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Archive for August, 2012

[After you read this post, move on to my revised definition of the
SOUTHERN SENTENCE POEM
at
https://griffinpoetry.com/2012/11/25/when-the-train-whistle-blows/
And send me your offerings at our Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/SouthernSentencePoem?ref=hl ]

Last month after a poetry workshop we all went out for lunch.  Someone had been reading a book of Buson and Issa, and we got to complaining about how hard it is to transmigrate haiku from Japanese to English.  Syllable counting aside, Japanese haiku has so many formalities that just don’t translate.  Each word is drenched in a thousand years of cultural nuance; lotus, frog, mountain, they all have layers of meaning very difficult for an outsider to grok.  Why do we even try to write haiku ourselves?

At some point we came up with the idea – note here that no alcohol was involved in these discussions – that we Southern poets need a poetic form we can call our own.  I remember us laughing about what we might call such a thing;  the term “Bubba” seems to have come up a few times, with various prefixes and suffixes.  At the end of the day, though, we hadn’t really developed anything substantial.

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I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since, and I’m now ready to unleash upon the literary world a new poetic form: the Southern Sentence Poem.  Besides consisting of a single sentence (which actually ain’t too Southern, knowing how we like to tell long-winded stories), each Southern Sentence must include all three of the following:

1 – Place.

A word or phrase has to place the poem in the American South.  It can be the name of a town, a geographic feature, a mention of some typical flora or fauna, even an ACC university.

2 – Past.

We Southerners make fretful Buddhists – we just can’t let go of the past.  The poem can be “in the moment” but it requires a reference to the past: kinfolk, a historical event, a personal experience (inevitably with a bad outcome, of course, but lesson learned).

3 – Culture.

Let the New Englanders and the Californians and the Canadians come up with their own poetic form – this here poem is about the South!  The reference to Southern culture can be food, customs, language/slang, clothing, agriculture or business . . . even anthropologists have a trouble defining the word “culture.”

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And to my mind a really good Southern Sentence would be seasoned with a drop of bittersweet.  Aren’t some of our great themes sin and redemption, hurt and healing, always at least a little hopefulness?  And it is ever appropriate to inject a little humor.  Just one additional rule: no cussed semicolons.  I love semicolons, but they are just too damn Yankee.

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Help me out.  Send me some Southern Sentence Poems.  If I get a whole passle of them I might start a whole new blog, or at least give them their own page.  Any comments and enlargements on my three rules?  Make the form your own.

AND . . . can anyone think of a better name than Southern Sentence Poem?

Finally, here are a couple of examples (it’s only a coincidence that each is 3 lines; that’s not one of the rules):

.     .     .     .     .

Nana said she despised those “jawflies,”
cicadas that filled the oaks around her house,
but every August I think of her.

.     .      .      .      .

In Nana’s preserves each fig
was suspended in gold – the summer sunset
on Bogue Sound.

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I just finished reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith . . . while on hold to Time-Warner Cable.  Seriously.  I called the help line, heard the perky attendant mention, “We are currently experiencing thirty minute hold times,” and went back upstairs for my book.  Read the last 35 pages in 30 minutes and was just about to start the appended excerpt of G-Smith’s latest book when a human being answered.  Is there some cosmic irony in the fact that someone who turns his TV on less than an hour a week (except during the Olympics) spends about that same amount of time reading a book while waiting to have the TV fixed?

Reading while on hold – what a concept.  The problem is the inane music they play.  First was a scratchy version of Beethoven’s Für Elise, then what sounded like an instumental version of (I swear I’m not making this up) 70’s disco, followed by smooth sax jazz so generic that static would have been preferable.  And then the sequence repeated.  I hope it didn’t do some subliminal damage to my auditory cortex while I read how John Wilkes Booth (spoiler alert!!) became a vampire.

What would you think about this alternative – listening to poetry while on hold?  Something catchy and non-generic that would make you smile, make you cry (nothing, however, that would make you cuss the cable company, or the service desk, or that trembling help guy in the corporate basement in Hamtramck, MI). Someone reading with feeling and verve and a little bit sexy.  Some astounding turn of phrase or unexpected conclusion that compels you to say, when the human interrupts, “WAIT!  Put me back on hold, please.”

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Next time your internet connection has spiraled into a black hole in the Greater Magellenic Cloud, or your dishwasher is autodialing a porn site in Belarus, or you’re trying to track down your personal banker who has absconded to her luxury condo on the coast of Belize, wouldn’t you rather listen to Dorianne Laux read this while you await succor?

