poem-a-day challenge: A running commentary

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I’m writing a poem-a-day this month! (Read “The goldfish may or may not be drunk” for an explanation of the madness). Here, I’ll only be sharing teasers from each poem. However, you’ll be able to fully appreciate the noticeably clumsy gait of these first drafts  — and occasional stunning moment, I hope — by following along here. <– Note January 2, 2018: The project is complete and the poems have been moved to an archive. I’ll harvest the good stuff from them, work on revisions and hopefully get some into the world in 2018!

Here a running commentary:

Working title: “Life advice from a hockey mom” / LAST ONE FOR THE MONTH! This one needs no explanation. Up writing before leaving for hockey. Here’s an excerpt: One way to be comfortable with confrontation / is to face off after every whistle. Don’t let anyone / tell you it’s impossible to agree on one thing; / it’s called “protect the goalie.” 

Working title: “Zero visibility” / A crazy amount of lake effect snow has fallen in Erie, Pennsylvania. More snow is coming. I can’t fathom surviving that. And not just because I hate winter. Because it seems impossible to contend with. Thinking of them, and their situation, ahem, on the ground, inspired this piece. Here’s an excerpt: How the view from the door used to be something. / How what’s known simply disappears.  

Working title: “Visiting a medium, who, quite frankly, could be a lot more specific” / An odd title came to me in the car: “You’re going to have to be more specific.” And as I began to free write about it (later, of course, not in the car), the lines and phrases that emerged started to remind me of the group readings I’ve seen on TV. Admittedly, since that’s my only exposure, it’s a little too cliche to be of much use in its current form. But I’m curious if, with more interesting details (a lovely dose of strangeness), it could turn into something. Here’s an excerpt from the prose poem: Someone close to you was very ill. Mother-father-sister-brother. A disagreement about money. A highway exit with a blue and orange gas station sign. They want you to know they made it to the other side. They’re fine. They’re showing me someone holding their arms. Who lost a child?

Working title: “Punchline for an empty hallway” / I started a brainstorm/free-write in which I completed over and over again the sentence, “The dead are ____.” This poem is what I decided to keep (for now) from that list. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at the moment, but it meets all the requirements of a first draft, as in it’s on the page. Here’s an excerpt: The dead / leave cookie crumbs in couch cushions and / weave strange hairs into the bristles of your brush. / You’d act up, too, if no one ever noticed you / walk into a room. The dead slam doors / like the wind slams doors: to be left alone / once and for all. 

Working title: “LOVE ONE ANOTHER” / Based on actual events, as they say! My boys aren’t little anymore. Here, that growing up is demonstrated by messages on a chalk board we keep on the mantle.  This poem is about how those messages have changed. Here’s an excerpt: For a few years, it is always “nineteen days ’til / Christmas.” But out of the blue this year my middle son erases / the nineteen days ’til Christmas and writes on one side, / “Human-caused climate change is a real and dangerous / problem,” and on the other, “Vaccines are good.” / The world has a way of growing up everyone.

Working title: “Ode to those who work on Christmas” / After a nice morning of family time and presents and a fattening breakfast, Chris had to go into work to plow the roads. I used the time to work on my poem. Yesterday, there was a conversation on Facebook about who would be working today, and so maybe that was also on my mind. Here’s an excerpt: And someone suits up / to put house fires out. And someone stops the bleeding. / And someone brews coffee at a shelter. Some days, / it’s easy to believe we need no one else. But / none of us enters this world without help. / It’s possible the doctor who delivered you / wanted to stay at her daughter’s recital instead / of being the one in charge while your family / stood around wringing their hands. 

