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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
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Last week on Next Line, Please we saw risks, perils, bad titles, and numbers on parade. Christine Rhein's “Occupational Hazards,” moves from one to 12 and back in the course of a work day: One coffee after another. Two bosses. Three days to corporate reorg, worldwide meetings, four or five hundred PowerPoint slides you need to start drafting. That smile—6 p.m., at your desk— Boss A stopping by while buttoning his coat: “remember, it’s all about moving the goalposts.” At 7, Boss B: “remember, it’s all about moving up the ladder … we’re counting on you to work your magic.” Eight times nine columns, rows, ways a spreadsheet can be skewed. Ten o’clock = dinner deleted. 11:30 = bedtime = your pillows propping the laptop + its steady overheating + your nightstand printer running out of black. Twelve years and counting. One life. One life. There’s so much to like here: the way the opening draws you in, the business jargon (“reorg”), the movement of numbers mixed with breaks like "worldwide meetings" and the bosses "counting on you." Pamela Joyce S did fine things with a couple of titles on David's “bad titles” list. Pamela used the “one to 10” option and took desirable liberties with some of the numbers (“Wonderland,” “create,” “benign,” “tension”): Welcome to Wonderland, where your sublimation is our pleasure. We too desire your secret dreams, always très discreet, like damselflies dining in delphinium. Those damn selfies for Tinder will never be reviled by five angels of redemption, nor deep-sixed to protect the innocent. We at Wonderland understand the seven virtues and sins, the sheer weight of them and how you long to create something of nothing, transform dangerous to benign, illicit to inspired, explicit tension to tender lines. Please explore our Psychomachia room where you will find a willing muse, music, art, and words to mine. Truly sublime. Another title on the “bad” list sparked Steve Belin-Oka’s surprising apicultural adventure, “Self-Portrait in a Side-View Mirror”: This dying bee—a wonder it’s lived until this late in the year, last week’s snow an insulin shock dose to the raving leaves, which lift and swirl in whirlpools of wind. The November sun’s mad buzz through the gauze of clouds. I watch a hawk veer west, clasp a dove in its talons. Say as a child I believed sugar water in eyedroppers would save vulnerable creatures. Now I know malarial sepsis will hatch in the blood of the weak. Despite pity, despite quinine. Click here to read the full post, with even more hazards and brawls. As for next week, it's time to tee up! We have a brand new prompt to play with, and the name of the game is word golf. In this exercise, poets focus in on the words at the end of each line, changing that word one letter at a time until the first end word has morphed into its opposite. For example, good to evil, or, white to black. It's a really fun and... Continue reading
Posted Nov 28, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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This week on Next Line, Please, quizmaster Lehman provides a new prompt for NLP regulars to try out. For this prompt, let's start with on of these two titles: “Occupational Hazards” and “Barroom Brawl.” The former works because "it is part of our discourse, a phrase that can suit many purposes or occasions;" and the latter because "it, too, is a familiar phrase and may conjure up a very concrete scene." Now on to the rules... Write a poem 10 to 15 lines long. A second constraint might prove useful. For example, you may write a 10-line poem divided into two five-line stanzas, both of which have identical last lines. Or—and what a stunt it is—a 12-line poem in which the numbers from one to nine appear in English or homophonic form. You are encouraged to take liberties. The word for “five” in French sounds like “sank”; “four” is “fear” in German; “nine” is “nein” in that language; the word “one” is included in “wonderful.” It’s a wonderful paradox that constraints act as liberators of the imagination. Visit the American Scholar's page for the full post and to enter your candidate! Continue reading
