did miss the “big fat fucking” line in the revised version. I agree with Emily about he strongest line, and I think this is a fine revision.

Dustin: I remember my disappointment when I read the original version of this poem. You’ve taken most of that disappointment away. Your original poem was almost in the land known as hot mess, but your revision rescued it. I do believe there is still something missing from this poem, but I’m not quite sure what is missing. I’m happy you picked this poem, and I like the line you picked as your strongest.

Dana: Very much loving your revisions. Now the piece, which still does not mention Michael Jackson, is about more than him, so the whole thing works beautifully. The elegy is now, in my reading, not to Jackson specifically, but rather to the fact that: “The world’s no stage / these days, it’s just a screen, some dumb / flat firmament.” This move positions your poem as being contemporary in terms of pop culture but also as being conversant with literary history. The allusion you make to the world being a stage, and how we’ve moved beyond that, is remarkable — as in, something to be remarked on, as I am doing right now. You do a lovely job with the extended metaphor, creating an entire world inside this poem. I love the line you chose as your favorite from the original, and I feel the new form really helped snap this poem into place.

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel: Yes to the couplets! The poem is much “cleaner” in this version—earth and sky, humans and angels, digital and analog. This is a lovely poem—“sashayed” and “snagged” indeed.

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W.F. ROBY

Original:
Singing “Death Letter” at Dawn

Crickets out there singing “Teach me, teach me.”
My baby she wrote me a candle
just long enough to read her letter by,
in the time it takes to flip the record.

My baby she wrote me a candle
in the moonlight sharp as chicken bones.
In the time it takes to flip the record
my baby kicked holes in the toolhouse.

in the moonlight sharp as chicken bones.
Now I look for the grave at my toes.
My baby kicked holes in the toolhouse
until the sun went cannon dark,

now I look for the grave at my toes.
My baby she wrote me a cloudburst —
until the sun went cannon dark,
just long enough to light a candle by,

My baby she wrote me a cloudburst —
my baby she wrote me a letter
just long enough to light a candle by,
just short enough to skip the record.

My baby she wrote me a letter
just long enough to read her letter by,
just short enough to skip the record.
Crickets out there singing “Teach me, teach me.”

REVISION:
A Song Written on the Wall of the Communal Shower
Crystal Beach, Texas, 2002

The beach road’s jutting stripes spit back.
We lost the rubber of a tire
scouting out a pasture where two horses
melt a little every day. The cut still smells like meth —
the cops are quick to point their pens under umbrellas.
That night we spit smoke, waved off the storm,
wonder-eyed and kicking the ass of the cobweb highway.
We edged out along the front winds, we wrecked
and lost the bet.

Now, there’s a crack in the wall of my beach house
between the screen and the front door.
A flower grows there. When
I pick the flower another bud pops up
in the time it takes to flip a record.
There is a mark on the face
of the latest bloom, this one
bent toward the beach, reaching
for the dune where you rest, where your car
sits torched and whining. The tires spin
against the pebbles set aside
for oyster’s mouths or the sandals of a tourist.

For the sake of wind there are clouds and for
the sake of clouds there are umbrellas, though
the two have never met, in fact would not get along. The sun
puffs cannon dark, setting behind offshore rigs,
painting the water as coconut might stain
the sleeve of a dinner jacket, just
a whistle of color. I wait
for the grave at my toes.
This is the coffee and this is the tea
I drink, lonely as laundry left to stack
and wrinkle in its pile — perhaps
a hyphen is tragic to watch up close but
delicious when seen from a bullet train. Crickets

set up shop while the light drips off to Mexico.
They sing “Teach me” over ankle horns and driftwood.
At night I move with the grace of a death letter —
I jump over rocks, across sand, I jump with feet pressed numb
to the planks buried half in sand, half in sleep.
I find you in the dark, open the car door
callous-stiff and salty. I pull you out, we run
where delicate shore beasts press
their claws against the beads of the beach. And when
at day’s end the sun gives up
we decide we are not ready.
You hold the sun there, heavy on the horizon,
making glass of everything.

W.F. revised his poem from Week 7: Pantoum, and his strongest line selection is At night I move with the grace of a death letter-.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This revision blows me out of the water. It’s so completely different and so much richer and more complex than the pantoum. I love seeing the way the poet recreates the impulse and fashions it into a whole new outfit, as it were. And the language and imagery and movement of the poem all seem rich and surprising and right. “The sun/puffs cannon dark, setting behind offshore rigs,/paintint he water as coconut might stain/the sleeve of a dinner jacket, just/a whistle of color.” I love that “just a whistle of color” I love the dreamy, surreal quality of the poem. This is wonderful and impressive work.

Dustin: I’m happy to see you selected your week 7 poem to revise. You did an amazing job with this revision. Seriously! This poem is splendid in terms of revisions. Yes, this poem could use some trimming in places, but I’m only concerned in the before and after. The place where you pulled this poem, that’s where I want you to write from. On the other portion of the assignment, I stated that you didn’t have control of the poem; you definitely have more control in this poem. I’m also in love with the line you selected.

Dana: I could pick this poem apart in terms of what is not working. But why do that? What I need for you to know is that this poem is so powerful that when I read it while I was at the Wave Books Weekend Poetry Festival, the following three things happened: 1. I could not stop reading it and must have read and reread it for an hour, 2. I chose to read and reread it instead of reading any of the books I had just purchased from Wave authors (and that is saying a hell of a lot), 3. I ended up in the restroom at The Henry, where the event was being held, crying. That’s right. I was overcome by this poem the way I am often overcome by classical music — all that it contains and all that it leaves our for us to insert our own lives, emotions and minds into. This is a risky poem. This is a beautiful poem. I see so much in it, and in you as a poet, when I read it. The difference between the original and the revision is startling. Even that title! Wow.

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel: I honestly thing you have TWO strong poems here—the pantoum which mirrors the skipping record and this new version which riffs on the original.

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR

ORIGINAL:
From the Phrase Book of my Fearful Mother

Adventures are for careless people.
Life is dangerous—then you die.
Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.
Watch out for the other guy.

Life is dangerous—then you die.
Every man will want your body.
Watch out for the other guy.
Eating dessert first is naughty.

Every man will want your body.
Knee his groin; poke out his eyes.
Eating dessert first is naughty.
Don’t believe their twisted lies.

Knee his groin; poke out his eyes.
Never say I didn’t tell you.
Don’t believe their twisted lies.
Unrequited love can kill you.

Never say I didn’t tell you.
Henry James, The Wings of the Dove?
Unrequited love can kill you.
Sex, drugs, rock & roll, and love.

Henry James, The Wings of the Dove?
You should go rent Vertigo.
Sex, drugs, rock & roll, and love.
Stop that, now! You know, I know.

You should go rent Vertigo.
Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.
Stop that, now! You know, I know.
Adventures are for careless people.

REVISION:
My Mother’s Explanation

Adventures are for careless people:
never say I didn’t tell you.
Here’s the church and here’s the steeple—
unrequited love can kill you.

Never say I didn’t tell you,
when I was young, I was naive.
Unrequited love can kill you;
he loved his art more than he loved me.

I was young, like you, naive—
your father was a terrible spouse.
He loved his art more than he loved me;
those garish abstracts hung in our house.

Your father was a terrible spouse
and he could be a nasty drunk.
Those god-awful abstracts in our house,
my closets stuffed with still-life junk.

Yes, he could be a nasty drunk:
I stayed with him because I should,
filled secret closets with married-folk junk,
and drank until I understood,

I stayed with him because I should.
Here’s the church and here’s the steeple—
fold your hands. You understand?
Adventures are for careless people.

Kathi revised her poem from Week 7: Pantoum, and her strongest line selection is Unrequited love can kill you.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I can see exactly what Kathi is pushing for in this revision: to create a more clear character, and I would say she is absolutely successful in that attempt. Oddly, though, I felt like the poem was a little flatter in this version, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because I had read the earlier version, so I knew the general setup, or maybe because the language is a little flat, even though more specific and more effective in some ways. I like the impulse behind this poem, and for further revision, I’d suggest maybe loosening the rhyme scheme so that the language has a little more breathing room. THe poem feels a little like it’s trapped inside something. I do agree that the poem “unrequited love can kill you” is wonderful, and I almost don’t understand the mother, unless she had an unrequited love and then married out of necessity? Maybe there is more to this story, and we need those details here? I don’t think the poem has quite found its final shape, but an admirable attempt here.

Dustin: If we put each line selected by the poets on a list, well, I’d have to go with “Unrequited love can kill you” as my favorite. Great choice! I’m also happy with the poem you selected for the revision portion of the assignment; however, I think there is still some work to be done. Maybe get rid of the cliche “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.” “Yes, he could be a nasty drunk: / I stayed with him because I should”– much better than what you had in the original version.

Dana: I found myself writing “yes, yes, yes” next to so many of your revised lines. Thank you for opening this poem up to the form and all the potential and subtlety the form contains. And you opened up in terms of content as well, letting the reader learn much more about this narrator’s mother — and in the end about the narrator — than before. I personally would have selected the line “Adventures are for careless people” as the strongest from your original, but that’s a minor point, since the line you chose is also very strong. You used the line you chose, and incorporated the line I liked best as well — and you turned out a very strong poem in the end. You’ve created shades and nuance and depth where there wasn’t any before. I do have to say that I like the title better from the original, though, maybe without the word “phrasebook” but instead just “book.”

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel: Yes! Great revision. Though I miss the “dessert” line. Anyway to bring that back?

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PV Week 9: Duel Task (Pop Culture Poems!)

Week 9: Duel Task is a two part assignment for the remaining Project Verse contestants. Below you will find the poems from the pop culture portion of the assignment.

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Weekly Guest Judge Beth Gylys wants to send out this message:
These poems are all really wonderfully inventive and powerful and fun. I have to say that I want to be clear, my top choice and bottom choice are not separated by miles, but rather by degrees of degrees, and all of the poems are well worthy of high praise. You four poets have been consistently strong, stalwart, hard-working, innovative and delightful. It has been a pleasure to read your work. Kudos to you all!

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EMILY VAN DUYNE
Ars Poetica

‘If Fred Astaire was up and around again and dancing with a humming Frank O’Hara across the dear and broken landscapes of our lives, the sound of their steps, through the late spring afternoon, might have some of the sweetness of these poems. But these poems are sweeter than even that…’ – from Marie Howe’s blurb for All-American Poem

My grandfather is back up and banging
heavy nails with a heavy hammer. None of this if shit,
none of this might. I’m telling you, it’s cold
in my poem. It’s not the late spring. It’s winter
again. The sky’s that deep, headstrong,
island slate, but it won’t fucking snow. We can’t get a break.
We are poised on the verge

of nothing but another long season, building summer
homes for the American rich. I’m stuck
in this town. Try and look out to the ocean—you can’t! It’s blocked
by this skeleton house my grandfather builds, for a family I’ll never meet.
The dad’s a lawyer in Philly. The mom’s got a wet
nurse. I’m not making this up. No one’s dancing
in my poem, ok? I spent last week trying to write

about desire and ended up
in the cold. I thought about the Beatles, blared
Abbey Road, ran my hands down
my taut summer skin, I want you, I want
you so bad…
I got tarted up: a bird in fishnets
with a seam down the back. ‘Girl’ played on repeat
on my turntable, I smoked, topless… It didn’t matter, no one

wants to hear that story. Least of all, my grandfather, whose sweat
is frozen to his hoary brow. Usually in my poems, he’s half
Viking, half Tennyson. He remains
all dead, but this morning he’s visiting
as himself: checkered red flannel and a black wool cap. He wants
a cup of coffee. It’s ten o’clock break. I get the thermos
from the truck. He can’t believe I’m still going

at this poetry shit. Pop-pop, me either. You wouldn’t
believe the asses you have to kiss. And the boys!
They’re the worst. All delicate bones and paisley scarves. Give me
a man, I need a fullback. Someone whose glasses won’t break
in bed. Pop-pop laughs so loud, he snorts. He says they sound
like Gene Kelly. He hates Gene Kelly. Namby-pamby
son of a bitch… Fred Astaire, now there was a dancer, he could really move…

Totally, I nod, sip my bitter, black coffee. I still can’t see
the ocean, but the sun’s out. He picks up his hammer and drops
me a kiss on my red, freckled cheek: back
to work. His heavy steps echo in someone else’s kitchen. No
sweet patter. All boots. He disappears
behind a half-built wall, stuffed pink with insulation. The paint
splattered boom box blares,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspOh, darling! If you leave me,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspI’ll never make it alone…

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This is the Emily I’ve come to love over the course of the last few months. I love the wacky energy and the bravado of the imagery “The sky’s that deep, headstrong/island slate” And also the wonderful command of tone: “The dad’s a lawyer in Philly. The mom’s got a wet/nurse. I’m not making this up. No one’s dancing/in my poem, ok?” And there’s a wonderful sense of humor at work too “he’s half/Viking, half Tennyson”. At her best, Emily’s work is both fun and wildly imaginative at the same time that it is poignant, and this poem for me shows all of her strengths. The relationship between speaker and grandfather is touching and funny and wistful and the dramatic scenario of the poem effectively defines who Emily is as an artist. Well done.

Dustin: Your title does work; I think it would beckon people from a table of content, and it would do so with an air of mystery. I would flip to the poem wanting to know what “Ars Poetica” is about. I’ve heard Laure-Anne Bosselaar talk about the on-ramp—what we need to get our poem started. You needed the epigraph while your poem doesn’t. There are so many parts of your poem that I love: “None of this if shit, / none of this might” and “The mom’s got a wet / nurse. I’m not making this up.” and ” I smoked, topless” and “he’s half / Viking, half Tennyson. He remains/all dead” and “He can’t believe I’m still going / at this poetry shit”— there’s more to love, but I’m not going to keep going on and on. You do a fantastic job with this poem. This poem does need a little dusting; however, after that dusting it will be ready to be placed on your mantel with pride and joy.

Dana: Nice epigraph. The combination of pop culture references and the poem being about the narrator’s Pop is lovely. I was scared by the title — not a poem about poems! — but this poem does the ars poetica so well by remaining steeped in detail. I for one absolutely want to hear the story about the narrator smoking topless. (I am just saying.) Also, this is a different voice. I love your other voices, but I love this one, too. Totally. I think this is your gift — the assumption of voice and your ability to be immersed in it. I know that’s stating the obvious. I would love to see a collection from you in which you really push into all sorts of voices, where multi-vocality and modulation of voice from poem to poem are what drive the collection as a whole. I would look at the lineation on revision. It seems a little funky in places right now.

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel: “Ars Poetica” is a strong and feisty poem. The voice is clear, determined, a scrappy gal who I am rooting for the whole poem. My only difficulty with this poem was the Howe quote which seemed strange—a blurb to introduce another poem was hard to wrap my head around. I wonder if the poem might just start with the speaker reading the back of a book, seeing the blurb, and launching into her “None of this if shit” riff. Her take on overdevelopment, masculinity, and loneliness are brilliant and real. In fact, “None of this if shit” might be a great title for this poem.

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W.F. ROBY
Twenty-six Words for Snow

O Eskimo Pie, O confection frozen
stiff to the wall of the freezer, O vanilla,
O chocolate coat, O foil sleeve you fit inside —
home is where the heart hits the asphalt
my dear, my cold misnomer. In summer
you leave your color on my hands,
you paint the needy grass with tar.
Here is a letter I’ve written to you
and washed of ink, and slipped into
the Gulf of Mexico. Here is a photo of us
caught between noon and the second hand.
I am stuck ankle deep in sand the color of ash —
you are learning the name of the heat,
you are writing it down.

We lie on our backs in a haystack,
you with your pinched face, eyes tight,
your mouth frozen in a perfect O – and I
welcome you to the cave of the Oracle. Where
we turn the gas way up. You are my golden ball,
the thing I forget in sleep but remember
with fondness in the morning, saying “O she certainly does shine.”
Es-ki-mo pie, I fold your foil jacket into words, I hold
each syllable in the palm of my hand
like a train ticket or a promise from a friend.
I’ve given up the smoking, mon petit chou,
chased it off the front porch. All for you.

My Eskimo Pie — in a dream we got married
down South. We walked hand to stick
from cabana to dark swamp
where dry sticks caught a pile of sparklers,
where sparklers wrestled with smoky coals,
where coals sent fire trailing back towards
the wood panel of your dad’s old wagon.
When I woke up, you were pinched between
two chipped fingernails, a girl in a cowgirl suit
with chocolate on her lips. She thought
she’d sneak into the races, find a boy on a horse maybe
could drive her back to Loose-e-ana to see
the hurricane kick and the bayou kick back.

O Eskimo Pie — sometimes when I say your name
I feel my heartbeat in my thigh. Other times
it’s just an incoming call or
the words in red in the family Bible
buzzing through the dead leather. Inside the freezer
where you rest in a hunch
someone nailed shelves at precise heights
for the hand of a child to switch on the lights,
neon, fluorescent and a third light incandescent
taped to the wall for precision. Tonight
let’s walk upwind. I’ll try to remember what Whitman says
about the Learn’d Astronomer with his charts and graphs —
I think it goes like this.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This is another one of those poems that makes my mouth go agape. I love the traditional invocation in the poem to the ‘eskimo pie’. THe poem’s inventive, wildly imaginative, “O foil sleeve you fit inside–/home is where the heart hits the asphalt.” The poem’s over the top, but wonderfully so. “sometimes when I say your name/I feel my heartbeat in my thigh.” Wowza! I did struggle with the end cause I keep reading it as a colon. I think it goes like this: and want something more. This is probably my problem, not W.F.’s. Fine work.

Dustin: W.F., I want to love this poem. I really do, but I can’t. With your revised week 8 poem, you showed you finally trusted yourself to write what you wanted to write, but the key is that you controlled it. I think you lost control in “Twenty-six Words for Snow.” I think there is a lot of room for cutting to make much tighter lines. Don’t get me wrong– this is not a bad poem. You have lovely parts: “the words in red in the family Bible / buzzing through the dead leather” and “In summer / you leave your color on my hands.” I only wish there were more of those kinds of moments.

Dana: I love how this poem resonates with your revision — asphalt, color being bled from one thing to another, the beach — to name just a few of the parallels. This whole section is rad: “home is where the heart hits the asphalt / my dear, my cold misnomer. In summer / you leave your color on my hands, / you paint the needy grass with tar.” (I used to paint the needy grass with Silly Putty when I was a kid, and I also picked tar bubbles in the road — obsessively, as if I was picking away at some truth.) I was so enthralled by this poem that I completely forgot it was a poem driven by pop culture references. Some might argue that I forgot because pop culture does not drive the poem; I would argue that they are wrong and that this poem has pop culture so seamlessly grafted to it that it’s like a cybernetic moth which looks as if it is navigating the air on its own terms, when there is actually a tiny mechanism inside making it go this way and that. And I love the reference to those old Luzianne iced tea commercials. Get out! (That’s not your narrator’s heart beating by his thigh, btw.) What do you think about ending it on “Tonight / let’s walk upwind”?

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel: YES! OUI! SI! This is a fantastic fantastical poem about love. The personification of the Eskimo pie is hilarious and metaphorically apt. Where I get a little confused is the date—just hard to actually see. How big is this Eskimo pie, for example? Know what I’m saying? I was willing to go there, but I just needed a few more details to ground me. I absolutely adored “When I woke up, you were pinched between/ two chipped fingernails, a girl in a cowgirl suit/with chocolate on her lips.”

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR
In the Dream of my Father at the Bar on Tatooine

It was my father’s favorite Star Wars scene, so I’m not surprised to find him
here, drinking and tapping his glass to the cantina band of Bith aliens,
dubbed over with clarinet, saxophone, and even a Fender Rhodes piano.
(My son says the Bith species has evolved past the need for sleep, and here
I am, asleep and listening.) I think, Mos Eisley’s not unlike the dives
my father played, underage, out in the desert by Pasco, Washington:
the red-eyed wolf-men, G-I’s on their Harleys, a bounty hunter now and then,
a one-eyed sheriff, and bartenders steady as priests. Not quite that
“wretched hive of scum and villainy” Old Ben Kenobi pronounces
Mos Eisley, but still an alcoholic’s paradise.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Looking down on us, Luke has just said,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspI’m ready for anything.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspI see him come in.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspI see him tug
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspon the bartender’s sleeve.

But I am across the table from my father, in this dream of the movie
renamed “A New Hope,” a man who died before the prequels, speeding
in his red car, drunk and unbuckled. No doubt, he is my father,
and he is already dead. (Let me help him lift off his mask;
let me hear him breathing.) I have to ask him where he was going
that night his car swerved and flipped, but he’s not listening,
and no one else seems to see his darkness, as he nods at a Cleopatra-girl
and orders me a Shirley Temple. Nearby, Luke falls into an argument.
I know this part. It’s right before Obi-Wan pulls out his light saber
and slices off that alien’s arm (Ponda Baba, says my son).

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspYou just watch yourself, someone said.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp“I’ll be careful,” Luke answers.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspYou’ll be dead.

As my father points out Chewbacca to me – He looks a lot like my student Steve.
Tall and hairy
– someone sets down my drink. With a blue Jedi flash, there’s blood
on the floor and windshield glass raining on our table. My father’s forehead expands,
his ribs crack at the music’s pause. I don’t expect this, the force that brought us
to this place, after his life, years later, after I’m ready for bed, the galaxy’s violence.
I can just make out Han Solo’s face: my father’s Imperial entanglements, the 7-Up
and maraschino cherry of my drink, foreign to everyone there,
that red Ford Probe upside-down on the bar.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspAnd I’m yelling, I don’t like you. No, I really don’t like you!
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsplike someone who’s lost more than an arm.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Another relative in a dream poem! I love the Star Wars scene, the well-developed narrative, the problematic father figure, the cast of characters. The long lines, the compelling intermix of family drama with pop culture drama (sci fi drama), is wonderfully handled and rich and terrific. Bravo.