Working title: “The ordinary world on Christmas Eve as seen scrolling through Instagram ” / I spent way too much time today lounging around and finding images to describe in this. I’m happy with where it went, and it was kind of nice to lounge. My kids are with their dad, and I have a cold. I appreciated the chance to be lazy and snuggle in with this one. Here’s an excerpt: White puppy with red bow posed on / Christmas-themed welcome mat. Close-up of very first pecan pie. / Lighthouse in Portland, Maine. Bank of fog at frame’s edge could mean / ocean goes on forever. From here, we could never prove otherwise. // Handwritten note: “There is nothing wrong with you.” Sunset on / California beach. Pier’s piles in silhouette like giant many-legged insect.  

Working title: “In the interest of science” / I always have fun when I play with words and concepts from science. I don’t understand math or physics, so the words primarily become word play, which is what happened here. I got from particles and antiparticles to a paper heart cut like a handmade snowflake. Here’s an excerpt: You look it up and email it to me with a row // of X’s and O’s. They look so happy tumbling across the width / of my phone screen. In exchange, I consider giving you // a string of paper dolls I folded and snipped, but in the interest / of science decide to be more precise. Here’s my paper heart // instead creased and latticed like a handmade snowflake, / all its most tender parts snipped out. 

Working title: “It’s been too long” / This is one of those poems that arrives, and you have no idea where it comes from or what it’s all about. I am also sick with a cold and having super strange dreams, so maybe it’s all related. Anyway! Here’s an excerpt from the prose poem: There’s a lantern there on the beach / you will carry with you up to the house which will be dark. / Use the key under the mat to let yourself in. A note / on the kitchen counter will direct you to breaker box. / When every light in the house begins to glow, guests will arrive. / There is no time to fret about how to feed everyone or / how to find something suitable to wear. Haven’t you learned / by now there’s something inevitable about this tale?  

Working title: “’Recommended activities for a day with little light” / A solstice poem. I looked through my poems 1-20 for inspiration, wishes I could make based on some of the images and whatever else they inspired. I let myself be a little sappy. I needed the warmth. Here’s an excerpt from the prose poem: Be still long enough to feel the earth spin beneath you. Make nothing of it. Like a small bird, you are cupped in a pair of hands. Trust that you are a sacred offering. Honor the science of automobiles and rocket ships and admire also what you make. 

Working title: “’Keep walking, Randy,’ or Using flashcards to learn about sexual desire.” / This poem comes strictly from word play with synonyms for “sexual desire,” and in this first draft doesn’t really get anywhere. That said, I had fun playing with it. Here’s an excerpt: If you love the tension created by answering a question / with a question, bring that into the bedroom, but / let no sexy sentence ever contain hots / or any form of the verb phrase to have an itch.

Working title: “How to fail to understand the parameters of grief.” / If ever there were a poem that was stuck in the same orbit I’m stuck in, this may be it. I think I’ll always be processing my mother’s death and what it means to me and what I have lost and how long it takes me to see what I have lost. This uses the images of circles and orbits and blood. It asks big questions and expects no answers. Here’s how it opens: Draw a circle that holds your grief. Now draw / a bigger circle around the first. / What’s in that one? Grief plus what? / This isn’t a math problem. It’s just a problem.  

Working title: “Welcome to the other side.” / Today was a big struggle. Not just in the writing department. In overall mood. I am ill-equipped to face winter. Ill-equipped to face holidays. Plain old ill-equipped. On a positive note: No animals were harmed in the making of this poem. Here’s an excerpt: Bake cookies / shaped like men. And what to do when the white frosting / edges look like chalk outlines of the dead. Is this the sidewalk / where he lay or a baking sheet? Tell me whose face you see / reflected in silver balls on the branches of your tree. / Your own times ten or twenty or thirty? How much is too much? / You’ll be asked to apologize for this sort of gloom.  

Working title: “A fetus in every garage.” / Word has come down from on high that the CDC isn’t allowed to use certain words as it prepares its 2018 budget. In response to the Trump administration banning the words vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based, Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon have launched The CDC Poetry Project. They’re gathering poems that use all the words, preferably in repetition. I used it for my prompt today and crafted some satire: a poem with fetus at the end of every line. It also uses the other six words. Here’s an excerpt: The casual grower, who tends to potted fetus / plants on a patio or fire escape, does not qualify for these fetus / entitlement funds. However, those with certain types of backyard fetus / gardens may petition the government for stipends under the Fetus / Homestead Act. 

