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C.N.P Poetry 

  • Writer's pictureCathexis Northwest Press

Prayer for Diners; driving jimmy home; the customers never saw

By: Sara Ries Dziekonski

Prayer for Diners

For the bounty of coffee, conversation, grease stained

newspapers strewn around counters and booths,

that the demolished diners’ spirits remain.

For my father who hung his cook’s hat, ate his mistakes,

for the beat-up and brokenhearted clothed in blues,

the bounty of coffee, conversation, and grease stains.

And the neon signs beckoning the stragglers

the way crosses pull the reverent to churches.

That the demolished diners’ spirits remain.

Bodies rustier than antique cans, they limped in with canes.

For the jukeboxes too old for repair, songs that couldn’t soothe.

For the bounty of coffee, conversation, and grease stains.

For today’s specials, steel clanks, plate scrapes.

For the regulars who sat for hours unraveling their truths,

that the demolished diners’ spirits remain.

Bless the names of the bodies that housed rivers of joy and pain.

Seasons trailed in by shiny shoes, sneakers, and work boots.

For the bounty of coffee, conversation, and grease stains.

That the demolished diners’ spirits remain.

driving jimmy home

it’s like getting out of prison, jimmy says,

and flings off his apron. we bust out of the plaka

after customers missed every closing cue.

he’s double my age, lanky,

what my mother would call a string bean.

we fill my jeep with haddock stench;

jimmy lights a cigarette. it’s near freezing,

but we roll down the windows,

let the moon in.

slow night, again.

23 bucks in my olive green smock,

yoga pants painted with grease stains.

jimmy pulls a comb from his back pocket,

drives it through his wavy grey mane,

asks, where will the night take you?

i don’t know.

maybe I’ll work on a poem, i say.

earlier, the boss said let me see the broom,

then demonstrated the correct way to sweep.

she wore flats and smelled of lilacs.

then she picked up a penny, huffed

no one wants a penny anymore,

and i remembered a time when heads up

meant dreams and possibilities.

at 28 i’ve lost count

of waitress jobs and apartments.

jimmy’s manned the plaka’s grill since

the turn of the century.

i pull to the side of the street

before his crumbling abode.

he looks out the window, says

i think i’ll smoke a joint and watch tv.

i’m a creature of habit, always been that way,

and before he enters his home

he looks, for a long time,

at the moon

the customers never saw

the poem-pieces i scribbled then shoved

in my apron pocket,

never saw

dad napping on the cellar couch,

feet wailing in throbs,

a full stack of hours to go

or mom:

puffy, red, swollen

sinking into that same couch

for a sample of peace, escaping

my short-fused father at the grill

the customers never saw

dad and me at the stainless steel table,

a bus pan of potatoes between us

we peeled the brown coats

from their starchy bodies,



their hearts beat

they never saw mom and me

sneaking pies

into the back kitchen to split

we’d return to clear our tables,



in our mouths

good thing the customers never saw brian and me jumping

in the dumpster to



or me peeing in the stock room’s drain

to avoid the dining room,

and since we’re on the subject,

the time i hid

in my brother’s shit

in the basement garbage can,

hide-and-go-seek gone wrong

oh, and that game we invented—


where we’d toss

egg crates like frisbees

the customers never saw our small bodies

entering the garage with dad at 3:45 a.m.

on saturdays, sometimes to find

a mouse

on its wooden deathbed,

never saw

the cots below the kitchen

where we cocooned until it was time

to sort silverware/ chop ham/ scrub pots and pans—

the customers never saw my father say

look at the sky,

me kneeling on a booth,

forehead against the window,

the cool glass palm of morning,

strands of sunrise lifting above bethlehem steel: our day’s poems


Sara Ries Dziekonski (Sara Ries), a Buffalo native, holds an MFA in poetry from Chatham University. Her first book, Come In, We're Open, which she wrote about growing up in her parents’ diner, won the 2009 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. Her chapbooks include Snow Angels on the Living Room Floor (Finishing Line Press 2018) and Marrying Maracuyá (Main Street Rag 2021), which won the Cathy Smith Bowers Chapbook Competition. Her poems have appeared in Slipstream, Cordella Magazine, The Buffalo News, Blue Collar Review, LABOR: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, and Earth’s Daughters, among others. Ries Dziekonski is the recipient of the 2020-21 Emerging Artist Grant from Creative Pinellas. She teaches creative writing and is the co-founder of Poetry Midwives Editing Services, which she offers through Keep St. Pete Lit.

Interview with the Poet:


How long have you been writing poetry?

Sara Ries Dziekonski:

In high school I dreamed of being a singer in a rock band like Courtney Love, and so I began writing song lyrics in a spiral notebook that I’d pass to my friend in the hallway between classes. Years later, I realized that these were my first poems and that songs are poems. It’s just that now when I’m in front of an audience, I deliver my poems without singing. My friends tell me this is a good thing haha. In undergrad I started writing more seriously. I compiled my first chapbook called Spill and signed up for creative writing classes every chance I got.


Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?


When I first heard “This is your Life” by Celia White, a poet from my hometown, Buffalo, it was late at night in my best friend’s parked car on Elmwood Avenue. My friend said, “You have to hear this poem” as though I must try the finest cheese. She read it to me, and I felt so nourished. Celia White begins each stanza with “This is your life” and writes about the ordinary, messy, yet magical details of people’s lives in such a musical and accessible way: “This is your life…You try always to be paying the right sort of attention, you make sloppy meals which are absolutely delicious, you can tell weeds from flowers & find both beautiful, useful, clever” and this line pops into my head regularly, “Your family and friends love you madly but don’t know how you manage to cross the street by yourself.” Never before had I been so held and accepted by the poem. I saw that poetry can be a celebration of the intimate, honest, and surprising details of our lives and that even the most ordinary life bursts an abundance of beauty. It expanded my idea about what poetry could be and made me fall hard for poetry. What an important discovery, that in a poem, we can tell the reader secrets about ourselves and share things we would never reveal at a job interview. Poetry is like taking off the business attire and getting real. This opened me up as a poet and led me to finding my own voice.


Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?


Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favorites, and I am especially struck by her poem, “Kindness.” Kim Addonizio is another favorite, and I adore “Collapsing Poem” for the painfully honest description of how messy human emotions can get in relationships. Other favorites: Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Rumi, Jim Daniels, Mary Oliver, Ilya Kaminski, Pablo Neruda. Of course, Celia White would have to be on this list. So would local poets from different places I’ve lived. I love so many poets and poetry books that this is in no way a complete list. In my MFA program I was so lucky to have studied under Sheryl St. Germain and Heather McNaugher, and I was enthralled from the moment I met their poetry. They have been important influences as well.


Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?


I almost always jot down the idea for a poem into my journal first. It might be a line that pops into my head, or maybe it is something that happened that feels like a poem. After collecting the bones (or seeds) of the poem in my journal, I type it into a Word document and for multiple sittings, I work on revising it: cutting fat, searching for the strongest word choices, crafting for sound, etc. I used to wait until what felt like the perfect moment of inspiration to write. Now I am a mother of a two-year-old and have such limited windows of time. So when I do have some time, I just start writing to get the poetry to flow. This might mean going to my journal and finding some poem bones to type or going back to a poem in my computer and continuing to revise it. Although I don’t always do this, before I begin writing I like to light a candle and read some poems to ease into the poetry flow.


How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?


This is a really interesting question. Sometimes I know before I write a poem that it belongs in a certain form. For example, one of the final poems for my second book of diner poems, “We All Go Back,” is about how none of the former owners could escape the diner my parents owned for 32 years. I chose to put this in the form of a pantoum so each stanza (except the first) has two repeated lines from the previous stanza. I wanted to show how interwoven all of these owners were and how all are part of the same cloth, or diner, and how nobody ever really left. The lines return (or repeat) to mimic how the former owners return to the diner, as though a previous owner is in the next owner’s stanza. I normally work in free verse, but sometimes I see that a poem would work best in a different form after I write it. This was the case for a poem I wrote called “Prayer for Diners.” After composing it in free verse, I made it into a villanelle. The poem breathes best in this form because villanelles have a prayer-like quality to them. But really, I hardly ever know what a poem will look like on the page until I begin writing it. I may have an idea, but it usually transforms into several poem-bodies.


Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?


Read oodles of poetry. Find the poems that speak loudest to you. Read them again and again. Hang them on your wall. Write your truth. Read your poems out loud. Fall in love with your own voice and special rhythm. Your voice is your instrument. And seriously, just keep writing. Your voice is there all along. You just have to keep writing until everything else falls away. Sooner or later, your truest voice will give you goosebumps.


What is your editing process like?


Once I transfer the beginnings of a poem into my computer, I revise in a Word document. I’m always looking for extraneous words to chop to make a line more concise. Sometimes I need to add a few more words to really hit a reader’s heart. I often spend hours in one sitting rearranging lines and playing with line and stanza breaks as well as the wording so that I can see the many ways the poem can breathe. The computer is my instrument, and it allows me to compose my songs as I rearrange, add, subtract—this is how I make music. I once heard Peter Meinke, Poet Laureate of Florida, say that he revises towards sound, not meaning. I, too, focus on the lyrical quality of my poems. When I revise, I read them out loud over and over, removing any clunky areas, until the sound is just right. Taking my poems to workshop is extremely helpful in my revision process, and I am incredibly grateful for the writers in my life who give me such excellent feedback.


When do you know that a poem is finished?


I often feel a strong, overwhelming emotion once a poem is finished. For me, a poem is finished when it feels finished (and also when I’ve worked out all the snags with the help of my writer friends). A poem feels finished when the energy of the poem has shifted just right so that I say thank you to the writing guides who have passed this poem through me. Sometimes, when a poem is ready, I feel it so much that I cry.


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