Epistolary poetry!

Today, as your persona write a letter to a friend.

If your persona is a fictional character, you can make up the friend, right? But if your persona is real–from history–you can still make up the friend (back in the day, people wrote a lot of letters). Ah, this gets slippery. Is the expectation that poetry is historical–a documentary? Or can it be historical fiction? I remember when Oliver Stone’s JFK came out, I thought it wrong that he (allegedly) played fast and loose with some of the facts. But it wasn’t a documentary.

Here’s an alternate solution: If your person is real and you can find a letter by her or him, use text from the letter interspersed by your persona’s thoughts while writing the letter.

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Write from the persona’s perspective as a child.

Sounds easy, right? Imagine them a child–where did they live, what would have been an important day, what might they have noticed in the world around them?

I’m struggling with this one, though, and I haven’t even started. Although my person became an abolitionist, her father was a slave owner. So that’s how she grew up. What would be the perspective of a six-year-old child? What would be the language–and that’s what I shy from, because I don’t want to use terms that I think are offensive to anyone, even if that’s the way people spoke. I can write around it–but is that shying away from something just because it’s ugly? As a white woman, I don’t feel qualified to talk about race, but is not talking about it the same as ignoring it, a sin of omission?

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Where to begin? This week’s poetry pick is The Eternal City, by Kathleen Graber. These poems balance so beautifully sensory perceptions, intellect, and emotional awareness–and the sadness and reflection that come in the sorting and taking stock after the death of her mother.

It’s always a joy to see the way poems move from one subject or image to the next, the way they return intermittently–a weaving–or perhaps circle back at the end. For example, the chair in “Tolle! Lege!” The poem begins

In truth, I have less faith in the gods than I do in the chair
I passed one night set out with the trash on John Street,

which leads us to a plow dug up from a Danish bog, a shattering refrigerator shelf, William James, Augustine–I shouldn’t give this all away, but later we’re brought back to

Someone, somewhere is, even now, delicately turning
the maple spindles of a chair at a lathe…

and that isn’t the end of the poem (I won’t give that away).

The lines are long enough that they could flirt with prose, but no–this is poetry at work, and working hard.

Another of my favorite images comes from “The Eternal City,” which begins:

The attic fan rattles in its hammered tin house–as seemingly ceaseless
as the body’s unquiet engine…

and later:

………………………………………………The trick
must be to love both the blade & the air it shatters.

Honestly, reading these poems, I felt like I was learning so much–about poetry and about life.

Here are four to get you started:

The Drunkenness of Noah

Dead Man

The Synthetic A Priori

Book Nine (from “The Eternal City”)


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One more day on the event you’ve been exploring: As your persona, write about the event a year later.

Does it feel distant, like looking through the wrong end of the telescope–or does it feel painfully or joyfully fresh? Is memory tucked in a box, now taken out and dusted off, or has it been a constant companion, intensifying over the months?

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You know how sometime you’re looking for something, and you walk from a different direction and find it? Today’s prompt is almost like that.

Write about the yesterday’s event a month after it takes place.

How does time change the lens through which you, or your persona, see things?

P.S. I find that titles continue to plague me.

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