Some families hike, some families play board games, some families get together to roll dumplings. My family goes fishing. And we always have. My dad fishes with gear inherited from his dad, whose rod and net have been mended and re-mended so many times I wouldn’t be surprised if they were passed on from his dad’s dad. Certainly, the rhythm of baiting the hook, casting the line and settling back to wait for a bite is something passed through generations.
My brother and I remarked on our last fishing trip that, when waiting behind a cast line on the side of a lake somewhere, it’s as if we sit waiting not only with each other and our dad, but with his dad as well—who passed on many years ago. There’s a kind of comfort in this ritual, as if when gathering to bait and lure our lines, we gather to join the family members–both passed on and present—who have practiced these same steps through time.
And so our prompt for this week, taken from Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (Norton, 1997), is:
Use a family anecdote, or a family ritual, as a leaping-off point for saying something about how your family or the world works.
If it helps, think first about the material reality of the ritual you intend to write about. If it’s fishing you’re thinking of, research the anatomy of the fish. Find out how its breathing apparatus works, what it is exactly that lines those “frightening gills.” Learn the jargon of fisherfolk: the brand names of the bait, the particularities of lures and bobbers and lines. Think of this as an opportunity not only to, as Laux and Addonizio put it, “sa[y] something about how your family or the world works,” but also to say something about how the ritual itself works.
Don’t enter the poem planning to say something earth-shattering (about your family, or anything). Enter the poem with respect for the ritual in question, those who have conducted it in the past and the materiality of its “steps” as they unfold. More often than not, it’s by examining the mechanisms of our lives that we reach fresh insight—but let this come to you through the writing.
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Note: Also see Iris’ February prompt about the family rituals we engage in when “turning the year.” Though we’re still a ways off from New Year’s, many of us still feel the seasonal “turn” of fall (especially with Daylight Savings approaching!), and have our own private rituals built around welcoming this time of year.