#278: When I Was Away, Before I Was Born, I Have Never Been


I attended a writing workshop last weekend taught by the Oregon Poet Laureate Emeritus Paulann Petersen where I was asked to participate in a generative process very much unlike the process I am used to in my own creative work. It was a very particular kind of brainstorm activity she called “priming.” Now, as a teacher of writing, I ask my students to brainstorm often–but it typically takes a pretty simple or mundane form: freewriting, listing, word mapping, that sort of thing. And I will often do that with them to generate pieces of my own–right along with my students. But left to my own devices, (true confession) I most often skip the brainstorm/priming process altogether. I dive in feet or head first and swim. My brainstorming occurs simultaneously with composition; I storm as I create–in both fiction and in poetry.

So my contribution to day 26 is the result of the brainstorming or “priming” activity Paulanne led us through last Saturday. Different from conventional brainstorming in its specificity, we folded a single piece of paper into three equal columns, and, based on some guided instruction for each of those three columns, we primed ourselves for a poem. With no instructions about how we might tie these things together, we were asked to head each column with the specific name of a place we knew well, to record details of those places in their respective columns, and then add details about what might be happening in those places in our absence. Additionally, and quite discursively, we chose three concrete nouns from lists, a list of words from Szymborska, a list of words from Neruda, or a list of Nature words. We took further notes on what might be happening to or with those nouns, again, in our absence. So, to conclude the longest poem preample in the history of poem preambles, this is what I used for source material, the notes for which are in the photo above. It’s interesting to me what made the cut and what did not:

  • Lewis and Clark College
  • Champoeg State Park
  • The house I grew up in
  • Séance
  • Ancestors
  • Campfire

And here’s the poem:

While I Was Away, Before I Was Born, I Have Never Been

I
While I was away,
strangers moved into the house
I grew up in,
put a garage in the backyard
over the gaping hole where we
used to splash happily inside
the swimming pool. He’s there
now, this neighbor, inside his new garage,
a stranger to me, using a handsaw
to shape oak boards into
another new thing.
I walk by there, trying to
remember. I don’t wave.

II
Before I was born
my uncle Cecil graduated
from Lewis and Clark College
28 years before I would arrive there
on that transformed campus,
still bursting with old fir,
graced by the manor house,
the rose garden, views of the
Portland skyline and Mt. Hood,
but a different school nonetheless,
to be transformed again another
28 years later, and still later,
perhaps for my son, William
Stafford’s voice ringing on and on
inside the library.

III
I have never been
inside the circle at a séance,
whispering to the dead, burning
candles to light their way,
lavendar, or maybe vanilla,
because the dead like
the sweet stuff, are put off by
campfires, smoldering coals, ash—
the fires that burn
long after I’ve fallen asleep,
long after I’ve already gone.

1 Comment

Filed under Poetry, Teaching, Writing and Reading

One response to “#278: When I Was Away, Before I Was Born, I Have Never Been

  1. Love how the elaborate prompt led to a poem more compact than your usual.

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