Weekly Prompt: Tracing Barbed Wire

Photo courtesy of FreeFoto.com

This week’s prompt is about using features of the visual world as a way to write across historical moments, geographic space, and time.  This is a technique I’ve been using a lot in my recent work, and when putting the finishing touches on a fellowship application essay this week, I found myself articulating for the first time why this approach is such a powerful one.

At times, making poetry becomes a kind of transcendent experience.  Tracing certain images through time shows the way in which all experience is radically unified—by screens, wires, flashes of light, images of transubstantiation, to name just a few.

Thus the child sweating at night, afraid for her parents’ safety at the hands of a Communist government, is not as alone as she once thought.  She clenches her sheets, dreams of centipedes whose scaly bodies become an endless braid, and yet the pattern of her nighttime torment finds an uncanny double in the long stretch of wire wound and barbed around her grandparents in a 1945 American internment camp.

Different time and place, same image.  Same condition.  To me, this thinking represents a kind of radical, redemptive vision, one that suggests experience is not so fractured as we believe it to be.  By undoing logics of nation, political geography, and even chronology, it offers us an imaginative vision that is wholly other, wholly whole.

Your poem doesn’t need to trace as emotionally loaded an image as barbed wire or braided centipedes — the example I’ve chosen is an extreme one, used to illustrate the point that the visual qualities of our surroundings can actually echo past moments, other places, different realms of experience.  Tracing these features can reveal unexpected linkages between unexpected circumstances.

In some ways, this isn’t that different from using a person’s name, or a particular scent, as a way to shift the narrative frame of a poem from one setting to another.  It’s just that here, the “catalyst” is visual.

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Prompt: Write a poem that “shifts” in some way — through time, across space, between points of view, to show the unexpected relationship between separate worlds of experience.  Use a visual cue, object, or feature of the speaker’s surroundings to recall them to a different “place,” however you choose to interpret it.  If you like where the poem is going, let that same image lead to multiple shifts.  Pay attention to other visual features in the “worlds” you explore as well, but keep in mind that not all images are as rich with potential as some.

Post your ideas, attempts, or even just a short list of “visual cues” you think other readers/writers could use in tracing their poetry across experience.

Weekly Prompt: Letter to My Country

Dorthea Lange's iconic Pledge of Allegiance image (via Wikipedia)

I recently visited the MOMA in New York City, where I had the chance to see a print of Dorthea Lange’s famous image of a Japanese American girl reciting the Pledge of Allegiance hanging in their photography gallery.  Lange’s photo, taken during the Internment era, when Japanese Americans’ loyalty, Constitutional freedoms—and indeed, their human dignity—were under extreme duress, serves as a witness to the injustices of the past, but also reminds us of the fact that we, despite our often-difficult political relationship to this nation that we claim as our home, are a part of it.  That we participate in the making of the messy narrative that is American history, and that the narratives that make up the history of this nation are necessarily entangled with our own.  In short, this is our America, too.

Independence Day is coming up, and in thinking about our history as Americans of color, I’m inspired by the fraught complexity of the relationship between nation and speaker that exists this poem by Claude McKay [text via the Poetry Foundation]:


by Claude McKay

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Prompt: Write a poem in the form of a letter to your country.