Dustin: Kathi, I’m shocked. My shock is NOT from your writing a good poem—I’ve come to expect that of you. I’m shocked a poem this good (written in such a short amount of time) is this good with such a heavy reliance on Star Wars references. Great job! In this poem you show us once again you are good with detail: “(My son says the Bith species has evolved past the need for sleep, and here / I am, asleep and listening.)” and “the red-eyed wolf-men, G-I’s on their Harleys, a bounty hunter now and then, / a one-eyed sheriff, and bartenders steady as priests,” and there is more! At this moment, I’m happy with what you’ve given us as it reads. Yes. At this moment, I wouldn’t change a thing with this poem; however, I bet you’ll end up making changes that will make this poem even sharper, and we’ll be wowed that the poem could be any better.

Dana: Are you all manipulating time to write such amazing pieces? I don’t really understand where all this fantastic work is coming from given the time constraints. It’s been a joy to read. This poem could have gotten away from you and turned into a parody, but you deftly control it and kept the emotional center in place throughout. Lines like “… but still an alcoholic’s paradise” are part of what keep the poem grounded in reality. That line is just this side of too much, just this side of trite, and you make it work. Then you follow it up with the plainspoken facts: “speeding / in his red car, drunk and unbuckled.” We are all visited by the dead in our dreams. Your poem touches on the universal, while your narrator pulls us into the specificity of this death, of this relationship. My father died when I was very young, and I have tried to write poems about my dreams of him. I’ve never come close to anything this skillfully or elegantly executed.

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel: I picked “In the Dream of my Father at the Bar on Tatooine” even though I am not much of a Star Wars fan and didn’t know all the movie references. This poem exemplifies the power of pop culture in that it took something as banal as a blockbuster movie and re-worked the mythic implications of masks and fatherhood to a personal/universal story about a “real” father and child. In addition to the Star Wars references, we get the Americana of the corner bar, Harleys, a bounty hunter, and Shirley Temple (the drink, but also the actress/innocence is implied). A very moving poem.

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Revisiting Week 8: Villanelle Revisions!

Well, there was an unexpected twist to the Project Verse week 8 assignment; the weekly judges were not impressed with the poems submitted. Click here to see what the judges had to say.

In this post you’ll find each contestant’s original poem followed his/her revision.

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Weekly Guest Judge Beth Gylys wants to send out this message:
I’m very impressed by these revisions. I know some of you were distraught to have to rewrite, but the poems are for the most part much improved, I think, so bravo to you all!

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KRISTEN MCHENRY
ORIGINAL:
The Menfolk Whisper of The Gulabi Gang

“They wear pink saris and go after corrupt
officials and boorish men with sticks and axes.”
Soutik Biswas; BBC News, Banda

Why do our good women gather in a fuchsia crush,
to bow their heads, but not to pray?
A tribe of flamingos in rags of blush,

they’re hoarding stones from the filthy dray.
I hear they are hungry in a bottomless way.
Our good women gather in a muffled crush;

they have nurtured us with that same pink hush.
Now their lullabies seethe with a cryptic sway.
A cloud of flamingos in rags of blush,

they shroud their rifles in the underbrush.
I’ve heard it told: one night they may
gather our daughters in a fuchsia crush

and baptize them in the river’s rush–
Banda wives wading in the moon’s crimped ray;
a rage of flamingos in rags of blush.

I’ve heard they grow fervent, lithe and lush,
their hair unruly as the grass owl’s bray.
Why do our good women gather in a fuchsia crush,
a tribe of flamingos in rags of blush?

REVISION:
The Menfolk Whisper of The Gulabi Gang

“They wear pink saris and go after corrupt
officials and boorish men with sticks and axes.”
Soutik Biswas; BBC News, Banda

Our good wives have taken to convening: tight-knit and savage crushes
of bowed and fuchsia heads, but their heads aren’t bowed in prayer.
A massing of flamingos in sweeping rags and furtive blushes,

we’ve seen them hoarding rocks from the gutter’s oily slushes.
The women have taken to whispering: we’ve heard them smirk and swear.
Our good wives have taken to convening in tight-knit and savage crushes.

Remember when they’d comfort us with sanguine, melodic shushes?
These days when they caress us, their hands shake with a livid flare.
A massing of flamingos in sweeping rags and furtive blushes,

I hear they’ve stashed crippled rifles in the rusted sticker brushes.
Gentle men, though we have nourished them, their hungers strip us bare.
Our good wives have taken our daughters, in tight-knit and savage crushes–

they’ll swathe them in that treacherous pink, all pink-skinned from the water’s rushes,
where they baptized them in their pastel ways with a hard, insurgent stare.
A massing of flamingos in sweeping rags and furtive blushes,

the wives of Banda have grown still, but as tense as a tree of thrushes.
These days, they’re as silent as their nurturing is spare.
Our good women have taken to convening in tight-knit and savage crushes;
a rage of flamingos in sweeping rags and furtive blushes.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I admire that Kristen tackles this interesting and rich subject, and she uses some beautiful language here: “A massing of flamingos in sweeping rags and furtive blushes.” My criticism of the earlier draft was that it felt distancing, and I think she’s managed to make the poem less objectifying with lines like “Remember when they’d comfort us…” Still, the tone of this one is less successful I think than it might be, and that is in part because of phrases like “Gentle men”. Because I think finally, these men are going to be angry, and the speaker then comes across as disingenuous. I also worry about the long-ish lines, some of which seem unwieldy. Lines like “where they baptized them in their pastel ways with a hard, insurgent stare.” I’d like to see the poem’s lines more lean, and I’m still a little worried too about the point of view which seems to me really hard to pull off.

Dustin: Kristen, I’m not completely won over with this revision; I think this is due to the change of lengthier lines. I don’t have a problem with long lines; however, I don’t think it works for your poem. In your first draft, I loved “A tribe of flamingos in rags of blush,” so I was glad to see you basically kept it in your revision: “A massing of flamingos in sweeping rags and furtive blushes”—beautiful. I’m happy to see that you corrected the form error you had in your original poem. I do like that you rhymed in plural; however, I wonder if this held you back any. This is not your strongest poem from the competition, but it is much better than your Week 6 poem.

Dana: So I have a matrix of sorts that I use which takes into account several things, including doing the assignment, skillfulness of execution, emotional resonance, level of risk taken, and other elements I looked for in the poems I read. I am not saying this is an objective matrix that anyone, even a computer, can plug in and use. Other people will have other matrices, other lenses through which they evaluate work. That’s what it means to be a reader and to have individual responses to pieces. But this *is* a way to externalize my personal process.

According to my matrix, you have a good balance of all aspects I was evaluating. I actually think your edits strengthened the piece, particularly the first line. But I do have some concerns. You chose two-syllable feminine rhyme all the way through, when there are more interesting ways to employ perfect rhyme. And in terms of emotional resonance, I still think you could push further. This piece feels a little like a Fabergé egg. I’d like to see it come down from the shelf and maybe even get a knick or two in it.

Guest Judge Maureen Seaton: Great subject. Kristen uses color well in this runaway persona piece. Memorable images: “a rage of flamingos” and “treacherous pink.” (I like “a massing of flamingos” too.) The repetition of pink, in “pink-skinned.” The epigraph gives us just enough. And I love the lines: “Gentle men, though we have nourished them, their hungers strip us bare” and “These days, they’re as silent as their nurturing is spare” and the image “tense as a tree of thrushes.” However, the piece doesn’t read like a villanelle to me, but more like a long-lined narrative with imposed rhymes. The poem begs for at least one companion piece, either in another persona or a narrative about the Gulabi Gang.

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EMILY VAN DUYNE

ORIGINAL:
The Lacrymosa, Washing the Dishes: Wednesday Night in Wartime America

‘Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit…’
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp-Zadie Smith

Those can’t be my hands in the sink! Expunge the crass
dried blood of this night’s wine, strewn
in the glass. That can’t be my face, cast

in the window—lonely woman, eyes like the Black Mass…
kyrie eleision, now scrub those pots & spoons…
expunge the crass sink. Those can’t be my hands that blast

the grease of fat & bone, latticed like the past…
and why should you have this life, this boon…
That face in the glass? It can’t be her place to cast

aspersions to the night’s eclipse, the sweet, dark grass,
another person, far away, who seeks the same hidden moon?
Those can’t be my cries! They sink in the crass

face of history: slouching beasts, dead stars… the last
shall be first, penance is like ashes— no one is immune…

That can’t be my face in the window: bloody glass

house we’ve assembled and hewn.
The pit is ever closer, surely you come soon,
surely: those must be my hands that sink in the fast
cast of water. That must be my face in the glass.

REVISION:
The Lacrymosa, Washing the Dishes: Wednesday Night in Wartime America

‘Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit…’
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp-Zadie Smith

Those can’t be my hands in the sink! Absolve the crass,
dried blood of this night’s wine, strewn
on the porcelain
… that can’t be my face in the glass—

lonely woman, eyes like the Black Mass…
kyrie eleision, now scrub those pots & spoons…
those can’t be my hands that absolve the sink: crass

grease of fat & bone, this warm night’s mass …
and why should you have this life, this boon…
that face in the glass? It can’t be on her to pass

judgment (14 more dead) on the dark grass,
someone far away who seeks the same hidden moon.
Those can’t be my cries! They sink in the crass

face of this slouching beast, (a roadside bomb), dark morass…
penance is like ashes, no one is immune…
That can’t be my face in the window: the bloody glass

house we’ve built on another’s green grass…
The pit is ever closer, surely you come soon,
surely: those must be my hands that sink in the crass
well of porcelain. That must be my face in the glass.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
As usual, I admire Emily’s skill with language and sound and her lovely turns of phrase: “Absolve the crass,/dried blood or this night’s wine, strewn/on the porcelain…that can’t be my face in the glass–” I’m a little less charmed by the metaphor here though. I get that filth and filth work together: war is dirty, we are all made dirty by war, the dishes reflect that on some level. And then of course there’s the helplessness of the speaker standing there at the sink is poignant. Still, there’s something a bit less natural about this poem than the poems that Emily has so charmed me with earlier in the competition. Still, I have to say, I think the revisions are smart and there’s real beauty here.

Dustin: This isn’t your strongest poem from the competition, but it is a good revision. You did a great job playing by the rules. Now, do you see it doesn’t hurt to play by the rules? In the past, I have enjoyed your longer titles, but I am not sure about your title this week. I think you can come up with a title that is a shorter and packs a punch, or you could have a title that is the same length that packs more of a punch. Basically– I want more of a punch with the title. You are capable of it. I love “lonely woman, eyes like the Black Mass.” Also, I love your opening line “Those can’t be my hands in the sink! Absolve the crass.” Your first line does a good job of pulling in your reader, and I don’t think your reader will be disappointed one he/she reaches the end of the poem.

Dana: If this were an ice-skating competition, I would give you a 10 in terms of using perfect rhyme. But that’s not *all* we’re looking at as judges (or all I myself am looking at). Yes, there’s the matrix. I put your piece in the matrix and, balancing everything, how do you think you fared?

You fared great. This poem had me at the Requiem reference in the epigraph and held me until the very end. Just look at what you do with language throughout — I can’t stop smiling when I misread “night’s wine” as “night swine,” an error I hope you intend your readers to make, thus giving another layer to the image. (And even if you didn’t intend it, that’s great, too. We could chuck intention out the window and still be drawn to words and phrases in ways we don’t fully understand.) This is a wonderful piece to read aloud as well. I love how it sits in the mouth, very musical, and not in a child-playing-the-recorder sort of way.

Guest Judge Maureen Seaton: I immediately noticed the rhythm this poem sets up, the enjambment of lines that make it interesting to me: “…crass/grease of fat & bone..,” “…the bloody glass/house we’ve built…” Ending in the effective last half of the last line, “That must be my face in the glass.” I would question the italics—their source(s). And I would get rid of the ellipses, and perhaps the exclamation points, although I normally like them. The poem appears busy although the image itself is carried from the first line all the way down. I like “the bloody glass/ house we’ve build on another’s green grass.” And I’m touched by the self-reflection of the piece. Its earnestness carries it.

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W.F. ROBY

Original:
Through the Gauze of Heroin Hydrochloride

I took to the drug like a baby
takes to incidents of peas. A bore
we tapped out grain by grain, all tingly.

In the distant city, two birdies
lined up their beaks and poked at the core.
I took to the drug like a baby.

Dope on my desk, brown and crumbly
as steel and ash on the city’s floor.
We tapped out grain by grain, all tingly.

The news so graceful, silver latchkey
on my neck, the stash drawer
open to the drug like a baby,

like a fly to a glass of sherry.
New York fell, I was a sophomore.
We tapped out grain by grain, all tingly —

a needle’s difficult to bury.
Let’s watch smoke cover up the seashore.
I took to the drug like a baby.
We tapped out grain by grain, all tingly.

REVISION:
Through the Gauze of Heroin Hydrochloride

I took to the drug like a ferry
ducks into the crests of waves, a bore
I did not think I’d ever marry.

The TV hummed — a monastery
somewhere far away, airplanes galore.
I took to the drug like a cherry

takes to red, a fresh capillary
bright as bent steel on the city’s floor.
I did not think I’d ever marry.

The news was up loud. Cautionary
words fell out – heroin’s a trapdoor.
I clung to the drug like a berry

clings to a stem, math to binary.
New York fell, I was a sophomore.
I did not think I’d ever carry

a needle into church, or parry
perfect rhyme until my hands were sore.
I took to the drug like a ferry.
I did not think I’d ever marry.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I love the revision. Love the simple lines, Love the similes. I mean “Like a cherry/takes to red” “like a berry/clings to a stem, math to binary”. There’s a confessional quality, undermined by the slightly self-mocking tone “I did not think I’d ever marry.” My only one small quibble is that in the last stanza the repeating line “I took to the drug like a ferry” doesn’t have quite the same punch as it did in the opening stanza.

Dustin: W.F., I love this revision. Okay. I want to make this clear. I love this revision. Everyone did a good job with revisions this week; however, I think you did the most work in the revision arena. Do you remember what I’ve said to you about your similes? If you’ve forgotten, here it is, analyze more before you simile. W.F., you listened! Well, you didn’t listen in your original poem—I have no clue what you were thinking with “I took to the drug like a baby / takes to incidents of peas.” Honestly, I stopped reading and had a what the hell moment. OK. That is behind us because we are juding the revised poems. I was thrilled to see your beginning simile changed to “I took to the drug like a ferry / ducks into the crests of waves”—-lovely. Then there are more lovely lines/similes: “I took to the drug like a cherry / takes to red, a fresh capillary / bright as bent steel on the city’s floor” and “I clung to the drug like a berry / clings to a stem, math to binary.” Again, lovely. The end of your poem needs work. I don’t think your last stanza is as strong as the rest of the poem. I know. I know. Your hands are tied by rules. THIS revision is what I’ve wanted to see from you during this competition. This revision makes me feel like you trusted yourself and the poem while you wrote. Good job!

Dana: We asked you to be a little dangerous, to let loose, and you did. All the poems were strong this week, as you would expect toward the end of the competition, but I can’t not get behind a poem that tackles the subjects you tackle. On Read Write Poem, Marilyn Nelson said this about her poem “A Wreath for Emmett Till”: “I don’t think I would have written the poem if I hadn’t imagined the form could be something I could hide behind in self-defense.” Your poem has that wonderful tension between form and content that I absolutely love to see in a piece. You used the form not to strap you down but to give you a new kind of freedom, and the reader senses how much the form contains the uncontainable content as well. It’s not perfect, but it’s dangerous — and it’s an important poem.

Why isn’t it perfect? There’s one slip-up with regard to the perfect rhyme: “binary” and “carry” are not a perfect rhyme in that there are two syllables after the accented syllable in “binary” and only one after the accented syllable in “carry.” Overall, however, you employ the perfect rhymes with precision, and you keep it interesting by pairing words that do not have the same number of syllables but do have the same number of syllables and the same sounds after the accented syllable. Nicely played.

I have to add that your rewrites made this piece sing. You accepted the challenge of using the form to sharpen the poem, and your poem is now so sharp it won’t be allowed as a carry-on item if you try to board a plane. So stay home, or travel by car.

Guest Judge Maureen Seaton: This poem feels most like a villanelle to me with its syllabic count of (mostly) nine. I found it subversive for its fitting the subject matter into a loose meter. I enjoyed reading a poem about addiction (which was well done in itself) in the “traditional” form of the villanelle. Like wearing sneakers to church when I was a kid, but better than that, wearing no underwear to church as an adult. (Not that I think of the villanelle as a church symbol. Do I?) Changing the rhymed endwords was really cool as well. I love doing that in sestinas. Not sure I’ve seen it before in a villanelle. Great choices, not your everyday: “monastery,” “capillary,” “cautionary,” “binary,” etc. This is my first pick for originality and proficiency with the form.

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR

ORIGINAL:
Gretel Copes

Repression’s underrated. She’ll forget
her cookie-house binge with M&M trim, licorice whip pitch;
the scent of burning witch and cloves and chicken shit

all run together. She’ll always hate chocolate,
is rumored to huff Easy Off and do witch
impressions badly. She’ll forget

to watch Hansel on Letterman: instead, flit
from club to club to Daddy’s house. A hazel switch,
the reek of burning witch and cloves and kitschy shit—

grief after grief, it stings her. Damn it.
Damn the greedy crumb-eaters. Damn the itch
of repression, too slow. She’ll forget

her chubby brother behind barbed wire, but she’ll spit
at old ladies with gumdrop smiles. Anorexic bitch,
motherless witch, smokes cloves, shoots the shit—

that tabloid-Gretel: famous, wrecked, unfit
as a Nazi, murder charge dropped, filthy rich. . .
Repression’s underrated. She can’t forget
the scent of burning witch and cloves and chicken shit.

REVISION:
In Which Gretel Becomes Tabloid-Gretel

Repression’s underrated. She’ll forget
her cookie-house binge with M&M trim, licorice whip pitch;
the scent of burning witch and cloves and chicken shit—

Hansel in that cage. She’ll always hate chocolate
and gingerbread, hoard Easy Off and do witch
impressions badly. She’ll forget

to watch her brother on Letterman: instead, flit
from club to club to Daddy’s house. Abercrombie & Fitch,
the reek of burning witch and cloves and kitschy shit—

even centuries later in Hollywood Hills it
finds her: hunger’s cruel pose, behind kindly masks a twitch
of cannibal. Repression’s too slow. She’ll forget

her chubby brother behind barbed wire, but she’ll spit
at old ladies with gumdrop smiles. Post-traumatic bitch,
motherless witch, smokes cloves, shoots the shit

as she becomes that tabloid-Gretel: famous, wrecked, unfit
as a Nazi, clubbing with the stars, filthy rich. . .
Repression’s underrated, but she can’t forget
the scent of burning witch and cloves and chicken shit.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I like this poem’s imaginative innovation. I’m still a little bothered by the use of the slant rhyme–“forget/shit” in terms of following the rules–especially given the revision option. The rules aside, the poem’s really wonderfully rich and fun and smart with some great sounds: “licorice whip pitch;/the scent of burning witch and cloves and chicken shit–” And I like the contemporaneous look at the myth. Not that I haven’t seen re-visions of the Hansel/Gretel story, but this is a really smart and fun and apt one.

Dustin: Kathi, I’m disappointed. The judges specifically commented on the use of slant rhyme in the week 8 poems; however, you revised your poem and left the slant rhyme. Are you giving us the finger? I realize each contestant is pouring a lot time into this contest, but the judges are pouring in a lot of time as well. These are the only comments you’re getting from me for this week.

Dana: I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, Kathi. How can I not like a poem that lets the shit fly? This was so imaginative and controlled and had so many unexpected moments. I love the part about Hansel appearing on “Letterman,” for example. I will say that I was sad to see huffing Easy Off go in the rewrite, as well as a couple of other details lost in revision, such as, “Damn the greedy crumb-eaters.” I know it was impossible to keep everything and meet the requirements for the assignment, but I would still take a look at your first version and see what else you could fold back in. Of course, you gained a lot, too, in the revision, including a killer new title.

One thing I did take into account was the rhyme, per the matrix. It’s hard to ignore the fact that many of your rhymes were slant, not perfect. In addition, your middle lines are off in terms of the rhyme scheme because they don’t provide a “b” rhyme. I even looked up the pronunciation key for each rhymed word (as I did for everyone’s rhymed words) to be absolutely sure the vowel sound in words such as “forget” can’t be pronounced the way the vowel sound in words such as “shit” are pronounced. They’re not the same sound. Maybe where I am from — Oklahoma — but people play it fast and loose with language in those parts.

Guest Judge Maureen Seaton: Very funny take on an old fairytale. And the short “i” has to be my favorite sound in the English language. Those second and third lines are a blast: “her cookie-house binge with M&M trim, licorice whip pitch;/the scent of burning witch and cloves and chicken shit—.” And, from there, we’ve got more to go because Kathi has decided ALL of her endwords will have that short “i” (except maybe two or three). And as if all that assonance isn’t enough for the ear, we’ve got all that consonance as well—every end word ending in “t” or “ch”. I really enjoyed the craft and the humor.

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Week 8: Villanelle (The Poems!)

Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 8: Villanelle.

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KRISTEN MCHENRY
The Menfolk Whisper of The Gulabi Gang

“They wear pink saris and go after corrupt
officials and boorish men with sticks and axes.”
Soutik Biswas; BBC News, Banda

Why do our good women gather in a fuchsia crush,
to bow their heads, but not to pray?
A tribe of flamingos in rags of blush,

they’re hoarding stones from the filthy dray.
I hear they are hungry in a bottomless way.
Our good women gather in a muffled crush;

they have nurtured us with that same pink hush.
Now their lullabies seethe with a cryptic sway.
A cloud of flamingos in rags of blush,

they shroud their rifles in the underbrush.
I’ve heard it told: one night they may
gather our daughters in a fuchsia crush

and baptize them in the river’s rush–
Banda wives wading in the moon’s crimped ray;
a rage of flamingos in rags of blush.

I’ve heard they grow fervent, lithe and lush,
their hair unruly as the grass owl’s bray.
Why do our good women gather in a fuchsia crush,
a tribe of flamingos in rags of blush?

