See Tupelo Press to read the poems for March 2, 2014 by scrolling down to “Day 2/Poems 2” and of course, to read my poem, A Self Portrait / by John C. Mannone .
The backstory is as follows:
When I visited Colorado to give a series of lectures in late February, I was amazed that such a small college in a remote part of the state would have such a significant Indian museum, Koshare, which I reference in the epigraph to the poem, “A Self Portrait.”
One of the things I learned actually provided the prompt for the poem: why are some Indians afraid to have had their photograph taken or their image painted? Because some felt back then that it would steal their soul. I was intrigued and decided I would write a poem about it. The additional motivation to write this poem is a chapbook collection I have been working on, Sacred Flute: A Collection of Poetry Infused with Indian Culture, Legend and History. And since one of those poems—a bilingual one called “el destape” (“The Uncovering”)—just got picked up by Trickster Journal (North New Mexico College) for the spring issue, I am further revitalized.
The poem shaped itself into a sonnet-like structure, which was not predetermined. No, it doesn’t have the metrics, nor the rhyme, but it does offer more than the token 14 lines. It has the volta (Italian for turning point), which in my opinion is critical for a sonnet. (Admittedly, there are different sonnet structures, but even for those that end in a couplet there is some resolution to a question, paradox, etc.) Here, the volta occurs after the 10th line (noted in the next paragraph). But the emotion of the narrator comes out strikingly in the last 3 lines, and that is why I broke the verse after the 11th line. The conclusion is actually foreshadowed by the little poem in the epigraph written by one Indian artist (Taos) who was more progressive than another Indian artist (Kause) who had grown up in a tradition with the taboo in full force.
My original opening line, I will let the artist paint my image, was answering the epigraph. I finally realized it should be answering my poem! So I moved it to its proper place where you see it now, at the beginning of the volta.
A few line breaks are effective (especially lines 1, 2, 12, 13), while the others don’t do much more than offer a convenient place to break, nevertheless, enough tension is generated by those few lines to warrant those breaks and guide the rest of the poem’s line lengths.
When I brainstormed a few lines on my flight home this past Monday, I wrote what appeared to be a clever line break, but ultimately would have sunk the poem. Those first 3 lines were:
I will let the artist paint my image.
What is there to fear? The Great White
Spirit spoke to me in a dream, he said
The subliminal allusion to the Great White shark resonates with the fear, but not with a Western Plains or Pueblo Indians (or just about any other Indian nation I can think of in the contiguous United States).
It had to be replaced with something else. Eventually, I was able to work the (Great) White Buffalo into the poem—a symbol of wisdom. It was considered sacred by the Indians. (Now the reader might have to do a little research to extract that nuance, but the payoff is good.)
Finally, I want to mention the allusions to the sacred texts, in particular, the Bible (e.g., Genesis 1:27). My intent was to help provide some spiritual resolution to what seemed to be a spiritual concern to the Indians of that era where self portraits were taboo. But also because I want the reader think about the overlap of Christianity and American Indian spirituality (because we often hear more about their antitheses than their commonality).