P&W Prompt: Who Are You?

For months, I have been anxiously awaiting the start of the new year so that I could start on day one with Poets & Writers’ prompts in their The Time is Now section.  My intention was to begin right on time, but you see, this election thing happened, and I got, shall we say…sidetracked.  Maybe you’re feeling sidetracked too.  For the past couple of months, I’ve had a kind of crisis of conscience about my own role in sitting by and letting the country, apparently, eat itself.  And, for a spell there, poetry didn’t seem very important anymore.  I’ll grant, there are a lot of critically important things on our to do list right now and poetry may appear so far down the list that it runs the risk of falling right off and into the abyss, but something happened this week that made me rethink that.

I’m teaching a course titled “Writing About Literature” this semester.  At the moment, we’re talking about New Criticism and poetry, and we’ve been practicing on a list of poems The Poetry Foundation recently collected called Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment.  One after one, students independently drew correlations between the world they find themselves in today and the worlds of suffragists and abolitionists, the worlds of WWII and the Vietnam era, the world of the first Civil Rights Movement.  I added some additional poems to the list, and when we read Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, the students nodded their heads.  Yes.  I can relate to this.  But what finally made me put poetry back on my list of critically important things to do was when I gave my students a choice of six poems – from Claude McKay’s short and formal “If We Must Die” to Kazim Ali’s long and culturally unfamiliar “Home” – only to be moved by their consistent turn toward Ali’s poem, toward “Home.”  They weren’t looking for easy.  They were looking for connection, for understanding, for expression. And it occurs to me, that these are exactly the times in which we truly need poetry.

So, I’m getting a late start, but I’m beginning at the beginning with P&W’s first prompt of 2017: Who are you?  Here it is:

“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?” wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her most popular poems, published in 1891. Have you ever jotted down a memo to nobody in particular? Ever sent out to sea a message in a bottle? Left a note on a wall or a park bench to someone, anyone, who might happen upon it? All these types of missives have in common a sense of mystery surrounding the identity of the recipient, and an uncertainty about the intended recipient ever receiving the communication. Write a series of short poems addressed to an unknown person. How does removing the certainty of an addressee place more emphasis on other external factors, like geography and physical distance, and your own current preoccupations and state of mind? As you engage in a conversation with Nobody, what insights are revealed?

For those of you who may be new to this P&W Prompt section of my blog, this is where I work out a new poem right here, on this page, with you.  Ugly first attempts and all.  It’s my own little war against the ridiculously prevalent notion that poems come out fully formed and ready to be published.  That kind of thinking serves no one, least of all poetry.  Here’s my first attempt (to jump to my last attempt, click HERE):

 

AT SEA

I.

I wonder if

thousands of years from now

some historian will mixup

Germany’s history

with our American present.

II.

My mother almost giggles

as she reports it is 54 degrees

in northwestern Pennsylvania

in mid-January.

III.

Michelle called the marchers “Bitches”

and complained about streets littered

with signs: you can’t have my rights /

I’m doing this for my daughter / Love

trumps hate.

IV.

Can you help us?

V.

People keep saying we weren’t listening

to the poor. I tell Brad:

I remember watching my mother’s hand tremble

as she passed eleven dollars to a cashier

for a sack of hot dogs and bologna. It’s a unique guilt:

being sorry for needing to eat.

VI.

i write to the mayor, the senator, the editor:

please stand up.  i am standing, though small

and powerless.  i know the sea is raging, i will stand

with you if you will only try.  please

stand up.

VII.

Is it safe where you are?

VIII.

I weep for my country every day.

It tweets back: STUPID JOBLESS MILLENNIAL

CRYBABY PROTESTERS SHOULD JUST APPRECIATE

WHAT THEY HAVE.

IX.

@RogueNasa
@AltForestServ
@altUSEPA
@AltNatParkSer
@AltCDC
@Alt_NIH
@alt_fda
@AltHHA
@altusda

#Thisisthedaythefirstamendmentdied

X.

Wherever you are, I hope you are well.

We will never stop fighting. Pray

for us, O God, Allah, Vishnu, Mother

Earth, motherfatherpray.

 

This needs a good bit of tweaking, and I really want that final stanza to continue on a bit more with more repetition of the words “pray” and “mother” – I think I’d also like to see the idea of “mother” woven in a bit more throughout.  The spiritual turn at the end is also not earned yet, and there is so much missing here – immigrants, #BlackLivesMatter, police brutality, LGBTQ rights – the list goes on.  I find that I forced myself to stop for fear of it “going on too long” – but perhaps that’s the wrong impulse.  I like how it starts to break down and become a bit more fragmented as it goes – there’s something there that I want to play around with as well.  So…here’s the second draft – note that I made a lot of changes as I was working on this draft – so the order, for example, got played around with (a LOT) and small editorial changes were made here and there, I shifted a line break, a stanza break, here and there – so this represents probably three or four drafts combined.  I’m still very unhappy with the end and have rewritten it probably 15 times now – which means it’s time to step away and let it sit for a spell.  Here’s where it stands:

 

AT SEA

I.

Born: 1971, almost

in the backseat of a Chevelle. My mother

praying.  Female, 9 lbs, free.

 

II.

In 1982, Baton Rouge, Louisiana,

United States of America,

bussed all the white kids in.  All

but the rich white kids.  They went

to private school.  But not me.

Charles was my best friend even though

he called me honky.

 

III.

People keep saying we weren’t listening

to the poor.  But I remember watching my mother

pass eleven dollars to a cashier for hot dogs

and bologna. I remember the way her hand

trembled and feeling guilty for needing

to eat.

 

IV.

My first time out of the country, Sa‘īd

from Palestine found me lost

in the Zócalo, hungry. “Come with me,”

he said. “I know where to find food

during siesta, besides, it’s not safe

for you.”  Over tacos, we gave thanks

to Allah.

 

V.

My friend Chrissy sends a note

through Facebook to our secret group:

Ladyboners.  She has something to say: she’s in love

with a woman.  “What does this mean?”

she wants to know.  “Will you hate me now?”

That was more than four years ago. Not one of us

remains friends with any of us, except for Chrissy.

We all love Chrissy.

 

VI.

In January, I stood on coal black sand

watching icebergs the size of Chevys float by,

pale blue Chevys with headlights pointed skyward

and sinking.  My mother reports it is 54 degrees

in Northwestern Pennsylvania.

 

VII.

November 2016: Is it safe where you are?

 

XIII.

Michelle called the marchers “Bitches”

and complained about streets littered

with signs: you can’t have my rights /

I’m doing this for my daughter / Pray

for us.  Her friends comment: disgraceful.

 

IX.

i write to the mayor, the senator, the editor:

please stand up. though small,

i will stand with you. please,

stand up.

 

X.

I weep for my country every day.

It tweets back: STUPID JOBLESS MILLENNIAL

CRYBABY PROTESTERS SHOULD JUST APPRECIATE

WHAT THEY HAVE.

 

XI.

Thousands of years from now

will someone mixup

the “Nuremberg Laws”

with the “Protection of the Nation

from Foreign Terrorist Entry” order?

 

XII.

@RogueNasa
@AltForestServ
@altUSEPA
@AltNatParkSer
@AltCDC
@Alt_NIH
@alt_fda
@AltHHA
@altusda

#Thisisthedaythefirstamendmentdied

 

XIII.

For the record:

we will never stop

fighting. Pray

for us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s