Yesterday's Thunderclap Looked at Me with Awe; Freefloating Fury; When Prose Meets Poetry
By: Ellen Skilton
Yesterday's Thunderclap Looked at Me with Awe
My toddling daughter spoke in sentences
before words – the intonations
and incantations carrying her meaning.
I search for words, palabras, in the air –
But they fly by like paper airplanes
and at best, nosedive into my mouth.
My morpheme relationship was always doomed.
How could sounds, letters paint
damp dewdrops, tastes of coriander skies?
We are long-time frenemies,
language and I —inseparable one minute,
irate and red-faced the next.
Blackeyed Susans sound peppery.
Fresh-cut watermelon smells like flattery,
and yesterday’s thunderclap looked at me with awe.
-After Billy Collins’ Aimless Love
This afternoon as I walked the dog down my city street
I felt a flash of anger for the trash-invading raccoons
and later at the parking job of a stranger
who’d smashed fall’s final flowers I’d planted near the curb
In the darkness of the middle of the night
I cursed the car alarm bleating under my window
who awakened my slumber and the cat’s playful urges
and still later felt furious exasperation
at the thumping bass of a car radio before dawn
This is the worst kind of rage, I thought;
without a clear target, without a known enemy,
or earned righteous indignation, without self-satisfaction,
or familiar flashpoints ruining dinner
Animosity toward kitchen ants, traffic jams
and pouring rain without an umbrella.
No outlet, no talking trash about being wronged –
the loathing of being put on hold with sappy musak,
the sand in the bathing suit, the spinach in front teeth,
the endless construction on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
No reconciliation, no learn-from-mistakes, or enlightenment –
just a rush of venom once in a while
for the racoon who had wrestled off the lid
of my neighbor’s smelly trash can
and for the car,
still with all its weight on those dew-soaked daisies.
But my brain is always simmering on the back burner,
ready for the next flash of heat.
After I nursed the mangled daisies
to see the sun again in their curbside bit of green,
I found myself standing at the kitchen sink
Fuming silently at the dirty dishes.
When Prose Meets Poetry
The prose poem is an escalator that starts and ends in infinity. It doesn’t like matching socks or sheet sets, but loves the way that wildflowers organize committees to get things done. The petals of a prose poem sway like wild cosmos along the roadside, piercing the solitary melancholy of quarantine with a brief flash of holy exuberance. Prose poems’ eyelashes are exquisitely curled from dew drops and not enough fresh vegetables.
Like that ex-boyfriend your mother still asks about, there’s a hint of awkwardness in a prose poem, a highway without exits, exits without hallways, and stairways that lead out past the frozen foods, beyond the boxes of rice. To be in a crowded room in a soundproof glass box or to lounge at the very bottom of the ocean for a tea party, that is where the cartographers are sending you.
Ellen Skilton is a professor of education whose creative writing has appeared in The Dewdrop, Dissident Voice, and Rebelle Society. She is an educational anthropologist, an applied linguist and a Fringe Fest performer. She is in the second year of an MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University. She is an excellent napper, a chocolate snob, a swimmer, and lives in Philadelphia with a dog named Zoomer, a cat named Katniss and some lovely humans.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
I wrote a poem in elementary school that (at the time) I wanted to submit to Highlights Magazine. It was a poem written in response to a photograph of a lamb and my poem was a re-mix of "Mary Had A Little Lamb." I can still recite it by heart. My more recent practice of writing poetry is very new (just since Fall of 2020) when I started an MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University (where I am a professor of education). My training as an ethnographer and educational anthropologist had always drawn me to story and I started to write creative non-fiction. This creative turn in my life as a writer led me to writing poetry, in part because there is not a creative non-fiction program at Arcadia!
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Yes, it was Denise Levertov's "The Avowal." I had gone to a Quaker retreat where we learned about the spiritual practice of lectio divina. The workshop leader had included several short pieces, including Levertov's poem, and encouraged us to work on committing one to memory. I spent the next several weeks memorizing the poem as a spiritual practice and found that this allowed me to slow down and savor the words, images, and sounds in ways I never had before -- to discover something new about the poem weeks into memorizing it.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
Before I started writing poetry, Billy Collins and Mary Oliver invited me into this world in such accessible ways that I am forever connected to their work. I especially love Ada Limon's poems. “Instructions on Not Giving Up,” “The End of Poetry,” and “What it Looks like to Us and the Words we Use” are particularly wonderful to me. Danez Smith and Ocean Vuoung are also favorite poets. I often find the ways they speak their truths with such emotional honesty and craft to be breathtaking.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
Because I am still in an MFA program, prompts and deadlines for my classes are often a structure that supports carving out time to write poems. I need to find spaces to write in the midst of the work of being an education professor and directing a Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring -- both roles that use very different parts of my brain. One great thing that has come out of the pandemic is the creation of a “social nearing writing group” with a group of other writers who commit to two hour stints of parallel writing on Zoom twice a week. We all start by saying what we are working on and report back on progress at the end. It creates a ritual of both structure and accountability that can be really generative. The other ritual that really works for me (especially when I’m feeling stuck) is to spend a weekend morning reading a whole collection and then seeing what poem arrives after that immersion in another poet’s voice and craft.
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?
I don’t usually start with a form in mind. The form usually develops as part of the writing process. In the case of “Free Floating Fury,” I created my poem with fastidious attention to Collins’ punctuation and form, but that is unusual for me.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
My main advice to myself and others is to keep creating in community -- allow others to see unfinished work and respond to it. Don’t let “the reader” remain hypothetical. Real readers' noticings are a powerful way to hone one's voice, I think.
What is your editing process like?
There is an internal editing process that has to do with when a poem feels like it has become something more than a sum of its parts. This usually involves reading the poem out loud and playing in my head with lines that still don’t quite work -- either in terms of meaning or in terms of sound/form. I usually print both the poem and the feedback my peers have given and paste them into a notebook along with any feedback I’ve handwritten from others too. This ability to cross things out, draw arrows from one line to another in ink over the printed out page is very satisfying for me. It feels like the poem is in a very “in-process” but finding its form in this combination of typed draft and handwritten notes.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
Is a poem ever finished? :-) I was just saying to a friend who’s a painter that I’m not sure I ever feel for sure that a poem is done. It’s more like a poem feels like it is ready to stand on its own out in the world for a while. I have twin daughters who are 19 and this process reminds me of young adulthood. The essence, the structure & bones are there, but there is still potential development that may happen in some dimensions of the poem over time.