Tag Archives: formal verse

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Mindy Watson, ‘Her Mother’s Face’

Amidst a sere Midwestern winter night 
December 1917, she’s born,
A staunch Germanic woman’s child. Bedight
In dearth and loss, she learns too young to mourn
A mother’s death. She knows a woman must
Prepare the meals, evoke good cheer, and thrust
Her bitter tears inside where no one sees.
She weds a Coast Guard vet and oversees 
His household — bears three girls, subsists on grace.
And steadfast ‘til succumbing to disease,
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

Unwanted infant hurtles toward the light
In 1944, her mam too worn
And poor to greet her daughter with delight.
The wealthy gent who claims the babe has sworn
To sate her whims, exchange her doubts for trust.
But Virgin-named, she’s Snake incarnate, trussed
In greed. She flaunts her swindling expertise, 
Yet knows that costly baubles won’t unfreeze
Her heart, or fill an absent mother’s space.
And void, despite full coffers overseas, 
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

She’s born in 1945, clasped tight
Within her mother’s arms. And ne’er forlorn,
This nurtured daughter dreams she’ll wed a knight
Who’ll grant her nuptial bliss, and — fast foresworn 
To loyalty — a doe-eyed child who’ll just
Love her. When falseness renders faith to dust
And pregnant prayers produce no guarantees,
She nonetheless adheres to memories
Of Mother’s happy tales. She weighs her case,
Then smiling, phones adoption agencies.
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.  

From birth, a target of her small town’s spite,  
She sprints through cornfields, fleeing bullies’ scorn,
Hurled stones, and taunts of “freak”! Wisconsinite
In ragtag 1980s garb, she’s borne 
Her share of tyranny. Her heart’s robust
Enough to weather gibes, but grief’s the gust
She can’t withstand. At forty-one, she frees
Herself and downs the sleeping pills that squeeze
Her breath away. Her mother deems her base
Look odd, but with some rouge — an eyebrow tweeze — 
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

Abandoned infant left upon a white
Korean orphanage’s stoop, she’s shorn
Of roots upon her trans-Pacific flight
To Heartland serendipity. She’s torn
Between identities, but must adjust: 
Refute all claims of foreignness. Nonplussed,
Her heart aligns to these: Wisconsin cheese
And apple pie. She’d always deemed “Chinese”
A slight, but now she sees each buried trace
Of her within her children’s eyes. And pleased,
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

A steadfast matron, serpent quick to tease,
She’s part Korean, one-eighth Japanese,
Idealist, rebel geek without a place — 
My post-millennial, she’s all of these.
Upon her own, she wears her mother’s face.

Mindy Watson writes: “I’m probably most proud of this chant royal titled ‘Her Mother’s Face’ that narratively links the most influential women in my life, ultimately culminating in my daughter’s overall connection to her (mostly unknown) maternal lineage. It was an unconventional topic for me (as my go-to inspirations are normally bugs, science, mythology, etc. and I’ve a hard-wired aversion to delving into my lost cultural roots—Midwestern U.S. white Protestant upbringing and all that), but it just intuitively sprang from the 11-line stanza/repeated refrain/converging envoi-type structure. Humorously, the poem’s impetus was a poet e-friend of mine mentioning that this form (I’d never heard of) was the most difficult he’d ever tried and hadn’t ever conquered—so of course I took that as a dare/challenge, lol… but I ended up unexpectedly enjoying the composition process (and reminiscing about a few souls lost too soon. Also I disagree with my friend—I personally think pantoums are among the most vexing forms…”

Mindy Watson is a formal verse poet and federal writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Snakeskin, Think Journal, the Poetry Porch (where ‘Her Mother’s Face’ was first published, April 2018), Orchards Poetry Journal, Better Than Starbucks, Eastern Structures, the Quarterday Review, and Star*Line. She’s also appeared in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets: Form in Formless Times chapbook series and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s 2019 Dwarf Stars Anthology. You may read her work at: 
https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite.

Poem on poetry: ‘Diatribe Against Unversed Poets’

Ignoring clockwork towns and fertile farms
Tied to the sun-swing as the seas to moon,
They searched for verse in deserts without rhyme,
Lifted erratic rocks nonrhythmically
In search of poetry, then through the slough
Of their emotions hunted for a trail:

“The scent is cold. Its Spirit must have fled;
The body of its work, though dead,
Has been translated to some higher plane.
Look how the world’s translated verse
Comes to us plain—why can’t we emulate?
Then if the words themselves are unimportant,
If poetry in essence is idea,
And song is wrong,
Rhyme a superfluous flamboyance
(Like colour in Van Gogh),
Rhythm a distraction to the memoring mind,
Then we determine poetry’s true form is mime!”

