Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s Poet Laureate, interviewed me for her long-running radio podcast called The Poet and the Poem. Sharing the voices of Maryland’s poets is one of Grace’s goals for her work as our state’s laureate. I’ve known Grace for over ten years and feel blessed to call her a friend. Her generosity of spirit shies through in this broadcast where she kindly invited me to share my work.
I have a lovely collection of vases., some are tall and wide at the top, perfect to hold large bouquets of blue hydrangeas, a flower that always reminds me of my grandmother. Some are shorter and fluted, to hold cradle a few select roses. I even have a flat Japanese vase where I can arrange the last few blooms that survive a special arrangement. So many women I admired in my childhood taught me this lesson as they arranged flowers moving them to different vases until they found the perfect fit—sometimes you just need to find the right container.
It’s the same way with poetry. I usually write narrative poems in free verse, like my poem “Adultery.” But when I consider a poem about a difficult topic, I often freeze. I avoid writing because the memories are painful and to write about them, I have to revisit them. Is there laundry to do? Bills to pay? A lawn to rake? I’ll wander around doing anything but writing that difficult poem. So when it came time to describe what it was like deciding to get Electroconvulsive therapy treatments (ECT), the best way for me to process my feelings and get the job done required me to find the right “container.” I wrote “The Shock Machine” using a pantoum poetry format.
To write a pantoum, you repeat certain lines from one stanza to the next, changing the order in which they appear. The second and fourth lines from one stanza repeat in the next stanza as lines one and three and so on throughout the poem from stanza to stanza.)
Why does choosing a form poem, or container poem, as it is sometimes called, help one to write about difficult feelings? For one thing, as a poet, you have to observe the rules of the form, similar to the way you have to follow a recipe for a cake to turn out successfully. You can’t just dump everything in the bowl and swirl it around if you want chocolate cake. First you cream the butter and the sugar, then you beat in the eggs one by one. And so it is with difficult feelings. If you dump everything on the page, it’s messy to deal with. You also need to consider the reader. If your feelings overwhelm you, they may surely swamp your readers. Form poems provide that space of safety. They’re a way of being a trusty guide into dark places.
How does the form help the reader and writer to deal with difficult feelings?
As a writer, I know the experience I want to convey and I know the details. Writing in a specified form not only provides me with safety, it forces me to pay attention to something other than my feelings. Structure matters. So in a way, my attention is split. I still talk about the feelings, but only in such a way as is appropriate for the form.
As a reader, if a poet wants you to experience something difficult, the poet offers you some kind of lifelinein the form of repetition of lines from stanza to stanza in a pantoum, which guides you step by step into unfamiliar territory. You know what to expect as you venture deeper and deeper into the experience. All the while, familiar repetition breaks the tension every so often allowing you catch your breath. You’re willing to keep reading.
Here’s the beginning of my poem, “The Shock Machine” found in my recently released book, The Altar of Innocence.
First they take away your shoes
when you come seeking life.
Like a child you cling to your red quilt
inside a heavy fog of fear.
When you come seeking life
the doctors don’t know the self you were.
Inside a heavy fog of fear
you whisper pleas of hope.
The first pantoum I ever read was “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. In the poem, Bishop takes the reader on a journey into the land of losing things, from your keys to names to cities and beyond. One of my favorite poems. I hope you enjoy it.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.