See the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project to read the poems for March 21, 2014 by scrolling down to “Day 21/Poems 21” and of course, to read my poem: Disappearance / by John C. Mannone
Backstory of “Disappearance”:
Based on a true experience, I wrote a poem, “Christmas Eve on the Way to Midnight Mass,” in which the character ended up at a Waffle House. It was a finalist in a Kurt Vonnegut contest and was published in Tipton Poetry Journal in February 2012. By that fall, I had decided to start writing a chapbook collection that I hope to call Waffle House Poems. I tasked myself to finish the 24 poems by the end of 2013 with the hopes of publishing them (when I found the right publisher) before the end of 2014. I had a major writing flurry early in 2013 and then again in the spring and summer, but fizzled out until recently. I’m close to being finished the collection. At least six of them have been individually published.
My motivation was to give homage, not so much to Waffle House, but to folks who work for (and who visit) these diners. I found the waitresses and other workers very interesting people and are often what I call “the working poor.” So sometimes I will make a socio-economic-political statement in the poems disguised in metaphor.
With that long preamble in mind, I recently tried to write some more Waffle House poems to see if I could finish this project soon. For some yet unexplained reason, one piece I set out to write for Tupelo Press came out as a humorous story on a possible alien abduction of a Waffle House waitress. I think the idea was planted in my head when I listened to a radio show called Coast To Coast while driving back from the observatory late one Saturday night. I scribbled a few lines, which looked more like prosy sentences. Yesterday I decided to see if there was anything inspiring on the Internet. On a wild hunch, I googled “alien abduction waffle house” and much to my amazement I got stuff I could use!
One entry dated September 10, 2011 was from a coed at San Francisco State University: After I have been abducted by aliens I find that waffles usually get the metallic taste out of my mouth and syrups soothes the burning. Thank you waffle house!!! But what really impressed me was that the restaurant corporate headquarters replied the next day, Glad to help. May the force be with you. I appreciated the sense of humor and decided I had to work that into the story. But not only that, a fellow presumably from San Francisco, wrote a review of a different waffle eatery in Eugene, Oregon. He quoted something from their menu showing the restaurant’s sense of humor: Consuming undercooked eggs may increase the chance of foodborne illness, may also increase the chance of abduction by aliens. Of course, I had to use a modified version of that, too (though I didn’t quite know how at that moment).
As the narrative emerged, I was faced with the challenge of how do I take a piece of humorous prose and make it a poem. Based on what I said before, cutting up prose and lineating it does not make it poetry. (See the backstory to “A Spanish Affair,” March 18, 2014.)
At first, I thought just to call it a “flash poem,” but the language was not poetic enough. Then I thought, well, give it an experimental structure. However, white space, asterisks, forward slashes, scattered words, etc. doesn’t make it a poem either (just an eye-sore). I still challenged myself to find a way to keep it in paragraph form, because the flow was very good. And though I was content with the work the way it was to go in my collection, I could not in good conscience call it a poem for Tupelo Press or anyone else.
A fine poet I know is skilled in quirky, surreal writing and his work could arguable be called prose poems. I tried, but unfortunately, was unable to convert my narrative into something surreal. “Disappearance” relies heavily on characterization, and on character voices, to make it work. Right or wrong, I concluded that surrealism doesn’t yield to the demands of humor (or is it the other way around).
Late last night I was getting desperate to find a solution. I even considered other forms: limerick, ballad, even a song. But these would still fail being poems.
In the morning, I reluctantly started to lineate the text in hopes of finding enough good line breaks and maybe begin shaping it as a poem. I ensured good rhythm despite the prosy, conversational tone and sought internal music to the words. But I knew that this still would not be enough to lift it into poetry. I needed much more than a good-sounding story and a few good line breaks. I needed literary depth. I needed layers of meaning.
The breakthrough came by distancing myself from the piece when I asked a general question. Realizing that humor and horror are styles, characteristics in general, and not specific genres themselves*, I asked what was it that I had done in my horror writings that earned it to be called horror poetry? The answer is metaphor. Horrific things can also symbolize existential things. The human condition can be expressed through metaphor. So if it worked for horror, in principle, it should work for humor.
And this is the result: The layered meaning in “Disappearance” comes from what the aliens represent, they are a concretization of the socio-economic-political system I mentioned earlier. It is that “system” which keeps low income people prisoners, and inadvertently or not, results in exploitation, an “abduction” of sorts. “Big Brother” is watching, he leaves a bad taste in the mouth, is arguably responsible for home displacement, etc. These things are hinted at in the poem. Is there enough hinting? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it’s an honest attempt to justify calling this piece a “poem.” Notice what happens to the humor. It continues to entertain, but goes beyond the “hee-haw,” and transforms (at least in part) to satire and irony.
So was Betsy abducted by aliens or did she run-off with Pedro, the Waffle House manager? Is Pedro a rescuer of Betsy from the “system” or is he a victim, too? I won’t say, but it was no accident for my using raccoon imagery in both the beginning and at the end of the poem. ☺
* There are some that contend otherwise; they lump scifi, fantasy, and horror together. Actually, one can have horror in any genre, e.g., dark romance, scifi horror, fantasy horror, and yes, literary horror (often psychological).