Good news and a poetry writing prompt: Pantoum

My poem “The Choice” has been published in the spring 2020 issue of Phi Kappa Phi Forum, an honor society magazine. Here are the poem’s first two stanzas:

                 “The Choice”
I would not wish you to pass.
I would press my hand into your palm
and hope my distress stirs you to choose.
Override the machines. Grab on or let go.

 

I would press my hand into your palm
and pray for a reflex, anything.
Override the ventilator. Grab on or let go.
Breathe or stop on your own.

 

The year after my father collapsed with respiratory failure I spent a lot of time, usually alone, in waiting rooms—surgery, ICU, radiology, and more. So many waiting rooms in three hospitals and five care facilities in two states.

PKP Forum 2020 springb

The high stakes, the uncertainties, the complications made fiction reading (my usual pastime) difficult. I turned to reading and writing poetry. One of the books I read was Edward Hirsch’s Poet’s Choice, which introduced me to Indian poet Reetika Vazirani and her work.

Vazirani’s three-line poem “Lullaby” stuck with me. And I found myself using Vazirani’s poem as a model. I wrote of my father’s situation over and over, never finding the right words until I learned a poetry form called the pantoum.

The repetition and circling back of the pantoum’s form helped me synthesize the prayer poems I had drafted during my father’s eleven ventilator-dependent months. These months included three times when doctors recommended extubation—twice while my father was unconscious and once while he was awake and clearly not ready to die.

“The Choice,” in the form of a pantoum, helped me to work through this ultimate decision.

Writing exercise

I’ve been curious as to whether the writing process I used might work again with different subject matter (for example, the social isolation of sheltering in place).

  1. Write about your own subject/topic using Reetika Vazirani’s poem as a model for phrasing, line breaks, and so on. Keep writing and writing until you have multiple versions and approaches and angles and voices. Here’s Vazirani’s poem:
                      “Lullaby”
     I would not sing you to sleep.
     I would press my lips to your ear
     and hope the terror in my heart stirs you. 
                     —by Reetika Vazirani (1962–2003)
  1. From among your drafts, highlight the line or lines that “say it best.” Consider which one might work as the first line of your pantoum. Note: This will also become the last line of your pantoum.
  1. Continue working with material from your drafts within the pantoum structure. One interesting aspect of using this structure is that as you write a stanza, you are also writing two of the lines for your next stanza.
        Here’s the pantoum structure of four-line stanzas, notice the repeats:
A
B
C
D
B (a repeat)
E
D (a repeat)
F
E (a repeat)
G
F (a repeat)
H
G (a repeat)
I
H (a repeat)
A (line 1 repeats)

Pantoums aren’t limited to four stanzas, as my outline shows. They can be any length.

Note: When I worked through this process, I titled my “Lullaby”-based drafts. Some of the drafts were “Prayer,” “Meditation,” “Hope,” “Will,” and “No Words.” Ultimately, these titles helped me organize the different approaches and points of view. I encourage you to title your “Lullaby”-based drafts.

  1. Then, edit, review/peer review, revise, and repeat.

When you need more information or inspiration, it helps to search for and read pantoums on the Academy of American Poets website poets.org or on the Poetry Foundation website poetryfoundation.org. You’ll notice how some poets make slight adjustments in the repeats, while others are to-the-letter faithful in their repetitions.

If you try this writing exercise, I’d be interested to hear about what does or doesn’t work, including your resulting work. If you feel comfortable, please post a comment.

Candy holidays, Pynchon’s “Marmalade Surprises,” and a writing prompt

Orange grove postcard 19_0503b

Vintage postcard: Tractor at work in an orange grove near Fullerton, California.

The last of the candy holidays is almost here. Each of these holidays comes with bowls and bags and boxes and general excesses of candy:

  • The sugar bender starts with Halloween
  • Skips Thanksgiving for Christmas
  • Continues through Valentine’s Day
  • Peaks again at Easter (No, not Peeps.)
  • And finally slides home at Mother’s (and Father’s) Day

A box of chocolates could be an acceptable gift on any of these holidays, except maybe Halloween. But on All Hallows Eve, the big neighborhood news is often which house is giving out full-size candy bars (not to mention the health-conscious house offering apples and oranges and thus to be avoided).

These holidays each have their confectionary oddities that can linger for months:

  • Halloween—Orange- and black-wrapped peanut butter taffy
  • Christmas—Bitter green-striped candy canes
  • Valentine’s Day—Tie: wax lips and box after mini box of pink and red Nerds
  • Easter—Palm oil “chocolate” bunnies
  • Mother’s Day—Mystery chocolates in a box with no flavor diagram

My apologies if any of these are your favorites, but most of them appear on “worst of” lists.

No matter how cringey these candies may be, they have nothing on the sweets in my favorite scene from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I read the novel during a grad school semester when I was assigned to read a book or more each week, and at 759 pages, Gravity’s Rainbow was a bit of a challenge. I may have been loopy with exhaustion the first time I read the candy scene, but it still makes me laugh today:

…He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, “Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—” a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingénue’s thewse— “years ago,” at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.

“You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!” cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. “Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams.” Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.

“Serves me right,” Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of mayonnaise candy—oops but that’s a mistake, right, here’s his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry … mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can’t begin to take away the bitterness. Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he’s been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it might be pure nitric acid, “Oh mercy that’s really sour,” hardly able to get the words out he’s so puckered up, exactly the sort of thing Hop Harrigan used to pull to get Tank Tinker to quit playing his ocarina, a shabby trick then and twice as reprehensible coming from an old lady who’s supposed to be one of our Allies, shit he can’t even see it’s up his nose and whatever it is won’t dissolve, just goes on torturing his shriveling tongue and crunches like ground glass among his molars. Mrs. Quoad is meantime busy savoring, bite by dainty bite, a cherry-quinine petit four. She beams at the young people across the candy bowl. Slothrop, forgetting, reaches again for his tea. There is no graceful way out of this now. Darlene has brought a couple-three more candy jars down off the shelf, and now he goes plunging, like a journey to the center of some small hostile planet, into an enormous bonbon chomp through the mantle of chocolate to a strongly eucalyptus-flavored fondant, finally into a core of some very tough grape gum arabic. He fingernails a piece of this out from between his teeth and stares at it for a while. It is purple in color.

“Now you’re getting the idea!” Mrs. Quoad waving at him a marbled conglomerate of ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed, “you see, you also have to enjoy the way it looks….” (116-17).

Slothrop encounters many more candy abominations before and after this in the full version of what has been called the “Disgusting English Candy Drill.”

Okay, so let’s see if we can get a writing prompt out of all this:

Intentionally or not, characters may weaponize holiday foods, treats, and other delicacies. In turn, the characters receiving the comestibles may struggle with how to be polite, how to at least try the food, how to escape with or without explaining, how to stay true to their own rules for eating, and so on.

Another potential aspect of this drill is encountering a food so consuming (no pun intended) that paying attention to anything outside of the food becomes difficult. It’s as if the volume is dialed up on the food and down on the world.

Write a scene or memory where struggles with food are at the forefront so that issues among the characters/people can only leak around the edges. Don’t forget to call on sensory details in working with the food. Note the different ways of eating and tasting (Pynchon incorporates the soft palate, nose, tongue, teeth, molars, eyes, and more in just this portion of his scene). Besides spoken words, how do the characters communicate through the handling, offering, and eating of the food (for example, power, rejection, resignation, surprise, etc.)?

I’d be interested to hear whether this prompt yields any useful results. Please post your comments.