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Virginia Valenzuela
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This week we wrote poems culminating in one of following lines: “No one was supposed to get hurt.” “And then he [or she/ I] went back to work as if nothing had happened.” The first line is a household phrase from crime dramas; the second was taken from Franz Kafka as a familiar sentence “from any number of old stories—though it might not have appeared in any of them.” Michael C. Rush chose the first of these to conclude his poem “In the Beginning”: Everyone was supposed to die. There was a plan. Some people were going to propagate. Some were intended to languish. But there was deviation from the plan. People stole focus from the gestalt. Shouting “Look at me!” they looked at themselves. Screaming “Watch this!” they did this and that. The plan was abandoned. The plan was rejected. The gnostic became toxic. People exceeded their purview. People superseded their program. Or believed they did. Crying “We have usurped our destiny!” they thought they had. Postulating suffering as the coin with which fate could be bought, they spent themselves to acquire a rougher path to the eternal poverty. O, unhappy knaves! Everyone was meant to die. No one was supposed to get hurt. Not a bad way of twisting our expectations for a well-deserved "ohhh!" at the end. In “You Just Went Back to Work,” Elizabeth Solsburg makes use of both lines in a narrative about a patient in a psych ward who had hoped for a spousal rescue, but... : When they told you I had to stay in the psych ward, I thought you’d rescue me, and take me away somewhere safe; I counted on you to stand up and say I was not a danger to myself or anyone—that this was just my way of getting you to pay attention to me, to shift your focus back to my life, away from all the petty miscellany that eats your time, that you shouldn’t be bothered with anyway. You were supposed to tell them I’d go home with you, that you would make sure I was OK, you should have told them it was all a big mistake— that no one was supposed to get hurt, especially me, but instead you left me here and went away, drove back to work like nothing had happened, like it was any other day Pamela Joyce S’s “The Cleaving” reflects the power of punctuation which can drastically alter the meaning of a sentence: Given the years of feigned happiness before deceit and calamity, he asked, can there be equanimity— a mutual parting of ways— cerebral, free of regret and fester? He turned the knife to test her as she struggled for an answer. No. One was supposed to get hurt. Angela Ball offers up a prose poem, “The Golden Age of Piracy”: I hadn’t meant to deceive my colleagues, at least not at first, when I said I was spending the weekend with my friend, not adding that the... Continue reading
Posted Jul 26, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Starting with the end seems to solve a few problems that naturally occur when trying to write a poem. It means you don’t have to stare at a blank page (what Mallarmé called “the empty paper defended by its whiteness”), and it prevents you from overdoing it with your last line, as so many of us are tempted to do.Therefore: Write a verse or prose poem ending in either of these two lines: —No one was supposed to get hurt. OR —And then he [or she] went back to work as though nothing had happened. The first of these is a line you will have encountered if you watch crime dramas on television. The challenge here is to redeem the cliché. The other line was suggested by Franz Kafka in one of his aphorisms. He said it was “a sentence that strikes one as familiar from any number of old stories—though it might not have appeared in any of them.” Deadline: Saturday, July 20, 2019. Midnight any time zone. Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate. Continue reading
Posted Jul 18, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Two weeks ago, Ringmaster Lehman provided us with an extraordinarily fruitful prompt concerning the power dynamics inherent in romantic love. Inspired by John Updike’s Couples, NLP writers were tasked with responding to the claim that “Every marriage tends to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant.” Is it true? Donald LaBranche’s “Treatise from a Seaside Town” may win the popularity prize based on the amount of likes it received from other regulars. Though the poem does not mention Updike’s line, its relation is quite clear. “Let reality return to our speech.” ––Czeslaw Milosz What I had come to the ocean to learn is not what the ocean chose to teach. As when, up on the boardwalk, with first light at its most lucid, a young Sister of St. Francis, shimmering with vocation shares coffee and a seaward facing bench with an elegant woman in a bright red hijab. They seem to me to be aristocrats of secrets. The sun travels higher and shadows rise and recede like tidal surf. Their heads are close in as they attend to each other’s words. They sip coffee and consider. Voices of children, seagulls, and barkers are lost to me. It goes on like this for some time, in recurring rounds of speech and silence, of hand gestures in the air as if they seek to maintain a balance against these waters no one else can see. Pamela Joyce S’s “Horse and Carriage,” which the author tells us she dashed off as a “quick take in a busy week using the words in the aphorism,” offers a more abstract rendering of Updike's line: Marriage is a peasant. It tends itself and survives. But love, an aristocrat, consists of every art. Together—sustenance— that masterpiece of heart Timothy Sandefur offers his “Pasiphaë on the Simple Life,” which he calls a “a pseudo-sonnenizio”: “Come live with me and be my love,” he said. I didn’t know by “live” he meant abide. Survive. Exist. For surely it’s not living to be denied what makes you feel alive— Aea with its lively salons, art, music, lights. Here there’s only olive trees and goats and work the live-long day, and maids who drive you livid with their tales of insipid romances of lives past. I’ve told Minos the Simple I’ve got to have more, but he lives— despite his gold and silver and liveried slaves—an unenlivened life. Dull. Undelivered. Dead-alive. Unfull. Timothy adds that a “true sonnenizio would take a line from a sonnet, and I’ve fudged a little by using a line from Marlowe’s famous ballad.” A sonnenizio is a form invented by Kim Addonizio, a superb poet whose work has appeared The Best American Poetry and The Best American Erotic Poems. Kim invented the form by taking the opening line of Michael Drayton’s most famous sonnet, “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part,” and repeating one word from the line in 13 subsequent lines. “A Common Enemy,” Millicent Caliban’s title, immediately catches the eye. Can... Continue reading