Posted Nov 14, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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“We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence. “The Gauge of Dissonance,” by Aaron Fagan uses the line as an epigraph. The title gets us started on a high note, and "rises to eloquence," provokes thought: We can, but there is no one there to explain us to ourselves Or others—the tidy or perfectly untidy inner lives of strangers Designed for us to love or not love but love then unlove And then love again by story’s end. And no one is so perfectly Self-aware as those imagined in all those parallel linear lines Of prose like striped prison uniforms now set free in verse No matter how unskillful their behavior might’ve been those Years ago, beneath a balcony in Paris, and the decision to leave. The third and fourth lines struck me as very Virginia Woolf-esque. Well done. Millicent Caliban's poem, “Death Sentence” offers us another way in to Wharton's sentiment: We can’t behave like people in novels. We haven’t got the time, the wit, the grace. We are bored, overworked, exhausted, or plunged so deep in our personal swamps, we cannot rise to the necessary insight, irony, or self-reflection. We slither around in the opaque mud: reptilian, repulsive, repugnant, lacking an author to prompt our passions, detonate desire. We can see no plot, no climax, no redeeming denouement. Alas! Condemned to remain post-modern. And finally, Patricia Wallace’s “The Window,” a sonnet, with a terrific opening, and a lovely turn: Coming not out of nowhere, like the cold October wind down from the mountains, the ten-year window arrives, revising the scope of binoculars from far to near, and we’re staring it right in the faces of our suddenly ghostly children. We’re searching for a story that leads to a different ending, magical realism or a fable where polar bears regenerate and glaciers like ice cubes refreeze, or at least the old inhabitant trees hang on, their birdless limbs whispering to one another. Now a blip on the radar, we’re trying to invent new characters, better than we are. But we can’t behave like people in novels, can we? Jumping backward in time, heeding the warning signs, giving the predictable conclusion the slip? We also applaud Patricia Smith (whose poem begins with the Wharton epigraph, and then “I certainly hope not—” ), Louis Altman (whose phrase “a Dashiell Hammett evening” could launch a dozen poems), Donald LaBranche, Keith Barrett, and Elizabeth Solzburg for work of exceptional merit. More poems on the American Scholar's page, along with the full post! And a new prompt next week~ Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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Dear Poetess Vinny, I’m considering graduate school to earn an MFA in Creative Writing. I’m in my late forties, a mother, and my main concern is how to present myself in a university setting. Should I wear clothes I would wear to work? How far can I dress down? Any advice would be much appreciated! Yours, Poetess Dear Poetess, Taking on a Masters in Fine Arts is a wonderful challenge filled with creative torrents, fast-paced learning, and hopefully, major literary inspiration. It’s also a place to meet talented, like-minded people who will boost your ambition and support your pursuit of writing, which is something we can’t always take for granted. Many graduate programs are populated by recent college grads, but MFA Creative Writing programs tend to be a little bit different. MFA students are quite diverse in age, race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and previous careers, especially in programs in places like New York. So let’s talk fashion. A lot of people in the Masters in Fine Arts programs in New York have day jobs, which means there will always be at least one person in your class wearing a button-down and slacks and one in a blouse and dress shoes. There are also a lot of unemployed poets, daytime baristas, nighttime bartenders, and everything under the sun; meaning, you’re just as likely to find people in skinny jeans, t-shirts, and converse shoes. All this to say, no one is going to judge you based on what you wear to class. I interviewed two women in the Creative Writing Program at The New School to find out a few things, such as what they did before grad school, why they came to the program, and which shoes they wear when putting their best foot forward. Profile 1: Where professional meets glamorous Heather Newman is 57, a suburban wife, mother of two kids aged 20 and 22, and the owner of a playful, fluffy Coton de Tulear named Sir Lancelot, the royal dog of Madagascar. Heather has worked as a freelance writer and copyeditor for Family Circle magazine, an associate producer for TV and radio at Grey Advertising, and an on-air TV news reporter at CBS. She is a second-year student in the poetry concentration. Poetess Vinny: What made you want to return to school after having a successful career in all of these exciting fields? Heather Newman: While I was home raising kids, I started to write creatively, taking classes and workshops whenever possible. Most people my age opt for low-residency MFA programs. I wanted the full-time interaction with a vibrant literary scene. Jane Fonda says she has lived a life in five acts. For me, the MFA is my chapter three. PV: Did you have any reservations about joining a program that, statistically speaking, has a high population of people under 30? HN: No. I love young people. My challenge is technology. But I’m getting better. I use google docs, Instagram, thinking about Twitter… and I love The New... Continue reading
