Lines, Stanzas, and Sound, Focusing on the Craft of (re)Writing Poetry

In this draft of the working poem “A Slip of Pink Paper” (working title too) there are 13 stanzas.

3 Lines

Stanza 1, 10 and stanza 12.

6 Lines

Stanza 3, 5, and 7.

7 Lines

Stanza 4, 8, and 9.

Random Lines

Stanza 2 has four lines. Stanza 6 has nine lines. Stanza 10 has one line, stanza 13 has two lines.

Now that I have broken down the stanzas and the lines the big question is why? Not why did I count all the stanzas and lines, but why did I choose these line breaks? Right now the honest answer would be “a feeling“. I felt like that was where the breaks were for no rhyme or reason. No pun intended. And, if I’m being really honest with the work, there is no rhyme or reason to the stanzas or the line breaks, and that’s a problem. That is just one problem with the poem.

My Conundrum

Ideas come easy for me. I can pour out the words on a page like pouring a drink into a glass. I know for some people this is a real struggle. In fact, there are tons of sources out there with prompts set up to help writers, poets, or screenwriters to generate an idea. People need prompts to get them going, but fortunately I don’t need that. I don’t need an idea generator however, I do need help when it comes to everything else. I can splash paint onto a canvas, but what am I actually saying? I can also be as delusional as I want and tell myself it is amazing, a Work of Art ,and I can bust out as many writings as I can, post them up on instagram, publish my own book, dust the chalk off my hands, and call it a day. In one way it is kind of nice to be able to tell yourself you are naturally good at something, and ignore all “the haters” and the critics, or the silence. Yet, I don’t think it is about the outside voices. I think it is about your inner voice. My inner voice knows I am lazy when I just post some writing and call it a poem. I know I did not put in the work. I should be grateful for the idea because poets and writers work their asses off to craft a poem out of an idea they struggled to find. I am grateful, but it is disrespectful to the craft to not do the work. It’s like when you hike a mountain and reach the peak and see all the people who took the gondola lift. They smile and breath easy in their fancy clothes and non hiking shoes, taking pictures of the view that you worked so hard to see. This is okay of course sometimes you just want to take the gondola, but you shouldn’t pretend that you did the work, and you should understand that you missed some amazing beautiful things on the way up, and you may have learned something on the hike to make the next hike better and more beautiful. It’s cliché, I know, but the real reward is in the discoveries you make through the work. The reward is when you solved the problem, and the next time, you know more of what you are doing.

Yet, what if you don’t know what you’re doing? To keep with my current metaphor, what if you don’t know how to hike, or you’re out of shape? What if you don’t know what to pack, which way you’re going, how long it will take, which direction are you going, which path, to take? The conundrum comes after the words are on the page. Now what? How do I make it better?

I’m Not Going to Tell You What to Do

I’m not telling you what to do, but I can tell you what I am doing. I’m reading poems. I’ve heard from poetry classes in the past, and current things I’ve read that if you want to be a good poet, or improve your poetry, you need to read poetry. In the past I read a lot of poetry especially during my time as a literature student, oh so many years ago, but then I stopped. I needed to find a job. Writing wasn’t giving me money, and I didn’t think it would give me money; and money makes the world go round; and keeps food on the table; and the wolves from the door; and all the other idioms. Writing wasn’t going to do any of that for me. So, I stopped trying. I stopped trying to get better, but I didn’t stop writing completely. I did stop reading poetry though, and Netflix and Youtube became a greater part of my life. I think escapism is okay if you need a break, but if you’re unhappy because you aren’t doing what you dream, all escapism does is stop you from ever reaching your dreams. Netflix and other movie and show platforms can be a wonderful distraction from life and living, and so can Youtube, but Youtube can also be a great educational platform if used wisely. There is a lot you can find about writing poetry on Youtube, some good some bad, but you can find something. I happen to like Poetry Show and one one of the posts was a video called the Golden Rule. What is the golden rule of poetry? Read poetry. My own intuition verified via Youtube.

Reading Poems

I don’t have a lot of poetry books with me at the moment, but I do have a few. As I work on ” A Slip of Pink Paper” I’m reading Mary Oliver’s, Dog Songs. I bought the book for my husband because he loves dogs, and I happen to love Mary Oliver. She is a master of poetry and therefore a great poet to read. As I read beyond the enjoyment of the words, I am looking for her choices in line breaks and stanzas. I want to look for how she uses sounds from the words and language she chooses.

What I Have Done So Far

I’ve crossed a lot out. Don’t read, just look.

(1)Shoved deep into the bench seat
of an old Ford truck 
we found a kitten.

(2) The bench seat, like a black sofa,
leaned against the chicken coop.
We used to play house 
and pretend outside was our living room.