Posted Jul 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Dear Poetess Vinny, Here's a challenge for you: I'm a freelancer and I just sold my first book (a memoir with poems). Hooray for me. Now I'm on a tight deadline so I'm basically working at home, all day, every day. I can stay in my bathrobe 24/7 but I find that when I do, I end up sitting on the couch, watching Law & Order reruns and eating last night's pizza. I do believe that "clothes make the man (woman or person)" so I want to figure out what to wear so that I feel like I'm "at work" but comfortable and I want to look pulled together in case I get a visitor (or so that the Seamless person doesn't call 911 on me). What should my work-at-home uniform be? And do you have tips to keeping myself focused during these long stretches of keyboard time? Thank you! Marissa Hey Marissa! Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I, too, was writing a book in my bathrobe, praying for more focus, or more time, all the while wondering, how can I make myself look (and therefor feel) more productive? This is what I came up with. Step One: Hanging Up Your Robe Leave the bathrobe on a hook in the bathroom, the pajamas in a drawer or under your pillow, and save the sweatpants for after work. I find that giving my more comfortable clothes a place to live that is out of sight forces me to put on “real” clothes, and allows me to focus on what I’m working on rather than thinking about all the interesting shapes I can make with my robe. Step Two: Getting Dressed I’m not saying we get into freelance work because we hate white button-downs and slacks, but I will say that if it’s not required, it probably won’t be your first choice. Luckily, we have options. 1. Put on some pants. I know it sounds silly, but let’s be real: how many days have you worn your “comfy pants” just to avoid real ones? Putting on a clean pair of pants can help you feel like you’re zipping up your lazy urges and stepping in to a new day. But, let’s not forget that most pants (especially jeans and work pants) are unbearable after a few hours. The answer? Yoga pants. Now, we all knew yoga pants were “in,” but I bet that most of you didn’t know they had worked their way out of the athletic section and into the workplace. These are perfect for working at home because they are stretchy and wrinkle-resistant, which means you can move seamlessly between typing at your desk and eating lunch cross-legged on the couch, and if you need to jet for a meeting with an agent, you’re already dressed. My favorite place to shop for these is Betabrand (above), with options starting at $58 (with 20% off your first purchase). Cheaper options include pants from Rekucci, which can... Continue reading
Posted Jun 14, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Three cheers for David, a man who not only celebrates his birthday today, but who doesn't use his birthday as an excuse to not do any work. We're happy to celebrate with you by writing and sharing our poems! Here is his prompt, introduced by a sonnet promised to us two weeks ago. Perhaps you regulars will recognize the hook: Impromptu (on His Birthday) On this June day I was born and I’m glad I get to post a new prompt, but first must Pause to say how much I like to write Lines like lines one, two, four, six, eight, and nine Of the impromptu poem this is, since Each of these lines has just ten words, no more, Like the first line of one of Frost’s great poems, And then to catch up I must share the piece I vowed to share last week, and here it is: Sonnet If history has taught us anything it’s that Anyone can be bought, anyone can be sold, Anyone can be called, anyone can be killed. For every angry minute you lose sixty seconds of happiness. Ceaseless as the cricket, all night till dawn flow her tears. You can’t think well unless you’ve dined well. You can’t keep a secret unless you hide it from yourself. You can bray all night before you shake down the stars. Nevertheless there is pleasure in the pathless woods. Love, built of beauty, dies when beauty dies. There are two tragedies in life, And whatever they are, you will endure them, Like a heart that breaks but continues to live. If you can tell that some of the lines of David's sonnet are stolen, you’re right, and David's defense is T. S. Eliot’s: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal." But for this week's prompt, we will focus less on borrowed (or stolen) lines and more on the “impromptu,” which David defines as a nine-line stanza that can serve as the prologue to something else—ideally, something that has not yet been written. Your stanza should have the feel or tone of an improvisation, and a unifying formal element such as the pointed use of one-syllable words, rhymes, anagrams, or acrostic patterns. Who knows, maybe we will have created a new form when the results are in. Extra credit if you can guess which of “Frost’s great poems” begins with 10 monosyllables to great effect, and what’s so great about it. Deadline: Saturday, June 15, midnight any time zone. Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate! Continue reading
Posted Jun 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Hi Marissa! The answer to all your questions will go live this Friday. Thank you for your awesome question! --Vinny
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Last week’s prompt was to begin a poem directly quoting or with a variant of a sentence spoken by Michael Corleone in The Godfather II: “If history can teach us anything …” and over 150 poems poured in, telling us exactly what we've learned over time. Here are some of the week’s highlights. Emily Winakur starts us of with “Cross-Discipline”: If history can teach us anything, it’s that a sonnet is ample space for the creation of a planet. Already, line four, atoms are spinning dizzily, like toddlers hyped up on birthday cake. By line six, the dinosaurs have marched, leaving giant footprints in riverbeds. Line eight, the earth is cooling down— wait, it’s heating up again. Enter man- kind, or at least our rodent forebears. Of course we cause the turn of the earth, the turn of everything: we invented wheels. A star goes dark in Cassiopeia. Did I say creation? I meant the opposite. I absolutely love the way the poem references its structure, the way it takes us from prehistoric times to the present, reminding us that we are all, in some ways, obsessed with creation and destruction. Millicent Caliban summarizes some unpleasant historical truths that we tend to overlook when romanticizing past eras. David wisely turns our attention to the turn after line eight, "a textbook example of using the logic of a sonnet to advance a double argument": If history has taught us anything, it is that life was dirty, cold and dark. Diseases raged unchecked and danger lurked. To travel far was risky, without comfort. To be a woman meant a narrow scope— a self-determined life was scarce a dream. Hierarchies were strict and unrelenting; your gender, race or tribe determined all. Yet people put more trust in simple faith; believed that God had so ordained their lot. Some strove to conquer ignorance with learning and, when they could, indulged in acts of love. They understood the sacredness of Nature and did not waste her bounty in their rage. This one takes us back to nature (or rather a Dickinsonian 'Nature'), which is both the worst place to be (dirty, cold, and dark) and the best place to be (the sacredness of her bounty). Very cool. Randall Brett’s “Student Debt” juxtaposes memories of train rides in boyhood to events in South Africa, and dazzles us with its painfully relatable last lines. If history can teach us anything, if the djinn of memory riding beside me on the Regional from New York to Providence is roused angrily from its nap by the calling out of place names: Saybrook, Old Lyme, New London, Westerly What pass for the colonies of your childhood— while you text me from LA about the First and Second Boer Wars, the Voortrekkers, the Battle of Blood River, the map marked “all dead,” your studies from the spellbook of time— How you are happy in every past, but ours. I'll admit to having personal motives for loving this idea of people being... Continue reading