*************************************************

EMILY VAN DUYNE
The Lacrymosa, Washing the Dishes: Wednesday Night in Wartime America

‘Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit…’
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp-Zadie Smith

Those can’t be my hands in the sink! Expunge the crass
dried blood of this night’s wine, strewn
in the glass. That can’t be my face, cast

in the window—lonely woman, eyes like the Black Mass…
kyrie eleision, now scrub those pots & spoons…
expunge the crass sink. Those can’t be my hands that blast

the grease of fat & bone, latticed like the past…
and why should you have this life, this boon…
That face in the glass? It can’t be her place to cast

aspersions to the night’s eclipse, the sweet, dark grass,
another person, far away, who seeks the same hidden moon?
Those can’t be my cries! They sink in the crass

face of history: slouching beasts, dead stars… the last
shall be first, penance is like ashes— no one is immune…

That can’t be my face in the window: bloody glass

house we’ve assembled and hewn.
The pit is ever closer, surely you come soon,
surely: those must be my hands that sink in the fast
cast of water. That must be my face in the glass.

*************************************************

W.F. ROBY
Through the Gauze of Heroin Hydrochloride

I took to the drug like a baby
takes to incidents of peas. A bore
we tapped out grain by grain, all tingly.

In the distant city, two birdies
lined up their beaks and poked at the core.
I took to the drug like a baby.

Dope on my desk, brown and crumbly
as steel and ash on the city’s floor.
We tapped out grain by grain, all tingly.

The news so graceful, silver latchkey
on my neck, the stash drawer
open to the drug like a baby,

like a fly to a glass of sherry.
New York fell, I was a sophomore.
We tapped out grain by grain, all tingly —

a needle’s difficult to bury.
Let’s watch smoke cover up the seashore.
I took to the drug like a baby.
We tapped out grain by grain, all tingly.

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR
Gretel Copes

Repression’s underrated. She’ll forget
her cookie-house binge with M&M trim, licorice whip pitch;
the scent of burning witch and cloves and chicken shit

all run together. She’ll always hate chocolate,
is rumored to huff Easy Off and do witch
impressions badly. She’ll forget

to watch Hansel on Letterman: instead, flit
from club to club to Daddy’s house. A hazel switch,
the reek of burning witch and cloves and kitschy shit—

grief after grief, it stings her. Damn it.
Damn the greedy crumb-eaters. Damn the itch
of repression, too slow. She’ll forget

her chubby brother behind barbed wire, but she’ll spit
at old ladies with gumdrop smiles. Anorexic bitch,
motherless witch, smokes cloves, shoots the shit—

that tabloid-Gretel: famous, wrecked, unfit
as a Nazi, murder charge dropped, filthy rich. . .
Repression’s underrated. She can’t forget
the scent of burning witch and cloves and chicken shit.

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Week 7: Pantoum (The Poems!)

Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 7: Pantoum.

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MICAH LING
White Fox

White Fox, curled on the road
Were you headed there:
Into the wild
When you stopped in the sun?

Were you headed there:
Through late-October stalks
When you stopped in the sun?
A one-eyed nap

Through late-October stalks
You rested your head
A one-eyed nap
When the dust started up.

You rested your head
Dreaming into the wild
When the dust started up
And Harvest Moon crept in

Dreaming into the wild
As dust covered your coat
And Harvest Moon crept in
Cleaning your fur stark

As dust covered your coat
The scent of into the wild
Cleaning your fur stark
Stripped and pure.

The scent of into the wild
Into the wild:
Stripped and pure.
White Fox, curled on the road.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
The trick of the pantoum, of course, is to find a subject that has its own complex weaving, so that subject and form work together. I’m not sure this poem’s subject does that as well as it might. I like the sad spareness of the poem’s focus (that dead fox), but for me, there’s something a bit forced about the way the form works in this draft. Part of the problem may be that “into the wild” is used as both the book title and the movie title. The writer seems to have made it harder on herself than need be, and the unnecessary over-repetition worked against the poem, I think, but the spareness of the subject is compelling, and I think a good thorough re-shaping could make the poem work.

Dustin: I thik you might have taken a shot of Mary Oliver before writing this poem–I don’t meant that as a negative– I’m just saying. You definitely have a missed opportunity with your title; we get a white fox in the first line, so give us something different. I really enjoyed your poem from last week, and I wanted to see something as powerful this week, but I don’t feel you delivered. Yes, pantoums are difficult to write. Yes, writing a pantoum in fours is freaking hard, but after last week, I know you can deliver a better pantoum than “White Fox.”

Dana: What is clear from this week’s poems is that it’s really hard to write a pantoum. You don’t just have to get in gracefully, you have to get out gracefully. And you have to be able to incorporate the repeated lines throughout without losing control of what you’re doing. The pantoum, done well, is like a professional diver’s entry into the water — it ends clean, no splash as the water gets thrown out of place. This poem has some good moments, but overall you aren’t in control of what is going on, and it culminates in an ending with a lot of splash — and not in the good sense of that dead metaphor.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: This poem is…okay. It is not Ling’s best by far. Maybe it was a labor of survival for the poet—we’ve all been there, so I am sympathetic. But in the spirit of pantoums future, let’s take a look at the strategic ways in which the poem could be strengthened.

Molly Peacock has a great philosophy of form: she says that the formal dictates should be a skeleton giving structure to the flesh around it, rather than a box containing the poem. Right now, this poem feels a little too boxed-in by the pantoum. It would be great to see the author challenge himself more with longer lines, or additional enjambment; there’s a herky-jerky quality created by all the endstops, especially that severe colon.

Because the subject is literally “still,” a fox curled on the road, it doesn’t give Ling much opportunity to energize the scene. Instead of a rhetorical build-up, we drift toward an odelike, static appreciation of nature. If we are treating this as a draft open to revision, I would suggest that the two elements that offer the most potential for dramatic tension are the speaker’s questioning of the fox (though I think there are riskier questions to be asked) and the idea of “one-eyed nap.” Does that mean only one eye is closed, and therefore the fox is not as asleep as it appears? I would love to see that pushed farther.

I don’t know how/if the other judges will weigh in on this, but for the record I regard Ling’s doubling of Into the Wild as both book and movie title a clever move, in line with the pantoum formal repetitions. It’s not cheating. Frankly, since I hate prompts, I’m always rooting for those who find a way to subvert them.

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KRISTEN MCHENRY

The Book of Lilith

I could pass for your pious wife.
But then there’s that Louisiana
Milk Snake in my Miu Miu bag.
Nights, I study from the Book of Lilith.

But then there’s that Louisiana
heat that slithers in my restless hips.
Nights, I study from the Book of Lilith.
I’m teeming with Eden’s

heat that slithers in my restless hips.
Nights, I drive to this cave I knew–
I’m teeming with Eden’s
canticles of serpent song.

Nights, I drive to this cave I knew–
before men, before trouble, before
canticles of serpent song.
Nights, the stars would rush at me,

before men, before trouble, before
I was a cherished breakable.
Nights, the stars would rush at me,
I was the thrum of their hustle and flow;

I was a cherished breakable.
Eden brides married blind and bustled.
I was the thrum of their hustle and flow;
now I’m your willow-shelter, your choking-roots.

Eden brides married blind and bustled.
I should keep my eyes cast down, given that
now I’m your willow-shelter, your choking-roots.
I’m the bitch in the kitchen with a cooling knife.

I should keep my eyes cast down, given that
Milk Snake in my Miu Miu bag.
I’m the bitch in the kitchen with a cooling knife.
I could pass for your pious wife.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Something about this poem charms and thrills me, even though a few of the lines are a bit of a stretch “heat that slithers in my restless hips” (does heat slither? maybe this is referring to a man’s genitals? hmmmm). But mostly the poem has an energy and sonic power that works well with the formal constraints, so the poem feels like it is weaving forward, weaving forward, the way the best pantoums do:

I was the thrum of their hustle and flow;

I was a cherished breakable.
Eden brides married blind and bustled.
I was the thrum of their hustle and flow;
now I’m your willow-shelter, your choking-roots.

Eden brides married blind and bustled.

Does it get much better then “now I’m your willow-shelter, your choking-roots”? And what about that “milk-snake in my Miu-Miu bag”? How wonderfully weird! The quirkiness and beauty of this poem is refreshing and certainly makes me glad we’ve given Kristen a ‘second chance’. Well done, Kristen!

Dustin: I absolutely love your last two lines: “I’m the bitch in the kitchen with a cooling knife. / I could pass for your pious wife.” I almost want the last line of the poem to be “I’m the bitch in the kitchen with a cooling knife.” Don’t get me wrong, your last line works– just a small personal preference. I love ““milk-snake in my Miu-Miu bag” and “But then there’s that Louisiana / heat that slithers in my restless hips.” I’m not sure about heat that slithers, but I find the line so sexy that I’m not distracted, in fact, I’m drawn. Small item: Toward the end of the poem. I’d remove “now” from your repeating line. I think the poem could use a touch-up here and there– very small stuff as I just mentioned. There is no denying that this is a good poem. Now, I have to say this: I love that you wrote about Lilith. Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with the story of Adam’s first wife who wouldn’t submit; therefore, I was happy to see a poem on the topic.

Dana: So the hard decision for me this week was between this poem and Emily’s. Both are amazing. I wouldn’t even pick between the two under normal conditions because I don’t tend to compare poems in that way. But this is a competition, after all, so I sat with both pieces in front of me and what I came away with is this. Your work is exceptional, very exciting to read, extremely polished. I can see why you just placed as a runner up in Qarrtsiluni’s chapbook competition. The only thing I would say is to maybe, maybe think about a little *less* control in some of your pieces. Step in a little shit, if you will. Just a little. Sometimes it feels a little too pulled together, like a room that uses all the same hues instead of varying the undertones just enough to create the uncomfortable energy that gets us going. This is a 1% complaint, mind you. Teensy.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: McHenry has been turning strong poems throughout this competition, and this is no exception. With its rich sounds and sassy tone, “The Book of Lilith” was genuinely pleasurable to read, and offers a supple handling of the pantoum form.

One of the poet’s trademarks seems to be intelligent compression. In lesser hands, the complex power dynamic captured in “I’m your willow-shelter, your choking-roots” would have taken a whole stanza to communicate. Here, it’s accomplished in five words. I liked the bold pairing of contemporary vernacular with biblical reference. The strategic positioning of “Eden” and “Louisiana” at line breaks—meaning they each got a turn at modifying the heat and snake motifs—was a clever way of making form serve theme.

That said, I’m not sure the theme is fully developed. Clearly the Lilith-like figure has evolved through several selves. What is the transformation of character that we, as the reader, are supposed to be most invested in? When the speaker says “I could pass for your pious wife”—a line which has to bear up under extra scrutiny because it both opens and closes the poem—does pass equate to “I could be mistaken for, by someone not looking hard enough…” or does it mean “I could choose to play the role of…”? It would be easy to coast on that wonderful end rhyme in the final couplet, and not ask for a greater narrative satisfaction. But I’m charged with being more demanding.

One small thing: revising the repeating lines can be a slippery slope, but alterations also prevent distracting confusions. The speaker’s story hinges on contrasting the past (“before men, before trouble”) to the present. But because McHenry needs to use the same phrasing in two different contexts, she ends up with the weird tense conflation of “I drive to this cave I knew.” It’s a jarring moment, but I can’t judge too harshly when her hands were tied by the assignment. It can be easily fixed in a post-contest incarnation.

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EMILY VAN DUYNE

For My Girlhood Best Friend

I need another heart, two brand new eyes, a bigger boat:
I’m on her bedroom floor. Jaws flickers on the little screen—
She floats above me, blue lit, drunk, remote.
It’s August 21, 1996, her sweet sixteen.

I’m on her bedroom floor. Jaws flickers on the little screen—
the party’s finished, everybody’s gone. I’ve spent the night, instead.
It’s August 21, 1996, her sweet sixteen.
She fucks some blond boy in her pink, four-poster bed,

the party’s finished, everybody’s gone. I’ve spent the night, instead,
too late to sneak out now, to wander home. It’s 4 am!
She fucks some blond boy in her pink, four-poster bed—
I bind a pillow over my dark head, choke out a loud ahem!

too late to sneak out now, to wander home. It’s 4 am!
Now he’s growling lines in tandem with the flick!
I bind a pillow over my dark head, choke out a loud ahem!
On their bodies tumble, his balls slap; they heave and slick—

now he’s growling lines in tandem with the flick!
How she grunts and groans: a man-eater, ferocious.
On their bodies tumble, his balls slap; they heave and slick,
each novel sound stays with me— I’m a virgin, I’m precocious.

How she grunts and groans: a man-eater, ferocious,
I just have to look; it’s like something from Justine!
Each novel sound stays with me— I’m a virgin, I’m precocious,
I’ll take this night to heart. I can’t forget this scene, I mean

I just have to look; it’s like something from Justine!
She never read a goddamn thing, she kissed the boys, instead.
I’ll take this night to heart. I can’t forget this scene, I mean,
I used to plait her curls in that pink bed!

She never read a goddamn thing, she kissed the boys, instead.
She floats above me, blue lit, drunk, remote:
I used to plait her curls in that pink bed!
I need another heart, two brand new eyes, a bigger boat.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Easily and hands down my favorite poem of the week. What I love about this poem is that the form becomes completely integral to the meaning of the poem, the intensity of the experience being described, the dream-like horror of the scenario. So the repetition feels absolutely in keeping with the subject of the poem. Even the hyperboles: i.e. “his balls slap” seem absolutely right for this character and her enforced voyeuristic episode. Fabulous work here!

Dustin: Last week C. Dale Young wrote, “Wow. I mean, Wow!” I’m stealing his words for this week. Wow. I mean, Wow! There is so much to love about your poem that I feel like a glutton. What a first line: “I need another heart, two brand new eyes, a bigger boat”—–a great first line to pull in a reader. I immediately wanted to know why the speaker needs another heart, two brand new eyes, and a bigger boat. I also want to applaud you. The past couple of weeks I’ve stated that you’ve had some issues with flow— Not this week. Using a date in a line that repeats in a poem can be tricky business, but you make it work. Small item: In the second to last stanza, I wanted to see “pink, four-poster bed” instead of “that pink bed.” This poem is very dramatic, and I think keeping it “pink, four-poster bed” helps keep it operating at a high drama level. I’d love to see what you would do with to this poem with a little more time. Good job!

Dana: I need another pantoum, two brand new pantoums, a bigger pantoum. Not because I don’t like this poem and want a trade, but because I like it so much I want more. I actually have some technical things I could say about it, so I suppose I will. It feels a little redundant in stanzas three and four, and it’s hard to sustain the same tension and drive that you have in that marvelous first stanza. That first line! That second line! I also think there’s more spit and polish you could put on the middle stanzas. The only time the repeated lines really aren’t working for me is when you use the “ahem!” Twice. A vocal utterance like that calls a lot of attention to itself and it’s hard to finesse that twice in the poem without it standing out. But here’s the thing: Your poem is dangerous and complicated, on the whole and in and within individual lines. I could sit with “She never read a goodamn thing, she kissed the boys, instead” all day and I was so happy that you used it as a repeated line. Your poem does step in a little shit, but it has all the emotional, raw, smart, complex stuff going on in it that I find in my favorite poems.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: Van Duyne’s poems have fascinated me throughout this competition—she’s totally unafraid of hyperbolic language and extremist viewpoints. I wish there was more of her wildness among today’s poets.

Unfortunately, the frenzy of exclamation points is not as well suited here as it has been in her past work. The problem is that we’re in narrative space, rather than a dramatic monologue (at which Van Duyne excels, i.e. the Plath poem). As a reader I took the cues of specificities such as “It’s August 21, 1996, her sweet sixteen,” and invested in the story. Would her friend actually consummate the act? Would the speaker look? Would this kill the friendship? But ultimately, the story doesn’t offer any kind of conclusion, or explicit conflict; it’s just a crutch for the acrobatics of voice. Exploiting a hermit crab for this purpose is fine; using “My Girlhood Best Friend” feels a little strange.

This assignment simply does not complement the poet’s skills. The long lines each have a lot of internal momentum, but those comma-heavy clauses suffer in the pantoum repetition. Both titles are referenced in a literal way (the movie as a movie, the book as a book), and the Justine reference feels particularly tacked-on.

Yet I want to say that this poem includes my favorite line of this round: “I need another heart, two brand new eyes, a bigger boat.” (Though I’d strike “brand” and just say “new eyes.”) In its latter appearance, we know this rhetoric is grounded in details of the evening: the speaker’s heart is broken by her best friend; her voyeuring eyes no longer match the rest of her virginal self; “bigger boat” is a witty Jaws echo. But even as the first line—with no knowledge of these cross-references—I fell in love. What better paraphrase of achy adolescence is there than the universal wish for another heart, two new eyes, and a bigger boat?

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W.F. ROBY
Singing “Death Letter” at Dawn

Crickets out there singing “Teach me, teach me.”
My baby she wrote me a candle
just long enough to read her letter by,
in the time it takes to flip the record.

My baby she wrote me a candle
in the moonlight sharp as chicken bones.
In the time it takes to flip the record
my baby kicked holes in the toolhouse.

in the moonlight sharp as chicken bones.
Now I look for the grave at my toes.
My baby kicked holes in the toolhouse
until the sun went cannon dark,

now I look for the grave at my toes.
My baby she wrote me a cloudburst —
until the sun went cannon dark,
just long enough to light a candle by,

My baby she wrote me a cloudburst —
my baby she wrote me a letter
just long enough to light a candle by,
just short enough to skip the record.

My baby she wrote me a letter
just long enough to read her letter by,
just short enough to skip the record.
Crickets out there singing “Teach me, teach me.”

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
For me, the best of this poem happens in the four lines below:

my baby kicked holes in the toolhouse.

in the moonlight sharp as chicken bones.
Now I look for the grave at my toes.

I really wish the rest of the poem had this kind of freshness. The poem veers for me too much into what feels like song lyrics. The repetition of “My baby wrote me” pushes the poem toward a country western ballad, and it seems to finally overwhelm the poem which feels like it doesn’t move much past what happens in the opening two stanzas. The danger of the pantoum is that it can feel like it doesn’t go anywhere (oh, yes, I’ve written my share of these!), and I fear that’s what happened with this poem even despite the surprise and delight of the above quoted lines.

Dustin: Your title contains an allusion and grabs attention. If I saw the title of the poem on a table of contents, I’d flip directly to it. I sort of like the first line, but I’d lose the “out there.” However, I am lost with “My baby she wrote me a candle.” While it seems nice, the lines works against the poem by creating a distraction— througout the poem my mind kept wandering back to that line. Yes, I know pantoums are hard. Repetition can a troublesome task to handle. Unfortunately, I think this troublesome task got the best of you. I feel like your poem is a bad country music song. You’re a good poet; however, at times I feel like you don’t trust yourself when writing. Maybe I’m wrong. If I’m not, trust yourself— just do it.

Dana: There is some really creative work going on in this poem, but I feel like it’s suspended between different approaches, if you will. Is it a song? Is it absurd? If it’s a song, I want it to be its own song, not thrust Joe Cocker in my ear in line two – Joe is very, very difficult to get out once he’s in, by the way. If it’s absurd, I want it to go more in that direction and really push the weird. Your way with language is really wonderful, and I’ve seen daring, strange, disturbing poems you’ve written that I adore, but I think this assignment tripped you up. I want you to be fierce and unapologetic. Your poems, that is. You are clearly already both in real life.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: Much like the sestina, the pantoum is a form that can fatigue the reader. Many people resist this risk by masking the repetitions. Rather than backing away from the inherent repetitions, Roby doubled down on the risk—adding his own both within a line (“Teach me, teach me”) and with the use of anaphora (“My baby she wrote me a cloudburst— / my baby she wrote me a letter…”). That’s a really bold move, and it shows an admirable openness to play at this critical stage of the competition.

On top of the movie and the book, Roby also embeds a reference to a third creative genre, song. The title invokes Son House’s “Death Letter” (and those more likely to know Joe Cocker will hear “My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter”). In terms of these labyrinthine assignments, he’s saying Bring it on. Awesome.

The big problem is a lack of coherence. This feels less like a poem, more like a riff (House was a 1930s blues musician). I’m not always looking for story—I appreciate lyric. But this relies on the framework of “Death Letter” (in which a man learns of his loved one’s death via a letter delivered in the morning, goes to the morgue to identify her body, buries her, and returns home depressed) in order to make sense.

There are some gloriously strange word choices here, modifying a “poetic” object with an unexpected adjective; the tradition goes back to Wallace Stevens and, further back, many of the Japanese nature poets. I want to relish phrases like “moonlight sharp as chicken bones,” or “until the sun went cannon dark.” But I can’t quite make it all stick. Ideally, these surrealistic pairings should illuminate both halves; but telling me the moonlight is as sharp as chicken bones doesn’t make me see the moon in a new way. The bones stay bones. The speaker and his baby never achieve a third dimension of personality. I admire the aim, but the execution felt sloppy.

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR
From the Phrase Book of my Fearful Mother

Adventures are for careless people.
Life is dangerous—then you die.
Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.
Watch out for the other guy.

Life is dangerous—then you die.
Every man will want your body.
Watch out for the other guy.
Eating dessert first is naughty.

Every man will want your body.
Knee his groin; poke out his eyes.
Eating dessert first is naughty.
Don’t believe their twisted lies.

Knee his groin; poke out his eyes.
Never say I didn’t tell you.
Don’t believe their twisted lies.
Unrequited love can kill you.

Never say I didn’t tell you.
Henry James, The Wings of the Dove?
Unrequited love can kill you.
Sex, drugs, rock & roll, and love.

Henry James, The Wings of the Dove?
You should go rent Vertigo.
Sex, drugs, rock & roll, and love.
Stop that, now! You know, I know.

You should go rent Vertigo.
Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.
Stop that, now! You know, I know.
Adventures are for careless people.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I very much like the conceit of this poem, but in a way the conceit becomes a trap. The phrases of the poem are made up mostly of all-too-familiar bromides. “Unrequited love can kill you.” is a winner, and helps to sharpen the mother’s character, but most of the lines don’t do that kind of hard work, and then as the poem unfolds, the language feels kind of clichéd and uninteresting. It’s a tough assignment to be sure, but this poem was a bit of a disappointment.

