Tag Archives: Poem

New Poem

sunset, Lake Champlain

sunset, Lake Champlain


It comes to me while stocking shelves
by rote, neurons idle.

It comes to me while losing weight
from missed meals, hunger overrated.

It comes to me while stacking bills
against means, tower leaning.

It comes to me while taking pills
for AIDS, or forgetting.

It comes to me while writing poetry
at dawn, before dusk.

What Do You Meana Sestina?

I had a wonderful conversation at La Brioche with Rick Winston yesterday about art, movies and the Sestina, which is his first choice for writing poetry. I also groused about my current underemployment, where I am neither earning enough to live on nor using my skills. Here I don’t mean my poetic skills, although that would be really cool if it ever came to pass that I actually earned money with them, but I mean my more job marketable skills like Microsoft Office proficiency, records and information management, and administrative capacities.

He suggested that in the meantime I could write a poem about stocking shelves at the grocery store. So I went home and did so, using his preferred poetic form. What I thought I would do is share what I wrote, and then follow it with some notes on its formation and where I will go with revising from there.


Grocery Store Lament
JD Fox

My features blank, I am nothing
as I open boxes all day to stock
the shelves. There is so little time
to spend outside of it trying to create
a decent piece of art, a memorable work;
the great American novel or perfect story.

It all makes for a sad story.
Sure I started out from nothing
making life seem like a divine work
but as I take middle-age stock
of my life, I think, what did he create
and why the hell did he spend the time?

Surely no god would waste their time
on such a run of the mill, same old story.
After all, he’d have the means to create
something brilliant from that nothing.
But at the end of the day I just stock
grocery items for the masses; mindless work

that makes it very difficult to work
up the desire to continue my time
here on Earth. I think if I were a stock
I would have crashed long ago, my story
done, the selling price reduced to nothing
with no shareholder value left to create.

Am I doomed to watch others create
while I’m forever stuck performing work
that at the end of life amounts to nothing
but a squandering of this limited time
to give a happy ending to my story?
Am I blood from a turnip: vegetable stock

for the soup of someone else? My stock
in trade compels me to create
as if I might write a breakout story
that would allow me the luxury to work
on my art in something resembling full time
before my American Dream reduces to nothing.

But if this nothing is the lock, stock
and barrel of my time, I hope others create
this epigraph of my work: end of story


The sestina can be an intimidating form. End words of the stanzas are repeated in a specific pattern that at first glance may seem incomprehensible. Even second glance. Hell, even after third glance and reading the Wikipedia entry on it, with its tables and algorithmic charts outlining the intentionally complex form, I’m not sure I truly grasp the mathematics behind its design. But that’s okay, as like electricity, one doesn’t need to fully understand it in order to use it.

I planned on using a table to keep track of my end words, but then I found this helpful Writer’s Digest article on the Sestina. The author, Robert Lee Brewer, mapped out the structure by line numbers, identifying the end words he used and providing a convenient skeleton of the form.

I first picked my six words, ones that seemed to go together thematically for me: stone, stock, time, create, work, and writing. My original first line was I’m a blank state, I am stone, with the thought that I would use later Am I fated to be crumbling stone or maybe Am I slated to be crumbing stone to have a dual meaning of slate. I toyed around with this, even writing a first couple of lines, but decided stone wouldn’t work (nor would writing), and changed them to nothing and story.

Here it should be said that since you will be repeating words, the most useful ones are those having multiple meanings and can be used as different parts of speech (noun, verb, etc). Doing so opens up more creative possibilities and minimizes the chance that you will write yourself into a corner where the line becomes forced by the demands of the form rather than supported by it.

And yeah, admittedly, nothing and story may not seem like much better choices than my original words, having limited definitions and parts of speech themselves. You can use story as a verb, but it is not common. However, the new words felt right, which is sometimes the best gauge for such things, so I went with them.

I Copy/Pasted the poem skeleton into word. Then I used Find/Replace to put my six chosen words into that skeleton. This allowed me the freedom to construct line by line, knowing readily what end word I needed without having to leave the poem to refer to a table. I wrote each line next to its guide:

Line 1-nothing (A) My features blank, I am nothing
Line 2-stock (B) as I open boxes all day to stock

Then when I finished, I simply deleted the guides, which might be akin to erasing initial sketch lines in a drawing. And voila: sestina!

