Poetry

Drought/Draught/Draft

This is about the significance of small changes.

Once I began a poem in which a writer played a game with a lover. The lover, to motivate the writer, stripped bit by bit and then moved slowly closer as the writer completed pieces of a manuscript. The ultimate reward, of course, would come when the manuscript was done.

I originally imagined the story in the third person, and so the first version I considered “complete” looked like this:

Drought

She spent three weeks lounging naked around the house
while he revised his draft. She wouldn’t make love
until he had finished, and she kept moving closer with each word,
as initially she had one by one removed
an article of clothing for each penned paragraph. He couldn’t kiss her, even,
until he had put down the last period,
and then,
her body held over him like a storm cloud,
she gave him a kiss like the first drops of rain.

But one of my teachers, or maybe one of my workshop fellows, asked why it wasn’t in the first person. And they were right. It’s more powerful, more personal and direct that way. So for a long time, this was the final version:

Drought

She spent three weeks lounging naked around the house
while I revised my draft. She wouldn’t make love
until I had finished, and she kept moving closer with each word,
as initially she had one by one removed
an article of clothing for each penned paragraph. I couldn’t kiss her, even,
until I had put down the last period,
and then,
her body held over me like a storm cloud,
she gave me a kiss like the first drops of rain.

But yesterday, I pulled out the poem to show someone, and I wondered all of a sudden why the lover had to be “she”, and why it couldn’t be “you”. Wouldn’t that make things even more intimate, while at the same time opening up more gender combinations and making for a more inclusive poem? So here is that version:

Drought

You spent three weeks lounging naked around the house
while I revised my draft. You wouldn’t make love
until I had finished, and you kept moving closer with each word,
as initially you had one by one removed
an article of clothing for each penned paragraph. I couldn’t kiss ou, even,
until I had put down the last period,
and then,
your body held over me like a storm cloud,
you gave me a kiss like the first drops of rain.

So now I’m curious: what do you think?

EDIT: Corrected copy/paste error so that now the poems actually are different.

Poetry

Joe Imagines Speaking to His Wife

I think I have been tricking myself.
I stay at work late, wait
till the others leave. I’m working hard,
they think. I pack my briefcase,
straighten my suit and head out
as if I’m going home. I don’t go
home. I go to Central Park,
every night, like a compulsion. No dinner,
maybe a hot dog from a vendor,
a soda. This is my ritual.
Walk deep into the park, far from the windows
of the city. Find the privacy of trees, not to be
surrounded by buildings. It’s a frightening feeling,
Harper. I’m alone and all I want to see
is grown men fucking. It’s horrible,
God it’s horrible, but I want to watch.
I can’t not watch. I want it,
Harper. I wish I wanted you.
Drive these thoughts from my head.
Make things right.

Central Park is nice. Lovely 
in late spring. People out like
flowers displaying their wares. Maybe I’ll bring you here
on Saturday, Harper. Maybe
we’ll fall in love again.

Comments: As promised, here is one of my persona poems. It was originally titled “Joe Speaks,” and then, when I realized it wasn’t necessarily clear who Harper was, it became “Joe Speaks to His Wife”, and then again when I realized that wasn’t what was happening—it wasn’t some alternate universe Angels in America in which Joe actually does voluntarily come clean to Harper—I felt it was necessary to make it “Joe Imagines Speaking to His Wife”. Even though I’m still attracted to the short simplicity of the first title. The sacrifices we writers make for clarity.

Nonfiction, Poetry

Persona Poems

It’s a funny thing—I really enjoy writing persona poems—they’re a bit like acting—but I’m not tremendously excited about reading them. Or at least, I’m not any more excited about reading them than I am any other poem. Maybe even a little less, if I know in advance what it is. Does this have something to do with preconceived notions of pretentiousness? Fears of heavy-handedness? I don’t know. Pound wrote a whole book of ’em, and Pound, though intellectually brilliant, often fails to move me. (For one thing, I don’t like being obliged to do intense research to understand a poem. I feel a poem should work on me through language, not through arcane reference; and that if there is arcane reference, it should add to the experience but not be essential to it.)

Thus when I do write them, I try to make them poems first and persona poems second. The point of adopting a persona, for me, is to explore the experience of another character, to imagine what a given moment might have been like for him, her, or whatever. To that end, the poem should contain within its language everything absolutely necessary to present the experience to the reader, to move them. If I do it right, you should be able to read the poem and experience it, be moved, without needing to go looking for information outside of the text; but if you do, that should only deepen your encounter.

I’ve been thinking about this because the other day, I was browsing through poems from when I was at Sarah Lawrence and came across a handful of persona poems and demi-persona poems. I’ve got one from the POV of Joe in Angels in America, which imagines him confessing his internal struggles to his wife; one exploring what Hektor might have thought and felt in his last days at Troy; one about Odysseus beginning the journey home; one that is an apology from Prince Harry to Falstaff on how he treats his friend on becoming King Henry V; and more. I’ll post one or two soon so you can see.

Poetry

Into the Adirondacks

For my father
 
It rained five days and five nights. Water
rose over my boots to slosh at my father’s heels.
In the evening, the cloth of our tent
unfurled over our heads, the forest
enclosing us. We slept,
dreaming of dry land. In the morning
our march again. Day
after day. Cold night, wind
plucking at our down-wrapped sleep. Finally
the forest opening, the sun
coming up clean, the two of us
winging into the morning.

Comments: In honor of my father’s birthday two days ago, I’m sharing this short poem inspired by a backpacking trip he took me on when I was 6. His cousin was also there, but one of the beauties of poetry is that you don’t have to tell the truth to tell a truth.