Posted Jun 7, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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This week's prompt on Next Line, Please is inspired by that rare gem, the delivery of a great line. In The Godfather: Part II, when you hear Michael Corleone tell Tom Hagen, “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone,” it makes such an impression that a fragment of the line tends to survive in widely different contexts. The part of the line that really endures is “If history can teach us anything,” and Rhymester Lehman thought it an excellent opening line for a poem. Two stanzas, 14 lines or less, with a break between stanzas. Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate and to read more! Deadline: Saturday, June 1, midnight any time zone. Continue reading
Posted May 31, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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There are a number of poems that were considered by their authors be unfinished, even fragmented, including Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and some of Emily Dickinson’s mysterious two-liners. For this week we considered Dickinson's poem #1639, using it as our first two lines in a poem of our own creation: A Letter is a joy of Earth— It is denied the Gods— Of course it is almost impossible to beat Dickinson at her own game, but what can we say? A poet's gotta try. It may be Angela Ball who comes closest to imitating Dickinson’s characteristic aesthetic, two stanzas, eight lines, slanted rhymes, and lots of em dashes: A letter is a joy of earth— It is denied the Gods— Its script sails slotted— Dimly in its berth— Its sovereign words purse— Tightly—all the while— Till appointed hands unfurl— And deliverance—arrive— Emily Winakur’s staccato rhythms and cascading thoughts mirror humankind's struggle to make sense of it all: life, death, the world, the gods: A Letter is a joy of Earth— it is denied the Gods— Singing stories—Death or Mirth— announcing—like a Fraud— that Thing you did. Was it so Great— if no one knew but for those Gods hushed and hovering—late— round heaven’s hearth—Voyeurs of deeds and sins. To have to Pause— unknowing—to hold paper up to Sun—and wonder at the Flaws and Flights that will appear— as soon as paper splits and tears by taper’s candlelight. Anticipation mixed with fear— “Madame,” it says, “I write—” Charise Hoge’s “Mollusk and Mail” completes Emily’s fragment "as Marianne Moore might have done," David says, "with the celebration of a lowly creature," one that is extremely close to my heart, the snail: A Letter is a joy of Earth–– It is denied the Gods–– Though Godspeed may prevail ––when it is deemed a snail. Admire then the Snail–– A coiled envelope that seals the softness of a living thing ––discerned in words––arriving. Beth Dufford “cheated and used two of Emily’s mysterious couplets to bookend my meager whimperings in between,” and to great effect: A Letter is a joy of Earth— It is denied the Gods— Like warmth before a shadow’s Birth Eludes the sheltering frog— Let me use this Day, let it not slip— Let me imprison it in a locket— Let me not thirst with this Hock at my lip Nor beg, with domains in my pocket. Visit the American Scholar's page to read the full post, with more mysterious lines and couplets and scholarly commentary from the master of poetry, David Lehman. And tune in next week for a new prompt! Continue reading
Posted May 22, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Have you ever written or read a poem that started and ended with a question, and found yourself so totally enthralled, so mystified, and included? Well, for this week's installment of Next Line, Please, our contributors were tasked with that very idea, with works by Keats, Shelley, and Yeats that end with a question, and works by Goethe, Rilke, Auden, and Shakespeare that begin with one, as inspiration. Shall we dive in? Angela Ball refers to “Ode to a Nightingale” in the title and first line of her poem, “Viewless Wings”: Are there still “wings of poesy”? Yes. They’ve been shelved, like a beaver top hat collapsed when not in use, whose hatter survives in a madhouse, where he deplores the lake for its surly, copulating swans. Stylish poets reject metaphorical levitation, as evoked by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., in his sonnet, “High Flight,” where he “slips the surly bonds of earth” in a Spitfire MK1, aided by wings from Cuthbert Hicks, author of “The Blind Man Flies” and source of the line, “And touched the face of God.” What are these straw-man “bonds of earth”? Why “surly”? Can plagiarism fly? I'm a sucker for things like poesy and mad hatters, and copulating swans, for sure! What a powerhouse. Michael C. Rush dazzled many of us with the questions raised by “Eleutheromania” and with the magnificence of sound in the poem’s sixth stanza: Who holier than the disbeliever? Even the thirstiest visits the cistern of drool. Choose your delusion? Choosing your delusion is just one of the delusions that chooses you. I smell burning books, millions of them, unseen, unread, hijinks of accusing kachinas and kinkshamers drinking the soul-ution, instantiating confusion, a quasi-tsunami of ludonarrative dissonance, a knucklefruit parley between the chronic ironic and the cure of the curve as was kisses will be with the lips of is. What we take for granted is taking things for granted. The shock of a duck jerked up in the jaws of a dog. Which is more powerful, narrative or verisimilitude? Is power determined by the ability to deceive? David Lehman is with Stephanie Cohen, who said her favorite lines of the week were “The shock of a duck / jerked up in the jaws of a dog.” For my part, I'm pretty enthused by "drinking the solution." In “Requiem,” Pamela Joyce S. beautifully weaves echoes of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: “full of sorrow,” “half in love,” “full-throated ease,” “tender” night. What are you thinking? To think is to be full of sorrow and I am full of thought. Only half in love, you said half joking, the quiet breath escaping like a death rattle. I called you soft names with full-throated ease In the forlorn landscape of tomorrow’s separate dreams. What thoughts will please you, Love, on this last tender night? So much yes! Diana Ferraro’s “Clockwork” begins and ends with timeless questions: What time is it? The sorry round face, two bones as hands The mock banner of a... Continue reading
