Portrait of a Trembling Poet

The madness continues, and I find myself (unexpectedly) in the sweet sixteen.  I do not recall forty years ago celebrating my sweet sixteen, and am delighted to join the poetry party.Unknown

This round brought me to my knees.  I was filled with the angst and self-doubt of my sixteen year-old self.  And unlike the last two rounds, I had an unscheduled day in which to write.  As a result, I have three versions of my contest poem to share (not to mention the aborted starts of several others) and…warning…a long and self-indulgent story.

I waited up for the words to post Tuesday night, and started brainstorming immediately.  My word for the round was gnawing.  Here are my rough notes on what it inspired:

Gnawing pawing clawing thawing hem and hawing guffawing chawing
Gnawing in the pit of your stomach
Gnawing sense of unrest, unease, pain
Gnawing keeps teeth from overgrowing
Something gnawing at the door (take off on thus spoke the raven?)
POV of termite or other gnawer?  gnawing at my tail? termites, a gnawing problem?  an appetite for wood?

I seemed to be focusing on termites, until I got this crazy idea Wednesday morning:


My recent stack of poetry books from the library included these two collections of shape poems: Doodle Dandies by J. Patrick Lewis and Paul Janeczko’s A Poke in the Eye.  I especially loved the elegant, simple ones, like Lewis’ giraffe.  So I emailed Ed DeCaria, the mastermind and host of March Madness Poetry, to ask if a shape poem would pose a difficulty for posting.  He suggested that he could do a series of different length indentations, like someone taking a bite out of a poem.  Not sure he meant to suggest something, but what a simple, elegant, brilliant idea!  Did I take that gnawing gem and run with it?  No.  I still was stuck on my crazy mouse.

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 4.53.11 PM

My mouse looked a little squished.  His head was too large.  His tail too low.  The eye a bit hidden in darkness.  The whiskers unnatural.  But I was kind of fond of the little fellow, especially his ready, steady paws.  And I’d spent hours on him, having absolutely no idea how to make a shape poem.  I sent a draft to Ed, who thought it would be challenging to format and couldn’t guarantee that the layout would translate.  I was not surprised by this news–I had suspected that this would not work.  He said he read the poem as straight text, and thought it read fine…I didn’t need little mousie.

I read it myself, without the shape, and thought it was the worst drek I’d ever written.  Panic set in.  I tried to write about porcupines, woodchucks, and a termite’s grocery list.  Nothing worked.  Finally, I returned to my mouse.  I put in some stanzas, trimmed some words.  I read it to my husband (who had patiently listened to my ranting) but he was unable to hear how truly awful it sounded.  I emailed it to Debbie Diesen, a member of my critique group who has an amazing ear for poetry.  Debbie has young boys, and I doubted she would still be online.  I was correct–I was on my own.

I rewrote, adding more rhythm and rhyme.  My computer crashed.  Twice.   I added a touch of humor near the end.  At 1:15 am I had turned my original poem into something that I no longer hated.  I thought of rereading it in the morning, but decided to send it in.  I was ready to be done.

I was about to go to the Y the next morning, but had time to check email.  Debbie had written back, saying she really liked the poem as I had sent it to her!  She gave me a few suggestions for changing emphasis with punctuation, including the brilliant idea of italicizing breathe.  She thought perhaps I should revise the last lines with a recall of the opening.  I read it again with Debbie’s suggestions.  Why had I hated it the night before?  This was clearly much stronger than the poem I had sent in.  The short phrases showed the mouse’s panic.  Why had I gotten rid of the sharpness/darkness that my husband loved? Why had I added all those extra words???  There was still another hour before the deadline.  Should I see if I could swap this version for the one I sent?

I read one version and then the next.  Over and over again.  I could not decide what to do.  Now I was 20 minutes late for my exercise date.  I decided I had probably bothered Ed enough the day before with my shape emails.  I went to the Y, and tried to stop second-guessing myself.

If you have managed to read all the way through my tale of poetry under pressure, you get to decide which you prefer.  Feel free to tell me in the comments!

Here’s the version that’s not on the March Madness site:

Portrait of a Trembling Mouse10-18-10-deermouse-img_3433

Ears atune to tiny sounds;
gnawing, clawing, underground.

Peer in darkness, sniff a sharpness.
Muscles tense, whiskers twitch.
Racing heart.  Panic pitch!

Terror spreads as weasel bounds —
Hurries, scurries, all around.
Choose a runway.  Dart and flee!
Tunnel’s empty.  Tremble.  Breathe.

Safe for now.  Underground.
Feet alert to every sound.

And to read my official entry, visit here.  It’s a match between anteroom and gnawing.

While you’re at it, enjoy the other poems on March Madness.

18923_originalPoetry Friday is at GottaBook.  Check it out!


16 thoughts on “Portrait of a Trembling Poet

  1. Buffy,
    I enjoyed your March Madness poetry and I love your anxious mouse. I think we’ve all had the experience of both loving and hating our work within the span of a few hours. It’s the mind playing tricks on us. I too found that the hardest part of the tournament was choosing between my various options.
    All the best,

  2. Congrats, Buffy, on “squeaking” by (sorry) to the next round! Yours was a terrific matchup. I did ultimately vote for your “gnawing, clawing” poem, though – well done.

    And – you’re older than I am? I wouldn’t have thought that at our Founders workshop last year! You go, Girl, in the Elite Eight!

  3. Wonderful! I love the detail of your husband being unable to hear how awful your draft was. My husband is the SAME WAY! I have to find my editing elsewhere, because all he can do is say how good my work is! (And he’s a writing teacher, great at criticizing other people’s stuff.)

  4. Actually I like both of them and can’t really decide. The one here feels a touch more intense and trembly.

    Shape poems are very difficult to format in blog posts — at least that’s true for my blog at WordPress. It’s even tricky to do simple line indents. I solved the problem once by typing the poem as an image and then just inserting the whole thing into a post. Nothing as complicated as your mousie, though.

    1. I agree about the intensity–I think it’s the short sentences/phrases that add that. And yes, the shape poem probably needs a shape poem artist (or that simple, elegant idea that I never found.)
      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I imagine if I were doing the tournament, my experience would be much like yours! I think I like the one you share here a whisker more than the one in the tournament. My younger daughter and I did vote for your poem there yesterday, btw! She enjoyed reading them all with me and helping me pick.

    1. With the space of 24 hours, I agree that this one is stronger. It’s so easy to overthink and misplace your judgement with the stress of creating something others will read (and judge) in 36 hours!
      How nice that you’re reading and voting with your daughter…great idea.

  6. Buffy, I love your third round poem. It would be great to use for teaching onomatopoeia. Thanks for sharing these insights into your poetry process! It’s amazing how much work and thinking can happen in 36 hours of poetry-writing.

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