(3) It was dead, of course,
the kitten,
you can't stuff a body,
no matter how small,
between the stiff cushions 
of a Ford bench seat.

(4) Other animals had been found, recently
Cats, kittens, chickens, a mouse.
They said it was a coyote
or a fox
but how can an animal
stuff a kitten into an
abandoned black bench seat?

(5) There was that day when...
A porcupine attacked the dog.
The dog howled in screams
as men pulled her from the truck.
It wasn't a porcupine that killed the kitten.
This needed human hands.

(6) We ran home
to tell our mothers.
We climbed over split rail fences,
through dead and dying orchards.
across old rail tracks that once
transported swine, beef and grain,
but now the trains were ghosts
and the rails vanished into the

(7) We reached the farm house,
the white peeling paint revealing rot.
We'd lived there, but not long, two families without 
fathers, and many kids. Sometimes men
would visit. Some fathers. Some not. 
They'd bring beer.

(8) We were out of breath from running.
We heaved and pressed our palms against our knees.
Ma! we called. Ma! It's dead. 
A kitten! we called.
It was empty.
There were no mothers.
No fathers. no adults.

(9) Stapled to the door
A pink paper. Animal Abuse it said.
The animals were all gone.
The dog with the porcupine quills.
The cat missing kittens.
The puppies. The chickens.
All gone.

(10) A dust kicked up around our tired feet.
The pink paper waved in the breeze 
the tape held it to the door.

(11) A car was approaching from the distance.

(12) They would take us next
put us in foster homes
send us to strangers.

(13) Soon we forgot all
about the kitten.

I focused on the sound of the words. For example: I pulled out words that ended in “d” began with “d”. Died, down, found, abandoned. Peeling, revealing, pull, small, adult. Consonants and vowels. What did these collections of sounds do. What does shock sound like? How about surprise? Fear? Discovery? Swimming? Laughing?Then I took out all of the words and started over with the same idea, but told in a new way.

The Work in Progress

In its current form the poem is now ten stanzas, but the structure is still in the works. I’m happier with the language, but I have yet to find the shape. This is what I have so far:

Dust swirled about our bare feet 
as we kicked heels against
 the abandoned ford bench seat.

The chicken coop, empty of chicks, 
and large enough to be a playhouse was our living room, 
the dying orchard our t.v.

Through dry trees and sun-cured leaves
Beyond a battered split rail fence
We could see the once white house.

The line breaks and the stanzas are merely place markers at this point, but already I like the language better. I will change the title, once again, as I have removed all references to the pink slip.

One Last Note

It takes a lot of time and thought. It takes some pacing, some frustration, some thinking its going nowhere, but I’ll keep working, and one day it will tell me what it is really trying to say, and then hopefully you can hear it too.

A Memory to a Poem

Notes on a Slip of Pink Paper.

Where did this come from?

These are my workshop notes on A Slip of Pink Paper. You can read the poem in its current form here.

This poem about childhood comes directly from childhood events. The poem is nowhere near complete and has already gone through many sloppy transformations.

There Have Been Various Titles:

  • The White House
  • The House in Durham
  • Durham, C.A. 1978.
  • Notes on a Slip of Pink Paper
  • ?

It is still a work in progress and titles tend to come last. In fact, many of these “poems” are just ideas that need to be worked and worked before moving into what I call finished or complete. Before being able to say that this poem is complete I need to ask these questions: What is the poem trying to say? What am I trying to say? Is it worthwhile? Is there a landscape? Does it progress? Does it lead the reader somewhere? How about the language and word choices? Are they strong, weak, too much, too little? The line breaks and stanzas, do they work? Is there a reason that they break where they break? What tools do I use to create feeling, substance, and tone? Do I have structure? Do I make use of sounds? Honestly, critically, this work is just words slapped haphazardly onto the page and moved around. The real work still needs to be done. 

We climbed over split rail fences, 
through dead and dying orchards. 
across old rail tracks that once
transported swine, beef and grain, 
but now the trains were ghosts 
and the rails vanished into the dirt.

This is probably my favorite verse because of the imagery, but where is the sound? What am I trying to convey? Do I want to create a feeling of running? How fast are they running? Are they scared or excited? Can I create one or both of those feelings through my word choices?

Oftentimes, a poem comes from a memory, or a feeling. I rarely have something that I think is right on the first draft, but I also rarely return to the work to improve it. This is a problem that I am here to solve. My new conviction. Much of this lack of work comes from me not always knowing what the poem is doing on the page in the first place. I get it out there instagram quick, but in truth, it is rarely good or ready. That’s okay as long as I am willing to do the work to make it better. What is it truly about?

I’ve decided to try and explore this mental block through a new practice I’ve titled, Where did this come from?

So where did this beginning of a poem come from?

