24 November 2009

Poem Evolution - Tackling the PAD Challenge

Since this is my third time doing a poem a day challenge, you'd think it would come easy. It doesn't. There is still the momentary thrill/fear when opening the email to find out the challenge for the day. What if it's a topic I hate? What if it's a topic I know nothing about? Or worse yet, what if it's a topic I've written about many times before? How will I find something new to say?

It amazes me how I continually underestimate the flexibility of that thing I call a brain. All of the above scenarios have happened – and I still managed to write a decent poem in spite of them. The key has been to find a jumping off point. Sometimes it's the challenge topic itself, other times it's the poem posted as an example of the topic. Once in a great while I see the topic and my mind immediately flips into whole poem mode. That's a rare occasion, though.

I've learned through experience to read the prompt and not rush to judgment – or poetics. Sometimes the first idea to spring to mind isn't always the best way to approach the prompt. As always, my driving force is the questions, "What am I really trying to say here?", and "Will anyone understand it?" Your driving forces may vary.

Many times a single line or idea springs to mind. I note it down while continuing to ponder. One challenge day, the prompt generated three distinct poem starts. I fleshed out one, set another aside for further development, and let the third die on the vine. Brutal, but necessary. It's often that first stuttering surge of words that proves the best. Later first lines can seem forced, or trite. No one ever told me cruelty was a characteristic of a poet. Early on, I wouldn't have believed them. It has a twin in fiction writing – "Murder your darlings". If the line has any redeeming qualities, it's filed for later examination. The goal here is to get that poem for the daily prompt written out, not run a charity home for wayward feet and meters.

I know we can go back later and correct – after all, December is our editing month – I prefer to get the poem as close to finished as possible, lest I forget the feeling or driving force behind it. A cooling off period is great sometimes, but it can stop passion cold in its tracks.

November 15th's prompt got two initial responses from me. "For today's prompt, I want you to write a hanging poem." My first thoughts went to the phrase 'hang time'. I wasn't sure what I meant by it. Not basketball, that was for sure. It gelled into a run on thought about relationships:

In the hang time between your words and the panic
of my thoughts the empty space overflows with

There was something there, but not enough to intrigue me. So I stuck the fragment in my Lines file, and thought some more. The free association led to the idea of hangman, then to a scrap of memory about playing hangman in school while waiting for class to start. (Yes, I was geeky enough to play with words in my free time.)

The first line wrote itself "Back in school we played hangman on wide-ruled paper while waiting for lunch or the next class to start.". The details started with that one sentence. Wide-ruled paper, not college ruled, pencil, not pen.

Then it was a matter of coming up with the loosely remembered details of playing hangman. It's been a while. My mind jumped over to the carpenter who built the gallows, and the idea that if he was a craftsman, I must be too in my construction of my pencil and paper gallows. I had to research how many turns in a hangman's noose, because I wasn't sure I remembered right. I had. Funny what your mind hangs on to. It's great if you plan on playing Jeopardy, not so good if you're trying to remember where you parked your car at Wal-Mart.

The end evolved from what came before, and it was as much a surprise to me as anything. Apparently guilt over the death of fictional characters is something that has a long track record in my brain. It doesn't stop me from killing them off, however. I just don't take any particular glee in it. At least, not yet.

Since this is a November draft, and December is Edit your PAD poems month, I'll probably make another pass through to see what can be changed/rearranged/tightened. In the process, other inspiration might arise, or I might even call this one done and move on. So even though the prompts and lines are done in a day, poetic ideas linger on, hoping for immortality.

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