Working title: “What I know of geese I learned from Mary Oliver.” / This title came to me on the same commute as the title for yesterday’s poem. It’s not all there (needs lots more development to see where it can go), but I like what it’s chewing on. Here’s an excerpt: How little I understand / about migration. For me, home is a single place / I come and go from each day. The shape I run in / is circles, it seems, instead of arrows going / somewhere. And yet the trajectory is the same: / forward. 

Working title: “My lover isn’t a forest ranger, but I plan to marry him anyway.” / This title came to me last night on my way home from work, and this morning while the boys were getting ready for school, I drafted a little list poem. I really like the title, but this draft isn’t quite what I had in mind. Here’s an excerpt: Because treetops sway as if Earth rocks back & forth / Because it will eventually shake us / Because the sky above the canopy is brilliantly blue / Because I didn’t know that color was possible

Working title: “How to define ominous without saying ‘dark clouds.’” / This comes from a free write I tossed into my journal a week or so ago, though after playing with this all evening, very few bits from that free write still exist: the kettle whistle, knife, tomato, shoe laces, fist and cuticle. It was fun to follow them to the end of the poem, which surprised me! Here’s an excerpt: Knuckles bang on doors / when someone arrives, a fist the traditional way to say, Hello. / I’m here. May I come in? How inventive we become when cold / and hungry and losing daylight, the trees’ shadows close enough / to grab at ankles.

Working title: “We lose track of time.” / This one tries a few things and gets away with none of them. Perhaps they’re too big to all fit in there, anyway. Here’s an excerpt: The sun, my dear friend, / locked in its room sulking about some girl. / I am fickle, too. Some days, I could be made / entirely from joy. Other days, dread. / If only I knew how the mice were getting in.

Working title: “True or false.” / If left to my own devices, today would definitely have been a day that I wouldn’t have written. I’m “in a mood,” as they say. What I ended up with is just a list I created by free writing lots of random statements and then stringing together what seemed most interesting. I’m not sure what to make of it! Here’s an excerpt: The noise in the other room is / probably the cat. You must keep both hands on the wheel. // I accept responsibility. If the door is hot to touch, / it is unsafe to open. A lover knows all the ways // you can be hurt. The Ouija board planchette spells / E-R-E-C-T-I-O-N all on its own. The girls can’t stop giggling.  

Working title: “Self portrait as a moment in time.” / Even though I was so nervous all day about getting today’s poem done, this one ended up being fun to write. Once I finally sat down, this came out in probably 20 minutes. I followed the images, including one or two I’d jotted down on my lunch break. Here’s an excerpt: When someone corrects you, says what you saw / was too big to have been a coyote. When you know  / for certain what crossed in front of you but don’t argue. / When you realize regret means something held / for a long while. When salmon swim all the way up / to drop off their eggs, releasing a string of recriminations / against what the rest of the world deems reasonable.  

Working title: “How to photograph the wind.” / Finally one that’s not so chubby on the page! This is just a wisp of a thing compared to what’s been pouring out so far this month. Here’s an excerpt: Four women in heavy sweaters pose / with pint glasses in front of a bonfire, / wisps of dark hair in their faces. // This is how to photograph the wind, / the sun an asterisk over the horizon. 

Working title: “U-Pick.” / Be afraid. Be very afraid. This one has chainsaws and knives and a very suspicious Christmas tree. Here’s an excerpt: You keep circling the house / with only one slipper on trying to solve for the design flaw. / The real problem, of course, is the face photoshopped / onto the back of your head isn’t the one you selected / at checkout. 