Dustin: I’m not feeling this poem; it doesn’t move me. I don’t think this is your best work in the competition. Using cliches can be tricky business, and I think the tricky business got the best of you. Also, I don’t think the cliches are even wovenly together nicely. I almost feel like you tossed lines together. Bottom line: This seems like a rush job. You have written better poems.

Dana: This poem fails in one essential way, which is that it does not make use of the turns between lines that make the pantoum interesting. Without those turns, the shading of the lines when they repeat is very close to the initial use of the line, even if the surrounding lines are different. The end-stopped lines might work very well, splendidly in fact, if this were a list poem and not a pantoum. But as a pantoum, I am just not feeling it. I also don’t feel this piece develops, and too many of the lines are clichés, which might work as a device if they were used more strategically or laid the groundwork for a poem that then breaks through to something deeper and broader. But I don’t see that happening in this piece.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: There’s confidence in this poem’s assembly. Morrison-Taylor uses a palpable four-beat line and full end-rhyme, which is another way of intensifying the pantoum’s formal requirements. Although in many cases this would read as too precious an effect, in this case the title—“From the Phrase Book of my Fearful Mother”—justifies a certain sing-songing quality in the verses that follow. The title is doing a lot of work, and the median line length is suited to the pantoum’s repetitions.

As with a list poem or an abcedarian, the artificial premise clarifies the reader’s expectation; the challenge is to keep the gimmick from limiting the experience. In a way, “Fearful” undermines the joke—we should extrapolate our understanding of the mother’s personality from the phrases offered, versus having it labeled at the outset. In a few cases the rotation of phrases produced pleasingly weird juxtapositions: “Life is dangerous—then you die. / Every man will want your body,” for example, made me wonder if this was a particularly necrophilia-wary mother. And although the invocations of Vertigo and The Wings of the Dove aren’t transformational, I like the friction between the two in the sixth stanza (as if one is being recommended one in response to the other).

Some of the lines feel like Jello, though—too easy to make, too easy to swallow. “Don’t believe their twisted lies” takes up valuable space that could be devoted to unpacking the child’s finger-game of “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple,” which has some double-meaning here (or a potential for one) that’s out of focus. From the approach of potential revisions, I wonder if phrases could be added that reflect the mother’s own experience. I recall plenty of warnings in my childhood that began “When I was your age I…” I’d like to engage the mother as a person, not just a mouthpiece.

The craft is solid. A poem that takes bigger risks, though, could garner bigger rewards.

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Week 6: Epigraph (The Poems!)

Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 6: Epigraph.

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MICAH LING

Kittens
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspSplendor, and splendor,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspand not a one in any way
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspdistinguished from the other
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp-Mark Doty, from “A Display of Mackerel”

Spring brings birthdays
and Dad’s trip to the pond.
The girls name cows and chickens,
the cats are all Molly.

Dad chooses
a rock from the pile behind the barn,
places it in the burlap with the tiny bodies,
eyes barely opened.

The girls watch as he marches past the field
where corn will grow, along the creek
where crickets go silent. Dad tosses the bag
of Mollys over the edge

and turns before the splash. Sometimes
the youngest cries, to herself,
because she glimpsed a tiny grey Molly,
and gave it her own last name.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Okay. So I’m sitting here reading this poem as the gray feral kitten I rescued from under my house (born there), purrs at my feet. The poem’s pretty brilliant and awful and perfect in its brutality. The flat language accentuates so effectively the flat affect of the father and the event as he wants to convey it. The one thing I would suggest for revision is that the word “Sometimes” has a flattening effect on the experience. I’d like to think this is one specific moment, so it could be “This morning” or “This time” or some other phrase to indicate specificity. The cycle of the occurrence is already inherent in the opening line and need not be emphasized, I don’t think. A powerful poem.

Dustin: This poem reminds me of a poem written by my friend Lisa Allender; in her poem, her grandfather tosses a sack of puppies in a lake while the the mother dog circles the lake—heartbreaking, like your poem. I like the detail of “the girls name cows and chickens, / the cats are all Molly” and “…he marches past the field / where corn will grow, along the creek /where crickets go silent.” You need to revisit your last stanza to make it clear. The lack of clarity weakens the punch you’re delivering with “gave it her own last name.” I love the irony that I find with the epigraph paired to your poem; I like the irong a lot. I think this is my favorite from all the ones you’ve written for the competition.

Dana: This poem is interesting in that not only are the kittens not distinguished from one another, but the girls are not distinguished, either. They are referred to as “the girls” throughout, yet the narrator refers to the man in the poem as “Dad,” so we assume the narrator is part of this family. But he or she creates a sense of distance from the girls by not calling them by their names or even by their familial relationship to the narrator. In the end, one kitten is distinguished, by being given a last name, and one girl is distinguished, by bestowing a last name on that kitten. I like that shift in the piece, and it’s an interesting take on the epigraph.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: Well, this certainly utilizes tension between the epigraph and the poem written. If one told me this poem lived between “splendor” and “death/murder” I would be intrigued. But despite that basic premise of tension, this poem seems too narrative for what it seems to want to do. The power of the lyric poem is its ability to place readers within a situation. This poem mostly tells. At times it reads like the opening of a short story and yet it resists being a narrative poem. And I cannot get over the unfortunate moment in the final stanza where “the youngest,” due to grammar, refers to the youngest Molly. I know Ling means the youngest girl, but that isn’t really what she has written. As a result, the ending is overly maudlin.

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KRISTEN MCHENRY

Silence

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
–from “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye

We are right to fear it.

It is only within it
that we die enough to heal.

A clot of soul, coaxed free,
falls mute
into the shaman’s net of light.
Grief swarms
through the soundless breach.

Silence skins us naked,
expresses its veins,
lets flow
the carnage of change.

No wonder the lunatic
seeks it in earnest.

No wonder we’ve laid down
highways of jabber
in every open airspace,
even knowing
our wards will only hold it off so long.

At the end,
we’ll claim we didn’t know
that the whole, nattering
world was so quiet underneath;

all this time, so still.

At the end, silence
will lumber onto the horizon
for her austere coronation, spread
her thighs over the earth
and hunker in her rightful place at last.

Healers will remember
no sound but the knowing of their hands.

The healed will hear nothing
but the divine
hymn of their brokenness.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Many of the poems of this week are rich and powerful in their own way. This particular poem has a wisdom that is quite winning, and some of the lines are simply nuggets: “It is only within it/that we die enough to heal.” “No wonder we’ve laid down/highways of jabber/in every open airspace,” “The healed will hear nothing/but the divine/hymn of their brokenness.” The one problem with this poem (or one caution flag the poem raised for me) was that it’s a conceptual poem and thereby it is short on image and specificity. I love the poem for its ambitiousness, but I also worry about it for the same reason.

Dustin: Oh, Kristen. Yes, you complete the assignment, but I didn’t really care for this poem. This poem is no where near the caliber of work that you’ve been delivering. Where you purposely trying to show us yet another side to your work? I find

“At the end, silence
will lumber onto the horizon
for her austere coronation, spread
her thighs over the earth
and hunker in her rightful place at last.”

to be disturbing. I guess I can give you creative points, but this stanza doesn’t work for me. I think you have a great first line to pull in a reader; however, the rest of the poem doesn’t pull through for that line– I know I’ve made this comment about first lines and titles, but this is the first time I’ve made that comment about your work.

Dana: I feel like this poem encounters a problem in trying to talk about the abstraction of silence. The piece is fumbling a bit as it tries to get its hands on making silence concrete. I was thrown by the shift from silence being referred to as “it” at the beginning of the poem, to being referred to as “she” in stanza nine. I could see a shift like that working in a poem, but I don’t think it’s working yet here. I can see the relationship between the epigraph and the poem, and I appreciate that the resulting piece is so different from the original, but I think there’s more work to be done to make the piece sing. (Of course, you’re in a really tough position, coming off last week’s poem in particular and all the strong work you’ve produced so far during the competition.)

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: Unfortunately, you could sum up this poem as “Silence is scary but is good (in a mysterious way).” Despite opening with a wonderful first line that hooks a reader almost instantly, the poem continues with a vacuous second stanza that seems intent on making the “silence” more mysterious than it really is. By the time we reach the truly terrible mixed metaphor in the opening of the third stanza, we move from doubt in this poet to a need to catalogue her errors in judgment. And who knew “silence” could straddle the earth in such a sexual way?

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EMILY VAN DUYNE

Contrition

My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are…
-Anne Sexton, ‘With Mercy for the Greedy’

Forgive my fat mouth! Topsy-
turvy glutton. It begs speech and out
it wings, a swallow from the flue… Careful,
girl, your tongue might fly out, too…
It happens
I’m a long line’s lonely sum, and rank
confessor, posting sin before I even fell
to earth (the sparkling

cider in her nuptial glass, empire
waisted gown to hide her girth…) I must
catalogue these failings— Irish music
drenched in gin! Its pipes would wallow me
into the bin… toora, loora, looral—
focus, girl, or follow in their sins…

Idolatry, now there’s a pretty word!

Grandma worshipped whiskey in the glass, two cubes
that clinked and cooled— how her head ached
when my Dad would wake for school! Her fists
curled up like smoke if Grandpa asked
her where she’d been the night before— but
in her head, she heard her father hiss
you whore… he used to beat

her face until she bled, her mother
always turned the other cheek. Her sister
Grace, the one who courted trouble?
Girl, it doubled back on her… oh, but
that’s a different tale, another
time. Bless me,
Dad, I have to speak

your crimes— your fury zipped the house
shut like the priest’s confessional slot!
Even the dogs refused their bark.
All mouth, I mapped escape routes
in the dark— lusty girl, with mercy
for her body. My hands skimmed brand new
breasts, then wandered south—

since we’ve happened onto lust, let’s
say it plain. At 23, (and four, and five…)
I numbered men like sleepless children
count fat sheep. More, I cried, and more!
Another needle in the vein— my wounded
need’s a wild, trackless
train. On, it ticks, and on

like tatted lace— these poems
are its wrangled, desperate trace—
they bleed in some back alley
with poor, reckless Grace. Oh, greedy
tongue, don’t fail me.
Heed this seedy call. My God, my
God, I’m sorry, but I have to spin it all.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
The poem’s dazzling in its way, but it also has a kind of all over the place unfolding that feels a bit unwieldy. Perhaps the presentation is meant to mimic the wildness of the speaker, but I’d have liked a bit more control.

“Dad, I have to speak

your crimes— your fury zipped the house
shut like the priest’s confessional slot!
Even the dogs refused their bark.
All mouth, I mapped escape routes
in the dark— lusty girl, with mercy
for her body.”

One can hardly fault the inventive language nor the energy, but there is a kind of haphazardness in the poem that worries me. I’m also less wild generally about the poem about writing. The epigraph leads naturally to writing about writing, but lines like “these poems / are its wrangled, desperate trace— / they bleed in some back alley / with poor, reckless Grace,” are not as compelling to me.

Dustin: Emily, if you weren’t such a sassy pants, I’d say you picked the Sexton poem to kiss ass since my love of Sexton is obvious. However, a sassy pants wouldn’t kiss ass. Okay. I had to tease you!!! I like this poem; it is strong work. Not as strong as “Shame,” and I have to say I’d kill to have you turn out another poem that delivers a bitch slap like “Shame.” You issues with the poem flowing at time— I made the same comment on your Curveball poem. I love that you begin the poem with “Forgive my fat mouth!” I really like “At 23, (and four, and five…) / I numbered men like sleepless children / count fat sheep.”

Dana: Extra points for using the name of Dustin’s blog in your epigraph. OK, you don’t really get extra points for that, but you do get extra points for creating such an strong, persona-driven piece again. We’re dropped right into an amazing opening with the command: “Forgive my fat mouth!” That entire opening stanza is killer, and the tone reminds me a great deal of your piece for Shore Tags in terms of the strength of the voice. You also mirror much of Sexton’s poem in yours, including the exclamations and rhyme, as well as the lines, “On, it ticks, and on / like tatted lace— these poems / are its wrangled, desperate trace— .” There’s no doubt the poem was influenced by the epigraph, so you’ve definitely completed the assignment. I do think you could look at stanzas three and four. They are great on their own (although perhaps “turned the other cheek” could go), but in context, they feel different from the other stanzas in terms of the diction. You pick that diction up again in stanza five, with “your fury zipped the house / shut like the priest’s confessional slot!” Compared with the other stanzas, the two I mentioned were a little flatter. But overall: bravo.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: Wow. I mean, Wow! The command of diction here is unreal. And not only is the command of diction here incredible, but the tension between the line and the syntax of the sentences only heightens our appreciation of the diction. This poem is amazing considering how little time was given to write it. It is simply amazing. I almost don’t know what to say. My one quibble, tiny as it might be, is the ending. The speaker of this poem doesn’t seem the type to be sorry. And this speaker cannot help but “spin it”; it is what she does! I suspect a better last sentence or line might be: “My God, my God, I am not sorry at all.”

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EMARI DIGIORGIO

Short Answer

“…would you want to be yourself only, unduplicatable, doomed to be lost?”
–from Mark Doty’s “A Display of Mackerel”

I told God no.
At least I think I did.
There was a storm.
Not an end-of-the-world
joist-ripping, amphibian-flying storm,
but the rain was loud and I could hardly see
past the dash. To tell you the truth
I don’t know if it was before or after
the accident, lights on the bridge, a squad car.
I wasn’t driving that fast. There must’ve been an ambulance.
I didn’t even think You’re gonna kill yourself tonight.
Come on, you know you’ve thought that too,
and if you don’t wanna die, or even if you do
and are just a bit squeamish about it, you ease off
on the turns. You check the brakes, tap ‘em,
make sure they’re there. I was glad really:
no angel song, no harp, no golden stair.
Just guessing it was God, that voice in my head,
maybe the same one that would’ve warned
Slow down, sweetheart.

And the blue books were passed down the rows.
I’d been in my car but now I rummaged for a pen.
I was always a good student, studied, sturdy, shot straight.
Short answer. Directions. I could follow directions.
What would Kierkegaard say? Something about
a leap of faith? It wasn’t a dream but it felt like it.
A woman issued me a temporary id card
and left two quarters on my desk.
They stared up like coin-covered eyes.

I’d never been myself only.
Wore my mother’s eyes my whole life.

Imagine the self dissembled on the factory floor.
Earlobes, elbows, furrowed brows, sighs
the same length, weight, frequency sorted
stacked in the corresponding row.
What sharp instruments to strip
the sense of loss we might share.

Tough work cutting a body from a car,
especially when the car has melded with a bridge.
Traffic stops. The water, the barge beneath the bridge
proceed. Proceed, the officer waves. You go.
Slow, looking, think rubber-necking,
are embarrassed for only an instant. You will forget
the color of the car, what you are wearing,
how many bodies attend the one body trapped
wrapped around the steering column.
The leap of faith less difficult now.
You’ll never really leave that bridge.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I’ve been a fan of Emari’s work, and I like the subject here, the speaker’s encounter with death, but this poem’s end is less satisfying to me, and generally I’m not as compelled by the story as I feel I ought to be. There are great moments in it, (for example the stanza about the disassembled self), but finally, I’m less gripped by this one than by some of the other poems of the week and by some of Emari’s other work.

Dustin: The beginning of this poem made me feel like I was reading a short-short instead of a poem. I didn’t start enjoying this poem until the last two poems. Your last two stanzas are damn good stuff. What a striking line: “Imagine the self dissembled on the factory floor.” I only wish the rest of the poem was as striking.

Dana: This piece has so much going on in it and so much potential, yet it feels unfocused. I was confused by the setting shift in the second stanza, and I think you know that’s confusing because you give an explanatory note in line two of that stanza: “I’d been in my car but now I rummaged for a pen.” From the second stanza on, I felt the stanzas were pulling the reader this way and that, and not in a good way. The next-to-last stanza is very strong on its own, for instance, but going from that stanza to the last is jarring. I feel like this poem loses its way in the middle, and that the poem really is happening in the first and last stanzas. I would love to see what happened if you combined those stanzas and then focused on making the poem clearer.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: I admire the way the poet threads narrative within a lyric structure here. I like the delaying tactics in the poem, the way it moves the way the mind works, via tangential locations in time. It seems quite fitting for the opening and the ending to be separated by school and the Short Answer test. But Kierkegaard? Where did he come from? He surprises, but he also distracts. I also loved the way the epigraph was used here and the fact the poem is an answer to the question posed. That said, the real focus here is not answering the question. If revising this, I’d say lose the epigraph and tighten up the poem and let it be more meditative instead of narrative. Good poem though.

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W.F. ROBY

To the birds

“The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.”
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp-Naomi Shihab Nye, from “Famous”

Perch here, my jewel tone, my parachute,
and study the outline of the beast. At night you’ll hear
his spells crossing the lawn in thick boots,
the everywhere creak of ice under weight. In time
you’ll understand his scraps, his bondage,
his rolling in congress. Under the street’s lamp
some nights there are two tails pointing
the way home, two mouths to track. You’ll catch
his good eye creased to watch
the tiniest detail — a feather flickering
against the tree’s skin. Rest here,
shake off the weight of the shell,
peek around a twig and learn
the dance of his paws. He is lightning
from a blue sky. You are no longer blind,
you can tell me what the cat looks like. Start
at the whiskers, finish at the scratch.
Eat this worm.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I love the inventiveness of this poem and the clarity and distinctiveness of the voice. I’m not entirely clear on the meaning of a few of the lines “two tails pointing the way home” (two cats—but why would it be home to the birds?) and also not sure why this bird sounds so weirdly villainous “my jewel tone, my parachute” “Rest here/shake off the weight of the shell…” (I mean, it’s a sweet little bird, right?”, but generally, this poem’s a winner, with a fantastic close.

Dustin: I love your opening line; it does a good job pulling a reader into the poem, and you do a good job making sure the reader isn’t going to be disappointed once he/she is done with the poem. I do think this poem could use some revision to put more emphasis on the identity of the speaker because it is a little fuzzy. I know that fuzzy can be good at times, but in this case, I think fuzzy is distraction from a lovely poem with lines like: “He is lightning / from a blue sky.” And, yes, I love that last line. Good job.

Dana: First, this is a great poem, W.f. Second, I want you to stop beating yourself up. Deal? It pains me to see you say negative things about your work or about your future in the competition. But back to the poem: I love these lines especially, “In time / you’ll understand his scraps, his bondage, / his rolling in congress.” The first line is great, too. And the last. Pretty much everything in between. The only thing I would say is that it took me a minute to orient myself in terms of understanding who the narrator was. What I really love about this piece is how creatively is responds to the epigraph by Nye. This is good squishy, W.f.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: This address to the birds is odd. I cannot figure out the speaker’s psychological stance. Is he warning the birds? Educating them a la St. Francis? The speaker seems far more interested in the cat. And we know the poet is interested in the cat from the epigraph. But here is my issue: if the epigraph says the cat is “famous to the birds,” why does a speaker need to educate the birds, tell them all about the cat(s)? And why does the cat suddenly become two cats? Odd. And the poem is made odder by its decisions to locate images where they are. This would be a very different poem were it to open with these lines used late in the poem:

He is lightning from a blue sky.
You are no longer blind,
you can tell me what the cat looks like.

That is a setup for a perverse yet interesting poem.

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR

Also Famous

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
— from “Famous,” Naomi Shihab Nye

Our paper boy’s black Converse sneakers
dangle on the power line just above
Min’s Sushi. I recognize them

because of purple stripes drawn on the margin
of their soles. When I ask, he says
he can’t remember who threw them up there,

but will count the summer thunderstorms
anointing them with lightning.
He’s too poetic. I don’t buy it.

Urban legend says he’s dead (a casualty
of gang violence), or Min is selling crack,
or here’s a boundary we shouldn’t cross,

as if we walked around looking up like that,
seeing trouble and mapping out new routes.
Let the truth be more simple.

A boy and a girl under an awning after hours—
his pitching arm itched, as she unlaced
his favorite shoes to fling at the Peeping-Tom-moon

shining in the window on the plastic
replicas of sashimi plates. I don’t know
how many times it took, back and forth,

until her toss stuck and swung, for the length
of a kiss, in the raw universe
of the young and poor and famous.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
The ‘boot’ of the epigraph and the sneakers seems to me to have a different kind of cultural import (the first of course referencing the working class, the second indicating or indicative more of race and a racial identification). I do see the last line as sort of bringing the two together, but the connection may be a bit of a stretch. Putting aside this quibble, I think the poem itself is impressive for the power of its details “unlaced/his favorite shoes to fling…” “stuck and swung for the length/of a kiss, in the raw universe” (such great sounds in this last passage), and for the unity of its message. In fact, perhaps part of the strength of the poem is that it brings racial and class differences together (too true for the U.S., sadly). A strong poem.

Dustin: Last week, Dara Wier told Emari to remove a note about certain lines of her poem coming from another’s poet work. Dara wrote, “We either get it or we don’t.” In the case of your poem, I didn’t get it, and my not getting it me. I had to visit my ole friend Google for clarity. Maybe I was bothered by the extra work because I don’t feel this poem is your best work. Don’t get me wrong—I like what you are trying to accomplish with this poem. I like this poem. But, I think the last half could use some tweaking and possibly a little more added to the store.

Dana: The opening of this poem doesn’t pull me in. I feel like we get information in the first and second stanzas that isn’t needed and doesn’t move the poem forward: “I recognize them / because of purple stripes drawn on the margin.” I had to look up the urban legend that shoes hung on a power line are a signal that a gang has killed someone or that crack is being sold in the location below the shoes. This reference is very interesting but would be lost on many readers, and I wonder about having a second epigraph that explains the legend and orients the reader. I see the connection between the poem and the epigraph, but I don’t think it’s as strong as with some of the other pieces this week.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: “Let the truth be more simple.” Brilliant move! That small rhetorical gesture deployed just past the mid-point of the poem, is what allows this poem to move from the narrative to the metaphorical, and yet, Morrison-Taylor resists that and gives us more narrative, albeit slightly more charged narrative. This is lovely. The ending is not quite right: “her toss stuck and swing”? But this poem understands how an argument is utilized within a poem. It has an authority because of that. And I love how it mines what readers already suspect about the shoes hanging on the wire only to then discredit those suspicions. “Let the truth be more simple.” Gorgeous.