Posted Apr 20, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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This week's post was inspired by our family names in a wholly new genre of poems: the trilogy. It's not quite as official as the sonnet, but its results just can't be beat. Eric Fretz’s “Fretz Trilogy, a Cento” plays on the homophone of the author's last name to great effect: “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room,” An ex-army officer turned critic frets. Can you not hate me, as I know you? Do Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast? In one another’s arms, birds in the trees, While far beneath us frets the troubled purple of the sea. Elizabeth Solsburg offers “The Elizabeth Trilogy,” a poem that pivots on the conflict between “Little Women” and “The Church,” as mediated ambiguously by “My mother.” My mother wanted my name to be Beth— just that: plain, simple and sweet, like her favorite of the Little Women, who is always obedient and perfectly meek, a good daughter for eternity. The Church had a different idea— said I needed the name of a saint, long dead, and of virtue they’d approved. My mother, more obedient than I’d ever be, added the syllables to fit their rule. She called me Beth the whole of her life— and for a while I tried to live up to the name, but those syllables finally caught up with me: maker of rules instead of blindly obeying, the chosen of God, the warrior queen The time for diminutives has long ended I am the Elizabeth I’ve chosen to be. Eduardo Ramos Ruiz’s “La Trilogía de Ramos,” mixes Spanish phrases to excellent effect, and could serve as a model for yet another potential genre, the bilingual poem: (In memory of my father: Juan V. Ramos) I was named Juan—el nombre de mi padre, who died before my birth. It’s said he frequented the tavern La Paloma Azul, played the accordion and loved un trago de vino more than his wife. I was nicknamed “Juan without fear” by my wife because I carry myself sin miedo. In fact, I took the pitchfork away from the devil. I am the undiscovered composer of corridos who seeks no fame, only perfect end rhymes. I named my first-born son Juan— como su abuelo, el primero. Juanito plays the guitar, composes, and loves singing more than un trago de vino. I fear he’ll find a wife, so I pray for no strife. Emily Winakur’s vigorous use of prose poetry in “The Black-Thumb Trilogy” proves that poetry is found in the language, rather than the line breaks: I. Heart-shaped philodendron can survive a minor depressive episode, but not the kind where you leave Seattle for Bethlehem, PA, at the height of summer, and you cry all through the Cascades, over the Columbia River, into Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the poor plant baking in the back seat; you’re still crying when you run out of gas in Wyoming and you can’t find a motel room within 200 miles of Sturgis, South Dakota;... Continue reading
Posted Apr 6, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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One day last week, David Lehman opened the newspaper and saw a full-page ad for a new play titled The Lehman Trilogy. As someone who shares the name, he has occasionally met people who assume he's a part of that famous family. "I am not," he says, "though the confusion can prove entertaining." When your name is in the headlines or in the title of a play, you get interested. So for this week's prompt, why don’t we turn this situation into an opportunity to write? Take your name and write “The — Trilogy.” It can (but doesn’t have to) be three parts, but no part should be longer than five lines. Some novels are said to “span three generations.” Here’s your chance to do that in verse—or to do something completely different. Have fun with it, and deviate from fact as you will. Visit the American Scholar's page to read more of David's witty backstory, and to enter your candidate! Deadline: Saturday, March 30, midnight any time zone. Continue reading
Posted Mar 26, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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This week's post shows off poems that made clever use of phrases with multiple meanings, phrases such as "red eye" or "blue moon" or "working stiff" or "grass widow." As always, there were droves of impressive responses to the prompt, and much else to be admired. Shall we jump in? Steve Bellin-Oka’s “Red Eye” won deserved praise from discerning readers: Bright crimson smear in the sclera. Over- flow of a miniature river’s cataracts into the ovoid pool of black pupil, blue iris, and lens. I almost never look at my face in a mirror: so someone asks, what happened to your eye? What hasn’t. Violent sneeze, burst vessels. Once I abraded the cornea when by mistake I rubbed sand into it. Maybe I was trying to make glass. On the all-night flight from Vancouver to Baltimore where you lay dying, I took a window seat so I could both see and not see, hologram of the reading light fixed above the jet wing. In Polaroids of us at the beach as kids, our eyes burn red as coal embers, as unchecked fever Diana Ferraro said it best when she wrote, “I like very much the almost medical, precise descriptions that create a cold distance, then slowly build into all the meanings of red eyes until we fall into the painful abyss of the unexpected.” Christine Rhein shares first place with “Working Stiff,” the soliloquy of a man wearing a “man bun” (gross) and “Armani suits” (very nice if you can get it): I’m serious. Fourteen hours a day. My neck, shoulders hurting. My laptop heating up. Like business. I own a mall, a dance club, three coffee shops. And on paydays, we all chat—my employees happy, able to buy the hippest clothes, great bodies, expensive hair—the kind that bounces when they walk. For myself—it’s a man bun, six-pack abs, Armani suits—in Second Life, Kona Karl raking in the lindens, and me designing logos for the coffee cups, bikinis for the dancers. To top all that— I’m getting married soon. But hey—don’t tell my wife. She thinks I’m just playing “some stupid game.” She’d never understand Kona Karl needing a tuxedo, a honeymoon. Or the 55,000 lindens—260 bucks I’ve spent on special animation, making sure that, yeah, I’ll be working magic on my wedding night. And on any night when my bride, Cloudberry, shows up, logged-in, to shake cocktails, fill the hot tub in the beach house she picked out for us—the mortgage, like in real life, costing me plenty. "Blue Moon" proved to be a very popular jumping off point for NLP contenders. Patricia Wallace earns high marks with her poem of that title: I like the moon, the way she hangs around when everyone else has split, sick of my caterwauling, my complaints, my sorry love life. Sometimes she’ll slip in an extra appearance at the bar and shine her full attention on our conversation. We talk about dark sides and tattoos, joke about the gossip: the black-out nights,... Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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John Ashbery once said that he liked to begin with a title, rather than end with one, when he sat down to write a poem. Here on Next Line, Please, we are partial to two-word titles that can yield multiple meanings. For example, “Spring Break” might refer not only to college kids painting the town red in Fort Lauderdale but also to the damage that a winter storm may cause to a pristine spring of water. Here are some potential two-word titles: Working Stiff House Arrest (or House Organ) Twin Killing Strip Steak Food Court Hot Corner Blue Moon Red Eye Hung Jury Grass Widow Spring Break Each of these phrases has a primary meaning, and in some cases a slang meaning—for example, “twin killing” is baseball shorthand for a double play. Your job is to choose a title from this list—or come up with a two-word title of your own—and write a poem that features two meanings of the chosen phrase. Extra credit if you start with one meaning and end with the other. Fourteen lines or less. It’s not the same thing, but many years ago David wrote a poem that secretly capitalized on two possible meanings of “ERA” (“earned run average” in baseball and the proposed constitutional amendment). You can do the same with other acronyms, and maybe we’ll do that one fine week. Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate! Continue reading
Posted Mar 15, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Last week's prompt involved a game of "reverse scrabble," in which players found as many words as they could from the main word, "operation," and then used these words in a poem. Now one might read that and say, what benefit could that possibly have to the rhyme and reason of poetry? Well... If you thought it impossible to write a poem about politics in 2019 that didn't make your stomach hurt, think again. I give you, Millicent Caliban's “Operation 1776,” “Hamilton”—an opera with rap oration, the art of Miranda, the trope of a nation: to tear them away, to part from taxation. Wanting the option to reap their reward, the poor prone to riot, to feather and tar, the gentry pen notes to air their pain. In Boston, a port, the harbor is near. Men say “nope” to the King and go for the tea. “Do not tie us to Empire! We yearn to breathe free!” Stephanie Cohen’s “The Operation” succeeds beautifully with its emotional complexities, its fascinating adjectives, and its impressive wordplay: To ease me into a prone riot, the anesthesiologist, near my ear, sang Lou Reed’s, “Perfect Day” with a ration- al tone dripped in toper tropes. “You’re gonna reap just what you sew” Roped to a table, I buoyed to a torpor to treat my torn aorta. Its pores gulping tons of musical notes; I became noise. I wanted to repo the rate of nope and tar the vice of human voice at the opera. Reduced to the body’s notion, my ape-ness tore me open- “I’m glad I spent it with you.” Michael C. Rush used the prompt to create a musical mosaic in “Operation Intro.” The alliterative energy, which owes much of its existence to the nature of the prompt, is striking: Playing air poet, rioting into a pain rap on an ornate iron piano near an open air patio— rip one, tip it, top it, tap no poor pen to atone— a pro, a rat, prone to opiate, options no rite, apes no portion ripe in art, pines into an apt ratio in a not-rote era. Christa Whitsett Overbeck’s “Hedonic Operation” sings a similar song but with a very different tune: Portion, like slices of ripe pear, the ratio of pleasures— Rate the opiate: a nice pinot or porn noir— Opine on art or opera— Tear the fruit to the pulp, I ate— not unlike words to the poet And finally, a full-throated huzzah to Anthony Clifton, who crafted a sestina that cunningly echoes David's own “Operation Memory.” Here Anthony uses the same six end-words, one of which is a number and a variable. "Operation Triple Bypass" for David the Shepherd I. Practice Practice Practice Pain is always—always—an option. When Will we mercifully earn time again for bed? A piano lullaby (too much to ask?)—A hundred Cherubs riot, humming the middle Portion of Carmina Burana, dream of jobs At Carnegie Hall, velvet rope, sold out shows, loaded With diehard connoisseurs, open carry, loaded With... Continue reading
Posted Mar 8, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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"Reverse Scrabble" is a prompt invented last week by our literary ring master, David Lehman. The aim is to derive as many words as possible from one given polysyllabic word and then integrate them artfully into a poem. The word for this game of scrabble is operation. Your job is to break down this word into its component parts—like playing Scrabble in reverse—and to compose a poem in which you use at least one such word per line. Some short words are hefty enough to get you points (“art” for example), but four-letter words are a better bet. Extra points for words of five letters or more, like “opera” or “ration.” The poem should be between eight and 12 lines long. So why “operation”? Head over to the American Scholar's page to find out, and to enter your candidate! Deadline: Saturday, March 2, midnight any time zone. Continue reading
Posted Feb 26, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Five weeks ago, the members of the Next Line, Please collaborative set out to build a brand new poem, stanza by stanza, brick by brick, but lo and behold, something even more fantastic happened. We wrote the poem, and several variations, and several more inspired writers later, we come up with not one, but six full-length poems. Here they are, in all their glory: 1. Sovereign I spent my days in an expanse of spirits, vodka, scotch, tequila, gin—pick a poison then— [Pamela Joyce S.] then spent, I slept; of reality dreamt; and by mourning, could find no rest. [Koahakumele] When night unstops its cross-boned bottle, the dream: he killed a child by accident; I protected him; even now, parents wait [Angela Ball] where sat the two children we didn’t have, [David Lehman] all grown up, as if entire chapters were skipped. [Lutz Ebersdorf] Their wake precedes dawn. He opens his eyes. [Diana Ferraro] The wine had turned sour, and the pickled fruit [Donald LaBranche] smacked us awake in winter, real like medicine. [Stephanie Cohen / Katie R] I am sovereign of the air-settled world. [Christa Overbeck] Summer hits the swift wings of a swallow, [Diana Ferraro] And then the blackbirds escaped, [Katie R] succumbing in the snow to winter sleep. [Millicent Caliban] 2. The Dream I spent my days in an expanse of spirits, vodka, scotch, tequila, gin—pick a poison then— [Pamela Joyce S.] then spent, I slept, of reality dreamt: and by mourning could find no rest. [Koahakumele] When night unstops its cross-boned bottle, the dream: he killed a child by accident. I