Tuesday, October 1, 2019

October 2019 Challenge - Portrait Poems

J. Norman Webber in 1955, with his niece, Sue Addis

Poet and critic Ed Hirsch described Ted Kooser’s Book, Delights and Shadows, as “a book of portraits and landscapes.” Some of the poems may be more like literary snapshots than portraits, but they allow you to see a person almost as if you were holding a their picture in your hand. If you don’t own the book, I recommend  that you purchase a copy, or borrow one through your public library. Or, you can look up the book on amazon.com, click on “See inside,” and read a number of the poems.

Catherine Lamb wrote another kind of portrait poem: “How to Be My Father.” I discovered it in Writing as a Road to Self Recovery, by Barry Lane (Cincinnati OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993). I have been working on a collection of poems, The Unapproved Uncle, so I borrowed Lamb’s approach to write a poem about Uncle Norman:

How to Be Uncle Norman 
        after Catherine Lamb

Be first-born in a large family of limited means.
Outwardly accept your father’s dictum
that it’s your responsibility to stay home
and help support your eight younger siblings.

Quit going to church.
Work when you feel like it.
Fish when you feel like it.
Loll around doing nothing when you feel like it.
Sit in the crook of a tree and read.
Smoke. Roll your own cigarettes.

Roll your eyes when your father
tells you to do something.
Be sure your eyes twinkle
whenever a child is near.
Wink your eye at the cute young woman
from Minnesota you meet at City Park.

Do not apply for a regular job.
Don’t even own a tie.
Marry that cute young woman
you met at the park.
Try to have children.

Keep a box of old wooden spools
under your bed
for children to play with.
Teach your nieces
how to cast a fishing rod
off the front porch.
Teach them to roll cigarettes.
Take nephews to a dark field
to watch the Northern Lights.
Learn the hard way to be sure
no wasp made its nest
where you throw the blanket to sit on.

Laugh at the children’s repeated riddles.
Cheer them as they walk the rolling oil barrel
across the lawn or jump rope
as it turns beneath their feet.
Tell tall tales. Accept the scoffing responses
of your siblings who know better.

End your life with emphysema,
and the adoration of nieces and nephews.

~ Wilda Morris

A slightly different version of this poem was published in Rockford Review.

Last Sunday, Matthew J. Lawler was one of the featured poets at Brewed Awakening in Westmont, Illinois. At least two of the poems he read were  portraits: “The Vet,” and “The Window Washer.”

The Window Washer

There’s a man who washes windows
along Western Avenue.
Seemingly irrational, he blurts stories
about giant pythons circling his steps,
latching on his flesh, choking every breath
as blood spurts from his nostrils.
His awkward stance resembles
an avalanche of some sorts,
disheveled by the devils he snorts.
Entangled in the cob webs of cobblestone.
One of three million who call Chicago home.
He works for a living, but only to feed
his habit of alcohol and coke,
he sleeps under the viaducts
with the other addicts,
those with skeleton skin,
the lepers who’ve lost hope.

There’s a man who washes windows
along Western Avenue,
from sun up to sun down,
with squeegee fresh pressed against glass,
he sees a haunting image loudly
conjuring shadows from his past.
He’s been a prisoner for years
held captive by that helpless hunger
that pelts urges with no restraint,
wishing for excursions perhaps
to a transcendent state.

What keeps him going?
he finds meaning in the washing.
It’s a cycle of blissful anguish.

Clean the outdoor storefront windows
while the insides he can’t touch,
wipe the stains from the outside window panes
while the insides remain full of gunk.
He’s a surface cleanser with squeegee in hand,
divested of self-esteem, to himself he’s hardly a man.
He washes for the fix, transient as it may be,
he sees the world as he sees himself
in a flask drunk and crazy.

Walking up and down the street for pennies
at least he’s working for a living,
blood dripping down his nose from
all the snow he’s been sniffing.
Strolling along the sidewalk
talking to the summer heat,
he notices stress cracks carved in windows,
he stops to gaze inside and look, 
but turns from his reflection,
realizing his days are pages in a book.
Years vanishing like his once youthful face,
shards of glass cracking on his feet
from a car’s broken rear view mirror
parked alongside the street.
Bars line up like pillars across
the windows of a church,
he sees the bars in his own eyes
and can’t seem to escape,
been afraid for so long
to try and change his fate.
He hesitates to look deep inside
fearing what could be,
that he’s a prison to himself
and can’t seem to get free.

There’s a man who washes windows
along Western Avenue,
With mechanical hands in
a methodical motion
moving up and down like a seismograph.
His life is an earthquake,
rumbling, shattering the

~ Matthew J. Lawler

I don't often repeat challenges, but there are so many ways to respond to this one that I'm doing it a second time. You can read the winning poems from the first "portrait poem" challenge at http://wildamorris.blogspot.com/2016/08/august-poetry-challenge-portrait-poems_27.html. Click on "Older Post" to read the example poems from that month.

 The October Challenge:

Write a portrait poem – or, if you prefer – a snapshot in the style of Ted Koozer’s snapshot poems. In either case, it should be a picture of a particular person.

Your poem may be free verse or formal. If you use a form, please identify the form when you submit your poem.

Title your poem unless it is a form that does not use titles (don’t follow Emily Dickenson’s practice on that!). Single-space. Note that the blog format does not accommodate long lines; if they are used, they have to be broken in two, with the second part indented (as in the poem “Lilith,” one of the November 2018 winners), or the post has to use small print.

You may submit a published poem if you retain copyright, but please include publication data. This applies to poems published in books, journals, newspapers, or on the Internet. However, poems already used on this blog are not eligible to win this month, but the poets may submit a different poem.

The deadline is October 15. Poems submitted after the deadline will not be considered. There is no charge to enter, so there are no monetary rewards; however, winners are published on this blog. Please don’t stray too far from “family-friendly” language (some children and teens read this blog). No simultaneous submissions, please. You should know by the end of the month whether or not your poem will be published. Decision of the judge or judges is final.

The poet retains copyright on each poem. If a previously unpublished poem wins and is published elsewhere later, please give credit to this blog. I do not register copyright with the US copyright office, but by US law, the copyright belongs to the writer unless the writer assigns it to someone else.

If the same poet wins three months in a row (which has not happened thus far), he or she will be asked not to submit the following two months.

How to Submit Your Poem:

Send one poem only to wildamorris[at]ameritech[dot]net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for “dot”). Put “October Poetry Challenge Submission” in the subject line of your email. Include a brief bio that can be printed with your poem if you are a winner this month. Please put your name and bio UNDER the poem in your email. If the poem has been published before, please put that information UNDER the poem also. NOTE: If you sent your poem to my other email address, or do not use the correct subject line, the poem may get lost and not be considered for publication. Do not submit poems as PdF files.

Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog if it is a winner, so be sure that you put your name (exactly as you would like it to appear if you do win) at the end of the poem.

Poems may be pasted into an email or sent as an attachment (Doc, Docx, rich text or plain text; no pdf files, please). Please do not indent the poem or center it on the page. It helps if you submit the poem in the format used on the blog (Title and poem left-justified; title in bold (not all in capital letters); your name at the bottom of the poem). Also, please do not use multiple spaces instead of commas in the middle of lines. I have no problem with poets using that technique (I sometimes do it myself). However I have difficulty getting the blog to accept and maintain extra spaces.

Poems shorter than 40 lines are generally preferred but longer poems will be considered.

© Wilda Morris