The Octopus Pot (April 21 & April 22)

If you follow me on social media, then you know I have been a little under the weather (both physically and emotionally) this week. I am trying to be gentle with myself and to rest even when it feels like I should be more productive. I find this advice easy to give and hard to follow. But I find it’s easier for me to rest my body and my mind if I digitally detach for a while. So, I am trying to put down the phone, close the tablet, and shut the laptop for longer periods this week.

Fortunately, you do not need the internet to write poems. Although I did use the internet to write my NaPoWriMo poems for yesterday and today, so now the previous sentence feels a bit disingenuous.

Yesterday’s prompt involved homophonic translation and reminded me of an exercise I used to assign in my poetry workshops at Wheelock College. I had a handout that contained various poems in their original language, and then asked students to choose one poem to “translate.” (The key to this handout is eliminating any poems written in any languages your students speak.) I tried to include haiku by Bashō on this handout whenever possible because 1) he is one of my favorite poets, and 2) his life and work have influenced my own poetic practice. So, yesterday I pulled that handout out of the cloud (a.k.a. Dropbox) to see if I wanted to try doing a homophonic translation of a Bashō haiku.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 16.21.30

I “translated” tako as “taco” before I thought better of the whole enterprise. I knew tako can be (actually) translated as “octopus,” and I vaguely remembered that the first poem on the handout had something to do with octopus jars, which are actually octopus traps so then I spent some time reading different translations of that haiku. Then I found this fascinating article about “octopus pot” syndrome, and then I knew I had found my poem. The draft below uses a translation of the original Bashō poem as its epigraph.


I kept the boldface type from the original article in this erasure. I liked the way it set off certain phrases. I also liked today’s writing prompt, which involves using an idiom from a different language as the inspiration for a poem. Once I had read through the lists of idioms linked to the posts, I knew I had another opportunity to write my favorite kind of poem — a sort of prose collage that pulls borrowed sentences and phrases together and attempts to form them into … something else. Ideally, a poem. At the least, a cohesive “whole” of some kind.

I titled today’s poem after a famous line from Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel,” which is what a documentary would be like if documentaries were poems. I was extremely lucky to take both a poetry seminar and a poetry workshop with Carolyn during my senior year at George Mason University. She was my first, and possibly my most influential, mentor. She taught me to think of poetry as an art, rather than an accident, and in workshops, she always had a tiny trick to strengthen your poem. I still follow a lot of her advice today.

“The Colonel” comes from The Country Between Us, Carolyn’s second poetry collection. That book is still in print and easy to find at the right bookstore. In the meantime, you can watch this video of Carolyn reading this poem in 1992, just two years before I met her. (She’s even more beautiful now, if you can imagine.) I have been thinking about Carolyn a lot lately because I bought her most recent collection, In the Lateness of the World, at Brookline Booksmith right before B and I had to begin our self-quarantine. I haven’t started reading it yet. I am saving it to read on my birthday (May 18). The draft I wrote today reminds me of something I might have written in Carolyn’s workshop. We had to bring scissors and glue to each session, and she was always having us cut up failed drafts to paste into better poems.


Today I’ve been listening to this Spotify playlist I created for one of my own poetry workshop exercises. I choose one line from each song on this playlist and then toss them into a hat, or a box, or some other makeshift container. Students pick a line from the container and then have to use it as the first line of a poem. Is this exercise merely an excuse to play some of my favorite songs for my students? Absolutely.