P&W Prompt: Let Us Fish for a Poem

I’m officially on the last prompt for January (and only halfway through February, ha!) in Poets & Writers’ weekly writing exercises: The Time is Now.  I’m moving through these puppies fairly quickly in an effort to get caught up.  This often means spending precious little time on revisions or even process but, hey…they’re exercises.  No one’s trying to win the Nobel with them (dammit, Dylan!).  Here’s the prompt for January 31:

Many of the food-related traditions associated with the Chinese New Year—including eating fish, sweet rice dumplings, and certain vegetables—have their origins in Mandarin-language homophonic puns. Jot down a list of food-related homonyms, such as homophonic pairings like “lettuce” and “let us” or “beets” and “beats,” or homographic words with multiple meanings like “cake” or “milk.” Create a festive poem using some of the words or phrases you come up with that celebrate the start of a new year.

[To see the final draft, click HERE]

Hmmm….okay.  Where to begin?  I suppose with the list, yes?  Lest you think I’m some sort of homonym genius, I did a google search to come up with a couple of sites that helped me out: Life in a Skillet and List of Homonyms Blog.

lettuce / let us                    knead / need                    sweets / suites

beets / beats                       thyme / time                    wine / whine

pear / pair / pare               flour / flower                   whey / weigh / way

chili / chilly                         wok / walk                        grate / great

cereal / serial                      fowl / foul

meat / meet                         piece / peace

This exercise reminds me a little of an earlier one I did back in 2011 that resulted in a poem titled “Nothing But the Kitchen Sink.”  The emphasis is the play, right?  Playing with words and meaning and pushing the boundaries of meaning.  But it also has to have something to hang on, some context, if you will.  That may not be entirely necessary for poets who lean toward imagism, but for a narrative poet (and I’m nothing if not that), that hanger is essential.  So, let’s give it a go and see where we land.

In the first attempt, I think: let’s focus on the Chinese New Year.  New Year’s Eve is a significant date for me as it was the day I got married and also, ironically enough, was pretty close to the day I also got divorced.  So, I did a little research and came up with a loose framework:

WATER SNAKE / FIRE ROOSTER

Between them: horse / goat & monkey.

New years from our end / to my beginning.

That pretty quickly got nixed since, after having written those two lines, I had nothing else to say that would fit with the homonym challenge.  How does one fit lettuce into a poem like this?  It wasn’t coming to me naturally so, rather than force it, I canned it.  Once that was decided, I did what all good poets must do when stumped: I turned to some poems.  The first was Brenda Hillman’s own homonym exercise, “Cleave and Cleave” which gave me the idea that perhaps I should focus on just one collection of words.  Then I thumbed through Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first collection, Miracle Fruit (one of my favorite books) and decided the poem needed an additional constraint.  This time: form.  Here’s what happened next:

WHEY / WEIGH / WAY: A GHAZAL

In the beginning, love was fur on bare skin, a countdown all the way

to next year.  Ten, nine, eight / the weight of the past fell, it fell away.

 

My ex and your sister drop by unexpectedly, out of time, out of the blue

they’re all rings and smiles and announcements: your smile falls away.

 

Let’s be honest: you pulled away before I could even hold you, slick

and watery, your love like whey: separating / I pulled, you fell away.

 

How many months of bleeding can we hold? I weigh my waiting womb

against the reluctant moon, watch silently each cycle rise and fall away.

 

Nothing is sacred.  I wait alone with midnight / you & she year one,

two, three.  Five years now, my solitary midnights broken only one way.

 

I waited for you by dawn’s slivered light, where black ocean touches sky.

There’s no man I wouldn’t hurt to be with you, my soul has fallen away.

 

Jennifer, Rowena, Lorenzia: each affair cuts a more exotic name inside

my brain.  You can see them there, etched on skin where my hair fell away.

 

Wordlessly, I name each unborn babe and bury them in the darkening.

I have mouthed a thousand goodbyes / my voice, with them, gone away.

 

But there was a moment, in the naked noon of champagne and mink

that you loved me & that held us a decade or more before falling away.

 

Everything dies, my love: you & I, our mourning doves, midnight / even

angry words dissipate. The weight of it all, of us, the world falls, falls away.

 

Okay.  So that’s not too bad for a first draft.  The title obviously needed to change, so I went with the down and dirty simplified version: GHAZAL.  Then, I tightened up some lines, looked at the order, ditched what didn’t belong and decided to leave it as it stands here.  I wouldn’t exactly call it the “festive” poem the prompt was calling for, but that’s the way these things go.  We have to let the poems take us where they want to go.  And since I’ve been working on a collection of poems that will – in their final form – operate as a kind of extended elegy for my marriage, it’s actually nice to have another new draft to add to the collection and work on.  Hopefully, you’ll see this one again some day 😉

GHAZAL

In the beginning, love was fur on bare skin, a countdown all the way

to next year.  Ten…nine…eight… / the weight of the past fell, it fell away.

 

Let’s be honest: you pulled away before I could even hold you, slick

and watery, your love like whey: separating / as I pulled, you fell away.

 

How many months of bleeding can we weather? I weigh my waiting womb

against reluctant moon, watch silently as hope rises and falls away.

 

Nothing is sacred.  I wait alone with midnight / you & she year one,

two, three.  For me, solitary midnight breaks only once, only one way.

 

I waited for you by dawn’s slivered light, where black ocean touches sky.

There’s no man I wouldn’t hurt to be with you, my soul has fallen away.

 

Jennifer, Rowena, Lorenzia: each affair cuts a more exotic name inside

my brain.  You can see them there, etched on skin where my hair fell away.

 

Wordlessly, I name each unborn babe and bury them in the darkening.

I have mouthed a thousand goodbyes / my voice, with them, gone away.

 

But there was a moment, in the naked noon of champagne and mink

that you loved me & that held us a decade or more before falling away.

 

Everything dies, my love: you & I, our mourning doves, midnight / even

angry words dissipate. The weight of the world falls, eventually, away.

 

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