November 25, 2020

Mini-Prompt: What If

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

I saw a video interview with Ray Bradbury a long time ago in which he said almost everything he has written has been inspired by asking "what if."  Bradbury wrote novels and stories but a lot of his writing advice applies to poetry too.

The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone. (from a 2010 interview with Sam Weller, published in The Paris Review)

Bradbury told about an encounter he had as a boy in 1932 with a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico. Wreathed in static electricity, Mr. Electrico touched the young Bradbury on the nose and said, “Live forever!” Ray returned to the carnival the next day for advice about magic. Mr. Electrico introduced him to the other performers in the carnival and told Bradbury that he was a reincarnation of his best friend who died in World War I. 

What if he could live forever or he was reincarnated or if there could be a truly magical carnival? Bradbury later wrote, “a few days later I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day.” That carnival came back to him along with all the "what ifs" of his boyhood and became his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. What if a magician at a carnival could grant your greatest wish? "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes," says one of the witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth.

I used to ask my teenaged students to write a what-if poem after we had read a few Bradbury stories. One of the model poems I use that they always seemed to like was an old one - "What if you slept" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I never told them before the poem or the writing how old Coleridge or the poem was because not only is that irrelevant to the lesson but because the poem doesn't seem old at all - especially coming from the opium addict that wrote "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?

Coleridge by John Chubb - from the collection of the Blake Museum

Coleridge's life is interesting - and sad. Born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England in 1772, he wrote that he was falling into a deep depression when he was introduced to the poet William Wordsworth in 1795. That first year of their friendship was the most productive period of Coleridge’s life. 

They both liked to compose their poetry while walking, so they took long walks together throughout that summer, though Wordsworth preferred to stay on the path while Coleridge liked rough terrain. 

That winter, they spent several days hiking along the coast, and to pass the time they made up a gothic ballad about a tragic sea voyage. Coleridge became obsessed with the poem when he got home, filling it with images from nightmares he’d had since he was a kid, and it became “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798).

It's a difficult poem to read today though the story of a sailor who brings a curse on his ship when he kills an albatross is full of sea monsters and the ghosts of his dead shipmates.

The poem brought him some fame and money but within a few years of writing it he became addicted to opium, which killed his creativity and ruined his friendship with Wordsworth. He failed to complete most of his ambitious projects, including a 1,400-page work of geography, a two-volume history of English prose, a translation of Faust, a musical about Adam and Eve, a history of logic, a history of German metaphysics, a study of witchcraft, and an encyclopedia.

His friend Charles Lamb wrote of Coleridge, “His face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Archangel a little damaged.” What if he had not become addicted to opium?

If you try writing a what-if poem and would like to share it, post it as a comment to this post. (All comments must be approved before they appear.)

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November 4, 2020

Prompt: The Future

Future Time by Pete Linforth

I read Mary Jo Bang's poem "How it will feel months from now" when it was part of the Shelter in Poems series on With that title/first line that feels so appropriate in this pandemic year, I paused and thought to myself, "How will it feel months from now?"

Mary Jo has said of this poem, “The sameness of quarantine can feel at times like a state of suspended animation, a perpetual NOW. With so little by which to measure time, I found myself noticing those things that did change, like the sky in the window at the end of a day. Seeing the color shift reminded me of other changes—some that had just happened (a siren had sliced through the silence), and some that had happened before now (a different silence, a different siren)—and that made me wonder what this NOW would feel like in the future.”

People have been calling every day "Blursday" as they seem to blend one into another. I saw someone post in October that the date was March 225th, as if once they started to "shelter at home" in March the month just never ended.

The poem says as much -

The walls of time dissolve whenever
the lights are turned off. The lights
that made the day so easy to be with.
I fold myself away. 

Looking up the poet's bio, I found another poem of hers that seems to have a connection. It's another 2020 title-is-first-line poem about thinking of the future. The poem is "Speaking of the future, Hamlet":

is saying, someday this day will be over.
A moon will presumably still be above:
a bone quiet, an inflatable in the scene

—the cool blue swimming pool
it finds itself in. And I will want to be.
My mother, the Queen, will want only

my father, the King. All will be want
and get. And I will be me. And O, O,
Ophelia—will be the essence of love...

This month we are going to ask you to write a poem about how it will feel in a few months (or years). We want you to explicitly think and write about the future. This does not have to be a pandemic poem, but it might be one. We also want you to follow Mary Jo's example and make your title your first line, or at least have the title continue directly into the main poem. (This is something that usually happens in an "untitled" poem but your first line should also serve as a proper title.)

Submission Deadline: November 30, 2020

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