Working title: “A cubicle so much of the time.” / It’s the second lunch break poem of the week! This one’s inspired by a true story, as they say. Here’s an excerpt: Years of planes overhead and most do no harm, / not even in your imagination. And that’s a good day / when you imagine you’ll survive. Because you do / want to live. You do. Just maybe not in a cubicle / so much of the time.

Working title: “Leaving the continent behind.” / They can’t all thrill us, but exploring this particular vacation tradition in Cape Cod, working with the names of all the boats in the harbor, has been something I wanted to try for a while. It’s difficult to write about the ocean and vacation with the right mix of intrigue and clarity. Here’s an excerpt: I do not remember the name of the small vessel  / we charter from the fish market to the island  / though it was something clever like One Too Many,  / Assigned Reading or Appeal for Mercy.  / On the way to the pier, we drove past a sign  / in front of a church: Tantalizing fruits  / create many jams, a warning we scoff at / considering the jam this whole damn country  / (continent, planet, etc.) is in right now.  

Working title: “Its word is tentacles.” / I’m not sure why the poems the last few days look so bloated on the page, but there’s no time to psychoanalyze them. I jotted some notes for this one last night before bed and worked with that material on today’s lunch break. I have had a thing for octopuses for a couple years and have wondered if the imagery could carry a chapbook. Maybe this is a test run. Here’s an excerpt: To protect her eggs, the octopus risks everything, / including starvation. How does your mother remember / your birth? Difficult, mine was. Easy, my sister’s. We forged / ahead that way for years though ultimately became adults, / and that word is mileage. And that makes us exactly like / everyone else.

Working title: “What kind of god.” / So I guess even after interrogating the poor moon yesterday, I have more questions. Now god is in the hot seat. Here’s an excerpt from this one, which is a prose poem, which upon revision (should it survive) needs serious attention paid to its rhythm/flow: [what kind of god] makes an entrance 10 minutes late smelling of cigar smoke and tequila. Invents both plumage and camouflage. Allows the perfect crime and dumb love to exist simultaneously. Bestows a dark magic on what’s repeated to the mirror. Gives mathematicians the audacity to say the line goes on forever and poets the mission to put an end to it.

Working title: “Questions for the moon, which must be sick of listening.” / Super moon. Super moon. Super moon. I am not immune. That’s not the poem LOL. It’s a confession. I am seduced by the moon as much as the next person, though I try to resist. The poem about it is big and fat and gratuitous, just like it is. Here’s an excerpt: We gawk because / you are the next best thing to a deity. We know your face / as well as we know our own and except for believing / in when we’ll see you again, we do not know what happens next. / Can you say? We choose to add up our days instead / of subtracting them. And from what would we count backwards / anyway? The end? Land appears on the horizon.  

Working title: “Window.” / This one is inspired by a poem by Erika Sanchez that I just couldn’t get out of my head. I give a nod to that in the epigraph.  And we all owe apologies to the poor birds we keep killing with our literal and metaphorical windows. Here’s an excerpt: And you love / the poet for this violence, beg her, “Please  / come to my house and destroy  / the excuses we keep making.”  / I want something that has died  / to sparkle on my porch, too. 

Working title: “The Beginners Guide to Taking Things Into Account.” / Trying to have a little fun with the idea that actions speak louder than words by translating some activities into phrases… but hopefully with an interesting twist. Here’s an excerpt: Pull over to the side of the road and pop the hood. / This is the universal sign for “interrupted.” And another: Translate “leaves sit in piles on the lawn” / as I haven’t told you everything.


Working title: “Egress.” / I’m interested in ruins, the kind we see every day where we live, work and play. This piece mentions an abandoned church, a row of warehouses and a family home and tries to create the sense that we’re all part of this coming and going. Here’s an excerpt: On the uneven / sidewalk out front, grass grows in every crack, / and nothing is surprising. Put yourself there / at ground level: how you want to believe the skittering / plastic shopping bags, Marlboro packs and / McDonald’s cups have come to life.

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