P&W Prompt: Don’t Think Twice

Last week, Poets & Writers responded to the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Literature Prize to singer/songwriter/poet-extraordinaire Bob Dylan by including him in their weekly writing prompts section: The Time Is Now.  Here’s the prompt:

Last week, in a surprising decision, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan is the first musician to win the award and in its citation the Swedish Academy, which administers the prize, credited Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Whether you agree with the decision or not, examine some of Dylan’s lyrics. Then, write a poem that begins with a line you find compelling.

Lately, I can’t seem to get my mind off the state of our union, these “United divided States,” as Sara Bareilles and Leslie Odom, Jr. recently put it in a wickedly powerful music video featured on This American Life. And who better to look to for inspiration during times like these than Bob Dylan?

It’s been a minute since I’ve worked out a new poem in this space.  If you’re interested in seeing earlier exercises, click here.  Meanwhile, here’s my path toward a new draft:

The first step was to identify a particular line in a Dylan song that I found “compelling.”  It took a while, but I narrowed it down to three lines and one tercet:

“You been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe” – from Baby Stop Crying, 1978

“Saw you drift into infinity and come back again” – from True Love Tends to Forget, 1978

“I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children” – from A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, 1962

“I stumbled to my feet / I rode past destruction in the ditches / With the stitches still mending ‘neath a heart-shaped tattoo” – from Changing of the Guards, 1978

I don’t know why 1978 kept coming up.  It must have been a good year for Dylan lines.  You can find all the lyrics to his songs here.


After identifying the lines, all that’s left to do is get down to the writing.  Here’s where I started:


Changing of the Guard

I rode past destruction in the ditches

with the stitches still mending ‘neath a heart-shaped tattoo


I wonder if another woman, somewhere back

in time, in place, another place, in her place

sat with the weight of history and watched

it start, again, like the swishing of laundry

cycling round and round, the wringing

of her hands.  Did she feel this dark cloud,

did she know, like I do, what men will bring,

always bring?  Elizabeth writes to remind me

this flexing demagogue is written into hearts,

for so many women, he is deeply familiar, she says

and coded as powerful. I know him too. He is

the daddy, the husband, the minister who’s hand

lingers too long, or grips too tightly.  He is the man

who knows he has you and so sends photos of the bed

he shared with another woman, brings that same

other woman into your world of chicken soup

for sick mother-in-law and silver foil paper for a neice’s

birthday gift, into your world of promise and hope

where unarmed black men don’t get gunned down

by the police and 6th graders don’t make neo-nazi

computer games at school.


Okay, so this went all over the place (obviously).  I decided to start again, taking a thread from the first draft and pulling to see what happens:


Changing of the Guard

I rode past destruction in the ditches

with the stitches still mending ‘neath a heart-shaped tattoo


Elizabeth talks about this crazy election, the rise of history repeating

itself.  So predictable and awful. She writes that it’s good to be

mostly always waking up to live the life she wants to live, says,

I keep hearing white Christian women say they don’t like his style

but what are you gonna do, you can’t vote for Hillary, and all I can think

is that their daddy or their husband or their minister is exactly like him:

abusive, gaslighting, dumb, arrogant, and afraid.  All these white women

are going to vote for him because as ugly as he is, he is a deeply familiar

kind of ugly that’s coded as powerful in their hearts. And then she moves

on, wants to know if Huck and I like living in Texas, if it’s as good

as it appears online.  She knows there’s a life lived below that surface.

I am silent. Like the women who raised me, I do not answer.  I have grown

a second skin, it covers my mouth, binds my fingers, it is a blanket

wrapped, swaddled around me that started as a scab, a tiny scar, the first time

a man called me a whore or ran his fingers between my thighs, when I was

eight, I picked at it until another man told me I couldn’t be

a lawyer and suggested cosmetology school instead, it festered and grew,

I scratched my way out of a loveless marriage into an unfaithful one

that carved a roadmap of scars along my breasts, down my stomach,

drew raised x’s of flesh across my closed eyes, my lips.


That was still feeling rather scattered and unfocused.  This one has been a struggle for several reasons – partly because it’s been awhile since I’ve done this kind of exercise and partly because I’m trying to write about something that’s happening right now and about which I feel very strongly (always hard to do!).  I think it’s closer to something resembling a poem now, but it’s going to need a lot more work (and perspective).  Thanks to E.R.A. for writing a Facebook post that clearly stuck with me as it appears in part of these last two drafts.  Here’s where I left it:



I rode past destruction in the ditches

with the stitches still mending ‘neath a heart-shaped tattoo –Bob Dylan



Of course it would happen this way: America’s first woman standing

in the face of all that silences us: daddy, husband, minister — abusive,

gas lighting, afraid: we are silent.  Like the women who raised us,

we have grown a second skin, it covers our mouths, binds

our fingers, a blanket wrapped, swaddled around us that started

as a scab, a tiny scar, the first time a man called us a whore or ran

his fingers between our thighs, when we were eight, we picked at it

until another man said we couldn’t be lawyers or president and suggested

cosmetology school instead, it festered and grew, we scratched

our way out of loveless marriages, unfaithful ones that carved

roadmaps of scars along our breasts, down our stomachs, drew raised x’s

of flesh across our closed eyes, our lips: the battleground of our movement

on our bodies. And yet,

there she stands, in the sudden chill of this deeply familiar shadow

that dares us to quit, to lie down, like Amanda Todd who crawled

beaten and scared to a ditch, I thought he liked me, she said,

and rocked shut forever. Of course, she would stand in the face of all

that comes when one dares to hope: the weight of history repeating

itself: so predictable it would be boring if it weren’t for the litany of

unarmed black men lying cold and bleeding in the streets, if it weren’t

for the rising up of the very land in native protest while armed

white boys are acquitted and released in a “boys will be boys, it’s just locker

room talk” kind of way, the ugliness of our nation etched on us all,

a heart-shaped tattoo, coded as power, coded as patriotism.



Now, you give it a try!

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