protected him. Even now, parents wait [Angela Ball] where sat the two children we didn’t have. [David Lehman] The mother becomes her daughter, the father leaves for work, and from the third-floor window the young brother watches his sister go to school. [David Lehman] It sits on her, hatches confidence or shame—choose one— the dog barks—an iron clunk—mail slot admits envelope, its addressees our starry successors. [Angela Ball] 3. No Absolution I spent my days in an expanse of spirits, vodka, scotch, tequila, gin—pick a poison then— [Pamela Joyce S.] then spent, I slept; of reality dreamt; and by mourning, could find no rest. [Koahakumele] When, like a thieved wallet, the house emptied, [Stephanie Cohen] I saw the blackbird-clustered face of night. [Donald LaBranche] No absolution. Spirits, bring me absinthe, [Pamela Joyce S.] a doleful pour not tasted before. [Charise Hoge] Could the blackbirds play the role of ravens [Millicent Caliban] in an empty house, in which I return the thief’s wallet and then ingest the salt of absolution, [Donald LaBranche] the final pinch of grass in a sandwich bag? [Stephanie Cohen] In a blackened crown of night and crows. [Katie R.] We watched you raving at the wind, wandering like a street thief in search of unlocked doors, [Pamela Joyce S.] succumbing in the snow to winter sleep. [Millicent Caliban] 4. This Was Glory, Too I spent my days in an expanse of spirit,... Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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"Stanzaic Choreography," a phrase coined by the witty Angela Ball, has been favorably chosen to describe the dance of words and ideas going on every week on the Next Line, Please column. And especially now, as we have not one, but five collaborative poems in progress. Each has three stanzas, missing only a final word. For the poem designated as A1, we have lines submitted by Lutz Ebersdorf, Diana Ferraro, Donald LaBranche, Stephanie Cohen, and Katie R. A poem now with nine authors: I spent my days in an expanse of spirits, vodka, scotch, tequila, gin—pick a poison then— [Pamela Joyce] then spent, I slept; of reality dreamt; and by mourning, could find no rest. [Koahakumele] When night unstops its cross-boned bottle, the dream: he killed a child by accident; I protected him; even now, parents wait [Angela Ball] where sat the two children we didn’t have, [David Lehman] all grown up, as if entire chapters were skipped. [Lutz Ebersdorf] Their wake precedes dawn. He opens his eyes. [Diana Ferraro] The wine had turned sour, and the pickled fruit [Donald LaBranche] smacked us awake in winter, real like medicine. [Stephanie Cohen / Katie R] Charise Hoge proposed “The Wrong Side of the Bed” as a tentative title. For the third stanza of A2, let's start out with a line from Millicent Caliban: I spend my days in an expanse of spirits, vodka, scotch, tequila, gin—pick a poison then— [Pamela Joyce] then spent, I slept; of reality dreamt; and by mourning, could find no rest. [Koahakumele] When, like a thieved wallet, the house emptied, [Stephanie Cohen] we saw the blackbird-clustered face of night. [Donald LaBranche] No absolution. Spirits, bring me absinthe, [Pamela Joyce] a doleful pour not tasted before. [Charise Hoge] Could the blackbirds play the role of ravens [Millicent Caliban] in an empty house, in which I return the thief’s wallet and then ingest the salt of absolution, [Donald LaBranche] the final pinch of grass in a sandwich bag? [Stephanie Cohen] And a nod to Stephanie’s working title: “Bender.” Eric Fretz offers three-quarters of the third stanza of B1; with two lines compressed from Katie R to bring the pirouette to a soft landing: I spent my days in an expanse of spirit, gave thanks to God for enemies with bad aim, [Jay Ronson] as snow fell into the trees and blackbirds clustered thick as leaves on the limbs, glossy shades of night. [Patricia Wallace] When feathered darkness lifted up her hood about my head, I saw that this was glory, too; [Christa Overbeck] returning birds, retreating foes, [Beth Dufour] the ache you blame on age and episodic sleep. [Stephanie Cohen] If I could only sleep the length of clouds and leap the length of August days again, the snow would melt off blackbirds’ backs and bud [Eric Fretz] in a blackened crown of night and crows. [Katie R] Eric’s nominee for the poem’s title is “This Was Glory, Too.” J. F. “Jeff” McCullers joins in on poem B2: I... Continue reading
Posted Feb 13, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Two weeks ago, we began a journey in which each step lead us to yet another line to another stanza, beginning with the opening line: "I spend my days in an expanse of spirits." This week, the dedicated writers of NLP continue to build not one, but two poems. The opening stanzas, posted last week, are composites of lines provided by Pamela Joyce and Koahakumele (poem A), and Jay Ronson and Patricia Wallace (poem B). For next week, quizmaster Lehman seeks a third stanza and a tentative title for each poem. And just to make it more interesting, David Lehman has given us multiple possibilities within poems A and B. One possibility, which we shall affectionately call "A1," joins Angela Ball’s lines 5-7 and David's line 8, with this most enchanting result: I spend my days in an expanse of spirits, vodka, scotch, tequila, gin—pick a poison then— [Pamela Joyce] then spent, I slept; of reality dreamt; and by mourning, could find no rest. [Koahakumele] When night unstops its cross-boned bottle, the dream: he killed a child by accident; I protected him; even now, parents wait [Angela Ball] where sat the two children we didn’t have. [David Lehman] Not only are there the allure of dreams and mourning, but the introduction of parents and unborn children, which can only mean one thing: high levels of drama. Comprised of lines from Stephanie Cohen, Charise Hoge, Donald LaBranche, and Pamela Joyce, "A2" extends the cocktail motif, incorporates the blackbirds from poem B, and welcomes a second type of “spirits.” I spend my days in an expanse of spirits, vodka, scotch, tequila, gin—pick a poison then— [Pamela Joyce] then spent, I slept; of reality dreamt; and by mourning, could find no rest. [Koahakumele] When, like a thieved wallet, the house emptied, [Stephanie Cohen] we saw the blackbird-clustered face of night. [Donald LaBranche] No absolution. Spirits, bring me absinthe. [Pamela Joyce] a doleful pour not tasted before. [Charise Hoge] As for the B poem, B1 combines two lines from Christa Whitsett Overbeck and singles from Beth Dufour and Stephanie Cohen: I spent my days in an expanse of spirit, gave thanks to God for enemies with bad aim, [Jay Ronson] as snow fell into the trees and blackbirds clustered thick as leaves on the limbs, glossy shades of night. [Patricia Wallace] When feathered darkness lifted up her hood about my head, I saw that this was glory, too; [Christa Overbeck] returning birds, retreating foes, [Beth Dufour] the ache you blame on age and episodic sleep. [Stephanie Cohen] I love the description, "feathered darkness," as it echos the motif of the birds while furthering the plot: the feathered darkness lifts the veil (or the hood) and provides us with a realization of glory. For B2, Christa’s striking lines form the sandwich inside which live lines from Millicent Caliban and Pamela Joyce S: I spent my days in an expanse of spirit, gave thanks to God for enemies with bad aim, [Jay Ronson] as snow fell... Continue reading