Posted Nov 3, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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What prompts a poem into existence? Dr. Lehman suspects that many poems are byproducts of reading, coming across an arresting line, an interesting image, a noteworthy character, and we think of it as a point of departure. In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton writes: “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” For this week's prompt, write a symmetrical, two stanza poem under 14 lines, allowing for a duet, if not a dialogue. Or perhaps an unrhymed sonnet? It’s up to you whether to use Wharton’s line as an epigraph or as a line in your poem—possibly the terminal line of one or both stanzas. Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate! Deadline: Saturday, November 3, midnight wherever you are. Continue reading
Posted Oct 31, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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This week on Next Line, Please contributors laid out false confessions on a surprisingly eclectic mix of topics. Charise Hoge’s “Shooting for the Moon” wins the "sonority prize" for the run of rhymes that energizes it: They handed me a gun —dusk, as it happened, moon misbegotten on my glass-top table. Sullen, I aimed—not pointing at anyone, not blaming the run of Furies, not looking to shun repercussions of a percussive gun. Shards surround, leaves abun- dant fever the ground. It’s autumn. I’m mad for a glow minus reflection. Some NLP regulars suggested that the writer cut the first line. David voted to retain it, and Keith Barrett and Emily Winakur, suggested that the opening two lines be flipped. What do you think? Donald LaBranche's “But Now,” contains a parochial school recollection that takes quite a turn: St. Teresa’s parish, late 1950’s. The church is impenetrable, aloof, a single candle for light. It is the week of our First Communion. The Sisters have marched us in, shoulder-to-shoulder, index fingers at our lips, to rehearse the good confession before Saturday. They are legion. “Here is the door to the confessional. Here is the kneeler. The screen.” Here is the story we must hear: “She was in a class before you and sat where you are sitting now.” (They are a well-practiced Greek chorus.) “She contrived made-up sins, was unrepentant, laughed at the sacrament, hoped to fool the priest. The Devil was not fooled. When she took the host during Mass, the Devil had her by the throat and choked the lie out of her. Her parents wept, and she was buried in unhallowed ground, lost forever.” We had not known that we were naked, nor that we should have been afraid. Inspired by the great man of confessions himself, Patricia Wallace's “Augustine Confesses” has an immutable claim over our attention: Theft thrilled me. Not the despised pears but ripeness and excess. I loved my own undoing, my errors, my shame. My liberty was that of a runaway, my sexual habits at a skillet’s center, outrageous desires hissing around me. Unreasonably attached to the pleasure of mortal bodies, I fused with one I never name. So deeply engrafted. When she was torn from me, my maimed heart limped along a trail of blood. Then came longing for immutable light, my soul laddering higher and higher, through all the degrees of matter, through the heavenly spheres: the eternity beyond time itself. Breathless, that moment of brushing lightly as skin against it Patricia, in the spirit of the prompt, also confesses to stealing most of the language for this from Augustine’s Confessions, for a result which is “not necessarily true to Augustine’s argument,” a remark that may spur you to return to the source, or wonder at the remarkable action of taking things out of context. To read more "confessional" poems, and to check out Dr. Lehman's own own effort, “Lazy Day,” which capitalizes on the homophonic les idées (“the ideas”) in French, visit... Continue reading
Posted Oct 25, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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This week on Next Line, Please, we take up the false confession. Think murder mysteries, The Wire, Law and Order. How many times has someone taken the blame to cover up for someone else? What are their motives? Out of love? Out of fear? As Dr. Lehman points out, "The false confession points to a logical problem inherent in language. There is nothing to assure us that any statement, even a confession of wrongdoing, is truthful, sincere, and accurate." How can we manipulate this problem to our benefit, in poetry? The readers of Next Line, Please await your reply. Write 15 lines or less (or a prose paragraph) in which you take responsibility (or credit) for having done something despicable, nasty, improper, unexpected, or unusual. Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate! Deadline is Saturday, October 20, midnight any time zone. Continue reading
