P&W Prompt 10: Nothing But the Kitchen Sink

This week’s Poets & Writers’ prompt:

Choose a cliched phrase (“fit as a fiddle,” “think out of the box,” “running on empty,” etc.) and turn it around. Use the new meaning created by this reversal to fuel a poetic meditation.

I struggled with this prompt not because of the prompt itself, but because of the subject matter that has been weighing on me lately. As I’m sure you are all aware, Japan is in the midst of one of the most devastating natural disasters in history. Coming up with a cliche to turn around was pretty easy – I almost immediately when to “everything but the kitchen sink” and flipped it to “nothing but the kitchen sink.” There’s a good site you can go to if you need inspiration for cliches: Cliches: Avoid them Like the Plague.

So, having my cliche in hand, and knowing that the Japanese situation was heavy on my mind, I immediately decided to attempt to NOT write about it. Maybe you’ve tried this before – it never really works for me. If something is filling my brain, it’s going to come out on the page. There’s just no avoiding it. But, just for fun, I thought I’d show you some of my failed attempts at NOT writing about Japan. Here’s the first:

Nothing But the Kitchen Sink

I love the smooth slice of knife
Separating root from skin, the way
The dimpled peels slap into the basin
Like bodies on a battlefield, strewn
One atop another. I chop the heads
Of strawberry tops and celery stalks
To add a little color – toss in limbs:
A foot, a knuckle – and let the clear
Water wash it all down, grind it all
Up. It’s mayhem down there. But you
Will never know it. By the time
You come home for dinner, the evidence
Will be long gone. There will be nothing
To see. Nothing but the kitchen sink.

Yeah. That’s pretty bad, I know. I was trying to go for a Sylvia Plath does Lady Lazarus kind of thing. Let’s face it. Plath makes that kind of thing look easy. It’s not. Not by a long shot. So, I decided that since Japan was on my mind and I didn’t want to write about it – maybe I’d try writing about a fictional character who survives a different disaster (this time a tornado) – again, my idea was to keep it as far as sounding like it was about Japan as possible. Here’s the second attempt:

What I remember is the smooth slice of knife
Separating root from skin, the way the dimpled
Peels slapped into the basin like bodies
On a battlefield. And then the sirens wailing
Like a distant train, my white-knuckled grip
On the cast iron curve holding me steady until
You shook me loose, walked me to the cellar
Where we waited it out. While the world whirled,
I counted jars: peaches and sweet potatoes, two
Kinds of pickles. The earth rocked and groaned
And was silent. I cannot say what we saw:
Planks and sticks where we read into the night,
A silly gushing of water from a broken pipe,
Doing its job to the last. It might have been
A shattering of great proportions but for the sink
Laying solid on its side. I reach for it and you
Remember the soft, sweet strawberries we washed
And the way the water gently

As you can see, I didn’t even bother finishing that one. (And thanks to my friend Cindy for the “shattering of great proportions” – I’m still going to try to use that somewhere!) By this point – it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to get away with NOT writing about Japan. And maybe I should explain why it was so important for me to avoid that topic. First, current events – especially ones that are ongoing or very recent – are notoriously difficult to write about. We haven’t had time to process our emotional response and those poems tend to come out way too sentimental and make for, generally speaking, not very good poems. Second, I have a personal issue with writing other people’s tragedy. There is no way I can understand what other people are experiencing and therefore, in my opinion (I know others believe differently), I have no right to attempt to write it. I also believe that my reaction to a tragedy is meaningless when compared to the actual tragedy itself. So, writing about how I feel about someone else’s tragedy is also, for the most part, off limits for me. But – obviously – I couldn’t escape this…even though I tried (and I tried hard). What’s here, I hope, is a reaction that is sensitive to and aware of the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about and no right to do so (even though I do). Here it is, in 1st draft:

Nothing But the Kitchen Sink

Lately I have been terrified of words, words like:
nuclear crisis; like: tsunami; like: cold front,
while I sit in this apartment and watch chaos unfurl
like: a shoeless girl on a curb; like: a ship
atop a building.

This is not about the Japanese earthquake, it’s much

too soon for that. That story, anyway, cannot be written
by me. And I should say, as an aside, that my own feelings,
like: helplessness; like: horror; like: grief,
are inconsequential and do no one any good. No,
this is not about the hundreds of thousands who
just a few days ago were doing things like: cooking;
like: laughing, and who are now smoothing the hair
of their child who lay still in a cumpled car on the shore,
who are now clustered around a wind-swept fire in snow.

If it were about them, I would say: you will survive this.
I would say: if there is nothing left but the kitchen sink,
grab hold of it and remember the smooth slice of knife
separating fish from skin, root from bark. Remember
washing apricot and fig, and the way the sun streamed
through water while you washed your son’s hands.

6 thoughts on “P&W Prompt 10: Nothing But the Kitchen Sink

  1. Carina PERMALINK
    March 16, 2011 9:44 PM
    I dare you to rewrite that poem in which you really wore your inhibitions on your sleeve, but let them go this time.
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    Gabriel Scala PERMALINK*
    March 17, 2011 6:47 AM
    Oooohhhhh…I like that one!
    REPLY
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    Carina PERMALINK
    March 18, 2011 12:07 AM
    It was aimed at you, babes. You were a little too self conscious in that last prompt…. didn’t sound like you to me.
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    Gabriel Scala PERMALINK*
    March 18, 2011 9:17 AM
    It’s interesting that you would say that – because being aware of the act of writing while writing is sort of what I’m known for But I like it. I’ll take that challenge! Thanks xx.
    REPLY
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    Carina PERMALINK
    March 22, 2011 9:39 PM
    It was more about saying that you couldn’t claim the rights to feel things you were feeling. Even when we are not involved in a tragedy, I think that sympathy and metaphorical connections in our own life can cause us to connect with complete strangers in deep ways. It’s not that we’re experiencing their tragedy, nor should we claim to; what we are experiencing is an interconnectedness with our fellow human beings that is precisely the basis for brotherhood, sisterhood, ethics, psychology, history, anthropology, writing and many other things in this world. Be aware of being in the writing and being the writer and the act that you’re possessing, but also allow yourself that connection. We’re all human – and that’s the point.

    • Carina –

      I moved our conversation over here since this is really where it belongs 😉

      And yes, I hear what you’re saying. But, for me, it is not negating my own feelings to acknowledge that they have no place in the current situation. And, in the poem, I do acknowledge that fact and yet still list them (my feelings) – which places them here even though I feel I have no right to feel them (which is a feeling too – and should be acknowledged as such) 😉 The point is: the speaker in the poem IS allowing that connection by speaking of the tragedy without speaking about it. The entire poem – when you break it down – is about the speaker’s fear and inability to confront – straight on – what she is witnessing. But I (the speaker) am also addressing the quandary of what to do with those emotions. It’s not that I believe certain emotions are invalid – but that we should be careful when expressing what we are feeling – we should be careful to first consider how that expression will impact those around us. We can mourn with other people who are experiencing the horror from afar. But to have the audacity to tell someone in the midst of tragedy how “I” feel about it when “I” am perfectly safe and not experiencing that tragedy? I hope you’ll never see me do that – not even in a poem.

  2. Pingback: P&W Prompt: Let Us Fish for a Poem | J. Gabriel Scala

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