Posted Feb 6, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Dear Poetess Vinny, I just got my first job as an adjunct professor of English at a relatively small school with not much of a dress code. Most of the other professors wear a button-down and slacks, but I want to stand out and look like a writer. How can I make myself look hip and approachable, while remaining professional? Yours, Michael Dear Michael, Thank you for your question, and congratulations on your new job and title! I know when I became an adjunct, I was elated just to be able to select “Professor” in the dropdown menu on forms and theater tickets. Most writer folks find their way into academia at some point, often as students and/or later in life as professors, lecturers, and guest readers. This is both totally cool and totally weird to many of us who love books, love writing, and who are quickly learning that our laid-back student vibe and our grunge, East-Village-poet look don’t work for each and every occasion. Let’s start with the basics. The Classic Collegiate. Come on, you know you secretly wish you had a random English degree from Oxford or Cambridge, or you have a crush on British equestrians, or you just want to look like a classy intellectual. If you meet any of these criteria, then this look is for you. 1. A button-down, a tie (optional), a sweater, pants or straight-leg jeans, a jacket (seasonal) and oxfords or loafers. 2. This is a great look for autumn, winter, and early spring when it’s cold outside. Stick to earth tones (browns, grays, reds, greens) or have fun with the color of your tie and the pattern of your button-down, but don’t go too crazy. The allure of this style is the idea of elegance in simplicity. 3. For women, add a knee-high boot (winter), flats (fall/spring), or a low heel (spring/summer) or replace the tie and sweater with a statement necklace. The Serious Writer. Okay, okay, you don’t really care about England, but you DO care about being taken seriously, especially when you’re new and especially when you’re a young-in. I got my first teaching job at 23 and my first professorship at 24, so I was constantly trying to look older, or at least more professional. 1. I wear lots of button-downs, cardigans, and blazers because no matter what else you’re wearing, you can’t help but look professional. Got jeans and a t-shirt? Add a blazer. Cute dress with spaghetti straps? Slap on a button-down. (Because seriously, unless you’re David Lehman, how many weeks can you keep up the full-on collegiate look?) 2. Have fun with your shoes and accessories! Patterns, accents, bright colors; hats, watches, try them all! Your understated outfit will give your look space to experiment. 3. Because you’re a writer, you can get away with wearing jeans to work or a tight-fitting pant or a polo, and as long as you don’t look too casual, you won’t have to worry about your students not... Continue reading
Posted Jan 27, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Isn't it strange how a set of rules, such as end words or repeated lines or four-word constraints, can actually be more liberating than working from scratch? Over 200 entries poured in, 4 words at a time, making this week's anthology quite riveting. You'll notice how the line breaks occur almost naturally, and how the rhymes fall in unexpected places. Pamela Joyce S’s “Onion” shows off her many layers of good writing: What layers of skin reveal or conceal is a matter of protocol. The procedure of peeling can be precise—perhaps surgical—or haphazard. This feeling here, beneath the sheer papery veil, thin, white, and glistening—it resists a reckless knife but yields to meridian slicing. The curve preserved, an arc of tears releases in sharp sweetness. Keith Barrett contributed a cento--a poem made up of found lines--from May Swenson’s poetry. “The Key to Everything” is a splendid tribute to her. The muggy setting sun silently swallowed a pearl and winked like diamonds Where can I go except in her sea she is the staircase I am not lost I wish we were At 77 turned ghost The chemistry of prayer lifted like a tendril Fingers find by feel I don’t I don’t Night unanimous over all Josie Cannella’s “Medicinal Purpose” excites both the seducer and the romancer: I sanitized your glass, first by kissing the rim all around. Next, by pouring in vodka and swirling that around. I then added ice, crushed. I instilled some cranberry juice, fresh lemon, and a dash of bitters for good measure. I stirred it around. Drinking it down, I call the concoction a Bitter Kiss Good-Bye. As for next week, we will be writing a a collective poem—either a sonnet or a 16-line poem divided into four quatrains—one stanza at a time, beginning with this opening line, inspired by William Shakespeare's Sonnet 129: “I spent my days in an expanse of spirit.” Write three more lines. They do not have to rhyme. As Dr. Lehman suggests, "it would be wise, given the abstract nature of the line, to be as specific and concrete as possible." Visit the American Scholar's page to read the full post or click here to read the full rules of the next prompt and to enter your candidate! Continue reading
Posted Jan 23, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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It's the very first prompt of the new year, and in it, we turn to May Swenson and her poem “Four-Word Lines” for inspiration. Here is the original: Your eyes are just like bees, and I feel like a flower. Their brown power makes a breeze go over my skin. When your lashes ride down and rise like brown bees’ legs, your pronged gaze makes my eyes gauze. I wish we were in some shade and no swarm of other eyes to know that I’m a flower breathing bare, laid open to your bees’ warm stare. I’d let you wade in me and seize with your eager brown bees’ power a sweet glistening at my core. “The poem is breathtaking,” the writer Sharon Preiss observes. “The precise and compact ‘four-word lines’ move the poem ‘forward,’ yet the form forces line breaks that slow the reader down so that she can revel in the mellifluous aural flow of the poem. The sound of longing that the interlinked long i’s and e’s create in the first few lines then floats down and through the lilting feeling of relief the double f and l sounds create in ‘feel like a flower.’” To which Dr. Lehman adds, that "the music of the poem has something to do with the magnificent use of monosyllables (“ride down and / rise like brown bees’ / legs”), the near-rhymes (“gaze” and “gauze”), and the way alliteration serves as the transition between rhyme words (“bare, laid open to / your bees’ warm stare”)." Limiting yourself to a maximum of 14 four-word lines write a poem in which each line has 4 words. Any subject will do, though your interpretation of the "May Swenson manner" will take you far. Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate! Continue reading