Memory. Definitely a Memory.

In 1978, my mother moved us into a white house in the small town of Durham in Northern California. We lived with some of her friends. A couple of women who were divorced from their husbands. I believe we shared the house with one or maybe two other families. One woman, her name was Georgia, had three children, but there was another woman named Debbie and she had two children. These women were my mom’s friends. 

The Town

There isn’t much I remember about the town itself. I believe I spent half of kindergarten there because there was once a photo taken of my kindergarten class, but I  know I spent another half of kindergarten in another town because I have stronger memories at the second school. In fact, I don’t remember anything from kindergarten in Durham, except maybe a faded memory of a playground. Why I don’t have any other memories of the place may be because we didn’t live there for long. I remember having my birthday, which is in February, at my kindergarten at Ponderosa elementary not Durham elementary. I also remember a couple of students in my class at Ponderosa. I remember making candles in milk cartons, and painting, and that if we behaved well in class we could sleep with a stuffed animal named Grover, a character from Sesame Street. I also remember that I absolutely loved my kindergarten teacher Ms. Carelson. I don’t remember anything from Durham, not a teacher, not a classmate. My guess is that we lived there in the summer and fall since school photos tend to be in the beginning of the year, and because in my memories of the white house in Durham it is always hot, dry, and dusty. 

The House, The Place, The Kids

What I do remember about my short time in Durham was the house and the animals.This was the seventies and our mothers’ liked to party. There wasn’t a lot of parental supervision and I don’t remember any other homes nearby. There were many people in and out, and many children running wild into the orchids and surrounding fields. We lived at the end of a long dirt road that was off another road. Across from that road was a fire station. I have a memory of walking to the mailbox to check the mail, probably on request of the moms, the other children were walking with me or I was walking with them. Most likely a boy, Billie, was in the lead. He was the oldest and a bully, and would often boss or lead us other kids around. The mailbox was an old steel post mount mailbox with a front access door posted on a tall wooden post. I liked the sound and pull of the door whenever I opened or closed it. It was located at the end of the dirt road, and across from the fire station. When we reached the mailbox we discovered wrapped around the base of the wooden post a giant rattlesnake. It was a huge, fat snake that wrapped around the post at least three times. When we approached, its rattle rested on its body. It wasn’t frightened of us. There was a boy, maybe in middle school or maybe high school who killed the snake. I don’t remember the killing, but I remember the boy taking the snake away in a wheelbarrow. The snake’s tail and rattle draped over the side and dangled as it was wheeled away. I also remember Billie asking if he could have the rattle and the teenager said no. I was happy about that because I didn’t like Billie, and Billie usually got whatever he wanted, but this boy was too big for him to try to take it by force. 

What in the Poem is Real?

The dead kitten is real, and so was the porcupine and the dog. There were snakes, many snakes. California mountain kingsnakes and the rattlers. The pink sheet of paper is also real. There was a day when we came home to find the sheet of paper taped on the front door from animal control. I know my mother had a dog, and we must have been away from the house when animal control came as we were able to keep Baby (the dog). There was a chicken coup that smelled terrible, and rabbits, and feral kittens. All of these animals died. We talked about ghosts and played with spiders. Billie would abuse us there. Hit us. Touch us where we didn’t want to be touched. Hold us down and punch us in the chest. When I think back on these very faded and dimming memories, I wonder, was it him killing the animals or was it someone or something else? Perhaps there was a fox or a coyote, and Billie just found the animals and hid them for us to find. It’s hard to know. A child’s memory blends and bends. For example, maybe the snakes were in another house. Along with the chicken coup. We lived with these families more than once, and we visited them at the various homes where they had lived. We moved many times, more than 30 times before I turned 15.

The Process of Making a Memory into a Poem

Most memories become impressions, and those impressions can become stories and poems. The question is what do I, the poet, want to say in the lines of the poem? I had never mentioned the rattlesnake, or the boy, or Billie or even the women in the lines of the poem. Why did the memory stay? The greatest impression was of the animals. Many animals had died there, and it disturbed me. Over and over again the poem and the memory return but lack shape. The house. The snakes. The kitten. The fence. The orchards. The chicken coup. The friend. This imagery returns. 

Even if a story or a poem is from real life, once it is on the paper or on the screen it becomes a part of the reader. Yet, this can only happen if you can make it accessible. So, we break it down to imagery and words and sounds that cause an emotional response. What response to do I want? Nostalgia, childhood, innocence, exploration, discomfort, and unease? The writer must decide. When a child discovers that not everything is okay in the fairytale, and the adults in charge seem to be gone. That’s possible. Is there a word for that?

Now the work goes from where it was born to how it must grow-up. How to make it grow and work and become accessible this is the process. The process of making a memory into a poem.

This is the next step.