Process: The pantoum

As of late, I’ve gotten super into pantoums. The pantoum is a poem of any length composed of four-line stanzas where in each stanza, the second and fourth lines serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. I’ve been using four line stanzas using the repeating pattern ABCD BEDF EGFH GCHA (or GAHC).

I’m a narrative poet primarily, and this form does wonders for narrative. Each line as it is retold can be shifted a little bit (change the verb tense, a little of the order, maybe remove this word or replace it), which gives some freedom in how we retell stories. The lines can also just be repeated verbatim to show greater emphasis, change of meaning, etc.

“Incident” by Natasha Trethewey is a great example.

We tell the story every year—
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn—
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

What’s particularly nice about this form is that the story sort of builds on itself, and you can’t write a story in a very linear fashion since you’re always having to go back and include what was included before.

I also find word-mapping an incredibly useful skill in working with the pantoum. Not only does the repetition of the form make you re-think lines, but word-mapping can force you to focus on the lyricism at the line level as well. It also forces you to make jumps you might not be willing to make yourself.

For a recent pantoum I wrote titled “Pantoum for Still Life,” I first word-mapped from several of Molly Sutton Kiefer‘s poems. I recently became familiar with her work, and I simply jumped around and read what poems she had available online and wrote down words that jumped out to me and also words I associated with those words. For example, when I saw river, I wanted something that had a slightly different sound to it, so I looked up synonyms for river instead and wrote down “runnel.” When I saw “lurking,” I also immediately thought of “lark” because of the similarity of sound, so I wrote that down as well. I came away with this word list:

ribboned organ tilted scars burrowed swallow shuck runnel lurking lark

crabapple ossuary scaffold darling kettle low-slung birds buried blood

A lot of Molly Sutton Kiefer’s poems deal with fertility, so I used that as a conceptual basis for this poem.

The structure followed for this one was ABCD BEDF EGFH GCHA. I like this structure particularly for the reason why I like it in “Incident.” Beginning and closing with the same line allows us to feel differently about it the second time around, especially after what has occurred between them.

Here’s line B and C from the first stanza and how B changed in the second:

B…No darling
C made in me a low-slung home.


B…No, darling,
E it was the season of white peony and ginger

Ending a line on “no darling” opens it up to potentially be an address, which it does become in the second stanza, while in the first, it is a descriptive noun for a child. The focus also shifts from the potential child to either the reader or a specific person, and it does become a specific person in the third stanza with the introduction of a “you.”

Word mapping allowed me to play with where I would stick the phrase “low-slung.” It’s such a lovely phrase, and in thinking about fertility as a subject, it then made sense to make it the physical place where a woman holds a child: taking the meaning of low-slung as “cut to fit low on the hips rather than the waist.”

Play with writing a poem in the pantoum form or re-write one that already has a similar narrative structure or would benefit from repeating patterns, slight changes, etc. You won’t regret it.

Send This Little Poet To The Sewanee Writers’ Conference!!

Remember that time when you sold wallpaper or lemonade or that awful boy scout popcorn in the hopes of greasing your fiscal wheels or at least coming away with bragging rights and a stellar CD player?

We all did that when we were too young to get jobs. We sold things. We wheedled our parents. We stole from our kid sister’s piggy bank.

Now, here I am, a grown woman, bargaining once again. I shouldn’t be here, right? I should have $1900 just lying around to be used for prestigious writing conferences that I get into. But I don’t. Why? Well, I just shelled out $____________ to buy a new house, and I believe we should selfishly keep what we have left in our savings in the event of a meteor collision, appliance termination, or loss of health.

So, I don’t have the discretionary funds to blow on a fancy writers’ conference. No, no. I’m also too responsible to dip into our savings hoping the wind would knock the bills off the money tree and blow them our way. I’m a fearful paranoid person by nature. It’s scary enough this morning to click a button that said “accept” and then wonder where in holy heaven that extra money was going to come from.

So I did and will do what had been suggested: do odds and end jobs for friends and kind strangers and then do a Gofundme. Therein lies the lemonade metaphor. Gimme $60 and you get a typewriter tote bag sounds a lot like lemonade only 25 cents! It’s funny to think about how the skills we learn when we were young, like how to get that bald man down the street who once yelled at you for throwing a stick at his car to pay for another cup of your watered-down slightly warm lemonade, can continue to work for you later in life. Like remembering to smile and look unsuspecting and remark on how hot the day is and how wouldn’t another nice COLD cup of lemonade taste so good? Doesn’t matter that the product isn’t great; you matched it with enthusiasm and gumption and everything right in the world your mother taught you.

So, my products are postcards and manuscript critiques and typewriter tote bags and writer mugs and copies of my chapbook and love, great great writerly love. I’m nervous and skittery about asking, but the thing is, I really want to go, and sometimes when your spirit calls and God answers, you have to take some uncomfortable risks in the process, like asking for help, like knowing “thank you” and all sorts of items won’t make you square, but it will make you feel loved and supported.