While in the air the deafening blare
Confounds their silence everywhere:
Before our hearts began to beat
We were conceived in rhythmic heat;
So, billions strong, we sing along
For all the time, in time, our time, the song
Goes rocking on in rhythmic rhyme. Rock on!

“Unversed” means “not experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable”. Poetry takes different forms in different languages, but the forms all have the same desirable outcome: to make it easier to memorise and recite word-for-word. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metre – these are all useful tools for achieving this, along with less tangible tools such as fresh or startling imagery. Metre/beat/rhythm is viscerally important to us, because the mother’s heartbeat is the background to sensory development in the womb, and our own heartbeat and breathing rhythms continue throughout life. As humans we drum, we dance, we sing, just as we walk and run rhythmically, tap our fingers rhythmically when we are bored, teach small children to clap and sing, teach older children clapping and skipping games. Rhythm is built into us from before birth.

Rhythmic poetry didn’t die when it almost stopped being publishable. It just went into folk songs, blues, rock, country-and-western, musicals, rap, hip hop… Popular music let teenagers and adults continue to thrive with what they were not given by schools: rhythm and rhyme. This drive to make words memorable and recitable is part of who we humans are. So schools do best when they leaven “creative self-expression” with getting kids to learn things by heart, and getting them to pay attention to the qualities that make it easy to memorise and recite.

Photo: “Lost in desert” by Rojs Rozentāls is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

My own favourites: ‘To Myself In 50 Years Time’

Old fool! You really think yourself the same
As I who write to you, aged 22?
Ha! All we’ve got in common is my name:
I’ll wear it out, throw it away,
You’ll pick it up some other day….
But who are you?

My life’s before me; can you say the same?
I choose its how and why and when and who.
I’ll choose the rules by which we play the game;
I may choose wrong, it’s not denied,
But by my choice you must abide….
What choice have you?

If, bored, I think one day to see the world
I pack that day and fly out on the next.
My choice to wander, or to sit home-curled;
Each place has friends, good fun, good food,
But you sit toothless, silent, rude….
And undersexed!

Cares and regrets of loss can go to hell:
You sort them out with Reason’s time-worn tool.
Today’s superb; tomorrow looks as well:
The word “tomorrow” is a thrill,
I’ll make of mine just what I will….
What’s yours, old fool?

This poem, first published in Snakeskin No. 147, September 2008 and recently reprinted in the Extreme Formal Poems Contemporary Poets anthology edited by Beth Houston, is symptomatic of my constant concern with mortality. It was also a way to be provocative: under the guise of insulting myself, I got to insult all older generations. And it was also an exercise in poetic structure: each stanza presents an aspect of the superiority of present youth over future age. (Premise and conclusion aren’t necessarily made as statements, many times rhetorical questions are used instead.) The structure of each stanza is to begin with pentameters for a sense of reasonableness in the first three lines, pick up the pace for the next two lines, and end with a short punchline. Aggressive and effective.

Yes, I wrote it when I was 22. I don’t know if I will be able to concoct a suitably terse and dismissive answer when I’m 72. But it’s a favourite poem of mine, and I owe it a response.

Photo: “Day 005: The child is father to the man.” by JesseMenn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Rob Stuart, ‘Hitchcock Acrostic’

My looming silhouette, obese and bald,
As well as my distinctive semi-slur
Still resonate, and even now I’m called
The cinema’s preeminent auteur,
Epitomising what François Truffaut
Revered: a moviemaker in control
Of everything on screen. I ran the show:
Finessing scripts and casting every role,
Selecting music and the mise-en-scène.
Unwilling as I was to look beyond
Simplistic plots that featured guiltless men
Plus pretty women (preferably blonde)
Entangled in intrigues, they all had doubt,
Not payoffs, situated at their heart:
Set bombs a-ticking, tension builds throughout,
Explode them and you blow it all apart.

Rob Stuart writes: “This poem was previously published in ‘Snakeskin’ although I have revised it since.

“Is this my best poem? Probably not, but it’s certainly the fiddliest I’ve ever written and consequently the most satisfying to have (perhaps) finished. A rhymed acrostic gives one very limited room for manoeuvre as it imposes constraints at both the beginning and end of each line, and this led to all manner of contrived rhymes and clunky word choices in my early drafts, including the version that was originally published a few years ago, and I have literally spent hours poring over lists of verbs beginning with a ‘u’ and synonyms for ‘suspense’ in the search for suitable replacements. I may yet go on to revise the poem further (I’m still not sure that the second to last line quite works), but I think it reads pretty damned well now. It’s a dinky little lesson in film history, too.”

