Welcome back to one of my favorite Italian-American poets, Joey Nicoletti. You might remember reading about his poetry collection here last April. Today, Joey reminds us to really look around and be present in our world. That is to say, our physical world right here, right now. Where you are.
Joey Nicoletti is the author of Borrowed Dust (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Earthquake Weather (NightBallet Press, 2012), and Cannoli Gangster (Word Tech, 2012), which was selected as a finalist for the Steel Toe Books Prize by Denise Duhamel. His poems, reviews, and nonfiction essays have appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Waccamaw, Aethlon, Tulane Review, and Gradiva: International Journal of Italian Poetry, among other places.
A graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program, the University of Iowa, and New Mexico State University, he is a former poetry editor of Puerto del Sol and currently teaches creative writing and English literature at Niagara University.
Place Writing Prompt
So I was in sitting on a lushly verdant slope of grass behind St. Vincent’s Hall—otherwise known as Vini’s—at Niagara University, talking with students as their Atomic Tangerine and Deep Magenta-cased iPhones basked in the glow of an unusually warm March sun, gleaming the way to the Canadian shore, in the immediate, power-lined distance.
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon
- as James Wright wrote in “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” These are some of the lines that made me become smitten with poetry, and on this particular afternoon, they were a collective set of binoculars for me to see the world differently; one that me and the students I teach are familiar with, no less. I may have been conducting class at a leafy suburban college campus in Lewiston, New York, but no matter where I am, it’s not hyperbolic for me to say that I am often kickin’ it at William Duffy’s Pine Island digs: it’s my poetic couch; my home plate, my Kennedy Space Center; the place that inspires me to attempt, much less actually take to the on-page skies of my words and ideas, bringing those who would possibly read my work along for the language ride, with equal amounts of joy, consideration, and gratitude.
Perhaps the primary matter of importance to me in poetry is audience: a writer’s ability and willingness to speak to, rather than at his or her readers. Not only does James Wright take the audience to William Duffy’s farm in Pine Island, Minnesota, he also gives each reader a hammock-eye view of what, as William Carlos Williams writes, “is found there,” and in so doing, we experience much: the butterfly, whose bronze color suggests rigidity, as well as the image of metamorphosis, a possible indicator of the poem’s speaker’s concern with change; the blowing leaf, easily swayed by wind, the empty house, the sentient cowbells that “follow one another,” drawing attention to the fact that the cows themselves are not physically present. But the speaker is, and the audience is in the hammock of discovery with this person. As the late David Foster Wallace argued, literature is about “what it means to be a fucking human being,” and Wright’s Pine Island speaker is a particularly resonant case in point.
In the spirit of Spring and its shared transformational nature with well-made verse, I ask you to consider the beginning of this poem by Jim Daniels from M-80:
TROUBLE AT THE DRIVE-IN
TROUBLE AT THE DRIVE-IN
The sky is gray and it will be
Raining soon and we’re waiting in line
for the drive-in, the one on Eight Mile,
the border between Detroit and Warren and the
is stewing just like always, every day
guns pointed at our own dumb heads, every day
someone else dumb enough to pull the trigger
because we’re mad, mad and sick and dumb
and we’re gonna get ourselves a little piece of
Note the way Daniels utilizes specific detail. Combined with the title, the opening lines tell the audience exactly where the trouble will take place. Not only will the drama of this poem unfold in an outdoor movie theatre, it will do so at “the one at Eight Mile/ the border between Eight Mile and Warren.” What’s more, “The sky is gray,” and “the/ anger/ is stewing just like always, every day/guns pointed at our own dumb heads, every day.” Not only is the audience aware of their surroundings, Daniels establishes what accounts for them in the first seven lines—one for “every day” of the week. One may go into this poem knowing 8 Mile via Eminem’s movie or as a Detroit native, but we begin “Trouble at the Drive-In” in as much trouble as the speaker of the poem, as a member of a movie watching audience, which serves as an extension of the audience reading Daniels’ words. There mos def is a storm brewing in this poem, and Daniels involves us with vigor, allure, colorful specificity, and purpose. What the bronze butterfly is to James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock…” the gray sky is to “Trouble at the Drive-In:” curious portents of things to come for their respective speakers.
Given that April is National Poetry month, a time when many write a poem a day, I invite you to try an exercise I often use in the creative writing classes I teach. In the spirit of Daniels’ speaker in “Trouble at the Drive-In,” start a poem that’s set in a particular place. If no place immediately comes to mind, make a list of places you’ve lived, places you’ve visited, and places you’d like to see someday. Then pick one.
Like the Daniels poem, the setting can also be an on-ramp to an incident you witnessed, participated in, or heard about. If the need arises, feel free to make up a similar episode or combine fact and fiction. Sometimes a helpful way to get a fresh perspective on a given poem that you’re writing or reading is to consider where it’s set. In this case, the 8 Mile setting of Jim Daniels’ Drive-in theatre is a major quality that makes it his poem, by virtue of the speaker’s experience, his familiarity and intimate knowledge with his hometown, as well as a place where many people live. In poetry—along with fiction and playwriting, as well—location is often an agent of a speakers’ voice.
Your poem can also be situated at a place everyone has heard of. You might, for example, write “Trouble at McDonald’s.” Even though many have eaten at Mickey D’s, one may have had a slightly different experience from the rest of their classmates. For instance, a student from Albuquerque may have had the option of having eaten a Green Chile Cheeseburger, given the major influence of Latino culture in the state of New Mexico. Similarly, while many people have seen a movie at a Cineplex, perhaps not everyone has been to a drive-in theatre, much less one in Jim Daniels’ Detroit.
Just as a play benefits from a setting, the capsule drama of a poem often gains from taking place in a particular locale. It gives us map coordinates for the interplay of language. It also opens up a wealth of details that can ease into the poem. Such details can include proper names (cities, streets, shops, rivers, hills), all of which can act as images in themselves. They can also be starting blocks of sorts to other topics or ideas for new poems.
Remember, you can put anything you want to in a poem—it’s a matter of finding out how to do so. Poems are often made from artfully discovered details, and one way to consider how such might be the case for yourself is to take another look and listen at a particular place—especially a specific locale that you know well. This assignment might enable you to generate an opulence of imagery and employ metaphor to poem’s (and its speaker’s) advantage. Poetry can be found and made anywhere: demonstrate how a specific locality can work to a poem’s benefit in 1-2 pages. No worries if you go beyond two pages: after all, poems such as Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “A Street in Bronzeville,” and Adam Zagajewski’s “To Go to Lvov” are just some of the many examples of longer poems that utilize a specific locale to clear a path for new areas of discovery, persuasion, and resonance.
Happy National Poetry Month, and happy discovering. Onward!