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Week 5: The Between (The Poems!)

Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 5: The Between.

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MICAH LING
Runcible Spoon

A piece of toast cracks like slate
when it’s the only sound in the room
and the only room in the world. The toast
is lonely, Jim sighs as he pockets the burnt bread.

When it’s the only sound in the room
Jim’s voice is thin as his ribs
and lonely: he sighs as he pockets the toast
wasting nothing, soaking each crumb.

Jim’s voice is thin as his ribs
when he sits at his table, in his corner
wasting nothing, soaking each crumb
with butter or cream or cold coffee.

When he sits at his table, in his corner
Jim listens to the sounds of the room
rich with butter and cream and coffee
between his teeth.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This is not Micah’s strongest work, I don’t think. There’s something a bit like Bishop about the poem, a matter-of-fact and distanced tone which appeals to me on some level, and in fact there’s a bit of Bishop’s sestina “Miracle for Breakfast” here with the toast and coffee references. But the poem feels “thin.” Jim is a gesture of a character not actualized in the poem, and the situation feels not fully realized. Why is this “the only room in the world”? Finally, I wonder what we are meant to feel by this one.

Dustin: I think you have a great beginning with “A piece of toast cracks like slate / when it’s the only sound in the room.” I’m also quite fond of “Jim’s voice is thin as his ribs.” I think you complete the assignment by splitting the sentence “A piece of toast cracks like slate between his teeth,” but what you have between the split isn’t very compelling to me.

Dana: I love pantoums and I’ve written a lot of them, so I was smitten with this piece right away. I didn’t mind the variation with the third-to-last and last lines not repeating lines three and one, but it did make the poem feel a little incomplete, and I wonder if there could be another stanza to tie the piece up. While the poem does exploit the variations that can occur when each line is repeated — one of my favorite aspects of the pantoum form — I don’t feel that overall the variance was leveraged as much as it could have been. Also, there was some confusion in the poem, which can happen in the pantoum as lines are brought back. One instance of this was the bread being pocketed but also being soaked. On re-reading, I understand that the bread is being pocketed and the crumbs from the bread are being soaked, but it’s a little confusing at first.

Guest Judge Dara Wier: Who doesn’t like a runcible spoon? And there being but one room in the world, well, that’s good to think with, too. I really like the recycling ways with the lines, I love how it makes both sonic and sense insistently inevitable. I like this poem a lot. It is also fun to translate “Jim” into “I” just to see what happens then.

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KRISTEN MCHENRY
Sanctuary

Thus the private asylum is far
thus he cannot
get there but by boat.

Thus he will pay the ferryman
in moon-fat coins.
Thus he will thunder

over cowlicked waves
in a rot-bottomed barge
to grasp the scrawny shore.

How he has festered in his prophecies,
and oh what the Stakes are
in this Seeing!

It’s all in the Semantics–
the wording and the Interpretation:
somewhere lurks a shelter

in which he may learn
dreamspeak. Thus he will shamble
through the hoary copse,

trample the backs of mud-deep moles
with his scabrous feet for passage.
He will breathe the sick-mist,

let their neuro-germs seep in
through his most judicious eye.
But he has exhausted

his amulets too soon; been made to beg
provisions from the enemy.
It is said: a silver-tongued

saint deceives us all. It is
said: there are no angels on this plane.
Always there’s another gummy step

on his odyssey to the silent pool,
but nothing will hold
still in all this bruise and teal.

The sky presses its mattress full
of squids upon his mouth
to suffocate his warnings. The chatter

of the assassin bugs is ceaseless. Peace
is always never-jam-today; always
beyond his reach at the present.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I have been a fan or Kristen’s inventive, sonic, surprising language throughout the competition, and this poem’s language is no exception: “ he will pay the ferryman/in moon-fat coins./…will thunder/over cowlicked waves/in a rot-bottomed barge/ to grasp the scrawny shore.” “The sky presses its mattress full/of squids.” The mythological story also works beautifully here to ground the poem and give it resonance and breadth. I’m not as wild about the way the poem ends the “never-jam-today” is a bit awkward and there’s a kind of falling away, but this is a strong poem given the parameters of the assignment.

Dustin: Kristen, I have to give you kudos for selecting “Thus the private asylum is far beyond his reach at the present”– I think it was the hardest option to work with. My favorite lines: “It is said: a silver-tongued / saint deceives us all.” Yes, you have beautiful language. Yes, you have lovely images. Yes, you always do a good job with the assignment. However, I can’t help but feel there is a little something missing, for me at least. Maybe you are leaving something out. Are you writing furiously, then stop thinking it might be too much? Either way, I still enjoyed this poem quite a lot.

Dana: Are you kidding me? This poem is amazing. For me, this is one of the best pieces overall in the competition so far. The way the rich, lush language works against the short lines is thrilling. The poem is so tight but so language-dense. I loved reading from line to line to see what goodies the next line would bring, and I was not once disappointed. I especially love the line, “trample the backs of mud-deep moles.” And when I got to, “The sky presses its mattress full / of squids upon his mouth,” I couldn’t even get past the lines because I wanted to read them over and over. I finally managed to read the rest of the poem, though.

Guest Judge Dara Wier: The anachronistic therefore idiomatic “thus” completely seduces me. Immediately feel in the presence of an oracle or at least a fiesty judge, turns out there’s but one part of this poem that maybe could be changed.

Even though this is probably true:

It’s all in the Semantics–
the wording and the Interpretation:
somewhere lurks a shelter

in which he may learn
dreamspeak.

it’s not needed in this poem. If you left this part out the poem’s not about to appear as any kind of lesson, it’s more mysterious and I like that a lot. “The chatter / of the assassin bugs is ceaseless,” is just great.
Added to “thus” come other rhetorical insistences most enjoyable (funny how so called transitions can make or break a poem, these make it). This is also great to read translated into first person.

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EMILY VAN DUYNE
Because As A Youth, My Love Was Sure His Wife Would Want His Name

He already has
her plucked! This is years
before we saunter down the aisle—

I’m sleuthing time’s back
alleys, a wedded Nancy Drew. Suddenly,
I unearth Mrs. Peck! His conjured lady

wife; she’s lounged, facedown upon
a paisley chaise. Perfection: she lifts
her sleepy chin: sphinxy girl—

a bas relief Colette. ‘Sorry,’
she says, ‘have we met?’
Oh, my dear, we have. In dreams,

and in the sun. I’ve decked you out
in paper aprons; you cooled the piping
steam from my mud pies. You peeked

out from my Mother’s sad brown eyes.
I ask, ‘What’s it like to be
a flat, two-sided bride?’ ‘Every woman

is imagined!’ she huffs out— a thunder-
cloud of pride. ‘I’ve seen you
in the shower, how you wish

your body gone— your wet lark’s
an execution song! You grasp and wring
your glutted flesh, you’d hack it off, if

only—!’ Now she pancakes down to size—
smoothes her chignon, rolls her cobalt
eyes; they turn familiar, brown! ‘Sometimes,

I think he still wants you around,’
I whisper, look the other way. ‘It’s not
too late,’ she jeers, ‘Let’s call you

Mrs. Peck.’ She bids her hollow
hand— it glints! Hot diamond in a flame.
She smiles a white mirage.

She Mona Lisa’s me.
I tell her I already have
a name, she sighs reproachfully.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This is a fun and inventive poem exploring sexual dynamics. I like the light deftness of the way the poem moves “I’ve decked you out /
in paper aprons; you cooled the piping / steam from my mud pies.” and ‘What’s it like to be / a flat, two-sided bride?’ Another fine job with a tough assignment.

Dustin: Again, you create a long title for your poem. Again, the long title works. I think this title would cause people to go from the table of contents directly to your poem. You also selected a sentence that no one else used: “He already has a name, she sighs reproachfully.” I am in love with “I’m sleuthing time’s back / alleys, a wedded Nancy Drew,” and I really enjoyed “Now she pancakes down to size.” On the other hand, I am not really feeling “She Mona Lisa’s me.” In the end, I think you handled the assignment well. Emily, give us an interesting story between.

Dana: Emily, I love the creativity in this piece and so much of what is going on throughout. A couple of things hung me up, though. I had trouble settling into the poem and understanding what exactly was going on at first. The “he” and “her” in lines one and two made the “we” in line three confusing, and even the explanation in the second stanza, along with the title, wasn’t clear enough to orient me immediately. Don’t get me wrong — I am not arguing that poetry has to be “accessible” in that way that everyone talks about poetry being accessible. I just wanted a smoother on-ramp into the piece, if that makes sense. The other thing I noticed was a lot of long “i” sounds in the fifth through seventh stanzas, with “piping, “pies,” “eyes,” “like,” “bride” and “pride.” You have rhyme and assonance in the rest of the piece, but not the same sounds over and over, and that made this section of the poem sound and feel different from the rest of the piece.

Guest Judge Dara Wier:
…I’ve decked you out
in paper aprons; you cooled the piping
steam from my mud pies. You peeked

out from my Mother’s sad brown eyes.
I ask, ‘What’s it like to be
a flat, two-sided bride

is my favorite part of this poem, and I’m also intrigued by the dramatic monologue quality that’s immediately territorially in action here. I listen. I listen in to a conversation that’s reported. There’s a sphinx, Nancy Drew, Mona Lisa, Mrs. Peck, Mother, Colette, a populated poem! I appreciate how these 3 line stanzas create vertical action in the poem’s narration/dialog. And I admire the work the poem’s title does.

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EMARI DIGIORGIO
Continually Calling On Persephone

A piece of toast
blackened beyond a clean shave
with the best serrated knife.
Nothing a little butter, a little marmalade
can’t sweeten. Over breakfast
I ask what love isn’t half stale anyway?
Akhmatova answered this: the first helpless and frightening glance.
I remember them all. Boys, really.
The evening of their eyes starless, lit only by my face.
Their longing dangerous. Mine, too.
You, sir, are mistaken: a siren cannot not sing.
And pleasure slackens desire.
We walk along the hard crest of the snowdrift.
The shiver is not from the cold.
Whatever was promised me
cracks like slate between his teeth.

*Poem contains lines from two Anna Akhmatova poems translated by Jane Kenyon.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Though I like many of the lines in this poem “I ask what love isn’t half stale anyway?” “I remember them all. Boys, really. / The evening of their eyes starless, lit only by my face,” the contemporary situation of the poem feels a but insular to me. I think the poem needs to be teased out more. The lines: “You, sir, are mistaken: a siren cannot not sing. / And pleasure slackens desire.” don’t let me in enough. I do like the ending lines, and the situation of the poem is intriguing.

Dustin: The title of this poem really piqued my interest; however, I don’t feel the poem lives up to its title. I don’t feel like there is enough between “A piece of toast” and “cracks like slate between his teeth.” I also feel with more time that you could turn this into a much better poem.

Dana: It’s interesting to see three different takes on the “piece of toast” line. All three poems are so different, and I like your approach very much, especially the quiet intimacy of it, the narrator’s meditation and revelations. Lines such as “The evening of their eyes starless” and “And pleasure slackens desire” are standout moments in the poem. I stumbled over the double negative of “a siren cannot not sing,” but that’s a small detail. The turn created with the line you chose is remarkable, the way you move from “A piece of toast” to “Whatever was promised me / cracks like slate between his teeth.” Look at all the territory this poem covers in just a few lines.

Guest Judge Dara Wier: I think you can leave off the note that tells from where the lifted lines come. Either we know it or we don’t, and if we do, fine, if we don’t fine. The note’s a great big interruption in a poem such as this (notes can be incorporated into a poem’s very being, or appear elsewhere). I love
“The shiver is not from the cold.”

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W.F. ROBY

Breakfast with Walt

A piece of toast cracks
into a broken line. His face is the wing of a flightless bird.
The crumbs of gathered eggs are caught in his beard.
My orange juice is half full, it casts a glaze
over his manuscript, stretched epigraph to postscript,
laid out between the knives and the pepper mill.
A bit of shell was lost in the egg batter, an island
bound to the dreams of mapmakers, a flea
on a wedding dress. Walt is still drunk
from the night before — we sipped HD
until our lips were salty as the sea’s edge
where blooms take root.
Behind my breakfast nook
there is a window framing trees, still
as iambs in a sturdy breeze. I tell Walt
that leaves of parsley seem to me to be
the uncut hair of omelettes. The great poet frowns
around a mouthful of food — he’s found the shell. It sings
like slate between his teeth.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I like the imagined scenario here, and some of the lines/metaphors are quite nice “His face is the wing of a flightless bird.” “A bit of shell was lost in the egg batter, an island/ bound to the dreams of mapmakers, a flea/ on a wedding dress.” I have to say though that finally, I’m not all that excited by this poem. I think my main question for it is that it doesn’t move much beyond itself in the telling. It has a kind of flatness and the arc of the poem doesn’t for me have enough metaphoric reach.

Dustin: I am actually disappointed that you selected “A piece of toast cracks like slate between his teeth.” I thought you would have went with another option. This poem is not lacking in images. We even have writers popping up. I do love a poem full of images, but I am not sure if this poem is about to be on image overload. I do not like “still / as iambs in a sturdy breeze.” I would say something, but I’ve already said it two or three times in my comments to you. This is not your best work in the competition.

Dana: Another piece of toast! This poem has a kind of playfulness that I really enjoy. I especially love the second stanza, the way you start out in lines one and two with iambs, then describe the trees as iambs. That’s a wonderful interplay between content and rhythm. And the rest of the stanza is outstanding, including the parsley as omelets hair and Walt frowning around his food. The only part that tripped me up was “to me to be.” The first stanza has a lot of great imagery, but it felt less polished than the second. I felt myself wanting to pull a few words out and tighten a bit as I read it.

Guest Judge Dara Wier: “a flea on a wedding dress,” is worthy of a latter day Emily Dickinson! I wonder what HD thinks about being in here, probably that HD (the very proud HD likes it a lot). I’m not crazy about “still as iambs” but maybe it’s growing on me………esp. when I see how close, for the first time! iambs is to lambs. And the poem turns toward a tonal joke in its 3rd to last line in a way that’s pretty fetching. “…the uncut hair of omlettes,” that’s funny. And since you’re obeying the assignment’s orders, I find that all the more funny. I wonder if you were going to disobey, if you’d end the poem very differently.

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR
My Grandma’s Breast

As soon as he saw her
crying in the bath, hand cupped
over something on her chest—
an engorged tick, head buried
in skin an inch from her nipple—
her father thought of fire,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspmy grandma said.

Only 13, she knelt in a tub,
screened off in the kitchen corner.
Stomping in from the porch
with all his “take charge”
Kentucky charm, her father
returned with an open flame.

His head half-turned, he held that burn
to the sucking creature at her breast,
until it let go in its inferno. Fear
and fire puckered her skin.
It hurt like Hell. Her eyes swelled
closed with tears from pain,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspfor her lost modesty.

At 90, she repeats her story to me,
while my father dismisses this tall tale.
She admonishes him: his own cheek
rested on the scar in infancy;
his own lips worked in and out
beside that dime-sized injury.

She raises her voice to tell me
how hard it was to be a woman,
someone’s rag doll or nurse maid,
fighting all the time with big boys
who thought they knew better.
She shakes her head and clucks her tongue
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspat her son, my father,

when he says that even back then,
folks knew basic medicine: tweezers,
rubbing alcohol, or perhaps, rum,
and if a deer tick latched on
to a daughter a good man loved,
he knew that this wouldn’t happen.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I am a sucker for the compelling narrative, and Kathi’s poem certainly ropes me in from the get-go. That opening stanza (that title even!) is hard to beat. She is a natural story-teller, and we see this in the following section, which I’ll paste in en toto:

Stomping in from the porch
with all his “take charge”
Kentucky charm, her father
returned with an open flame.

His head half-turned, he held that burn
to the sucking creature at her breast,
until it let go in its inferno. Fear
and fire puckered her skin.

I’m not sure fear can pucker the skin, but the sounds, the timing, the power of the scenario all work well. The penultimate stanza is less sonically rich and gets a little flat, and for me the last line doesn’t quite fit, but this is definitely a strong draft and a top pick for me this week.

Dustin: You were the only person who selected “As soon as he saw her, he knew that this wouldn’t happen,” and you did a great job. This assignment was about what’s betweent he split line, and you give us one heck of a story. I thoroughly enjoyed this poem, and it is my favorite for this week. Granted, I think you can be a little tighter in places. One place for me is:
She raises her voice to tell me

how hard it was to be a woman,
someone’s rag doll or nurse maid,
fighting all the time with big boys
who thought they knew better.
She shakes her head and clucks her tongue

This is minor, but I really wanted a simile with the engorged tick– something to make us see it more. I like your title; it will make readers do a double take. Good job, Kathi.

Dana: This is a strong piece, and I love the storytelling aspect of it, specifically the way this poem gets at the oral tradition in families and the disputes that can arise about what’s real and what’s made up and what’s been amplified over the years of telling and retelling. I also like the reference to Hell and the inferno, with the story playing out on this teensy scale. I did feel that the piece could be tightened in places, including the first stanza. I don’t know if “over something” needs to be there, and I would love to see what would happen if the poem went straight to the engorged tick, as opposed to hovering for a line on the nonspecificity of “something.”

Guest Judge Dara Wier: Well, I’m feeling shy and almost embarrassed, wondering if I should be privy to the narrated events of this poem. Even the poem says so, after all, it’s about a story, a family story, that’s disputed and/or differently recalled, and at the very least differently interpreted. Of course that’s what we do with stories, and if a story, as it seems to be in this case, is presented as a memory, yes, we are going to not only remember it in our different ways, we’re going to assign it more or less importance. (“only 13” and “at 90” wind up being two of the most significant moments of the poem’s character, maybe more of this (in a rhetorical way…..a formal way) would make the two instances of this seem less perfunctory and more intrinsic….I think it’s close to being shaped into something great………..so………maybe more imagination about what I’m supposed to be thinking would help transform an anecdotal piece into metaphorical territory.

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Curveball: The Poems!

Here are the poems from the Project Verse Curveball.

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MICAH LING

Dolly

Hey cowgirl. Hey tough-as-barbed-wire-fencing-woman, a-whole-August-of-100-degree
days-woman. I hear you still hold the record for barrel racing in Harlowton. I hear you’ve
ridden horses your whole life, and have a knotted spine. I hear you still wrangle and
mend downed fencing. I hear you feed the calf in rain and snow and sand the floor where
the door won’t close. I hear you taught your children and grandchildren how to raise a
pig, how to judge 4-H, how to brace for a storm. Hey kind, kind woman. Be the hero
ridin’ up to save the day. Hey holler-for-the-three-legged-dog-to-ride-along-to-town-
woman. Hey love-for-family-woman. Put somethin’ in a bowl or somethin’ in a pan.
Make do. Is there anything, any single pine-needle on this mountain that doesn’t know
your voice? Hey cowgirl-woman, let me pour you a whiskey and listen to your life—let
me soak you in like the rain that finally comes, just when the dust has settled thick.

*Lyrics from “A Cowboy’s Ways” and “Berry Pie

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Okay, so this one seems like a tough assignment—a lot of struggling in this batch of poems—and Micah’s poem is no exception. The anaphora “I hear you” becomes a bit cloying in the poem and feels more like a crutch than like it takes the poem anywhere fresh or interesting. I was glad for the line: “hey kind, kind woman”, but it’s kind of a flat turn for the poem, and generally, this one felt like it didn’t quite get off the ground.

Dustin: For me, the only thing Dolly about this poem is the title, which is weak. Dolly doesn’t even have children. I think this poem fails to complete the assignment. You have nice moments in this poem, but I really wish you would have written a tribute poem.

Dana: Another strong piece from you this competition. I love the accumulation of adjectives, and it’s a delight to read them. One of my favorites is “a-whole-August-of-100-degree-days woman.” Another nice moment in the poem is “Is there anything, any single pine-needle on this mountain that doesn’t know your voice?” I do think it focuses more on Dolly as a rural character almost to the point of casting her as a rural, domestic archetype. But, if it were not a poem about Dolly specifically, it totally works. I would love to see what would happen if the poem ended at “let me soak you in the rain that finally comes.”

Guest Judge Emma Bolden: I loved the inventive language in this poem, particularly the pushed-together-with-hyphens words, reminiscent of the great David Foster Wallace. However, I felt that the language in this poem could be pushed to the next level. It felt as though Micah hadn’t yet taken full advantage of the form, especially in terms of the leaps and bounds in language which separate the prose poem from prose.

Guest Judge Duane Gordon: Too western, other than a couple of songs and one scene in “9 To 5” she’s never had a western image, much better suited to Reba McEntire than Dolly.

*********************************************************

MARTIN OTT

DREAMING ABOUT DOLLY ON INDEPENDENCE DAY

All fireworks start with a spark and sputter,
a new voice from the shadow of the last great war,

gospel light spilling over smokey mountains.
Freedom is amazing grace infused with talent,

banjo, harp and guitar expanding a one-room cabin.
Redemption comes in many shapes and many kinds

of pain. Freedom is stuffing your boss in a car trunk,
speeding from Harper Valley to Louisiana magnolias.

There’s a better life and you think about it, don’t you?
Heartache is as close as a Texas house of ill-repute,

and romance is a laundromat on eternal rinse,
travelin’ thru to an America that surprises.

Perseverance is singing through the boo-birds
on your first grand stage, yellow rose blooms

tended by the devotion of an iron butterfly.
America must dream anew if it will be one sheep

or many, a new generation to read the signs.
The backwoods push the frontiers forward,

the bravery to go where your heart takes you,
a honky tonk angel joining in on the long road.

*Lyrics from “Travelin’ Thru” and “9 to 5

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
There’s a great use of metaphor in this one, and the poem feels fresh—hard to do when you have to include song lyrics in your verse. The overuse of the Noun/to be verb at the start of a sentence drags down the poem, but I think there are some great lines in this one, and that it works pretty well overall.

