I embarked on my Weekly Poem Project to learn more about poetry, mostly, but also, in my own small way, to bring poetry back to what it used to be: a deeply social–and entertaining–form of communication. It’s been pretty cool to see poems appearing, like little pop-ups, in friends’ status updates and the like. And also cool to find out how many people actually are interested in poetry. Here I’d like to give some shouts-out to two co-conspirators: Jenny Huth & Diana Birchall.

Jenny was my first and best friend in grad school, & we were next-door neighbors in Austin for a couple years. (Good times were had by all ;-).) She’s in Mexico City right now, doing a 4-week Spanish immersion program. She’s blogging about her adventures–and posting great photos–at Jenny Habla. Jenny’s always up for a good challenge and has gamely posted several responses to my weekly throw-downs (throws-down?), including a double dactyl, which I will reproduce here so you don’t have to wade through previous posts & comment threads to find it:

Okeleydokely,
Museums play tricks on me.
Cases of artifacts
Dioramas.

Here I am presently,
Looking back, pleasantly,
Until I see me in there,
Something that was.

Jenny was too modest (I think!) to explain the inspiration for this poem, so I am going to do so myself–she posted some photos on Facebook of totally gruesome & somewhat bizarre dioramas at the Museo Archeologico in Mexico City. I couldn’t find the diorama photos on her Tumblr, so to replace a thousand words, here’s one of the pictures:

diorama

I’m not sure if this was the exact diorama Jenny’s talking about in her poem (I kinda hope not!) but you get the point.

And here is a photo (also posted to FB) by my friend Diana Birchall, and her accompanying limerick:

marigolds

The marigolds march through the night!
Setting the whole room alight!
They glimmer and glow
And make such a show
You hardly can sleep for the sight!

Now the teacher in me can’t help but say that what I especially find interesting about all this is that all the poems from this week, including my Sicilian quintain about my friend Laura’s mother’s garden (see previous post), could be considered “occasional poems”: not poems written sporadically–which, I admit, is what I originally thought “occasional poetry” meant when I first encountered the term in college– but poems written for an occasion. Often these poems are written to commemorate an important event; the poems written for presidential inaugurations by Elizabeth Alexander, Maya Angelou, and Robert Frost are perhaps the most familiar examples. But the occasions can be small ones as well: a Valentine, birthday wishes, a visit to a museum or catching a glimpse of a striking arrangement of glass dishes. Of course, this is another important function of poetry, too–since the epic poets, we’ve used meter and rhyme to help us make note of, and remember, important events and ideas.

I met Diana, incidentally, when I was doing research for my dissertation, which focused on a fascinating writer named Winnifred Eaton. A half-Chinese, half-English Canadian, she wrote popular romance fiction in the early years of the twentieth century under the very romantic, exotic-sounding pseudonym Onoto Watanna. (Elsewhere on my website you can check out the Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive, which contains stories and novels I tracked down, discovered, and transcribed over more than 10 years, many of which are unavailable in print form outside of this archive. My dissertation also became a book titled The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity–which is as boring as it sounds, but got me tenure!–and to which I will immodestly provide a link, regardless, here.) Diana happens to be the granddaughter of “Winnie,” as she likes to call her. She was both a generous source of information about the Eaton family and a research partner– she was working on her biography of Winnie when I was writing my dissertation. It seems only fitting to honor the occasion with a poem about Winnie, which I’ve composed in this week’s designated poetic form, the double dactyl. Ahem:

Pseudonymous author
Onoto Watanna:
a Japanese poser she was,
it is true.

Chinese Canadian,
really named Winnifred,
nevertheless, she wrote
lots more than you.

You can read all the rules of the double dactyl form on Wikipedia (some of which I broke here) and I hope to see you try writing one–or a poem of any sort– on Facebook or wherever else you write (a sonnet in your next TPS report, anyone?). Double dactyls and limericks may not exactly be elevating the level of contemporary discourse, but it certainly makes it more entertaining. So, here is a way poetry can continue to serve society.

It has been really great to reconnect with old friends– and connect with friends in new ways–and make new friends altogether– in doing this poem project. I am working on another double dactyl which I will post in the next day or two, along with an introduction to the challenge for Week 3: the grook, which my colleague and friend (and bona fide poetics expert) Melissa Girard introduced me to last week.

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4 thoughts on “Proliferating poems

  1. I can’t say what touches, delights, or charms me most about this post – your celebration of poetry as part of people’s lives; your sharing the picture of my marigold glass and limerick; your happy reminiscence of our halcyon times working with Winnie and each other – but nope! Best of all, hands down, is your hilarious poem about the lady! I can see your tongue-in-cheek delivery of the wry last line. Darn right she wrote more than most of us, and how extraordinary that her singular personality is still affecting us today. I’ll share this with the family, Jean, and much love,
    Diana

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  2. Diana– without Winnie and her indomitable spirit, I never would have finished my dissertation, gotten an academic job, etc. etc. etc. I am especially glad that you liked the last line of my poem. It was quite satisfying to write . I imagined HER saying it to her detractors. Take THAT!

    And I do love the glass. Is it really called marigold glass?

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    1. Isn’t that interesting, Jean, and how odd that I should discover so late that you, just like me, were often helped over challenges by the thought and example of Winnie’s dauntless “I can do anything because I’ve GOT to!” energy and spirit. I never realized that before. But it’s not only the goodie saints that help in life. Whatever Winnie’s writing was like, or her politics or feminism (?), she DID set an example and in a way, ironically and unintentionally, empowered us both. Her almost unknown grandchild, and an Asian American girl making her way in academia. I know I many times thought, “Yikes, tough assignment, but Winnie would have just barrelled ahead no matter what. So here goes,” and plunged in. That’s inspiration of a kind, isn’t it? So she gave us both a rocket boost.

      It’s called Carnival glass, or Depression glass, and comes in many colors, of which marigold is the commonest (and cheapest). They used to give it away as prizes at carnivals, I believe, and it was most popular 1920 – 1950s. I kind of collect the stuff, and on a whim got all the marigold pieces around the house together, put them on my coffee table, and took the picture!

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  3. Here’s another poem that popped up on Facebook, from Karen Roggenkamp, co-editor of American Periodicals and professor of English at UT-Commerce. Love it!

    There was a young girl from St. Paul,
    Wore a newspaper dress to a ball.
    The dress caught on fire
    And burned her entire
    Front page, sporting section and all.

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