See the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project to read the poems for March 18, 2014 by scrolling down to “Day 18/Poems 18” and of course, to read my poem there: A Spanish Affair / by John C. Mannone or read all four 55-word micros here:
The backstory to “A Spanish Affair” and three other “poems”: a teaching opportunity
Every Sunday, in a flash fiction office in a private (but free) virtual studio (American Zoetrope), the facilitator supplies five randomly generated words from which we are to write precisely a 50- or 55-word piece (excluding the title). The history of why 50 or 55 is interesting, but from my understanding it was a morphing of 5 for 50. But such so-called micros can be little prose poems, or for that matter, even lineated ones. At least that’s what I’ve done. As with the any prompt given to, say 10 poets, 10 very different poems will likely emerge. Sometimes it’s fun to see if the same poet can take and generate different poems from the list. I often find this difficult because of pre-existing biases. But with something like this—several words in a limited word count—it might be more easily achievable. So today’s poems are a result of an experiment that doesn’t take too long to do.
This week’s 5 words, selected at random from “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann, are the following: taxi, fruitcake, affair, Spanish, yellow
Before I decided to do this experiment. My first reaction was an expletive. How was I going to use “fruitcake” and keep a straight face? And how do I avoid the “yellow cab,” which verges on cliché? I honestly thought about using the Fruitcake Cab Co., but that would lead me to write something funny, which might be okay (except I’m not a stand-up, or sit-down, comedian). Even when I tried to write something unique (honestly trying to use all the words, but sometimes I failed), I at times yielded to common usage.
I wanted to generate more than one poem, but I needed a little help in overcoming the distraction/bias of how to combine the words after the first one was written.
We can visually scan for appealing pairs of words and see if they do anything for us, but if we wanted to be scientific about, then how would we determine unique pairs that we could write from n unique words (n = 5 here)? With such a small sample, this could be done fairly quickly without any math, but for those who like such things, we can use combinatorics. In other words, number of unique pairs is given by n(n-1)/2, which in this case is 20 ordered pairs divided by 2 or 10 unique pairs. This is readily confirmed by inspection:
=> Spanish affair, Spanish fruitcake, Spanish taxi, and yellow taxi, stick out as possible story seeds; others like yellow fruitcake, Spanish yellow, or yellow affair sound silly, but not as bad as fruitcake taxi, fruitcake affair, or taxi affair, but maybe some creative constructions like this would be acceptable: “a fair tax, I…”
Of course, we have the individual words to work with, too. “Affair” is prominent and lends itself to promiscuity and there are only two obvious ways to use “fruitcake”: the dessert or the slang. I’ll try the slang usage first. Don’t be afraid to invent words. One of my favorite things is to make verbs out of nouns:
An Affair Between Two Dolls
Ken and Barbie don’t have anything over them. He’s debonair, no fruitcake; panache in white feathered-fedora. She’s not blonde; no glitter make-up, just natural olive skin, a Spanish mystery in her eyes; voluptuous in a cocktail dress, stiletto heals. Both waiting for that yellow taxicab to a new reality. The other two can stay mannequin’d.
But in attempts to be more serious, I had to trash “fruitcake” and use two of the good pairings in one piece. But starting with the expected yellow taxi, I created a story with two intriguing words that paired up (and used in the title) There was no way I could write a steamy piece with the word “fruitcake” in it:
A Spanish Affair
She slides out of the yellow taxi; high heels click across the wet asphalt, her red dress frills the neon night like a flamenco dancer’s. In the hotel doorway, he offers her his arm, she pulls him in under the silk umbrella, kisses him in the misty shade of a lamplight-moon. Kicks the door shut.
Looking at other pairs of words, like “Spanish fruitcake,” takes me to the holidays in an ethnic home. Or “Spanish taxi” takes me Mexico, with the thoughts of immigration, drug lords, lovely people, mountains… The latter is more appealing at the moment. And a story emerges:
The Don Diego Affair
The dusty road wound its way to the Palacio in the Mexican mountains. Two men in white suits were bringing gifts for the drug lords; the box in the back of the Spanish taxi jostled a case of fruitcake, soaked in cognac. AK-47s stashed inside the false seat. The sky was yellow like moths.
But of these three examples, are any of these micros—narrative anecdotes—poetry? Ted Kooser warns us in his book, “The Poetry Home Repair Manual,” that story alone does not lift an anecdote into poetry. Of course, that leaves the question of what does. In my opinion, rendering the micro as prose poem is the answer, but that still doesn’t tell us how or what it is to make it a poem. Not an easy task, but poetry can be distinguished from prose by (1) its remarkable rhythm and musicality of words, (2) a noticeable word compression (but this is less obvious in conversational poems or in many storytelling narrative poems), (3) the ubiquity of poetic devices (but this too may be suppressed in more conversational pieces), and (4) its layered meanings. This last item isn’t really optional. It is key in distinguishing poetic prose from poetry.
“The Don Diego Affair” is not particularly good or bad in rhythm, but it isn’t much more than story. The final sentence is suggestive of poetry, but it isn’t nearly enough for this piece to be a poem.
“An Affair Between Two Dolls” is much better, especially with some interesting word-play at the end, but ultimately it is simply poetic prose.
“A Spanish Affair,” on the other hand, is clearly poetry satisfying the preponderance of those poetic elements. The rhythm is much better than the other examples. The title and imagery work together. The actions and descriptions are very suggestive foreshadowing the sensuous evening.
What doesn’t work is cut-up prose; that will never lift an anecdote into poetry (and it insults the prose form, too).
Finally, I want to offer an example of creativity in using difficult words, like “fruitcake.” The following 55-word lineated poem, though not particularly a great poem, demonstrates how syntax can help finesse that pesky word:
Expecting Important Company
You called; taxi on its way
for her birthday affair. Poured
yellow batter into pans, baked
in porcelain oven until golden.
Before placing fruit, cake on
the icing, thick, spackling it
like Spanish stucco—Florida
pink. When frosting has set,
sink in strawberries, paint
with chocolate. Stick candles
waxing flames like sunlight
before granddaughter arrives.