Rob Stuart’s poems and short stories have been published in numerous magazines, newspapers and webzines including Ink Sweat and Tears, Light, Lighten Up Online, M58, Magma, New Statesman, The Oldie, Otoliths, Popshot, The Projectionist’s Playground, Snakeskin, The Spectator and The Washington Post. His work appears in the Potcake Chapbooks ‘Careers and Other Catastrophes‘ and ‘Wordplayful‘. He lives in Surrey, England with his family.

http://www.robstuart.co.uk/

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Susan McLean, ‘Deep Cover’

Nakedness is the best disguise.
When you discard the final veil,
it always takes them by surprise.

Because men think that compromise
is weak—that if you yield, you fail—
nakedness is the best disguise.

Though you expose your breasts and thighs,
your mind is as opaque as shale.
It always takes them by surprise

to find out that the body lies.
Surrender can conceal betrayal.
Nakedness is best. Disguise,

equivocation, alibis
can be seen through. To lay a trail
that always takes them by surprise,

hide nothing and you’ll blind their eyes.
Go ask Judith. Go ask Jael.
Nakedness is the best disguise.
It always takes them by surprise.

Susan McLean writes: “When I think of which subjects have lasting appeal in poems, I think of the subjects that have never changed and never will, such as human nature, but also of the questions that have no definitive answers, such as the nature of truth.  This poem expresses several paradoxes: that overt shows of openness are the most successful ways to deceive someone; that everyone lies, so telling the truth is always surprising–and is often not believed; that no matter how much truth you tell, there is always much that you don’t say; that when there is a power difference between two people, surrendering can be a tool of resistance. 

“Another thing that I think gives a poem lasting appeal is the use of rhythm and sound to create a music with words.  Though we live in a time in which free verse is dominant and ubiquitous, I don’t think people will ever lose their innate love of the songlike in poetry, a quality that also makes poems easier to remember. One of the most songlike of poetic forms is the villanelle, and it has been one of my favorite forms for many years.  Though I know that many readers find the repeating lines in villanelles to be tedious, small variations in the lines, in their punctuation, and in the surrounding lines can enable the narrative to move forward without losing the appeal of a songlike refrain.” 

Susan McLean grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, attended Harvard University and Rutgers University, and taught English for thirty years at Southwest Minnesota State University. She has published two books of poetry, The Best Disguise (winner of the 2009 Richard Wilbur Award) and The Whetstone Misses the Knife (winner of the 2014 Donald Justice Poetry Prize), and one book of translations of the Latin poet Martial, Selected Epigrams. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

‘Deep Cover’ was originally published in Mezzo Cammin, a journal of modern formalist poetry by women. Susan McLean’s ‘Lessons From A Fool’ appears in the Potcake Chapbook Careers and Other Catastrophes.

https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/susan_mclean

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Brian Gavin, ‘Country Church, Family Visit’

On the funeral road, five miles beyond the farm
it looms still, like a silo, then diminishes
as you get close. Your sound won’t raise alarm
out here. There’s none but you. The wishes
of no one left alive will keep you out,
or let you in. The door is probably locked
anyway, closed upon itself, redoubt
for certainties. Surrounding it the block
foundations — reservoirs of ice and weed —
still cluster, like white holes around the heart.
You will not try the door — where it might lead,
you cannot say. The dead have done their part,
for here you are among them once again,
between the legacies of grief — the snow,
the boxes of white quiet, the leaving, then
the watching it loom larger as you go.

Brian Gavin writes: “I like this piece because the church-image haunted (or taunted!) me for several years before I got around to giving it some context in a poem.  When it finally came to the page it felt like I had paid off a debt — like I had finally given the image a chance to tell its story.  The fact that this story turned out to be no story at all — just a bunch of hints and implications — seemed to fit the image.

Brian Gavin is a retired Distribution Manager who started writing poetry about 7 years ago. His poems have appeared in The Journal of Formal Poetry, Peninsula Poets and Snakeskin Magazine, and in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Careers and Other Catastrophes. He lives in Lakeport, Michigan, USA, with his wife Karen.

Review: Helena Nelson, ‘Starlight on Water’

Helena Nelson’s 2003 poetry collection ‘Starlight on Water’ is quiet, reflective, beautiful and intensely intimate. Not necessarily personal – in some of the poems the poet has no children, in others a daughter or two, so there is no guarantee Nelson is writing of herself – but intimate with the senses and memories of existence. One of my favourite poems is ‘Ironing Day’:

I’ve never had an ironing board cover that fits
or a baby of my own.
None of the doors here properly shuts
and the garden wall’s come down.

But I shouldn’t ever want to lose my iron.
Pressing hard, I remember
grass between my toes
and the soft rain of September.

