Tuesday, June 05, 2012


In an earlier post, I brought up the idea of organic forms, that is forms of poems that are invented by the poet themselves. Today I'd like to formally introduce a new form I've been playing with for the last couple of years. But before I get to that I'd like to discuss an obscure form that it is a variant of; the Quotilla. Evie Shockley is the first poet I can remember seeing use this form. The basic idea of the Quotilla is simple, you take a quote like "The text for today is early Miles, the Columbia years, that tone pared down to essentials" (from Sekou Sundiata's poem 'Open Heart') and write it down the left hand margin, as such;

Miles . . .

And so on, then you use each word as the starting point for a new line, like this;


The code eludes all but tillers of
text, a secret not simple
for deciphering. Because
today, an undertone
Is dismissed too
early, too easily. Although
miles separate the source of
the river from the sea, hasn't the
Columbia called for
years in undercurrents? And doesn't
that same submerged
tone still guide salmon
pared almost
down to skeleton and skin
to home, with the sparest of
essentials, subtext?

Here the first word of each line is bolded so the structure is more visible, in actuality I never give any hints about the first words. I have written quite a few poems in this form, most of them like the above example are mediocre, the one I consider most successful can be found here For John. One slightly better example is this one which uses the line "I can't stand the rain against my window" from the song by Ann Peebles (also covered by Tina Turner);

( for Joelito)

I hold you in one arm,
can't find anything else to pack.
"Stand still, Daddy" you beg,
the words falling faster than
rain rushing down the gutters, racing
against everything that falls,
my reign in this house included. The
window frames the sullen clouds.

I know what the clock says, and
can't solve what still
stands between me and
the woman you call Mommy.
Rain drums its cold fingers
against the heads of houses. Outside,
my parking meter has expired, the
window filled by a bright red flag.

I set your two years down slowly,
can't carry you any longer.
"Stand by the windowsill,"
the door groans to you as it closes.
Rain rumbles, flashes a dagger
against the dark sky, you,
my only child, want to run past the
window, to my arms bulging with boxes.

I reach the van, turn a last time,
can't believe how you
stand so still as I close
the door. A fine curtain of
rain falls, refusing restrictions
against its wishes, animates your arms,
my hands. From opposite sides of each
window we wave, faces dripping.

One more example, this one riffing off of the famous lines from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland";

A Solo for LaSon
for LaSon C. White (1961-2007)

April sprouts around us,
is the sky as sullen there?
The hour after we talked was
cruelest, most raw. In less than a
month, your doctor says
breeding cells will overwhelm you.
Lilacs bloom here as there, just
out the door. Purple hints
of all the Prince songs we've shared.
The plentiful petals are
dead certain to flutter around,
land and decorate your walkway.

April's sibilant drizzle
is like a ride cymbal, mocking
the insistent rhythm of memories,
cruelest at dusk. What other
month would dream of
breeding, then watering these
lilacs purple as bruises?
Out of the incessant rhythm
of the rain's thin fingers,
the melody of a woman's voice
dead on key, singing Adore,
lands on my quivering ears.

April winds wane,
is that the phone ringing amid
the backscatter of the evening news?
Cruelest is the quiet after the call.
Month after month will sprout,
breeding a peace soothing as those
lilacs you loved so much. But right now,
out on the horizon, the purple song
of the setting sun is
the last hope I have, of being
dead silent and hearing your voice in the
land of the living.

It won't take one long to realize that while the form is somewhat interesting, it can often leave the poet with weird line breaks that can result in poor enjambment. So, I decided to take it one step further, what if you wrote the poem in the Quotilla form and then re-enjambed the poem in the manner that makes the most sense for the poem? The seminal quote would now not be visible, but would still 'haunt' the poem audibly. I started calling these experiments 'Bebop Solos' and have since written at least 20 of them, such as this one built off the line "Even if what she sang was what she heard, Since what she sang was uttered word by word." from Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West." My poem is dedicated to the Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora;

(For Cesaria)
Her voice
calls in currents,
her melody washing
like incoming waves.
with a moving sun,
her aria tracks
the heart's arc.
As all that would rise
fear what falling may follow,
she is careful,
sings of descent first,
is cautious with what
she allows to be heard
in the harmony.
She knows the sea
and the Song of Salt
are composed
in the same key,
but still chooses
to bathe in what
the tide utters
in the interim,
by rising
Her voice
is more searchlight
than song, splashes the dunes
with waves of something
wilder than water.
Her lyrics are a people's sighs
medleyed with moonlight,
a geyser like whales exhaling.
Since tears also shine,
what saline circles
she's tasted, sparkle
like traces of grace
in the foam
swirling across
what beaches she walks.
And we wonder
what price of translation
she pays, as she sings
in a dress that is fraying
and slowly utters
every word
by barefoot

At this point the original phrase is so far buried that it can barely be found, but still it haunts the lines. I toyed with the idea of keeping the seed phrase as an epigraph, but eventually decided against it. Here is another example, built off of "We need magic now we need the spells . . . What will be the sacred word?" from Amiri Baraka's "Ka'Ba";

(B-Bop Solo #2)

We could interlock,
in need of only ourselves.
A magic morning
once birdsung,
now caressed by whispers.
We could breathe in sync
if in need of a rhythm.
The anagram of 

spells license.
What wild letters would
our embrace contain?

B is the first letter
of beginning,
an initial sound almost
sacred as any word
we might whisper.

We might hum
like bees in need
of a honey song.
A magic buzzing,
softer now as we nestle.
We could search 
each others mouths,
in need of the tongue 
that spells the final prayer.
What syllables
would be sanctified,
what sound sacred,
what word 

as worship?

We could gasp
"Oh, God"
in need of air,
of magic mouths.
Now kissing,

we could coil,
in need of more heat.
Our sweat beads,
spells exertion.
What place touched
would tingle most,
be the trigger of
that first moan,
more sacred
than any word
we might imagine?

This poem uses three iterations of the line to generate three stanzas. As you can see the poem retains a certain type of structure, yet the poet is free to roam and improvise, including using entirely different content than the original poem or line. Unlike other forms the Bebop Solo is ripe for collaboration, where different poets can each write a stanza using the same seminal line. It also makes for an excellent writing exercise for those who teach creative writing classes. One last example, which uses "At the end of my suffering there was a door." from Louis Gluck's "The Wild Iris";

B-Bop Solo #1

At the darkest center
of the soul,
there is a cry
without end,
the song of whatever
is suffered.
The eye is the pupil
of its own affliction,
a darkness dilating
like a learning.
Is the 'I' lashed?
Is something like skin broken,
the opening jagged,
groaning like a door?

At the core
of the cry, an 'I'.
In the center
of the 'I', an Iris.
At the end of its stem,
a serrated slash.
In the mouth
of the slash,
a bead of blood.
In the blood
of the suffering,
a saltiness.
From the salt
a sound crystalizes.
The sound is a hinge,
and from a swinging
of the hinge,
something like that door

This was actually my first attempt at the form and probably isn't that good of a poem, but serves to illustrate the point. This form has become one of my favorite writing exercises to give to myself and I find it a great deal of fun to play with, whether or not I wind up with a good poem. Perhaps some of you may find this form intriguing and decide to give it a try.

Until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon).

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