Posted Jan 9, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Happy New Year from Next Line, Please! I'll admit, this post is a little late, but what better way to begin 2019 than with a blast from the past: the last NPL publication from last year! To refresh your memories, contributors were asked to make lists of anagrams inspired by their names, and to use those new words in a poem. Pamela Joyce S turned the prompt into a “Sonnet on Brewing Love,” which exhibits an “ample meal,” the “leam of a lamp,” “a map,” a “male plea,” “Ma and Pa,” “a pal,” “a man,” and a “leap,” among other words derived from her first name: After an ample meal of hearts of palm, sweet pea puree, and pale vanilla ale, his lap danced. Her lap sang souchong, steaming beneath the leam of a lamp. Aiming to amp up the fire, he read her tea leaves like a map, foreseeing them steeped in desire under the elm, or maybe deep in maple sap. Heeding his male plea and hearing the peal of distant bells across the lea, she thought oh, dear me, la de da, what would Ma and Pa think? He was not wise as the Dalai Lama, more lame like an ape on the lam, but he could be a pal and he was a man, so she took the leap and said I am yours to keep. Michael C. Rush contributed “Liar,” a poem rich with music and wordplay: came churlish from the church, cashier of mulch and mace the lush accrues his scarce slim smile as each rich slum mule clears his scale of scum, cues music of relics and rice, charms of chile and ice hurl him, such a sham, over the arch into the chasm, a sum of muscle and lice, of lucre and cash his crimes and cries smirch the user, the usher, and the heir his scam chars, cures claims Eric Fretz’s “I Wear the Ferric Fez” adds alliteration and fun to the mix: The words my names combined make free when recombined, hear me recite them, I am a crier. Weave a circle round me thrice, for they produce this way a fire, and from another angle, ice. So make that circle thirteen feet, I wear the ferric fez, I’m fit to tie my rite, and then retire, to the height of a tree, the depth of a reef. If it is true, erect it on a fiercer frieze. And then Eduardo Ramos Ruiz’s “Ode to Eduardo” which blends English and Spanish to produce impressive effects: Dear Ed, A redo of brand is due: Dread not the red eye of critics Who ur el nombre de pluma. The Eddo era is at an end. Los tiempos son duros— Do bid ado to Edward and Edwardo. In due time the road will bloom, For Dude from dud shall reign. Dare to read and write anew. The adored era de Lalo— Hear without an ear or resonant eye. Leave the rod of playthings,... Continue reading
Posted Jan 1, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Anyone looking for a weekend treat? Because we've got one fresh from Next Line, Please! Dr. Lehman begins his column saying, "It can help the poet to think of language as a living thing that doesn’t stand still and that seems to have a mind of its own." Much like the colloquially "word vomit," or that meandering Freudian slip. He goes on to say that "to write poetry is not so much to play with language as to live the life of words." And you don't have to tell me twice, that the word-driven life practically writes itself. This week, we will be working with anagrams. What's more, we will be making anagrams of our own names, unlocking the hidden secrets and treasures our markers may contain. Here's the prompt: For next week, then, I propose that you make as many anagrammatic words as you can out of your name. From David I get: Diva Avid Id Did I Lehman yields: He Man Male Name Am Ha Lame Lean Luna Lane Mane Me An Hale Mean I typed the words in the order they occurred to me, itself a fact that might prove useful. Once you have assembled such a list, write a poem in which every line contains at least one of the words (10 to 14 lines). As a rather extreme example, here’s this stab at a self-portrait in five lines: That David is avid comes as no surprise, But his diva days ended in luna time When his very name seemed to mean A lane to the land of the id. I did it; I am he: lean, hale. Male. He man? Ha. Deadline: Saturday, December 15, midnight any time zone. Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate! Continue reading
Posted Dec 15, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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Last week, we were invited to play a game of word golf, a prompt which lets our imagination go as we try to solve a puzzle composed of slightly altered end words. Who had the lowest score and the win? Well, let us begin: In “To Tell the Tiller From the Tail,” Eric Fretz managed the task in seven lines: Bukowski said “the moonlight always seemed fake” through the plastic thatch of my faux-Samoan fale in California, just before the fall. But in that time the tales we told were tall. Now facts have changed, there’s nothing left to tell. See: two black birds fly above the bright teal sea, as if a simulacrum of the real. Dr. Lehman applauds "the attention-grabbing opening line and the daring use of “simulacrum,” a piece of academic jargon that means fake in one context and is fake in another." I myself enjoy any poem that is set in a car in California. “Apophasis at the End of the Year” by Steve Bellin-Oka’s offers crisp imagery and several dives into the Bukowski-esque. I half-tried to love this makeshift life: a woman’s fake pearl earring falls off. She rattles in her purse for the fare, the bus hiccupping ahead. Carbon monoxide fart of the tailpipe. Always we are gone and there, “fort” and “da,” as in Freud’s grandson’s game. To ford a river, to find good footing, I run my fingers beneath the fold of your crisp white shirt. You tell me my hands are cold. In six weeks, we will leave this town. One December story I told you: a pregnant woman side-saddle on her camel, the toll of the jostling through sand. Another the stars might tell— our compulsion to repeat, to wander. To forget the desert’s teal flowers and hail. This makeshift life, half-pretending it’s real. Christine Rhein employs the image of a ladder to exemplify the work of this exercise. Here is her “Act of Betrayal”: Precise, a painted forgery: fake love. The portrait (that gazing face) in a museum-house you pace around all night. Yes (hell yes), pack up (your sorrows) the dreamy peck of still-life fruits. Sun-kissed wine. Peak, scentless blooms (that laughter peal). Brushstrokes to your heart, wildly real. And a quick tip-of-the-hat to Louis Altman's brilliant couplet in the "underrated manner" of Alexander Pope: How skeptical we are, how hard we think to make A phony work of art for avarice, just for lucre’s sake. For more poems, couplets, and noteworthy commentary, please visit the American Scholar's page for the full post! And as always, a new prompt will arrive next week. Continue reading
Posted Dec 5, 2018 at The Best American Poetry