So over at The Lilting House I mentioned that I’d been reluctant to join in Loni‘s “Where I’m From” poetry project, but I went ahead and did it because I think Loni’s great and she was hoping her fellow ClubMom bloggers would join in. I was reluctant because I dislike scripted creative writing exercises. I always have. And this kind in particular—writing a poem by following a template modeled after someone else’s real poem—really rubs me the wrong way.
Is it a real poem when you’re plugging your own images into someone else’s work? I suppose one could argue that many poetic forms are templates of a sort: one must conform to quite specific rules when writing a sonnet or a sestina. Indeed, the rigidity of the form is part of the point; the challenge of wrestling original thought and arresting language into fourteen rhymed lines of iambic pentameter forces the poet to make each word, each syllable tell. Free verse can be powerful (witness Whitman and Ginsberg), but it can also be rambling and narcissitic and dull. Fragmented sentences with arty line breaks do not equal poetry.
So I went into the “Where I’m From” exercise with a chip on my shoulder. And while I did feel constrained by the template—scrupulosity about sticking to its “rules” required me to focus more on sense-memory and image than on language—I felt swept away by it as well. What a host of sharp and evocative images rushed over me as I sought to fill in the Mad-Libs blanks of the template! Having captured them, I’d like to use them in poems of my own crafting. But I might not have captured them, ever, if I hadn’t decided to be a sport and play the game.
But. There is magic in this exercise and it goes far beyond me and my own little flashes of memory. Far beyond. Read a dozen of the entries in Loni’s contest, and you’re seeing sketches of a dozen different lives. Because we’re all following the same rules, a certain kind of judgment isn’t possible or necessary: the value of these poems is in the portraits they present. I’m reminded of a quote in Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: a beginning art student describes the change in her perceptions after she learned how to draw faces. Suddenly, she said, every face looked beautiful to her.
These are beautiful faces: these people sketching scenes from their youth in a few plainspoken words.
For me, the template became a conduit for gifts. First my Jane wanted to try it out, then my little Rose. I got confirmation that the things I write about here really are true: Jane said she was from “paper, from Prismacolor and clay,” from “mealtime read-alouds” and “Daddy’s swimming lessons.” I didn’t coach her. She really does seem to feel rooted to “the bonny glen.” Rose made me laugh—and wince a little—when she was trying out phrases to fit in the “things you were told as a child” blanks. She experimented with and discarded “Don’t hit your sister” but kept “Hurry up!” and “Giiiirrrrr-rrrllllls,” mimicking the way I holler for them to come downstairs. (She had to ask me how to make it look the way it sounds.)
Rose also wrote:
“I am from the pond full of geese.
I am from the oregano, the blueberry.”
The kids are always nibbling on bits of herb leaves from our flowerbeds, but I wouldn’t have known that Rose felt any particular connection to the oregano. Turns out she loves its spicyness, how it burns her tongue a little when she chews a leaf, and this sharp sensation is one of the details that leapt to her mind when she thought about what home is.
In the hands of someone you love, the “Where I’m From” template becomes a treasure for you. Really I’m overwhelmed by the riches I have reaped from this exercise, because my daddy, faithful reader of my blogs that he is, gave me one of the best presents I have ever received. He took my hint at The Lilting House and wrote his own “Where I’m From.” It took my breath away: so many snippets I only faintly remembered hearing about, and so many others I would never have known! As he poured himself into it, it turned into a love poem to my mother. I ask you, how blessed am I—how blessed are my sisters and our children—to have this treasure? That chip on my shoulder has been firmly knocked off. Go ask your own parents to do this for you. You do it for your own children, or the nephews and nieces who love you. Seriously. A self-portrait is an immeasurable gift.
I asked my dad for permission, and he said I could share his poem with you. Thanks again, Daddy. You are the best.
Where I’m From
I am from 45’s & LP’s,
from Friday night band trips,
RC Cola & Moon Pies.
I am from a dirt road lined with cotton fields,
where most of the families had the same last name.
From…ugh!…leeches in a muddy creek
and, it turned out, on my brother’s…mind,
for days. Poor Mike.
I am from Buzz cuts, flip flops, and
I am from a fondness
for chocolate syrup and biscuits,
From Edmond Coolidge
(a.k.a. take your pick: Ed/Cool/E.C./Easy) Brannon,
and Effie Edna Steele, whose nickname(s), if any,
I can no longer recall.
I am from volatile flares of temper
and even more overwhelming outbursts of love.
From an Indian bride for a multi-great-grandfather,
and my family’s trip to England
to shop for a baby sister.
I am, though I often try to ignore it,
from small Baptist churches in the middle of
filled with people who KNEW
what church was all about.
I am from and of prayer,
with a granddaughter who is living proof
of the power of it.
With grandchildren for whom I can
and do use it over and over again everyday.
I’m from the now mostly forgotten
Free State of Winston,
and its rebels against a cause.
From hand-cranked ice cream and
big pots of fresh peach cobbler pie.
From a Papa Charlie
who could heal warts by rubbing them.
From a front yard butcher shop,
“prepping” a rooster for Sunday dinner
and watching him do his
headless horseman dance;
from my unsure
drawing complaining looks
from a four-legged milk dispenser.
I am from a family Bible
and a folded American flag,
now passed on to siblings.
From family albums with pictures
of once war-torn countries
on the cover.
From boxes upon boxes
of those little windows into the past:
from black & white slides
and small Polaroids,
to thousands of paper & now
I am from three little girls,
(though not so little now & with loves of their own)
posing in front of a wicker plant stand at Easter,
every Easter, it seems:
my Missy, my Merry, my Molly.
And, prior to this,
I am from a pastor’s living room
and a couple of inexpensive gold bands
on the hands of two kids going…somewhere…
we didn’t know where,
but by God we were (and still are)
going there together.
I love you, Diane.
Someone please pass me the tissues. He sent more, too, a whole other page of I-am-froms that didn’t fit in the template. Can I just say, Dad, that I am really, really glad that rifle missed you when it went off unexpectedly? How did I not know that story before?
Speaking of Robert Pinsky
Sunday Poem: My Kind of Woman
Poetry Friday: What Is the Grass?
Poetry Friday: Negative Space