The Poetry Obstacle Course

This week I asked my students to try an exercise by Marcia Southwick, from The Practice Of Poetry.

Write a poem in which you include approximately on object and one action per line. Each individual line should make sense in and of itself, but don’t worry about connecting one line logically to the next.

I attempted this exercise a couple of times – every line self-contained but a whole, random mess – before deciding to anchor my lines to a place. A month ago I wrote about one of my favorite walks here, a short path in Fahaheel. For this piece I made the lines center on our walk along the corniche in Salmiya. We take this walk nearly every Friday or Saturday during winter. I started with images or scenes I could contain in single lines. I wasn’t sure how I’d break or order the lines later.

Here are some lines from my notebook, cross-outs included:

My daughter finds a starfish washed in

My daughter finds a starfish she must keep
She makes a home from a styrofoam cup

I try to  explain no: the starfish needs his sea

The rocks meet the sea
We lost our secret beach last year
The path crowds and thins

It goes on like that for three pages. One object, one action per line seems like an easy exercise which is why I’ve skipped over it when looking for a writing prompt. But this time I read the prompt and thought it might be a way to think about the lyric essay form. I wrote each line not thinking where it might fit in the revised piece, though I chose a coherent whole by picking the corniche. When I reshaped the piece, I structured the poem to follow our walk. I also cut words so lines connected. I broke up long lines. Here’s the piece I shaped from today’s practice:

On A Nice Day

Rocks meet the sea
The path crowds and thins
My daughter parts the crowd,
climbs down the rocks to the sea
and finds a starfish she must keep,
makes him a home from a Styrofoam cup

Fishermen send loops of line out and wait,
reel in, snag rock, send out again

We all walk or ride bikes or pause to watch

My daughter carries the starfish in his cup
He is small and needs the sea

Dozens of pairs of shoes line the mosque steps
Prayer mats on grass angle toward Mecca
Men raise flat hands to their ears,
move their lips, bow

Old women claim the shade of low trees,
watch the path move without moving

The starfish needs his sea

My daughter climbs a playground
sitting on sand like a shipwreck
while I go to the fountain fed by sea
and listen to water sound

A couple sits on a bench, whispering
Their knees touch,
their hands move like small birds

Boys box on trampled grass

Grass makes a floor where
families unroll carpets and eat lunch
I see the chin of a woman
who lifts her niqab to drink tea

My daughter takes her starfish back to his sea,
holds her arm straight like a stick over the water,
turns her hand so he drops
She climbs the rocks, doesn’t look back

We eat fatayer, cucumbers, ice cream
Lunch and sun make me heavy
The languages around me make me quiet
I sit cross-legged and read my book

My daughter runs barefoot from one tree
to the next, testing the low branches,
swinging a leg up, yelling for me to look at her
hanging upside down from a tree

I wave her over, kiss her hair
She smells like being here, like sun and dirt
When the breeze lifts our hair, I think
we, right here, we need our sea

One response

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I love what an artist you are with words and thoughts. I also love seeing a moment from your life like this!

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