Tag Archives: A poem a day for a month

#281: Gin


This might be me in 9 days. 

Today, from napowrimo, the suggested prompt is to take a favorite poem and find a very specific, concrete noun in it. After choosing the word, put the original poem away and spend five minutes free-writing associations – other nouns, adjectives, etc. Then use the original word and the results of the free-writing as the building blocks for a new poem.

Perhaps my favorite poem of all time might be John Berryman’s “Dreamsong 14.” Here’s the line from which I will pull my concrete noun:

And the tranquil hills, and gin, look like a drag

And from this lovely line I will choose the word “gin.” I couldn’t begin to tell you why this particular word strikes my fancy at this time. #whole30.

Here’s a brainstorm on “gin.”

Gin rummy
Gin and tonic
Gin martini, dry, with an olive
Cotton gin
gin with a hard g, slang for going
or “one more ‘gin,” as in once more again
Sloe gin, Cold gin, the rock band Kiss
no drinking for 30 days
my first drink after 30 days
It’s day 21
Gin sounds like Jen or Jenny
Rhymes with din, fin, sin, begin
slight rhymes: men, been, ben, again,
john Berryman
the farmer’s market

Okay, enough of that. Let’s write a poem. Here’s an attempt at a formal structure that totally breaks down at the end. Sorry.


In 9 days I will be able to drink gin
according to some dietary regimen
that prescribes 30 days without sin,
at least of the alcoholic variety.

Who’s to say my first drink will be gin?
–as there are other choices, bourbon,
to be precise, a fave, gin coming in
a close second, a balance of dark and light.

It’s not like I’m counting down to gin.
I think I might live beyond 30 and again
another 30 without a drop of gin.
But this is not what I want.

I am looking forward, that’s all.
I don’t think that juniper brew,
that olive on a stick, that action
with the shaker and the dash

of vermouth could ever seem
to me a drag. Gin, like the tranquil
hills: Let there always be
comradeship between us.

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#280: A Mostly Unrhymed Food Dipodic at the Close of Teacher Appreciation Week

This week for teacher
they bring us junk
to eat, like chips,
and candy, bread,
pancakes, syrup,
none of which I
can eat, sadly.
Yesterday, kids
wheeled in wagons
full of goodies
into classrooms
from which I could
only choose bottled
water. Somehow,
this week I don’t
quite feel the love;
is not for me
in the midst of
this Whole 30.

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#279: The English Teacher Reveals the Writing Prompt for the Day


The English teacher reveals the writing
prompt for the day and tells his students
to start writing and one student doesn’t
have his notebook and while it’s supposed
to be quiet another kid tells the kid
without a notebook that he saw him
leave it inside the lunchroom and
the notebookless kid doesn’t believe
him and for the first three minutes of
the quiet writing time these two boys
are arguing about whether or not the
one kid knows where the other kid
without his notebook
left his notebook.

The English teacher tries to shut
them up so that the other students
can have quiet time to write but
the argument between the boys is
so distracting that words begin
to fail him as he repeats the instructions
in a way that sounds to him incomprehensible
but nevertheless engages his students
in a fury of feverish free writing.


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#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

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.

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.

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.

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#277: The Topography of Our Intimate Being


The Topography of Our Intimate Being

is a box
or a series of boxes.
I’m in there,
over four decades
on hundreds of scattered
pages, in a drawer,
on a shelf, the most
recent version of
myself in a box
on my writing desk,
or, where the oldest
pages are stored, in bins
in the basement,
in a room we call “scary,”
only because it’s the only
enclosed space down there–
and when we bought
the house the door
had a latch for a padlock
as if the previous owners
intended to keep something
or someone in or out.
I’m in there with
the earliest pages,
yellowing now and a
little fragrant from years
of isolation, a novel I wrote
when I was twelve, another
when I was thirteen,
a series of silly essays
I wrote as a teenager,
and then all the detritus
of six years of college
and my first serious attempts
as a fiction writer and poet.
I never look at this stuff
but I continue to save it,
this record of self,
these word snapshots,
moments in time of me
becoming myself becoming
still another self. Who, if anyone,
will know? Who, if anyone, will see?
Who might discover or map
this topography of intimate being?

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#273: One Must Have Toys at Work

I had to hide my rubber ducks
because for some reason
my freshman boys could not
leave them alone. Now they
are hiding inside my office
with my owl lip balm and
my librarian action figure with
shushing motion and my
James Joyce finger puppet
and my Shakespeare, complete
with quill pen. They’re all gathered
around my big green crazy-head
which used to say things
when you squeezed him
until my son threw him against
the wall. And all my toys, for
reasons unknown to me,
are stationed between Kafka’s
short stories and a biography
of Stephen Crane by John
Berryman, who once wrote,
Life, friends, is boring.
Maybe so, John, but not when
you have a small but select
collection of toys at work.

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#272: Let There Be Rock


In the beginning
Back in nineteen fifty-five
Man didn’t know about a rock ‘n’ roll show
And all that jive
The white man had the schmaltz
The black man had the blues
No one knew what they was gonna do
But Tchaikovsky had the news
He said

Let there be sound
There was sound
Let there be light
There was light
Let there be drums
There was drums
Let there be guitar
There was guitar
Oh, Let there be rock


In the beginning,
as Tchaikovsky sat around
composing the 1812 Overture,
he was overcome suddenly
with trepidation and boredom.
He thought there might be
something missing from the piece.
So he added cannons.

And it was good.

The cannons added a certain
je ne sais pas, only in Russian.
He liked them. The explosions.
Made you feel like you were right
there on the field with all those
dying soldiers, maimed and bloody.

And it was good.

But still, something still sucked.
He first invented, then engaged
a special machine that would take
him into the future. He met Elvis
and thought, okay. I need this guy
in my 1812 Overture. But as luck
would have it, he was stuck in
the 20th century and could not
get back home with Elvis.

This was not good.

Discovering the now powerful
and readily available sources of electricity,
he knew that light would be good
over the orchestra during a performance
featuring Elvis, and he knew that using
this same advancement in the area
of live sound reproduction, a Public
Address System would make it
possible to reach a wider audience,
say, inside of a sports arena. So
he said, yes, light and sound.

And it was good.

Meanwhile, he picked up some schmaltz
and some blues. The cannons were nice, yes,
but when he saw a percussionist
behind a trap kit for the first time,
he said, there needs to be drums
all up in here. And he said, Let there be
drums. And there were drums.
He met Chuck Berry and thought, without
hesitation of any kind: My overture needs
guitar. A screaming lead would do very
nicely in this mess, especially behind
the cannons and Elvis. Let there be
guitar, he said, and there was.
And once he said the words, once
he had the cannons, and light, and
sound, and drums, and guitar, he knew
the name of his last and finest contribution
to the world of music about war and death
and love and death and war. Rock.
So he said, Oh, Let There Be Rock.

And there was.

And it, as you know, was very good indeed.

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