Monday, January 16, 2017

Drafting Notes: Bad Debt Villanelle

54º ~ the whole world is cloaked in white mist and rain that comes and goes ~ some would call it a dismal day, but it serves well the quiet work of writing and reading


As I've written about scheduling what I value recently, and as I didn't do this last semester, I've added Monday and Friday morning writing time to my calendars, both digital and hard copy. And even though today is technically a day off from my teaching work, I still honored my schedule. I opened my journal and jotted down a few diary-like items just to get my pen moving and to get some excess baggage out of my brain. Then, I randomly selected a book from my shelf (Some Ether by Nick Flynn) and read a half-dozen poems. I like to read before writing as a way to switch from my linear, daily brain to my circular, imaginative brain. Following my long-standing process, I then went back and "stole" words from each poem and made a word bank in my journal.

Here's the weird thing. I didn't use any of the words in today's poem, and I wrote in form; I wrote a freakin' villanelle. No one could be more surprised that I am at this moment. Here's what I think happened. Two of the word bank words sparked and reminded me of my father. Then, I remembered the theme of debt rising up out of my self-ekphrasis project from last summer. And then, a line rose for me: "what debt I owe my father." Suddenly, the form of the villanelle suggested itself as I knew I wanted that line to repeat in a variety of ways. I also "blame" this instinct to write in form on the fact that I'm teaching both an undergraduate and a graduate section of forms of poetry this semester.

For those who don't know a villanelle is a 19-line poem in 5 tercets and a closing quatrain. Lines 1 and 3 repeat at the end of alternating stanzas and then as the last two lines in the poem. Most practitioners of the form today allow some variation in the lines, although in the tradition (descended from French folk songs) the repetition was exact. My number one favorite villanelle is Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," for those who would like to read a masterpiece in this form.

As I drafted, I couldn't believe I was doing so, but I scratched out rhyming words at the top of the page in the journal. Between the repetition of lines 1 and 3, and the repetitions of end-sounds, I had to think a lot about the structure as I was writing. This means that there were moments when I really wanted to say something, but the idea wouldn't fit the constraints set out before me. I had to find a way to bend and twist inside the language and the form to get to the heart of the matter. In the past, this would have frustrated me to no end, but today, it seemed more like play.

With the draft in hand, the real problem is this: how do I know if it is any good? Of course, I know when I read an outstanding villanelle and I know what excites me in poetry. The trick will be letting the draft rest for a bit and then coming back to it with fresh eyes. Right now, I'm just so pleased with myself for following the form that I can't get any clarity on the poem as a whole. Nevertheless, I scheduled what I value, and that feels pretty good.

4 comments:

Terry Lucas said...

I love this post--both story line, and the way you get inside the form of a villanelle. Brava!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, T!

Kathleen said...

Delighted to see your drafting notes again!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, K!