During revision I will likely change the title to Grocery Clerk Lament, making the title more specific and accurate. I dislike that in this first draft I have both reduced to nothing and reduces to nothing, the repetition here seeming lackluster. Maybe for the first instance I should change it to something like fallen to nothing, or closing at nothing, which seem to go more with stock prices anyway.

Or I could instead change the second instance to crumbles to nothing, or maybe rewrite the line so I can use the verb form crumbling. Both crumbles and crumbling seem to go with American Dream, so either one should work.

I will definitely go through and tighten the lines, though I have read different thoughts on the rules for the form regarding this.

One guide has said the initial line in each stanza should be seven syllables and the other lines ten syllables. Even more specifically, the ten syllables should ideally be in Iambic Pentameter. For those who don’t know, Iambic Pentameter is just a highbrow way of saying each line of ten syllables should sound like da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM.

I’m not much of a counter and probably won’t be that anal. I’ll go with the school of thought that contemporary sestinas do not have to strictly adhere to that specificity of meter and syllable. But nevertheless, there can be a fine line between intentionally not adhering and just being lazy.

Is the line off meter because it really is the best way the line can be written? That is, to write it any other way would do a disservice to the poem.

For such determination, counting and meter manipulation can be extremely useful even if they do not result in a line meeting such specification. Such focus often reveals weak phrasing in the initially composed line. But one can also achieve that end sans counting just by playing around with the line, reading it aloud, and so on, which is more my tendency.

A tendency I would love to indulge more. So if there are any patrons of the arts out there reading this, please consider making a karmic donation to me.

All Hail the Villanelle

I attended a Poem City workshop today on the Villanelle that was run by writer Samantha Kolber. This structured poem has its roots in peasant dance songs. The form is at once both deceptively simple and complicated.

Simple because there are just two rhyming sounds and there are repeated sentences throughout. So just write a couple of lines down and the poem’s already half done!

But complicated because the challenge lies in using that formal repetition to effectively build tension and so on. The sentences should have a connection that comes out more fully through the progression of the poem; maybe even seeming wholly unconnected at first.

One of the best, and best know examples of the form, is the famous poem by Dylan ThomasDo not go gentle into that good night.”

My ten-minute workshop stab at it, along with thoughts about its on-the-fly creation:



Gravity keeps on holding me down.
I stare at the clouds so white, so soft.
There is blood on the ground.

I try to think thoughts profound
as I try to raise myself aloft.
Gravity keeps on holding me down.

In my thoughts I only drown;
my skin wrinkled and hard, never soft.
There is blood on the ground.

I listen for some sense, some sound
other than war pigs feeding at the trough.
Gravity keeps on holding me down.

The indifferent world goes round and round
as I start to shake and cough.
There is blood on the ground.

My life has become a smileless frown
that unremarkable day when my gun went off.
Gravity keeps on holding me down.
There is blood on the ground.

The traditional structure, which I follow above, has six stanzas. The first stanza introduces the two repeated sentences with their end word rhyming. They bookend a line with the only other rhyming sound in the poem. The next four stanzas call out the repeated sentences on an alternating basis (like melody and chorus), using the rhyme of the repeated sentences plus the second rhyme, until they are brought back together in the last stanza, evoking what is hopefully a somewhat new (or at least more vivid) image.

Visually, the pattern is:

A1 (repeated sentence #1)
b (second rhyme)
A2 (repeated sentence #2)

a (rhymes with A1 and A2)





I thought of the repeated lines first, A1 and A2, thinking of the dual meaning of gravity, both as the  physical force and also as seriousness, especially with respect to grief. I soon had a vision of a gun going off, though I was thinking more of it being an accident.

For better or verse, “off” isn’t that friendly of a rhyme word. So I wrote down options — cough, aloft, soft, off, trough – and went with them.

Not easy to think of a way to use trough, but I did like the earthiness of animals tromping on the ground, thinking it a good compliment to the repeated line Gravity keeps on holding me down, so I wrote pigs feeding at the trough. Which didn’t quite fit how I wanted.

But we had been talking about Norwich University earlier along with war, so war pigs came naturally to mine (and also Black Sabbath, incidentally, as a tangential note). I think that single word makes the line fit a lot better into the scheme, though it changes in my eyes the firing, like maybe it’s not accidental.

