P&W Prompt: Portrait Poem

I bet you thought I’d disappeared, eh?  Nah.  I just went on the-world’s-most-sucktastic-spring-break (hint: it snowed and I was laid up with a sinus infection) and got busy grading midterm papers (there’s only like a hundred of them….).  But have no fear!  I’m back on the mission of trying to get caught up with Poets & Writers Magazine’s weekly poetry prompts.  Here’s the ekphrastic exercise from the last prompt in February:

Artist B. A. Van Sise’s photo series Children of Grass—featured in “The Written Image” in the March/April 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine—consists of portraits of American poets who have been influenced by Walt Whitman, with each photograph based on a poem. Browse through some of Van Sise’s portraits or select any other poet portrait of your choice, and taking a reverse approach to Van Sise’s project, write a poem based on the image. How does the language, tone, and rhythm in your poem relate to the composition, props, and background of the portrait?

As I looked through Van Sise’s Instagram page, I kept coming back to one particular photo:

Friedrich Taussig was born in Vienna and raised in Prague- as he puts it, ‘a middling Middle European,’ and by twenty was already living in the first of the four concentration camps he would inhabit during World War II. It was there that he first began, using scraps of paper found here and there, to begin drawing as a way to pass the time.

There was something about this photo that reminded me of my grandfather.  Here’s the first and only draft of what followed:



-after VanSise’s portrait of Friedrich Taussig

Mr. G. puts his face on everything: the glass door, tattered menus, even

the dollar bill replica coupons printed in full color, his smiling face

where George Washington’s should be, offering a dollar off your next

purchase at his pizzeria here in little historic downtown Bryan, Texas.

It doesn’t strike me as odd, that’s what Italians do.  My third cousin,

Sal, made a record, I swear, just so he could print his face on the cover.

It’s not vanity, it’s machismo.  I like to chat with Mr. G. about old Italy,

he tells me he grew up in Napoli, I tell him about my grandfather’s home

in Fontanarosa and he nods.  Yes.  He knows it.  His hands are thick

with age and hard work, and I think about Friedrich Taussig sitting,

his paint-covered overalls like a badge of honor, his own thick hands

resting on his thighs, he looks directly into the camera, unflinching.

As a child, in the concentration camp, he drew on tiny bits of paper pulled

from his mattress, slivers wrapped round wood wool stuffing transforming

into slight origami cranes or minuscule portraits of a girl drawn in dirt.

He could be any man of his generation: my grandfather returned

from the War and became an itinerant preacher, telling stories of the ground

opening up like a gaping wound in the earth before him, of red crosses

used as targets for bombs that fell from the sky, he travelled from church

to church until one day he’d said enough and went home.  His stories,

like Friedrich Taussig’s paper birds, filling the dark night sky around him.


This comes to a rather abrupt end mostly because I’m in a bit of a rush and because I don’t want to take too much time with this draft in this space since I think there’s something here worth exploring more seriously.  I actually selected that photo before spring break – which was two and half weeks ago – and have been thinking this through ever since.  I knew I wanted to connect it to my grandfather, but I had a tough time finding an entrance into the poem (meaning, I didn’t know where to start…and that’s always a problem).  It wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I met with Mr. G. and had that “ah ha!” moment that we poets sometimes get when we’re looking for a way into a new poem.  In the end, this will need to be substantially longer to incorporate Mr. G and cousin Sal into the narrative, or I’ll need to cut them altogether and find a new beginning – which shouldn’t be too challenging now that I’m officially into the piece and know where it’s going.  I’m looking forward to summer break when I can really dig into some of these drafts and shape them into finished poems!  Until next time….

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