Posted Oct 17, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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When Lionel Trilling was 23 years old, he wrote to a friend, “There are two ways, I have discovered, of wearing despair. One is over all your clothes, a great vestment hanging well over your shoes and liable to trip you; the other is to tie it about your middle like a Cordelier’s rope—only under your pants—to make you keep your belly in.” Now, thinking back to our prompt in which NLP contributors were asked to write something from the point of view of a piece of clothing, how might this idea of wearing emotions turn into poetry. One of the routes to take this prompt came about from a René Magritte painting in last week's post, and Patricia Wallace took it all the way with this prize-winning entry: “We must think about objects at the very moment when all their meaning is abandoning them” (Magritte) Closeted, floating on a wire wingspan all unbuttoned, I no longer conceal anything, not even the shadowed silk of my lining. The very moment memory evaporates like the scent of lavender warding off moths, I become an angel released from the earthly weight of meaning, my fluttering empty sleeves rising and falling, their gesture-less syllables unintelligible, my folds collapsing the space where a mantled heart once hid. The old, stale secrets— ticket stubs, wrappers, crumpled notes now illegible— spill from my pockets, light as the drift of leaves Christine Rhein shares top honors with “Sequin Dress,” I’m so blue, even in the dark, stuck in the back of your closet, your mind. For years you’ve kept me hanging, layers of dust graying my shimmer and the sparkling way we once danced in that dressing room, how you smiled driving me home, how you worried I could wrinkle. What are you doing out there, wearing a T-shirt, jeans? Are you waiting to find the perfect stilettos before you think of slipping me on? Or is it some stage you await, spotlights on me, you—in your next life—when you’ll sing Night and Day. A third award went to Angela Ball's “Talking Couture Pantoum” for taking up on the challenge of informing the NLP public about the “New Look” in women’s fashion in the late 1940s, another suggestion of where to take the prompt. I’m Rita Hayworth’s black evening gown in Gilda My straplessness anticipates Christian Dior—his New Look, 1947, My opera gloves pay homage to Gypsy Rose Lee. My swirl of fabric at the hip is magic. My straplessness anticipates Christian Dior. Rita wore me to the hilt, singing, swiveling her shoulders. My swirl of fabric at the hip is magic. I’m Rita Hayworth’s evening gown in Gilda. And finally, Eric Fretz wins the parody award for this clever rewriting of William Carlos Williams’s signature poem: so much depends upon me, red wove tie silk with matte weft, astride the white shirt Visit the American Scholar's page to read the full post! With more arresting lines and wonderful "pieces." And tune in next Tuesday for a... Continue reading
Posted Oct 10, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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This week on Next Line, Please, quizmaster David Lehman doles out yet another prompt worthy of our full attention: Do the clothes we wear have things in common with masks? Do they in some way disguise us, or do they project who we are? The phrase “a wardrobe of excuses,” from Auden’s great elegy for Sigmund Freud, implies yet another reading. Write a poem from the point of view of a garment in your closet. Dress, suit, jacket, shoes, sartorial, or stylin'. One of the pleasures of poetry is to animate an inanimate object and give it a voice. If the “apparel oft proclaims the man,” what do your clothes say about the person who inhabits them? Can the history of a person be inferred from the history of a garment? René Magritte has a lovely painting titled Les valeurs personnelles, in which you will find an oversized comb, shaving brush, match, cake of soap, and wine glass. It illustrates one possible direction to take this prompt. Awards will go to (1) the best poem under 16 lines, (2) the best poem in three three-line stanzas, and (3) the best brief poem. NLP regulars are well aware of your captain’s delight in brevity. Deadline: Saturday, October 6, 2018, midnight any time zone. Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate! Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2018 at The Best American Poetry