Sunday Apr 22

hoppenthaler The Personnetelle. Last week I visited my old high school, Clarkstown North, in New City, NY.  I went to give a little back, to participate in a program they call Sticky Notes Day, a day when students from North, and several other local schools, come together and participate in a variety of writing workshops.  This, to me, is very cool indeed; I wish it had been in place during my years as a high school student, and so I was happy enough to offer my professional services for pizza and a letter for my service file.
 
Deeply into the second half of the current semester at ECU, with several thesis students ready to defend and all matter of work-related issues to attend to, I at first forgot to scale back my assumptions; Debbie Brand, who runs the program, was kind enough to prompt me and suggest that I adjust a too-academic workshop description.  I came up with “Telling Lies: The Truth About Poetry,” a workshop that announced that its intention was to “focus on the value of lies in the making of a poem.”  Fair enough, I thought, since one “problem” so many young poets need to address is the fact that a poem is an artificial thing and that art isn’t merely some transcription of one’s “reality.”  That poetry is, at heart, an imaginative act.
 
The night before I was to arrive, bright and early, at CHSN, it suddenly dawned on me that maybe I still had not clearly thought things through.  I’m used to running workshops for college students and adults, and I began to worry that I hadn’t put enough structure into place for these students who, after all, had enjoyed only limited engagement with poetry.  I didn’t want to give them a simplistic fill-in-the-blanks format, and my copy of Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams was back in my office at ECU and is, really, geared toward elementary school students anyway.  So I did what any self-respecting poetry teacher does in a similar situation (I mean, other than totally winging it), I invented a new, user-friendly form that I am unveiling to you today, the Personnetelle.  It worked very well, and a number of students chose to read their efforts at the form during the open mic portion of the day.  Additionally, as luck would have it, it turned out that a poet I know, Gary Whitehead, teaches at one of the high schools that had brought a contingent to participate in Sticky Notes Day.  Gary has a new book forthcoming with Princeton University Press and will be featured in next month’s Congeries.  He sat in on one of the three workshops I ran that day, pulled out a pen and rolled up his sleeves, and has written the first professional example of a Personnetelle in the universe.  So check in next time to read it.  For now, write one yourself!  Here’s how:
 
 
Personnetelle: a new form exhibiting qualities of the persona poem, the sonnet, and the villanelle.
 
a) each line must be between 9-13 syllables
b) must be told in the voice of someone other than you
c) must be at least 51% factually untrue
 
 
This is a 14 line poem.  The first 3 lines should provide exposition; that is, it should give the reader a sense of setting and of tone.  The 4th line is the refrain line; it is repeated as lines 9 and line 14.  Lines 4-9 should set forth the problem, the issue, the question, the pebble in the speaker’s shoe.  Lines 10-12 should provide the “turn.”  That is, they should comment upon the problem from a different perspective, or question it, or spin it, or wonder about it, and begin the movement toward resolution.  Lines 13 and 14 should provide closure in the form of a rhyming couplet.
 
The following is an example I wrote in 20 minutes after creating the form.  Though it’s certainly not the best poem ever written, it provides some idea of what one of these poems might look like.
 
 
Dinnertime in Congers, NY
 
Not far from railroad tracks that cut Congers
in half, I pace near the memorial cannon and glare
at the opaque windows of the Last Chance Saloon.
If he’s in there—and I know he’s in there,
it’s time for him to come home to his family.
If he’s to have some cruel sickness, I wish
he was legless in a wheelchair instead
of a suburban drunk, smashed on cheap whisky.
If he’s in there—and I know he’s in there,
would he even notice if I entered the place,
would his eyes well up with tears, would he leave
that sour barstool forever; for once, would he just
come home, sleep it off and show he cares?
If he’s in there—and I know he’s in there.
 
 
This installment of A Poetry Congeries is dedicated to the memory of Adrienne Rich.
 
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.