Dustin: Good title to pique interest. Martin, I like this poem more than I probably should because I am a Dolly FANatic. “Redemption comes in many shapes and many kinds / of pain” are lyrics from “Travelin’ Thru,” and you weave those words beautifully into your poem. You reference Harper Valley, which alludes to Dolly covering the song “Harper Valley PTA.” I like that you allude to Dolly movies without directly naming them. Sometimes too much of a good thing can be too much, and I think that’s what we have on our hands with your poem. I think this poem would have been better if it were split into parts. Granted, it would have to be a little bit better if it were split into parts, but I think you could easily pull that off. Good job, Martin.

Dana: There are some nice moments in this poem, but overall I don’t find it extremely engaging. The opening line is a great way to kick off a Dolly poem and bring to mind all of Dolly’s literal and figurative glitter and shine. One turn that doesn’t work for me is the shift in stanza four to characters Dolly has played as opposed to talking about Dolly herself. That throws me out of the tribute, but I am back in it again as soon as you address Dolly directly in the next stanza.

Guest Judge Emma Bolden: There are some beautiful moments in this poem where the language twists and turns upon itself and offers a fresh and surprising take both on Parton’s music and on the complicated subject of patriotism: “Freedom is stuffing your boss in a car trunk” and “romance is a laundromat on eternal rinse.” However, I felt that most of the poem didn’t live up to the promise of these lines stayed in the realm of the expected, even, at times, of the cliché.

Guest Judge Duane Gordon:Liked starting it off with the image of fireworks, given her flashy and sparkly appearance (“I never leave a rhinestone unturned,” she says); he also worked in her nickname in the industry (“iron butterfly”) and her favorite flower (yellow roses), which shows he either knows a lot about her or is a good researcher. 🙂

*********************************************************

KRISTEN MCHENRY

The Ballad of Mama, Porter, Sinner, and Number One Fan

When did you love Dolly most?
When she was a hummingbird,
thrumming to stun.
My lithest daughter, my rawboned one,
sang vibrato; lullaby bait
to keep the grieving from our gate.
We joined with her, round by round.
Little sparrow, little sparrow,
your voice has that high, lonesome sound.

When did you love Dolly most?
When she was a raven,
bedraggled with sorrow,
and I sought soulfulness to borrow.
My first in-love-with; Lady Lament.
We sang together of sweet descent;
baptized anguish, but never drowned.
Little sparrow, little sparrow,
your voice has that high, lonesome sound.

When did you love Dolly most?
When she was a swan
unwinding her throat,
holy host to the mercy note.
Her gospel pierced like a keening wren,
and Jesus made me whole again.
Sinner lost and poor man found.
Little sparrow, little sparrow,
your voice has that high, lonesome sound.

When did you love Dolly most?
When she was a Scarlet Ibis;
a quick flame branding sea.
My voice has long been dead in me;
a corpse bud on a sickly vine.
But it waxes bright as clementine
when I sing with her, my bold unbound.
Little sparrow, little sparrow,
your voice has that high, lonesome sound.

*Lyrics from “Little Sparrow” and “Blue Valley Songbird

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This one is probably my favorite of the bunch. I love the sounds, love the form (works so well with the Dolly theme), love the language. A fine job with a tough assignment.

Dustin: Kristen, I give you big points for branching out with form, but I don’t know if I am sold on this poem. Don’t get me wrong, I love what you do here. “Little Sparrow” is one of top ten favorite Dolly penned songs, and I think you pull off each bird comparison linguistically and in a beautiful way; however, as a Dolly fan, at times, I have a hard time seeing it in relation to Dolly. I think a dove instead of a raven would have been a better choice. Yes, you’ve written a good poem, but I don’t like it as much as some of your other work.

Dana: This form shows even more range in your work and complements the other work you have produced so far in the competition. The song of the ballad works with and re-contextualizes the types of songs Dolly sings. I did wonder about the introduction of the wren in the third stanza. That’s where the poem moves away from the shift to a personal relationship with the narrator in the fifth line of the stanza (i.e., “my lithest daughter” in stanza one and “my first in-love-with” in stanza two). The introduction of a second type of bird in stanza three stood out. The swan might be enough bird there.

Guest Judge Emma Bolden: I thought that this poem was absolutely gorgeous, and offered a beautiful take on my favorite Dolly song. Kristen’s language danced across the page, leaping gracefully from image to image, idea to idea. The pervasive image of the bird, I thought, was especially beautiful and effective. I do think that the repetition of “When did you love Dolly most?” was a bit unnecessary – it seemed as though Kristen needed this device to get into the poem, but that the poem evolved beyond it.

Guest Judge Duane Gordon: This one was my second favorite because I felt it did a fairly good job at capturing Dolly’s essence, and that is that she’s a little bit of everything: innocence mixed with wisdom, righteousness spiced with raunchiness, bubbly happiness tinged with sad songs, a study in contrasts and contradictions. While it didn’t cover all aspects of her persona, it did give the flavor of her diversity.

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EMILY VAN DUYNE

Where Beauty Lives
for Alicia, 1979-2000

She paints her lips a brilliant red,
we corkscrew curlers to our heads—
we ooh at her like she’s some
studded queen. She strikes a pose
and shrieks a laugh, she’s like

a busty, hip giraffe, the coolest girl
in school, so long and lean. In
the background of the den, that movie’s
playing yet again— Truvy teases
Shelby’s locks on the small, bright screen.

We’ve viewed this flick two dozen times—
Julia Roberts in her prime— it’s summertime,
we’re just about thirteen. Outside, the heat
creeps like a thief, a rising
wave, like disbelief, the way the autumn tans

a verdant leaf. The way a mother wakes
one day to find her daughter gone away, to risky
quick sands, memory’s pooling bay. Inside, we squeal
like bright stuck pigs, pass whiskey ‘round
for fast, burnt swigs, Alicia hangs on

longer than the rest. Truvy lets loose
AquaNet on Shelby’s pixie, lets it set; Alicia
makes a crack about big breasts. And hers
are huge, like teenage art— and oh, mine is a jealous
heart! My little buds are slight, belated guests.

Alicia takes another drink, it dribbles down
her night shirt’s pink, and Truvy dons her pearls,
her funeral black. Alicia chokes back whiskey
tears, looks older than her thirteen years— Truvy’s
three-inch heels go click, go clack.

Shelby sleeps beneath the green; and while
we sob, Alicia keens, a siren song, a deadly
flooded tide. A paper kerchief stops her mouth,
her tears decant straight toward the south, she chokes
It’s as if my own daughter died…

When Alicia’s mother found her on the basement
bathroom floor, she was facedown, barely twenty-one
years old. And though they tried to save her
with their magical machines, her mother said,
When I held her, she was cold. Her drink

became a clear white brook that held her in
its pleasant nook, and finally she drowned beneath its
tears. She wanders through my sleep some nights,
a giggling girl with broken eyes, she’ll stay
awhile and then she’s gone for years.

*Lyrics from “Where Beauty Lives in Memory” and “Jealous Heart” and “Kentucky Gambler

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I like the idea behind this poem, but I have some problems with the execution. The poem is in regular iambic rhythm, and it rhymes, but the lining is really odd and seems out of control. I’m not sure why the poet decided to do that. The poem almost reads like a ballad, and I’m not sure why Emily didn’t just push it into the form. On the other hand, I like many moments in the poem i.e. “and oh, mine is a jealous heart! My little buds are slight, belated guests.” (such a great description of the mind and heart of a young girl), and I think the end is well-controlled and effective.

Dustin: Emily, I think your poem is a poem honoring Alicia rather than a tribute poem to Dolly Parton, and it is a beautiful poem honoring her. The rhyme holds back this poem. The poem has a nice flow until it hits the spots with rhyme. Also, the next to last stanza feels prosaic, but I think you could easily rework that stanza to make it flow like the majority of your poem. I think “it dribbles down / her night shirt’s pink” doesn’t help your flow. After reading that part, I couldn’t help by ask why couldn’t she just say pink shirt. Also, I think you should work in the title of the movie– I don’t see that taking away from your poem. I love too many images/details in this poem to list. I almost forgot: Great job working in the Dolly lyrics. This is a beautiful poem for your friend, but even in its beauty, I can’t see how it is a Dolly tribute poem.

Dana: This poem shows off your technical abilities, and it is clear that a lot of work went into it, but ultimately feel your work is stronger when the rhyme chimes less and feels more natural. The piece feels too formal and sing-songy for the content of the piece, and it feels as if there is some filler language dropped in to sustain the rhythm. Having said that, there’s a lot of great language here, too. My favorite lines are, “Inside, we squeal / like bright stuck pigs.” For readers who aren’t familiar with Steel Magnolias, I wonder if there could be an epigraph to orient them to the poem.

Guest Judge Emma Bolden: I loved the way that Emily used Steel Magnolias as a metaphor in this poem, and how the movie becomes a way to tell a coming-of-age story and drives the narrative of her journey through adolescence. However, I think this is a case of form getting in the way of content. I felt that the use of rhyme held the poem back a bit – it often seemed as if the language was forced to make way for the rhyme.

Guest Judge Duane Gordon: My third favorite. The Dolly reference is very specific here (Steel Magnolias) and is maintained throughout the story, linking the death of a character in the poem to the death of a character in the film. Dolly has said many times, “I write a lot of sad songs, and some of ’em are just plum pitiful.” That legacy comes from her Appalachian upbringing, indoctrinated at a young age in the old world ballads of death such as “Mary of the Wild Moor” and “Barbara Allen.” This piece reflected her talent at touching the heart with a tragic story song like few other songwriters can.

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EMARI DIGIORGIO
Dolly Parton, Oracle of Opry

Honey, this ain’t no
honky tonk love poem,
this ain’t the heartbreak hotel.
These old bones I shake and rattle,
these old bones I toss and roll,
it’s all in where they scatter,
tells you what the future holds.
I see you’re on the local
and you need the express.
But this ticket won’t take you
where you want regardless.

Your mama didn’t raise no
sissy-ape, no wet-faced softie.
You think: easier to live the lie
than leave the life you live.
That’s what your granny said.
Heart’s don’t burst for nothing.
This life splits clear dear, you know:
pack the car, leave the key.
Roll on roll on roll on down
the line gonna get him off your mind.
Go west, sweetheart, expect gold.

Expect your luck to run long.
The doctor’ll be wrong. Forgive him.
Give your heart too freely, blame yourself.
Twenty seconds, that’s all you’ll need
should you lose the horizon. Girls
like you don’t crash.

*Lyrics from “These Old Bones” & “Heartbreak Express

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
For me, this one doesn’t have a compelling enough voice, and reads more like a song than a poem. I think the major problem is with the set-up. The audience is too general and then the poem becomes a little generic. I wouldn’t want to do this assignment though, so I’m sympathetic.

Dustin: I don’t like this poem. One of the strongest and most interesting lines of the poem are “These old bones I shake and rattle, / these old bones I toss and roll, / it’s all in where they scatter, / tells you what the future holds,” but those are lyrics from Dolly’s “These Old Bones.” I’m disappointed because I know you are capable of writing a better poem.

Dana: I know this piece is about Dolly being an oracle, but it feels like a pastiche of Dolly lyrics and pseudo Dolly lyrics as opposed to a poem that comments on and expands Dolly’s lyrics. It’s not your strongest work, and it’s not among the strongest pieces this week.

Guest Judge Emma Bolden: A lovely poem which takes an inventive slant on its subject, viewing Parton’s lyrics as not simply words, but as portents. Emari’s inventive adoption of the Southern vernacular was especially impressive, and made this a stand-out poem. I wonder, though, if the last four lines are necessary, as they seem to snap the poem shut too easily – ending on “The doctor’ll be wrong. Forgive him” would make for an evocative and resonant end.

Guest Judge Duane Gordon: I didn’t really get much of a “Dolly feeling” from this one at all.

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W.F. ROBY

Mea Culpa, Dolly Parton

Forgive me, it has been twenty-eight years
since my last confession.
Though I’ve been called many things —
waiter, playwright, carpenter,
stocker of produce — I was not always your number one fan.
As a child I used your name
in vain, in place of anatomy. You were a figment,
a blush in secret. I was an apostate,
I thought for sure
you had something to do with Hello, Dolly!
though my only experience with that Great American Musical
was an uncle’s cruel bon mot —
he’d sing the theme song as loud as he could
replacing the titular words with “Hello, Nigger”
for a shock. You could say, Dolly,
that I’m just the victim of a man
that let me down, or a series of men more likely,
you know the type — men with sharp chins and crystal clear features,
men with smart beards and ab muscles,
A-list men with their arms around my sister.
It was only later, out back of my parent’s house,
arms across a sawhorse,
that I came to know you. Sixteen years old,
ripping boards for a new deck,
The Very Best Of You up loud
from an old set of speakers. We danced
under the hummingbird feeder, my feet light as temptation.
I could smell the powder from your face,
even taste it in between gulps of sawdust.
My God, it’s hard not to be impatient,
watching your face for a signal, Dolly,
a sign that I would start to grow
tall like my brothers, broad in the chest,
hairy like the men in dirty magazines.
Though I was swept up and wet behind the ears,
though I was practicing in patience
lines to get you under the blanket —
you were quick to disappear, you
were liquor in a tea cup, skipping off
and leaving nothing. Said you’d be
sleepin’ in a station, all night
humming to the bums.

Lyrics from “Just Because I’m a Woman” and “The River Unbroken

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I like many lines/moments in the poem, and I much admire the music here, though I think the setup of the confession feels a bit contrived, and the beginning of the poem gets a bit prosey. I like that the poem takes us in a lot of different and surprising directions (the dance scene is wonderfully depicted), and I love the way this one ends.

Dustin: I’m not completely won over by this poem, and that isn’t even because you only used one song written by Dolly Parton when the assignment called for two. BUT, I do like this poem. I think your first two lines give this poem the feel of an assignment. I do like how you worked in lyrics here: “You could say, Dolly, / that I’m just the victim of a man / that let me down.” A couple of details I have trouble with in your poem are “ab muscles” and “hairy like the men in dirty magazines.” (I’m gay, so I’m usually a fan of these sort of things.) I also think you have a brave moment with being honest about family– I like it. With a little tweaking here and there, well, I think I’d come to love this poem.

Dana: Nice. Oh, the shifts in this poem are enchanting. This is one of my favorites this week, and it’s as solid as your other work this competition. You move from the disturbing personal image of the uncle to the revelatory and intimate personal moment about what the narrator wants in a man, to the scene in the backyard, to praying to Dolly. I am engaged with this poem from the title until the end. I love the line “you / were liquor in a tea cup.” I wondered about that line coming before “you were quick to disappear” so that the latter would be before “skipping off / and leaving nothing.” My reasoning is that there’s a disconnect between the liquor and the skipping.

Guest Judge Emma Bolden: Another Dolly-and-coming-of-age poem, and one which uses the physical, well, dimensions of Parton quite successfully. I think that this poem is strongest when it uses the music as a tool for revelation, allowing us a view into the speaker’s life – and I think that this poem would be much stronger with more of this, and less of the confessional “on-ramp” that started the poem.

Guest Judge Duane Gordon: One thing that shines through very clearly about Dolly is her honesty. She says what she thinks. What you see is what you get, to use a cliche. And this poem also shimmers with honesty and uncensored truths, just like her.

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NIINA POLLARI

Internet Dolly Party

I should have done the dishes but the web tonight
is complicated as a neon rosette: your bling, huge
set of teeth. Dolly, you should know I’m watching
you on YouTube, a poor
wayfaring stranger in the dark of my
dark Brooklyn railroad, the solo
glow the great and flaming brawn
of your bizarre padded outfit. Your tricky soprano unfurls
from my one always busting speaker, moves out
over the sifting dust of the apartment like the red carpet
out to meet Agamemnon. I have to confess I love your voice
but it’s your Image, your Look, your Go-On-And Stare –
the flag for a country

I never knew had such
fury – you get up
& have the place convinced! You’ve twirled
the internet all up in a bow! Even the English love you,
I can see by their sheepish smiles in this one video,
the self-conscious way they grit their teeth and glance as the camera pans
to catch them enjoying your drawling American banter. My God,
science named that sheepclone after you! I think
about this in the dark, what it means.
You have no daughters,
but you do have an entirely made up famous genetic lamb,
fabled up by scientists and set to bear your name, which is
actually kind of better. Anyway, Dolly, I’m thinking

you would be better if I clicked HQ. I’ll sneak up front-row close,
examine your pinwheel bouffant like the mouse
looks at me when I open up the tip trap: a mixture
of fear and thrilling freedom, the first light
in ages, the light of a clear blue morning, the breeze
on my hair matted and sweaty
from being in dark close quarters all this time. I’ve watched
your video diaries, I’ve seen 17 different Jolenes.
I waited so long for someone like you to burst
through my screen. Dim the lights,
and I’ll get the Jack and Cokes: this isn’t
over. I’m going til the day obscures
the glow of your jumpsuit, and we’ve got hours yet.

*Lyrics from “Travelin’ Thru” and “Light of a Clear Blue Morning

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This one’s a little prosey for my taste, and I’m generally not all that compelled by the setup: speaker watching Dolly on Youtube. Ultimately, I’m not convinced that the speaker cares much about Dolly, so the poem feels a bit more like an exercise.

Dustin: I’m on the fence about this poem. I like it, but I don’t like, but I like it. I think Beth is right– I think this poem could benefit from cutting some words here and there. For example, “the self-conscious way they grit their teeth and glance as the camera pans” to “they grit their teeth, glance as the camera pans”– I don’t think your poem loses anything by the loss of the words I removed. I would have liked for this speaker to go all Glenn Close Fatal Attraction style— it would have been entertaining and very different. Bottom line: I think there is too much to work with in this poem.

Dana: I love this narrator who is messy and in the dark all the time, and the juxtaposition between the narrator and Dolly, who is in the public eye, in the limelight, and all dolled up whenever we see her. The ending gets all stalker-y, with its “this isn’t / over” and its “we’ve got hours yet.” I love that turn to the way we can call anything up that we want — commoditizing just about anyone with any public presence — whenever we desire them, thanks to our computers. This is a far cry from watching Dolly on TV in the family room back in the day. The poem also shows how Dolly transcends — time, audience, medium. Dolly is. She just is. She’s not dependent on anything because we will gravitate toward her. We just will. I should mention that I do think the poem is a little rough, despite what I like about it. I know some of that is because the narrator is rough, but there’s some polishing you could do. I felt the bit about Dolly the cloned sheep went on for too long, for one thing, and detracted from the focus on Dolly on the internet.

Guest Judge Emma Bolden: This poem took a sideways view of Parton which I thought was very successful, using the speaker’s search for Dolly on the Internet as a device for revealing much about her life and therefore opening for the reader a window into the larger world. I do think that this could be furthered quite a bit, as the poem often falls back into the expected.

Guest Judge Duane Gordon: This one captures the way a whole new generation is finding Dolly. It also was quite witty, which is another one of her well-known characteristics.

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR

10 Reasons I Love Dolly Parton

She knows irony, a country girl singing stories,
all dolled up: too much make-up, too much hair.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspShe says, “I’m just a backwoods Barbie
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspin a push-up bra and heels.”

When she was little, she thought the town tramp
was beautiful, and her mama couldn’t change her mind.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspShe could say on air, “I would have been tall
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspbut I got bunched up at the top.”

As a kid, I craved the soprano ache of her voice
singing: lifetime and always, cryin’ and puppy.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspDobro, violin,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsplimelight and Dolly.

And the rivers flow backward
And my tears are dry,
without her tribute to bluegrass.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspMy father, who despised Country-Western, watched Dolly’s show
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspin the 70’s, an unexplained break from his Mingus and Monk.

She loves
to write songs.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspThe sky is green and the grass is blue
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspShe’s imagined herself, no apologies.

*Lyrics from “Backwoods Barbie” and “The Grass Is Blue

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Using a list is an easy way to manage this tough assignment, and I admire some of the details here. I also think that it’s a well-handled list in that it has a progression, and each item seems intrinsic to the overall movement of the poem.

Dustin: I love how you end this poem; however, I don’t love the rest of your poem as much. You did well as far as the assignment is concerned; you wrote a tribute poem. But, did you write a good tribute poem? I think it might be a hung jury for me. Even though I enjoy what you have, this poem leaves me hungry for more. I think you played it safe.

Dana: I like the form and a lot of what the poem is doing, but it doesn’t quote engage me the way some other work this week did. Stanzas such as “She loves / to write songs” I appreciate for their directness and simplicity. The last line is also great because of its simplicity, and that’s an instance where the line resonates and works on many levels — I like the idea of Dolly imagining herself into existence, and how that line reframes stanzas one through four.

Guest Judge Emma Bolden: While I appreciate Kathi’s form and her use not only of Dolly Parton lyrics but also of quotes and of memories of Parton, I think that this poem needed to be pushed to the next level. Several of the stanzas seemed expected and even a bit too easy, namely “She loves / to write songs.” I think that the final stanza offered a window into a more intriguing and inventive take on the subject: what does it mean to imagine one’s self, and not apologize?

Guest Judge Duane Gordon: My favorite. I believe this is the only one that mentioned the one thing of which she is proudest: her songwriting. Also, the line about the poem’s narrator’s country-music-hating father watching her show expressed Dolly’s ability to cross boundaries and appeal to most segments of society. It was also a very simple piece that still managed to communicate a lot — as many of Dolly’s best works do. For example, each verse of “I Will Always Love You” is only about 25 words long and the chorus is nothing more than the title repeated twice, but it stands out as one of the most heartwrenching lyrics ever written. The song’s complexity is in part due to its simplicity — emotion put to paper without any more words than necessary. Similarly, this piece gets its point across economically. But most importantly, the last line showed an understanding that she was created by and for herself and lives unapologetically as herself, which is probably the best summary of her personality that you could find.

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Week 4 ~ Shore Tags: The Poems!

Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 4: Shore Tags.

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MICAH LING
Ernest’s Bar

Three old fishers look
our way; you stand in the opening
of the corner bar, still
as a hermit crab, not from fear
but overcome with the stool
where Ernest perched as a salty
man, scratching notes
on napkins, or so you like to say.