So if you have $5 or even $0.50, I’ll take it gladly and I’ll answer with “thank you thank you thank you” and “wow the kindness of people.”

Liz Berry’s “Scenes from ‘The Passion’: The First Path”

It’s easy for me to find fault with the poems I find in Poetry. That journal is the top, up there with the all-wonderful New Yorker, and it’s easy to hate the poems there at the top. It’s easy to say, “Oh goodness, I never would have chosen that for a title,” or “A flarf poem? Really? I’m so above flarf poems!” Or “Yeah, that’s randomly indent everything into beautiful ‘enjambment’, my a$$.”

But, other times, I can make it all about the poetry and finding something beautiful, and this poem is simply beautiful:

Scenes from “The Passion”: The First Path


When you found me there was nothing beautiful about me.
I wasn’t even human

                                          just a mongrel
kicked out into the snow on Maundy Thursday
when all the world was sorrow,
when old girls’ hands were raw as they cracked
the ice on their birdbaths,
when the priest wept in Saint Jude the Apostle
as he knelt to wash the feet of an altar boy.
I was filth,

                    running away from God knows what,
my haunches sore with bruises,
my spine knuckling the ruin of my coat.
Running through the town

                                                      away from the horses
who bowed their heads to the donkey-bite,
away from the boy in the bus shelter

                                                                         who turned from me
to receive a snowflake
like a wafer on his tongue.
Lord help me

                           I did things I would once
have been ashamed of.
Now no one would come near me,

                                                                       they feared
the hunger that gnawed and whined in my bones,
the hurt I would carry into their houses.
Only you dared follow

                                             upon the track
of my bloodied paw prints in the ice,
where the trees held snow in their arms
like winding sheets.

                                     You came for me there
                                                                    close, low,
calling a name that was not mine.
Calling wench, my wench
as the tongues of the church bells rang mute.
At your scent on the air,

                                                I shot
through the woods — a gray cry —
so raw only the dusk could touch me
but you were patient,

through the dense muffled hours
until darkness dropped and I sank into the midden
behind the factory
and the chimneys cast a wreath of ash upon me.
                                      You touched me then,
                               when I was nothing but dirt,
took off your glove and laid your palm upon my throat,
slipped the loop of the rope,

                                               lifted me
into your arms and carried me home

                                                              along the first path.
In the banks the foxes barked alleluia alleluia.
The blizzard tumbled upon us like confetti
and I, little bitch, blue bruise,
saw myself in your eyes:

                                                  a bride.

–from the October 2014 issue (link here)

A Return

It’s been a long hiatus because I’ve been dedicating my time to another project. I actually feel rusty coming back to this blog. Is my voice right? What about my tone? What was my “persona” for this blog vs. the other one? Oh, whatever.

I’ve been struggling in my personal life with a great degree of powerlessness. There are things I want in my life that aren’t happening, and in response, I simply stopped writing poetry. It was a painful drought from December 2013 to September 2014. Poetry is often a way I process feelings, emotions, instances. I rarely write “confessional” poetry, or even poetry that includes much of me as a character, but I often find a way to write about something without really writing about it.

I wrote several poems about women married to awful husbands as I was preparing to get married myself. I felt this churning worry of what would happen if I marry someone who changes into someone awful? or someone who is already awful and just hidden it really well from me? I wrote poems that enacted that fear, and it made my fear lessen. If these women could survive, I could.

It took me 10 months before I could start writing about it without really writing about it, and it’s helped, like I’m finally starting to maybe become myself again.

This past weekend, I also went to the Southern Festival of Books. I went to a lot of great sessions and picked up new books from Dan Albergotti, Megan Sexton, and John Bensko.

I also felt a renewed energy to get my full-length, Swallow Tongue, out and about and published. As I’ve written before, I turned down a publication offer for it earlier this year. After attending the conference and reading through the lovely books I picked up, I have some great ideas on how to tackle editing it once again. I’ve also selected a press which I really, really, really want to be published by, and I just started saying yesterday, “when they publish my book” instead of “if they publish my book.” It’s going to happen. I’m going to visualize it a bunch (plus do all the necessary editing and submitting that goes along with it). They also have a contest deadline coming up, and it’s time for me to get off my butt and start putting some action into place.

So, it’s been a long road with this book, but these will my last (hopefully) round of edits on it, and I think these are legitimately good changes.

*Have two framing poems

*Change from 5 sections to 3

*Trim, trim, trim. I have at least 10 poems I just need to let go. They’re not that great and could trim up the flow more.

I started yesterday by putting in the framing poems, and this morning by replacing some of the not-so-great poems with stronger, more recent ones. I also highlighted the rest of the ones I think need to go, and I’m exploring things to replace them with. Albergotti’s Millenial Teeth plays a lot with form, and I’m interested in the idea of bringing in another ghazal or a sestina. I also love the active practice of writing in form.

It’s a start. I’m back. A little broken with a little more experience, and it feels good.