Still, accidental firing or not, the poem seems to retain the same high-level of guilt of the shooter, which is the primary image i was wanting to capture.


I attended last night’s poetry slam at Kellogg Hubbard Library and read a couple of poems. Although I could have done a better job (i.e. I gave a horrible reading), I’m glad I went. I met some new people, heard some cool poems, and received some nice encouragement, like that from slam meister Geoff Hewitt who also recommended a book of poems by Aram Saroyan he thought I would enjoy (from Black Sparrow Press, incidentally, which published much of Charles Bukowski‘s works, all of which I have read and have been influenced by).

But mostly I’m glad I went because I did horribly. I hate “failing,” but I hate “not progressing” more and the two are unavoidably linked. My goal isn’t to “not fail,” but to “fail better.”

So now in the aftermath (or afterglow) I’m thinking of how I can improve such failing. I’m thinking I maybe should have read the sonnet I’d written instead of the beat-inspired poem about abortion. Or maybe just read the latter better.

I’m thinking Warren (WMRW Radio Annual Call-in & Live Poetry Slam!) is too far for me to travel tonight since I have to do my eking grocery clerk gig until 6:30 pm, but I might be able to do the call-in thing, where I would have another wonderful opportunity to fail.

I’m thinking the second poem I read was better received, despite my flawed performance.

And I’m thinking I’ll share that second poem below:


Ah, Christ, when did the road
to Purdue University become so paved? Did I miss
a memo, a leaflet, a constitutional amendment
that would have given me better directions? Or maybe,
I just cannot read so well, the coffee
and tear-stained map unfolding into social hieroglyphics
foreign to me.
Eighteen years old and already lost at sea,
I watch
in my hindsight mirror as my best friend
takes a bite of an apple
I can’t taste. Don’t want to taste, actually, the snake in me
having an altogether different purpose as my desires surface,
but still, I clutch the wheel like I’m in control and don’t feel
anything inside me. I see
the sign saying 465 Exit Straight Ahead.
an arrow going the wrong narrow way, I think,
but take it, anyway. I always do. Sometimes
you have to go a little South, after all, in order to fly North,
and in 1987 leaving Anderson is no exception.
The bypass
wraps around Indianapolis like intestinal machinery
and craps us out onto I-65.

Weren’t there horses before machines? Wild
hopes running, roaming free? Full of fever
I reach
over to touch my best friend’s knee, but instead catch
myself and turn
the radio also on. So many stations, but all I get
is static. My friend hand’s me a cassette,
saying, “Why don’t you play
this?” I
and the greedy tape deck takes it. How great
it is to be inserting something somewhere! Rush
ushers Tom Sawyer in. I look in the backseat for Finn,
but all I see is a backpack containing my paint
by number SAT scores
promising the future is yours,
if I do what I am told.
But I grow old, I grow old,
whether or not my trousers are rolled
and I want the goddam brass ring
Oh, I don’t mean bling
You can have that sort of thing
I mean the luxury to be me
To have that kind of clarity.
But instead I have a welcome packet and a half-filled casket as dumb
and dumber academic junk remind me I was sunk
before I had a chance to swim. Over
to my right, a Deer Crossing sign warns me to watch out. How
odd. For the headlights are always on me,
and I think that I must be
the only one frozen.

You can make good time going nowhere.
Like ice, high school wore thin.
It had been a motionless affair.
Yet locked in place I fell through,
with a poker face pocked with rue.
And oh, it was so irrelevant.
All hail holy Thomas Covenant. I was, I am, a bloodguard beyond repair
with little worth protecting, the predetermined physics
of my body only outwardly observing the laws
of organic chemistry prevalent in the halls.
But the need to heed the societal call
to be a cookie cutter
made Engineering seem full of bitter
sweet butter.
But I wonder,
as I take us off the highway,
to gas up at a red and yellow Shell station
offering a free car wash, what
the real catch is. My friend
comes out of the washroom as, my tank all filled up,
I pull the nozzle out, careful not to let it drip,
and slip it back into the slot where it belongs, where it’s supposed to go,
the right hole being so very important you know.
“Do you have to go?” he asks.
Things left unsaid I shake my head
and get back behind the safety of the wheel,
Where in the world does someone like me
have to go?