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Singing Back the World

I don’t remember how it began.
The singing.  Judy at the wheel
in the middle of Sentimental Journey.
The side of her face glowing.
Her full lips moving.  Beyond her shoulder
the little houses sliding by.
And Geri.  Her frizzy hair tumbling
in the wind wing’s breeze, fumbling
with the words.  All of us singing
as loud as we can. Off key.
Not even a semblance of harmony.
Driving home in a blue Comet singing
I’ll Be Seeing You and Love Is a Rose.
The love songs of war.  The war songs
of love.  Mixing up verses, eras, words.
Songs from stupid musicals.
Coming in strong on the easy refrains.
Straining our middle aged voices
trying to reach impossible notes,
reconstruct forgotten phrases.
Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.
Shamelessly la la la-ing
whole sections.  Forgetting
the rent, the kids, the men,
the other woman.  The sad goodbye.
The whole of childhood.  Forgetting
the lost dog.  Polio.  The grey planes
pregnant with bombs.  Fields
of white headstones.  All of it gone
as we struggle to remember
the words.  One of us picking up
where the others leave off.  Intent
on the song.  Forgetting our bodies,
their pitiful limbs, their heaviness.
Nothing but three throats
beating back the world – Laurie’s
radiation treatments.  The scars
on Christina’s arms.  Kim’s brother.
Molly’s grandfather.  Jane’s sister.
Singing to the telephone poles
skimming by.  Stoplights
blooming green.  The road,
a glassy black river edged
with brilliant gilded weeds.  The car
as immense boat cutting the air
into blue angelic plumes.  Singing
Blue Moon and Paper Moon
and Mack the Knife, and Nobody Knows
the Trouble I’ve Seen.

by Dorianne Lux

collected in Poetry 180, edited by Billy Collins, © 2003 Random House

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Why shouldn’t offspring of a given moment / be kin, whatever it takes to link lives across the species?
Katherine Soniat, Furnishing the Frog Cosmos

It’s 1963 and my family is spending a few weeks at Nana’s house in Morehead City.  She lives on a high bluff overlooking Bogue Sound (Bogue Banks a mile across the waterway with nary a house visible).  All morning my little brother Bob and I pole an old flat-bottomed skiff through the shallows.  When the tide’s out we spend all afternoon stalking creatures through ankle-deep water and weed beds: silvery fish too swift and lean for our dip net; scallops that show a line of blue-green eyespots on their mantle and snap shut before we can grab them; squirts, knobbed and rubbery, that Bob and I have become brave enough to pick up and squeeze; strange holes in the sand, some that bubble, some that smoke with silt, some with a filmy slime-sac attached that waves in the ripples.  Crabs tiny and large, sea urchins, sand dollars, muscle-footed conches – there are so many strange and wonderful denizens that I, age 10, am very leery of wading through those same weed beds at high tide, never knowing what intends to snatch my toe.

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Bob lives in Montana now.  I don’t know if those creatures still haunt his memories, but I do know that when he brought his daughters to Pine Knoll Shores a few weeks ago they spent an entire day paddling about the sound in a canoe.  Josh, Allison, and Saul are at the beach right now.  We joined them for a couple of days, and I coaxed Saul to follow me out into that green-grey water.  Two feet deep and it catches him mid-chest.  He’s not bothered a bit that he can’t see where he’s placing his feet.  I feel something firm beneath my own and dip up a 3-inch blue crab.  Saul watches its claws pinch the netting, notices the paddle-shaped rear legs flip it through the water when I release it.  The net clinks something hard; I bring up a little whelk shell.  There’s an orange hermit crab hunkered in there.  We set it up on the pier and hold perfectly still until it inches forth, scuttles away, and plops back into the sound.

It’s time for lunch.  There are plenty more mysteries beneath that shining surface.  Next time we’re coming back at low tide.

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I love Katherine Soniat’s Furnishing the Frog Cosmos, from her book The Swing Girl.  I am fascinated by the idea Why shouldn’t offspring of a given moment be kin?  What if?  I was born in February when the hoots of Great Horned Owls haunt the forest and the female on the nest is covered with snow.  Her mate brings meat to her and the downy chicks while she keeps them from freezing.  The Black Bear gives birth to her cubs in February, still in her winter dormancy.  While they nurse she may not eat for weeks.  No doubt a thousand generations of insects by the trillions share the February moment of my birth.  Equatorial birds, warm-water polyps, the whole southern hemisphere in their mid-summer – we’re a strange and wonderful family.

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Furnishing the Frog Cosmos

Earth-jam of a mulched garden — foxglove and iris
beneath the statue that trickles water from her jug
into the pond.

Frogs by the lily pad couple, aloof, eggs adrift
in the green algae.
Why shouldn’t offspring of a given moment
be kin, whatever it takes to link lives across the species?

Think of these squiggly scribbles on water, the young translucent
ones preparing for the planet, for clumsy leaps through circles
of slime.
And not far from here in the woods, the discarded clothes
of childhood lay buried — softened shoes, patched woolens and denim.
An owl dives for the red-headed woman as she weeds a small plot.
Her fickle mane is something that bird wants, sweaters clumped
underground with the winged mittens.

In a flash, that woman rises, out of synch with the concrete maiden
who pours water endlessly for the frogs.
One by one, the stories
diminish, and outgrown body of clothing at home in the dirt.

Katherine Soniat

from The Swing Girl, Louisiana State University Press, 2011

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Katherine Soniat lives in Asheville, NC and teaches in the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s Great Smokies Writers Program.  The Swing Girl  was selected as Best Collection of 2011 by a North Carolina poet (Arnold Oscar Young Award) by the Poetry Council of North Carolina.

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