Once, long before we strolled
cobblestones beside liquid streets
you read to me, slowing the words
white&nbsp&nbsp&nbspwine&nbsp&nbsp&nbspcrusty&nbsp&nbsp&nbspbread&nbsp&nbsp&nbsppo
ta&nbsp&nbsp&nbsptoes. We dashed to the store,
cooked up his feast and dreamt
of the bar where he drank.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Two sonnets this week. This one is less formal than the untitled poem, and less engaging emotionally. “Stool” is an unfortunate word to break on, and I’d say the poem, though tight, is not as engaging as many of the others.

Dustin: I think this poem bland. I think there could have been more details and images. I’m not a fan of your line breaks in this poem– mainly in the first stanza. I think you rush with the assignments and are capable of better poems.

Dana: I guess I’m a sucker for poems about poets. The opening stanza is magnificent, and I think the image of the person being addressed standing in the doorway of the bar, so that the bar itself is likened to the shell of the crab while the addressee is likened to a hermit crab, is fantastic. I love metaphors that are so strong I stop and think about them over and over, really trying to see both the real thing and what it’s being compared with, and this metaphor certainly had that effect on me.

The only thing I will say is that I want more. I don’t know if I want more in this particular poem or a series around this narrator/addressee. Just more. This is the kind of poem that, in a collection, would make me turn the page.

I loved your piece from week two as well. There’s so much in your work that’s compelling.

Guest Judge Collin Kelley: An interesting choice to use Hemingway as the vehicle for the poem, but it’s almost too slight. I wanted more depth to the imagery, more exploration of why the friend/lover was so overcome by seeing Ernest’s barstool. Still, I liked the rhythm and use of slant rhyme, but this was almost one of my bottom picks. Come on, Micah, pick up the pace.

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MARTIN OTT
SHELLS

“They carried all they could bear and then some, including
a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Tim O’Brien

Los Angles is a migratory metropole
with dense gravity dragging mastodons
and starlets into La Brea tar, jacaranda
paste and metal casings wrapping us

in armor, our city’s skinsong of horns
and crash pressing on body meat.
We are hermit crabs with shells easily
cracked, and carry our homelessness

along with parakeets from pet stores
whistling on power lines, and pine
pitch canker tattooing native stands,
army jackets wrapping us at night.

From sealed office windows, I watch
a woman wander downtown with a trash
bag bulging atop her head, no hands
to steady her burden. A wordless grace

from some distant land we all share
makes me think about the human
home we build with each fragile deed,
and the things we’ve left behind.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Martin loves his music here, and has some great linguistic riffs: “jacaranda / paste and metal casings wrapping us / in armor, our city’s skinsong of horns /and crash pressing on body meat.” He misspells “Angeles” and the beginning seems a bit surreal in a way that doesn’t quite fit the more conventional end of the poem, but there’s much to like.

Dustin: I’m disappointed with the misspelled word. I’ll confess: I am the king of type-o’s, so I know it happens; however, you are writing about a well-known city, not Quinebaug, Connecticut. I am fond of what you’ve created in your fourth stanza. I want more of the homeless woman. After seeing your work for four weeks, I have no doubt you could used her to show us “We are hermit crabs with shells easily / cracked.” I found stanza fourth and the closing stanza more interesting than the stanzas that came before.

Dana: The epigraph is really nice in this piece, and the language is rich and dense throughout. Dense in a good way, in a vegetable soup with twice the vegetables kind of way. You want to consume it. It makes you all warm inside. The imagery in this piece doesn’t let up, from beginning to end. The reader feels that congested feeling of Los Angeles in the way you’ve composed this piece — you have in fact written the city’s skinsong (which by the way is a great phrase).

I loved moments like “parakeets from pet stores / whistling on power lines” — the image as well as what those lines imply about the haves and have-nots — the former being irresponsible pet owners and, conversely, the latter having lost their homes and no longer being able to care for their pets. The shifts you make in the last two stanzas are great, moving first to what the narrator is witnessing and then opening the poem up and out onto this vista from which to look back over the entire poem.

You made a comment on Dustin’s site last week about writing about a subject you don’t passionately believe in. I’m glad you found a way into this piece. My feeling when founding Shore Tags was that the project would function on many levels, including metaphorical ones.

Guest Judge Collin Kelley: The opening stanza is a miasma of unnecessary words and alliteration. The poem is trying too hard to be a poem. For me, the poem doesn’t come alive until the fourth quatrain, but it’s too little, too late. Another misstep is that the final stanza does not live up to the epigraph from O’Brien it seeks to mirror. Sadly, I had to put this poem in my bottom two.

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KRISTEN MCHENRY
Hermit Crab’s Lament

You who named us,
who call us
house proud and vapid—you
have misunderstood.
Do you think we merely
fumble our way by instinct
into any hollow object?
You can’t comprehend
the arithmetic of our choices; the ecstasy
of toil in a hard, rank womb.

I will admit to a touch of pride.
I’ve always been keen on headroom,
though we can ill afford
to be choosy in these times.
I remember the days of abalone ceilings, the yolk
of my belly nestled in porcelain ribs, nights
when we met the Pylochelidae in secret,
to whirl across the sodden dune,
showing off our spiral cloches.
We danced to forget that our shelters
would again abandon us.

It’s of no consequence
these days, I suppose. They’re all a poor fit now.
The wind oozes through, no matter the rental.
The shore is a wasteland of broken cups.
It’s about the seeking, they tell me.
Well cold comfort. My whole
damn species are fools, always skittering
toward some fresh perfection, always
outgrowing what loves us.

Only God has the courage
to go without a crust, to linger
as tender as a polyp in these barrens.
When he taps our walls for the final eviction,
We will be unable to hang on, unable
to refuse. He will stagger with us
towards our first, most perfect home.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This is a rather eloquent hermit crab! The voice is a bit stuffy for how I imagine a hermit crab might, you know, ‘speak’, but I admire here the imagination and the wisdom of the voice, particularly at the end. That whole final stanza is lovely.

Dustin: A couple of my favorite moments in your poem: “Do you think we merely / fumble our way by instinct / into any hollow object?” and “Only God has the courage / to go without a crust.” I also link your use of “rank womb,” and I can say that I’ve never seen rank combined with womb. I’m torn about your poem. I really LOVE your last stanza, but when I read “always /outgrowing what loves us,”I wanted that to end the poem. BUT, then comes the amazingly beautiful lines “Only God has the courage / to go without a crust.” I can’t deny this is a good poem, and I do like it. However, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that there could be some beneficial tweaking toward the end.

Dana: I like the tone of this poem and the way the narrator is speaking on behalf of all hermit crabs, in the exalted first person plural. Lines such as “You can’t comprehend / the arithmetic of our choices: the ecstasy / of toil in a hard, rank womb” are a pleasure to read, to see them unfold line by line. Moments like this in the poem also show the research you did about hermit crabs, and that always wins points with me. I love a poet who will tackle any subject, especially biology, ecology, chemistry, environmental science and the like, in order to write the best poem possible. And you accomplish that combination of accuracy and detail without the poem suffering as a poem in the process. Take the word “Pylochelidae” in the second stanza: You transplant a clinical word used in taxonomy into this poem, and here it sings with intrigue and mystery.

This poem, for me, is right up there with your work last week — and all your work thus far has been really strong.

Guest Judge Collin Kelley: My favorite poem of the week. The opening lines of the first stanza were not promising, but then it took off with “the arithmetic of our choices; the ecstasy/of toil in hard, rank womb.” Each stanza opens a little too loosely for me, but then wound up taking me to an unexpected place. While some of this week’s other entries were more polished, the imagery in Kristen’s poem stuck with me. I kept coming back to it again and again.

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EMILY VAN DUYNE
On the Eve of July 4th, At the Start of Another Long & Brutal Century, Sylvia Plath Addresses the Hermit Crab’s Plight

Bandits! Take this
note— even the newts are down
and out these days, reedy

bindles smack their backs. And the fish!
My God, my God, their seas
ascend, mercuric— murderous suns, a dreadful

well. 300 dead in Persia’s bloody basket;
still, the earth is mum:
yellow bitch, wolfing

at our painted doors. She has nothing
to weep for, she is up
to here with it! Out, she cries, and out!

She would start
anew. And you? Lazy-bellied
thieves of lazy snails’

scrapped barracks, the moon’s
your icy chief. She scams in tandem fiddle
with the robber baron earth.

She waxes fat
on gristle, thin on stone. Look! She’s a bulbous grinning
nun, she’s dumb as paper! Now a bony

whore in skin and gold. Do you hate her?
She drags you through
her Purgatoried tide with no regard.

Her mercy’s a spent shell.
So, crusted fools, half-spiders— churchless
worthless sextons, squealing fire bells,

get going. Take up this despot
mud, and drift. Tough your armor, whet your knives.
This world is quarterless.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I have consistently admired this poet’s work, and this week’s poem is not exception. She truly does sound like Sylvia here in places “Look! She’s a bulbous grinning / nun, she’s dumb as paper! Now a bony / whore in skin and gold.” This poem is certainly at the top for me this week.

Dustin: I think poets have to be careful when they title poems in general; however, I think they must be extra careful if they are set on using a long title. Long titles typically attract more attention than short titles. Longer titles often incite a poet’s deepest harshest critic. Well, you have nothing to worry about. This is my favorite title to date in the competition, and the poem does not disappoint on any level. A few of my favorite parts are: “300 dead in Persia’s bloody basket; / still, the earth is mum: /yellow bitch, wolfing / at our painted doors” and “She’s a bulbous grinning / nun, she’s dumb as paper!” and “Her mercy’s a spent shell.” Honestly, I could list more lines because there is so much to love about this poem. Your poem is rich. I even like your line breaks. I could keep on with compliments but won’t. Now, don’t let the comments give you a big head. I’m not sure we could handle that on top of your sassiness.

Dana: Emily, Emily, Emily. You had me at “Sylvia Plath.” Actually, you didn’t have me then. But you had me wondering, “That’s a hell of a title. I wonder if she can pull this poem off.”

And you did. With flying colors. The single-word interjection kicking things off. The complicated but subtle rhymes and wordplay threading through the poem. (I am especially fond of the phrase “bindles smack their backs” in line 4, how the first and last letters in “bindles” are picked up and paired with the “ack” from “smack” to form “backs.” That kind of thing makes me swoon in a poem.) The cynical stance of the narrator. The economy of language. (For example, “300 dead in Persia’s bloody basket” conveys so much and wastes no time conveying it.) The metaphors. (One of my favorites is “the moon’s / your icy chief.”) The way the poem sits in the mouth when being read. (All the words beginning in “b,” “t,” “p” and “g” — the plosives and near plosives going off like bombs throughout the piece.)

The only thing I would say, other than saying this poem floored me, is that you have two “she”s in the poem, on referring to the earth and one referring to the moon a couple of stanzas later. That confused me just a bit. I had to stop and trace the referents for each “she.” Overall, this piece is thrilling to read, I think even stronger than your work week one. Your strongest piece yet, and one of the strongest so far in the entire competition.

Guest Judge Collin Kelley: This was a close second to Kristen’s poem, and definitely wins for best title. Approximating Plath’s language and style is clever — especially with an assignment as difficult as writing about hermit crabs — but it came off a bit gimmicky to me. Some of the imagery was too opaque for my taste (She’s a bulbous grinning/nun, she’s dumb as paper!), but I tip my hat to Emily for the control of her lines, with each set of tercets breaking beautifully down the page. It really was tough choice between this poem and Kristen’s for top pick. Great work, Emily!

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EMARI DIGIORGIO
A Hammock is Not a Home

For a hermit crab anyway.
Think of a penis with claws
caught in the green mesh.
Better to pilot the doll head instead,
enter through the neck.
Lug its matted hair, blank stare.
Better yet, keep one claw
in the old shell, just in case.
Perhaps it’s easier than I imagine
to bury myself. Steering the earth
with an oversized claw. I’ll start
tomorrow. Sweet, sweet carapace.
There will be molting and pinkish flesh
under the armor waiting for air.
A hammock is not a home for anyone
really. Even when everything
is all honeysuckle. Of course, I want
to be held, rocked. But suspension
is ephemeral, and I, am not.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I think that penis is an unfortunate image, really, for a poem that has great tonal control and a distinctive voice (such lovely movements—ones I’ve admired in other poems of this writer: “Steering the earth/with an oversized claw. I’ll start/tomorrow. Sweet, sweet carapace.” The entire beginning of the poem for me is a little hard to follow from a penis with claws to a doll head?… I do love the way the poem concludes and generally, I admire the tonal authority of the speaker.

Dustin: Overall, I like this poem, but I don’t like your second line of “Think of a penis with claws.” I think “Better to pilot the doll head instead” is interesting and unique, but I don’t like the rhyme you created with this line— that’s minor. I love “Better yet, keep one claw / in the old shell, just in case” and “A hammock is not a home for anyone.” I really enjoyed the last three lines of your poem, but I have to agree with Collin’s last comment.

Dana: For me, the best part of this poem is seeing the hermit crab in the doll’s head. That’s an image I can’t shake, and don’t want to shake, because it’s so amazingly creepy and sad and funny. The word “lug” is great in that image, too. As if it weren’t enough to create such a great visual, you throw in a killer verb like “lug” so I can feel the weight of the doll’s head, too, and experience what a burden it would be to carry it around. I’m not wild about the penis with claws image because I’ve seen a hermit crab’s abdomen up close, and it’s no penis, clawed or otherwise. That image doesn’t work for me the way the doll’s head works. I almost want to get right to the doll’s head, bypassing the clawed penis, since the former is so strong.

I also don’t feel the rest of the poem is as strong as lines 4 through 6. “Steering the earth / with an oversized claw,” for example, is nice but it’s not nearly as compelling, or as easy to see (and feel), as “Lug its matted hair, blank stare.” Overall, even though this poem has a fantastic moment, it’s not your strongest work this competition.

Guest Judge Collin Kelley: Probably my third favorite of this week’s poems. It fulfills the assignment beautifully, but I wish the language had been a little less clunky in the final lines, such as “A hammock is not a home for anyone / really.” Just a little work needed here and this would make for a nice little gem.

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W.F. ROBY

No hermit crabs, no hard shelled tourists
dragging dune to dune. No citizens
for sand homes, no one to rescue when
the tide comes in. No shells where I kissed
the shiny knuckles of the ocean.
No vacant roofs that crack under foot.
No water pulled by moon to uproot
boats of driftwood, their hermit bo’suns
jousting for dream homes, gently squeezed
by size from room to room. No more claws
to gnaw the bright ankle. No sand fleas
riding hermit crabs to work, rickshaws
for scurrying dark coated stagehands.
No pinch for a toe, no bloody sand.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Impressive to manage a sonnet in such a short time, and I like the anaphoric movement of the poem “No hermit crabs, no hard….no….” I’m sorry that the poem is untitled (not even called untitled or sonnet), but I admire the control of the poem and the interwoven sadness here.

Dustin: W.F., I’m disappointed by your decision not to title your poem. Once upon a time, I was in a creative writing class at Georgia State University. The professor had this to say about titles: “A poem’s title can be a place to say or accomplish something that you didn’t have the chance to say in the body of the poem.” I think we have a missed chance on our hands. By the way, that professor was none other than the lovely Beth Gylys. I love that you give us lots of images, but I feel something is missing besides that title is missing from your poem. Your poem isn’t bad, but it doesn’t move me like any of your previous poems.

Dana: A list poem! I love that the list is what’s absent, an accumulation of absences as opposed to an accumulation of details/object that are present. The poem shifts throughout, with the narrator sometimes detailing things absent that we might want to be absent — such as the “hard shelled tourists” — but then listing something that feels much more personal, much more like a loss – such as “No shells where I kissed / the shiny knuckles of the ocean.” And this image is amusing and quite lovely: “No sand fleas / riding hermit crabs to work.” This poem puts us in a lot of places, one right after another, both in terms of emotion and location. We are not just on the beach. We are in the dunes, we are on a busy street, we are on the boats, we are in the sky.

I wonder about the use of “gnaw” to describe the action of claws. It’s a minor issue, but that word choice did stick out. I also wondered, in such a short, tight piece, whether it could hold both the image of the bloody ankle and the pinched toe/bloody sand. I really like the sound of the last line, especially with the end rhyme with the line before, but I also wonder if there might be a stronger ending for this piece, something that opens the ending up a bit more. The stagehand image is very strong, and the last line in some ways feels like a slight letdown, not sonically or rhythmically but in terms of the image, especially when everything else in the poem up to that point is so strong.

Guest Judge Collin Kelley: Kudos to Roby for trying a sonnet for this assignment, but the language was a little too old fashioned for me. Some interesting images, but perhaps the constraint of the form kept it from achieving its full potential. Still a good effort with such a difficult assignment.

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NIINA POLLARI
Renters

I grew too big, so I went looking
out at stranger homes, strewn
with private bedding, holding a human scent:
recycle housing, raggedy, corners
filled with skin-eared mice.
I chose the upgrade.
Strange at first, but then spent months
arranging the personal philately on the shelves,
aping owner in the mirror, greeting visitors at the door –
Well Hello. Eventually the spoons
quit rattling, the pictures
layered their comfortable dust, and it was
almost home, yes,
almost all the time. Welcome to my home.
But at night my renter’s claw
still creeps out, involuntary and dark,
feels the mattress and walls for fit, scaling
for the night it knows I have to go again.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
The poem has errors and seems rushed (i.e. “recycle” instead of “recycled” in line four and “owner” instead of “owners” further down). I am certain it is/was rushed. There are some interesting details, though: “skin-eared mice” (which is weird but really beautiful too), “my renter’s claw/still creeps out, involuntary and dark…”

Dustin: I do and do not like that you wrote the poem from the voice of a hermit crab. I like it because it is fitting for the assignment. I don’t like it because I don’t think people could easily figure out the speaker. I think this poem has to be my least favorite from all the poems you’ve written for the competition.

Dana: This poem contains a degree of mystery if you read it without thinking of the context of the hermit crabs. If I came upon this piece without that bit of information, I would wonder about why the narrator was growing too large and why the narrator has a renter’s claw. I like that mystery in the piece. But I want more of it. The metaphor appears at the beginning and ending, but is lost in the middle of the poem.

There are word choices in the poem that I loved, such as “philately” — which I had to look up — and “skin-eared mice.” Although I did wonder about describing mice as skin-eared when they are all skin-eared. Also, it made me think of the experimental mice with human ears grafted to their backs, and it took a while to shake that image off.

This is a strong piece, but not as strong several of the other poems we saw this week.

Guest Judge Collin Kelley: From the opening line, this poem comes off as rushed. No music, repetitive and, unfortunately, slapdash. My least favorite of this week’s entries.

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR

Hermit Crab

I did not make my house. I found it –
smooth snail shell washed free of death.
A spiral of pearly twilight welcomed
my body’s retreat: my tender abdomen,
my purple claw that came to rest
at the opening, a sentinel.
Circling my humid heart, a mollusk’s
ghost made peace with me. I am unafraid.
I practice balance and my tide pool
housekeeping. I pile in the shallows
with my friends. Too primitive to look ahead
or grieve, I’ve found my foothold
in my cave’s cool curves. Let writers mourn
how we outgrow what takes us in,
abandon what we learn to love
in a tangle of kelp and flotsam.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This is gorgeous and poignant and tonally arresting. I love the way the beginning works to give authority to the voice and some of the language stuns: “my tender abdomen,/my purple claw that came to rest/at the opening, a sentinel,” “circling my humid heart.”

Dustin: Your firt line does a great job to hook a reader, and the second line is a great follow-up. I also like how the speaker of the poem is a hermit crab, and I think your poem offers us enough to make it clear that the speaker is a hermit crab. I don’t how your poem ends with “Let writers mourn / how we outgrow what takes us in, / abandon what we learn to love /in a tangle of kelp and flotsam.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the statement made by the end; however, I don’t think this statement works as your poem stands. In a workshop with Steven Dunn, he spoke about the turn in a poem. I feel you were trying to execute the turn, but I think you failed because you did it too abruptly.

Dana: I find the two shifts in this poem interesting, in lines 8 and 13, especially how they come in the middle of the lines. But I don’t think the last shift works in the context of the rest of the poem, that it’s earned. It actually feels to me like a different poem, one the rest of the piece doesn’t hint at. I would like to see more unity between what comes before and those last four lines.

Some of the imagery and language in this piece feels weak and imprecise. One example of word choice is the metaphor of the claw as a “sentinel.” The claw doesn’t actually see or act as a lookout; it only acts as protection. Another metaphor would be tighter and more accurate.

You were the winner week one, and I felt your work was very strong last week as well. Your work has been remarkable, but this piece isn’t as strong as the others.

Guest Judge Collin Kelley: This poem hooked me in from the first line, but I was so disappointed in the last image about letting writers mourn. It took me out of the sharp, lyrical images of the crab finding its new shell. I would end the poem with the the “cave’s cool curves.” Nice job, Kathi.

Week 3 ~ Simile Vs. Metaphor: The Poems!

Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 3: Simile Vs. Metaphor.

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MICAH LING

Sweetgrass

The elk are teenaged boys, hanging out on the side of the road again. Bennie and the Jets.
All, look at me: hey honey, take a long look. They’re so cool: combs in pockets, sneaking
drags on reds. I see you, Elk Boys, I see your racks and how you leap. Now run off and
let me have this road. They jump the fence, with too much grace for males at that age of
any species. Further down the road, mule deer punks have not yet shed their winter coats.
They stand shaggy near the Sweet Grass, cutting class, playing hooky, getting into things
between seasons: fresh moss, sprouting sage, a sweeter version of their mountain syrup

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This is such a surprising and delightful little poem. I love the tone of “I see you, Elk Boys,” and the surprise of the shift into the speaker’s actual world “let me have this road”. The end is so deft too. I’m not wild about the very last phrase “a sweeter version of their mountain syrup” as it’s a little hard to know how to read it, but this is a small, small quibble about a poem that is utterly charming.

Dustin: I like the “Bennie and the Jets” reference. I like the detail of “combs in pockets, sneaking drags on reds.” “They jump the fence, with too much grace for males at that age of any species” doesn’t work for me; this is the one line in the poem that jams the flow. Small item: I’m annoyed by the lack of a comma at the end of your last line.

Dana: This is such an inventive poem, and while I like the use of the extended metaphor, I am not sure I buy it as a reader. By the end of the poem, I am not convinced that the elk are indeed teenaged boys. I am not quite able to accept the poem’s central assertion.

Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: My first question was “is this the best form fit for the content?” and given the strong control over the sentence rhythms and variations I was left with a “yes”–the speaker’s voice is sharp, but I found my ear wanting more. The elk metaphor as teenage boys (or teenage boys as elk) was strong and I almost wondered what would be lost/gained by just saying the elk are hanging out beside the road again, Bennie and the Jets, etc., describing them like teenage boys without saying “teenage boys”–again a question of what you lose, what you gain by such an omission. Where I think you can push this further is when you turn from the elk to the mule deer, especially by the last line which left me hanging and feeling the poem was incomplete. Not as much time is devoted to the mule deer punks as the elk boys and it left me pondering one, the relation of the mule deer to the elk boys (turf war?) and two, if there are other animals that might match-up with teenage groups (enter those mean girl clicks and look out boys!) which makes for a longer poem, but one that I’d love to read to see what affinities you can wield.

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MARTIN OTT

THINGS I’VE ONLY SEEN ON TV

My wife and I were stepchildren, Marcia
and Greg destined to wed. I practiced
division serving cocktails to my parents
in front of the screen, siphoning ounces
from quarts. She memorized the nightly
schedules, a wry arithmetic. There were
clashing swords, bullets that knocked guns
from hands, long brawls without gushing
blood. We had relationships with suburban
witches and dead men, fell in love with bald
Greek lollipops and battled frightening odds.
We marveled at fallopian star voyages
and teenagers stuffed in telephone booths
on a dare, men slow on the uptake racing
to the airport to stop true love’s departure.
It was dizzying. God appeared and the Devil
tap danced. The days passed dream length
and dire in its hold upon us. We laughed
at cartoon bears and cherished theme songs
that we whistled during long, lonely hours.
Sometimes the light switched off, and we
were left with memories, familiar and false,
echoes that formed our own fragile borders.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Beginning with “My wife and I” seems to suggest that the focus of the poem is going to be about the relationship (even despite the title), and though the end comes back to the husband/wife theme a bit…“formed our own fragile borders”, the poem really veers from that subject for the bulk of its 23 lines. The import of the images and scenarios from TV on the speaker for me isn’t conveyed quite clearly enough. I should mention I was of this same generation, so I got (and appreciated) many of the references and I also watched way too much TV, but I want the poem to be bigger than it manages to be.

Dustin: I like the allusion to the Brady Brunch; however, I don’t like your first line break. The poem needs more specific allusions than just the Brady Bunch one. I like the last three lines; however, those lines make me feel like something is missing from the poem—- like I went from episode 2 to episode 4.

Dana: I love all the detail in this poem, but the ending was less interesting for me than the rest of the poem. I also got hung up on the beginning, with the comparison of the narrator and the wife to Marcia and Greg. I know the two weren’t actually related, but still –- the idea of them getting married weirds me out.

Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: This is a lovely poem, cataloguing TV’s plot lines and character types, how they mirror and metaphor our own dramas in real life and yet are always heightened as both an escape and a revelation that at least our lives are not as bad as that. I felt a strong draw to the very specific allusion to the Brady Brunch with Marcia and Greg and craved more of those specifics throughout the poem which after that reference seems to operate with more general descriptions of familiar plots and such. Those last lines are very strong and resonate with anyone raised on a healthy dose of TV as our own personal histories slip into those we watched, at times indistinguishable from what is real and what is imagined (and aren’t the imagined stories we witness real in some way, become real to us in some way?). My biggest question here involved the presence of the wife. I kept wondering why she was there other than she shared the same experience as the speaker and allows for the great Brady Brunch reference. But while the poem starts with establishing the presence of two, and then goes into her isolated experience and then the speaker’s, they quickly conflate to a “we” and an “us” and I wasn’t sure if I should take it as indication that once the “we” appears they are no longer single entities but now partnered and bound to this TV life together, and if that is the case, what is the significance of this TV life in the partnered state?

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KRISTEN MCHENRY
Perfect Weight

“…there’s a perfect-sized YOU just waiting to be discovered…”
–From perfectweightamerica.com

Learn to love the lessons of your mouth: vessel
and enemy at once. Do not feed it
butter or peaches. Eat only peel–pocked
bitterchew. Leave its lavish moon of sluice.
Fruit’s a costly strumpet. You
get solely what you’ve labored for.

You will witness the sacred
bloom in your empty bowl. Spit your meat.
Chew its dewy worm of fat, and swallow
the tallow scrap. You must make do
with gristle. Endurance is a fevered saint.
Let hunger roll and burn in it.

Substitute always nail beds
for heart, no matter the thrall
of your cravings. Want is a sluggard tongue,
seeking its greasy kingdom. It will tempt you full
to bursting. Lay down your fork. Purge
between each bite.

You will kneel to bless the dead
hive of your pelvis. The body
is an intermission: wait for the toss
and hurl of rebirth. Emerge, sanctified and blank.
Hover above the scale; note
the number. This is your perfect weight.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I really love the sounds and language of the poem. Oddly, though the poem is about food and taste and tasting, the real subject is as much the ear as the mouth. Some of the phrasing is just spectacular: “peel–pocked bitterchew,” “lavish moon of sluice,” “dewy worm of fat, and swallow the tallow scrap” etc. The critique of the weight industry is nicely submerged, and I admire that too.

Dustin: Love it! There is so much to love about this poem: “Fruit’s a costly strumpet. You / get solely what you’ve labored for” and “Endurance is a fevered saint” and “Want is a sluggard tongue, / seeking its greasy kingdom.” I could list more. Great epigraph selection. Your epigraph pulls the reader into the poem, and you never disappoint the reader. I tried to find something about this poem that I didn’t like, but it was a lost cause.

Dana: Another one of my favorites this week. All the different metaphors work so well in the piece and don’t stand out as being part of an assignment. This is also an important poem, but the topic doesn’t overshadow the language and overall craft.

Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: The music and word play struck me as the most exciting elements in this poem (just take a second to read it out loud and note the long EE and OO sounds in that first stanza, or the short I sounds in the second, and so forth and you’ll see what I mean), as well as the authoritative speaker who gains her power from the imperative mode of addressing a “you.” I found a central metaphor in each stanza that really stood out (to the point where I have them all underlined): In stanza one: “Eat only peel-pocked / bitterchew. Leave its lavish moon of sluice.” In stanza two: “Spit your meat. / Chew its dewy worm of fat.” In stanza three: “Want is a sluggard tongue, / seeking its greasy kingdom.” And in stanza four: “The body is an intermission.” There were few weak moments for me: some awkward wording moments like “substitute always nail beds” threw me out of the poem, but those can be easily revised. I’m torn about the last line “this is your perfect weight” given that phrase is also the title and reference in the epigraph. The poem definitely builds towards such a tongue-in-cheek statement but I wonder if it is perhaps a place holder for a line that could do more work? Something to think about. Oh, and points for using one of my all-time favorite words “strumpet.”

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EMILY VAN DUYNE
Elegy

Oh My God, the angels
wear white gloves on their left hands!
Eternity’s a big fat fucking show
tonight, vacuous black churned white

& glittering. I can see it
from my little clammy foxhole. The sky
is vintage celluloid, the hell with digital.
I hope you didn’t think

you’d make a nice clean break!
For’s Christ’s sake, don’t fail
us now— the stars went scuttling when
they heard you coming! You wouldn’t

leave us with no light
to top the bill? You couldn’t leave
us in the dark. We need another
comeback, need to know this isn’t how it ends—

(if you can end, then so can we)
& trust this Jersey girl who stalks
the sky— we never cared for your humanity.
The world’s no

stage these days, it’s just a screen,
some dumb flat firmament; convince me
why your death would break the mold.
Look up— even the moon’s turned out

for you; old hag of rag & bone,
she’s donned her crescent gold, she’s
donned her best. She’s know
tonight she hosts an honored guest.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I generally like a crabby tone, and there are some wonderful lines in this poem: “The sky / is vintage celluloid, the hell with digital.” and “the moon’s turned out for you; old hag of rag & bone.” Aside from the two typos: “For’s Christ’s” in stanza three and “She’s know” in the last stanza, my big concern about the poem is that the perspective of the speaker is a little fuzzy.

Dustin: Emily, I knew the type-o’s were coming because of your email. I bet you are not happy that I wouldn’t accept the correct version; however, since the beginning of the competition I’ve adhered to the rules. Once a poem is submitted, even if it is early, that is the poem that is judged. Also, I have kept with the same practice each week. I download each Microsoft Word File. Then I copy and paste the poems from the MW file to blogspot. This is why I did not copy and paste your poem from the body of the email. I didn’t think it’d be fair.

I’ve enjoyed your poems from week one and two; however, I didn’t really enjoy this poem. It didn’t stand out for like your first two. Yes, you have great moments in this poem: “The sky / is vintage celluloid, the hell with digital” (Very Creative!) and calling the moon an “old hag of rag & bone.” I’m not sure it is 100% clear that this poem is about Michael Jackson; it is clear at the moment because of his death and the nonstop media coverage. Will people make the connection in a few years or longer? I’m not confident this poem will stand the test of time.

Dana: This is one of my bottom picks this week. The piece doesn’t feel as strong to me as the poet’s other work. The person the elegy is addressed to is not named in the poem, and I think that weakens the piece considerably. Some of broad assertions the poem makes, such as “we never cared for your humanity,” feel weak and abstract.

Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: A timely poem given MJ’s death this past week. I overlooked some of the spelling/grammar mistakes “For’s Christ’s” and “She’s know” to really focus on the sentiment here and found some lovely music, like fat/vacuous/black in the first stanza, and the embedded rhymes of sake/break in the third and best/guest in the last stanza. I’d cut the parenthetical “(if you can end, then so can we)” as I think the point of the poem is to do the work to show us that feeling by locating a pop star in the heavens, and one as big as MJ as he rivals the moon (love that line “old hag of rag & bone”) and the other stars who make way. The end is a little too tidy for me. The poem raises some good questions and has a wry tone “The world’s no / stage these days, it’s just a screen, / some dumb flat firmament” that doesn’t match with those last lines about the “honored guest” (not sure if they were meant to be sarcastic—I mean, really the moon doesn’t give a damn about MJ in the end, one of the pitfalls of personification, but that indifference could give you room to play more with the rivalry you’re setting up.)

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EMARI DIGIORGIO
The Worry Dolls

They work through night, with backhoe or ice pick,
extracting worry: that rotten tooth. Sisters of the smallest order,
kerchiefed, the single-stitch of their red lips,
without hands, without horse or cart to carry my want.
I whisper tonight, I give you not the kiss on the cheek,
but the wanting it. Perhaps they weave the fabric of sleep
or steep the earth with desire; the grass wet when I wake.
There were six dolls once. I gave one to a girl
who needed a compass and wings. How to tell her that staying
is harder, that love dulls? The five cried in their little balsa bed.
So much worry for one. I should have given her the whole set.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
A provocative, deft little poem with some lovely moments: “extracting worry: that rotten tooth,” “the single-stitch of their red lips,” and I love that the poem has an almost fable-like quality “a girl who needed a compass and wings.”

Dustin: I like first two lines. You’ve created a great beginning. “Sisters of the smallest order, / kerchiefed, the single-stitch of their red lips,” sticks out in an enjoyable way. My favorite part of the poem is “I whisper tonight, I give you not the kiss on the cheek, / but the wanting it.” I feel like there could be a little more at the end. Overall, I really enjoyed this poem.

Dana: “Without horse or cart to carry my want” and “steep the earth with desire” are wonderful moments in this poem. I also love the metaphor “fabric of sleep.” This is a beautiful example of a poem that meets the assignment’s requirements while remaining focused, concise and engaging.

Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: Lush music throughout this poem. To isolate just two patterns: the esses and short i’s (sisters/kerchiefed/lips/stitch/whisper/kiss) which create a nice hissing spitting rhythm especially on the more monosyllabic words; and the long EE sounds (cheek/weak/sleep/steep) which being a high frequency vowel sound and all monosyllabic makes for a great sonic energy and rhythm. The poem seems to be reaching toward the sonnet form; it’s 11 instead of 14 lines, but there’s a turn that happens at light 8: “There were six dolls once” moves us from the description of the dolls and the location of the dolls in the present and first seven lines to the dolls’ history and past in the last four. From that turn through to those awesome last lines, especially with the hard truth of “staying / is harder” and “love dulls,” I think this is one of the stronger ones here this week. My only suggestions would be to take a whirl at pushing it toward the sonnet form and see what a draft of that might look like (you can always return to this version), and to perhaps cut one of the three instances of “worry” (it’s necessary in the title and the last line, and for the purposes of this exercise early on as the 1st metaphor, but I found myself wanting to find a way to lose the “worry” in line two).

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W.F. ROBY
Quarter-house

At first light, a prayer is dark against
the white face of the nurse looking in.
My medicine cup whispers
on the night stand. Down the hall
the steps of an early visitor, a doctor
who drags his fingers across my waxy arm
saying Wait, I’m coming, I’m here.

I’m a patient, a toad in a dry pond, a worm
pushing up through recent rain. Out my window,
a blinking red light from the landfill colors
the wings of buzzards. They tiptoe their way
from pile to pile. The light is the eye of a boy king
peeking into his model kingdom.

My roommate tells me remember
that evil thoughts are free and free thoughts are evil
.
His drug is methamphetamine, he says
it turns the clock back so he can pretend
today is already yesterday. He knows time’s game,
knows her stutter, knows
how her neck smells up close.
The ceiling is a door, an alley,
a garden. If I stretch hard
I can touch it with my toes.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This final stanza is really terrific, and I am quite willing to forgive the roughness of a few earlier moments to get to its wisdom. I will say the first image is a bit vague (I’m not sure how a prayer can be dark about the nurse’s face) and the mention of being “a patient” seems a little bit unnecessary, but as I said, I think this last stanza is quite worth the wait.

Dustin: You create lovely detail in parts of this poem. I like “He knows time’s game, / knows her stutter, knows / how her neck smells up close.” The first stanza seems to be your on-ramp. I’d scrap the first stanza, or give it a complete overhaul.

Dana:The final stanza of this poem is fantastic. The metaphors work well throughout the piece, but I did stumble on the two metaphors describing the patient in the second stanza. The two together felt like a little too much.

Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: There’s a lot of good stuff going on in this poem. I found myself wanting to start with those lines “My medicine cup whispers / on the night stand” if only because I had a hard time seeing “a prayer is dark against / the white face of the nurse” which just could be a wording issue (or my personal aversion to the word “prayer”). I was less compelled by the first stanza, but see the necessity of the nurse and doctor to locate us in the drug rehab scenario (but perhaps we don’t need them?). Once I got to that second stanza the poem really picked up steam with the first grouping of three metaphors “I’m a patient, a toad in a dry pond, a worm / pushing up through recent rain” which mirrors “The ceiling is a door, an alley / a garden.” in the third stanza. I’d almost replace “patient” with another metaphor as it seems too literal given the structure you set-up (perhaps it is meant to be read as both literal and metaphoric, or perhaps you intended it for what it is, a literal patient, but that seems too easy—make it do more work). I think my favorite image is “the light is the eye of a boy king / peeking into his model kingdom.” Third stanza is also great with the entrance of the roommate and the sonic repetition of the long O rhymes (knows/close/toes) which lends a more somber tone that perfectly matches the content. I’m not sure the last line is doing all the work it needs to yet; I found myself wanting you to push it just a bit further, especially after lines like the boy king.

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NIINA POLLARI
Kitchen Variety
– for G and Drosophila

I was trying to kill you, Little Red
Eyes, you and your six-

hundred siblings, when I saw your sublime
flotsam around the gentle rot

of my kitchen can. You floated ghostly
around the rubbish. Swam into my wine. I know

you can’t help it: the cidering, noiseless exhale

of the mango perishing
deep in the bin. You would gather on honey

everything, a lattice alive with desire,

shivering in the doomtime fervor
that all canker brings about in you,

sexual bright. I wanted
to blast you, but your aerosol death,

what would it have meant?
The soundless sound

of little bodies dropping, then nobody
to signal the sweetness nearby.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
This is one of those poems that takes a really mundane subject (fruit flies) and makes it gorgeous. I’m completely won over by this poem “You would gather on honey/everything” (great line break!) “a lattice alive with desire”….And such a perfect end. Bravo!

Dustin: This poem took me back to my high school AP Biology course. One of our lab expirements was to use Drosophila melanogaster to do genetic crosses. I enjoyed that lab, but I enjoyed your poem more! You’ve written a lovely poem on a not so lovely insect. Good detail in the poem, and I love the statement at the end.

Dana:This piece contains a lot of great language, including “gentle rot” and “doomtime fervor.” There were moment where the language felt forced, including “sublime / flotsam.” I also wasn’t wild about the “soundless sound.” The last stanza is very strong.

Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: I kept returning to this one and found something new to admire each time. Strengths: a strong title and strong music throughout: Red/death/meant, flotsam/rot, floated/ghostly; but most importantly the higher frequency vowel sounds of the long I (Eyes/sublime/wine/alive/desire/doomtime) and EE (ghostly/honey/bodies/sweetness) combined with the enjambments create an excitement in the rhythm and a nice tension that propels the poem and compels the reader toward its paradox-pondering end: that “soundless sound” which I admit tripped me up the first few times as being impossible, and while I still have reservations, I like the gesture, especially as it relates to the epiphany about the necessity of the annoying Drosophila to signal the sweetness of the rotting mango.

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NABINA DAS
Cityspeak

I didn’t have half brothers or sisters, now I do
Siblings in angst, about who grew up faster, smarter.

Macadamized heartbeats, belching, lying in the sun
Bristling in the smog of hyperventilating rush hours

Toenails curled inwards. That’s how we are.

Brother Chicago, from my labyrinth of freeways
I’ve seen your billboards flashing its psychedelic lure

Your finger slow-motioning from the cloud tops
Entwining me to your belly button deep and bright.

Your other brother or sister – that gushy half-sibling
New York is Woody Allen. Worried, glib! It arcs

A sharp tongue across Manhattan’s cacophony
Rips off the rootedness of our shared metro mangrove.

Laying with its jaunty back of a brooding T-rex

Chicago squints at the waterside, not ready to budge
Polishes its towering whiskers – unperturbed even in the snow.

New York slams me for calling out its name
For even thinking I could write these words –

Its skyline a lost ship that hopes someone will come
Anchor in its teenaged grudge. Well, let it gnaw!

Listen two cities. Don’t tell Kafka, I’ve turned into a city
Unyielding, aching and stymied. Forever looking inside.

A silently gregarious square tucked into my seams.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I admire the ambition of this poem, but it feels at times a bit strained. I’m having a hard time thinking of a speaker as a city. It may be my lack of imagination.

Dustin: I like the Kafka reference in the poem, and I am fond of “Bristling in the smog of hyperventilating rush hours.” I wish the poem had more of those moments; maybe I would I have liked it more if it had of those moments. I feel the poem is forced at times.

Dana:This was one of my bottom picks this week. I just couldn’t get into the comparison between the cities and siblings, at least not the way it was done in this piece.

Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: I enjoyed the metaphors of the half-sibling cities and the ultimate transformation of the speaker into a city (I love “Don’t tell Kafka”). The poem started for me with “Brother Chicago, from my labyrinth…” and would suggest cutting those first five lines; the language wasn’t as compelling to me as in the rest of the poem. I’d suggest a stronger title and dropping the caps at the head of each line as well. Strongest lines for me were the final three, but I felt overall the poem is really just a beginning and this version is the start of an exploration and comparison that you will fine-tune in subsequent revisions. The poem really sings when you get specifics like Woody Allen and Kafka in and I found I wanted less generic city-description like billboards (maybe give us what’s on the billboards?) and freeways (reference specific ones like West Side Highway) and skylines, but more unique structures and architecture and urban layout that not only differentiate NYC and Chicago from each other but also really lets you know the identity of each.

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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR
Generosity

I worry it’s too lazy to believe
everything happens for a reason.
That kind of faith is still-pond with damselflies
unfolding clear wings, each blue body a long,
thin dash of intrigue beyond the realm of human
suffering. They say, Admire me. Rest, you weary.

But some days the spirit in swaying reeds,
clasps me with kinder hands. Something whispers,
See, when the lost child stumbles from a thicket,
naked and dirty, offering the search party
his fist of raspberries.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Love this poem! My only quibble might be the prosaic flatness of the first two lines but the rest of the poem makes up for that ten-fold.

Dustin: I love the first two lines of this poem; they make a great beginning because they picque the reader’s curiosity. I’m quite fond of “But some days the spirit in swaying reeds / clasps me with kinder hands. ” I like this poem, but ut left me feeling like I missed something. Possibly another stanza in the middle?

Dana:This is one of my top poems this week. The metaphors work beautifully, especially the damselflies being compared to dashes of intrigue. And I am in love with the ending, that image of the child emerging after being lost.

Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: Another one that seems to be reaching toward the sonnet form, and again 11 lines instead of 14 with the turn at line 7 and the stanza break here (perhaps this is the new sonnet? 11 instead of 14?). Strengths here include the repeated long EE sounds that in this poem support the anxiety of the speaker as she questions her sentiment about “everything happening for a reason;” and great metaphors: the image of the damselflies really struck me as a perfect way to make concrete the anxiety; and the image in the final lines of the lost child answers her questioning by such miraculous acts as not only the recovery of the lost child, but the child’s act of offering raspberries on top of it, this image of not finding what was lost but having what was lost find us, and on top of it offering something perhaps we didn’t know we were missing. I think the poem would benefit from a stronger, less abstract “theme” title and why not try to make this into a sonnet, which is often a perfect vehicle for a meditation or mini-essay in poetry. While the opening lines present a dilemma and then the poem goes on to explore two views of it, I kept returning to the language of those first lines and wanted more from “too lazy to believe” especially paired with such a weak, familiar language line as “everything happens for a reason.” The poem really picks up with the entrance of the damselflies, and it made me want more edge to those opening lines. I felt the same way about the opening lines of the second stanza: “spirit” and “clasps me with kinder hands” didn’t do as much for me, but those reeds are gold: get more out of them if you can.