This speaks to several of my biases: going barefoot, enjoying rain, tolerating imperfection, triggering memories… and the music of casually rhythmical rhymed verse.

Not all of her verse is in the same style. Some poems are formally structured, some are free; the bulk of the book wanders all over internal and external landscapes, while the last third circles around and around Mr. and Mrs. Philpott, first one and then the other, a very caring couple of very distinct individuals in their mature second marriage. Here are some opening lines at random from the 19 Philpott Poems:

At the kitchen window
in his dressing gown,
Philpott stands alone
his sons have gone.
He’s on his own.

and

The sweetness of June, a summons conveyed
from strawberry fields, calls her to pick.
She drives to the farm, the car arrayed
with Tupperware tubs.

and

His father died at fifty-eight
and so he will die at fifty-eight.
He fetches a tumbler.
Two years to go.

and

Philpott’s anger lives in his shoes.
It tangles in the laces
and he wrestles like a lover

The first part of the book is about all manner of things – the spirit of a dead cat, say, or a night in an isolated Scottish cottage, or the teasing poem ‘Genderalisation’:

Women keep scales in their bedrooms;
Men keep weights.

The latter part of the book is just the Philpotts. What the whole book has in common is, without any sentimentality, the deep love that comes from respect, patience and close observation. It is all very intimate, and Nelson appropriately ends the Philpotts and the book with this short poem, ‘Love’:

He has tipped, he has spilled
his soul into her
and she carries it still
like starlight on water.

Review: ‘The Lesser Mortal’ by Geoff Lander

Geoff Lander has produced a score of full-page formal poems about various scientific luminaries: Maxwell, Einstein, Mendeleev and so on, combining career highlights with odd trivia about them. The poems are technically very skilful, with a variety of forms and metres being used (though the book is marred in a couple of places by the typesetting failing to follow the structure of lines and rhymes). Here is an excerpt from ‘On the Shoulders of Others’:

Does the gentle polymath,
Monsieur Henri Poincaré,
buried there in Montparnasse,
ponder how it came to pass
Einstein’s name now dominates
all things relativité?
(…)
In the central USA
near St. Louis one fine day
in 04 he first declared
E might equal mc2.

That was news to me. And it does raise the question of why Einstein should get all the recognition. Another of Lander’s poems, ‘Socks Off to Einstein’, suggests a possible answer:

While others may claim to have seen mc2,
they weren’t sock-eccentric, they weren’t spiky haired.
Their names are forgotten. Quite rightly that rankles–
the price you might pay if you coddle your ankles.
So three cheers for Albert, and get your heels bared!

Lander is a chemist by training and a computer programmer by profession, and poetry only came along when he started writing out other people’s verse to help his right hand recover from a stroke. Then, “encouraged from Scotland by Helena Nelson and from the grave by John Betjeman”, he started writing his own verse of which only a tiny fraction has been published.

New historical information and skilful light verse makes for a powerful combination! This very interesting little book from HappenStance Press contains most of what Geoff Lander has published to date.

R.I.P. Susan de Sola

Wonderfully warm and witty poet Susan de Sola passed away last week after a short battle with cancer–she was only 59, very active, and had recently published ‘Frozen Charlotte‘ with Able Muse Press. Tributes in Snakeskin’s blog and Light Poetry Magazine have shown some of her charming, amusing work.

Her work appeared in a couple of the Potcake Chapbooks–‘Family and Other Fiascoes’ and ‘Strip Down’–but I think the most fitting poem for showing her spirit is the last poem in ‘Frozen Charlotte’. She likens the lives of humans to the brief lives of fruit flies and ends, acceptingly, with
“The fruit is fine, the day is long.
Let us feed, buzz, rejoice
.”

Indeed. But many of us miss you, all the same.

New magazine’s Call For Submissions – Pulsebeat Poetry Journal

Poet (and engineer) David Stephenson contacted me recently with the message “I am starting a new journal, Pulsebeat Poetry Journal, for poems with a strong musical element, especially poems in meter and rhyme. I don’t think there are enough venues for rhyming poetry.” He is putting out a general Call for Submissions on his web page https://pulsebeatpoetry.com/guidelines/

“Poems full of music, using meter and rhyme or other means, previously unpublished… Theme should be the human condition… Submissions by December 31, 2021, for the first issue to be posted in January, 2022.” More submission details are at that link above.

David Stephenson has published in The Formalist, The Lyric, etc. His ‘Rhythm and Blues‘ won the Richard Wilbur Award in 2007, which puts him in excellent company. On the Masthead page of his web site you can find links to more recent poems of his, published in Autumn Sky Poetry and Avatar Review.

I look forward to reading the Pulsebeat Poetry Journal, and wish David Stephenson good luck with the venture.