Poetry Month Spotlight: Tracy Mishkin

Indiana Writers Center, Poem a Day Challenge, April 2020

Rachel Sahaidachny, Executive Director of the Indiana Writers Center, has shared a writing prompt each day this month. The participants post their poems in a closed Facebook group, and the responses focus on encouragement, not criticism, constructive or otherwise. I’ve appreciated the challenge to write regularly and the opportunity to think (and sometimes vent) about current events. Here are some of the prompts that worked for me and the poems that I wrote. The prompts—and my commentary—are in italics.

#4 Is there an object in your house that used to belong to someone else? Write a two-part poem. Part 1 about the object’s “before you” time. Part 2 about the object’s “now.” Try to incorporate one rhyme in each part.

When I met your mother, she was perched on your off-white couch while you sat on the matching love seat. Close to 90, she had just returned from Florida and the second husband she’d outlived to care for you during chemotherapy. When you felt like crap, you napped on that couch under heavy blankets, clutching the one on top knitted by your mom. When you felt well enough, you leaned against the big cushions, choosing poems from a lifetime of writing. I sat on the loveseat and helped you make a book. Only once I said your granddaughter will remember you with these words.

This doesn’t end with a funeral. We finished the book, you started a clinical trial for immunotherapy, and now you smile when you see the commercials for the drug that cured you on TV. I smile too, because I’m grateful, really, but sad that mild dementia is taking you away piece by piece only a few years later. You gave me the couch and love seat when you could no longer live alone. Now you’re locked down in assisted living— not like when Grandma was on a locked ward so she wouldn’t go outside and wait for the bus to New York City— but because of this damn pandemic. The staff bring trays to your door at mealtimes, and that’s it, no other human contact. Crossword puzzles have lost all appeal. I sit on the off-white couch and talk to you until the battery in your hearing aid begins to die.

#5 It’s Sunday, which means we will explore a particular form. Prompt for today is to write a Nocturne—a poem that is set in the night (usually midnight).

#6 Write a poem using anaphora. Anaphora is a technique that uses a repeated phrase to begin lines throughout the poem. It doesn’t have to begin every line.

I was annoyed with myself for not writing for three days, or so I thought…

Nocturne: Procrastination

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” -Arundhati Roy

Monday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Can’t write a poem about the night in daytime, am I right? I thought the dark and cool air would birth the words. Sometimes trapped, sometimes rushing out. But I tripped over myself, never made it to the stoop. Even now, I should be doing something else.

Tuesday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Excuses. Too easy to fall into my latest thrill. My great escape. Work is hard. People are dying. A man I knew died alone. Excuses.

Wednesday Same. How do I let this happen? Shame. Everything I put off. Fine. I’ll write the night poem right now. Nocturne: liminal. Imagine myself on the threshold of my house. Between dark and light. Inside and out. Neighbor and stranger. Wave to them all.

After writing the Wednesday stanza, I realized that it was only Tuesday, so I didn’t feel so bad about getting behind.

#7 Write a poem using language from a text message or email which you recently received or sent.

How are you doing? Feels like I’m surfing a wave of uncertainty

The key to surfing: convincing yourself you are not going to fall into a wave, get lost.

Don’t think about tumbling, choking on water, the board smacking your head.

Focus on the blue curve below you. It could go on forever.

#8 Pick a favorite song, or one you like, listen to it, and write.

I chose the cover of “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed, specifically the haunting music video.

Times so hard, gotta start with happy endings, when ship has almost reached shore. Surely they’ll save the stranded people—lonely, isolated—at least ten thousand. How are they so alone when they’re together? How do they write music—parchment, fountain pen—yet never play or sing? When sailors first saw them—kneeling, hunched—they stared. Why hands and knees, captive, surrendered?

Sailors, too, came from silent lands, journeyed to the ship, alone, on foot, through flat lands, forests. Each carried an instrument, salvaged from earth or fire. Harp, guitar, piano, drum. The keys twisted, burning. They pulled them from the flames. Let the dirt run from the guitar. The sound was still true.

#9 Chose a vowel (a, e, i, o, or u) and write a 10+ line poem with words that have only that vowel in them. For your poetic terminology, a poem which excludes one or more letters is called a “lipogram.” A poem which excludes all vowels but one is called “univocalic” (from the Latin for one-voweled).

I challenged myself to write a poem using words with only the vowel U. And this happened.

Mr. Trump

Ugh, just shut up. Guru? Untruth. Humbug, numbskull. Truth. Fuck up. Sputum glut. Bunkum hub. Lustful skunk.

#11 Use the last line of one of your poems as the first line of a new poem.

I chose the last line of poem #8.

Rescue Guitar

The sound was still true despite the batter and dent. She didn’t fret. Her fingers coaxed notes around the sprung string. Like a poet writing without some common letter, improvising around absence made her better.

#14 Select 10-12 words from a poem (or from a couple poems) you admire and use them to create a new poem. Try to have a variety of word types (verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc.) in your selection.

I didn’t get inspired for #14 until I saw the prompt for #15. I chose “Notes to Myself During National Poetry Month, 2020” by Dante Di Stefano, which was published in Rattle as part of the Poets Respond feature on April 14, 2020.

I wrote down ten words from this poem and numbered them. Whenever I needed a push, I asked my husband to choose a number between 1 and 10.

#15 This is a prompt from Poets & Writers Magazine:

“Truth can be lazy because it becomes satisfied with itself, and it is often so tethered to time and space that to demand one truth can often invisibilize another’s truth,” says Natalie Diaz in “Energy,” an interview by Jacqueline Woodson in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

“When and where does truth begin, and whose truth is it?” Think of an issue in your life that you feel conflicted over, an idea or state of being that you have long held to be true, whose solidity you have begun to question. Write a poem that attempts to demand more from this perceived truth, exploring how it entered your belief system. To whom is it tethered?”

The familiar riot in my mind. Sometimes I wish I saw the world without these painful shades of gray. Eleven years of red leaves falling, cherry blossoms tarting up the street, and still I’m juggling working for the man with working on the inside of his damn jungle. Sweating so long under this corporate canopy, I forget the sky is not beneath me. Sky, Tracy, it means above and blue, remember? Symptom of a mental pandemic: if the strings of my guitar snapped daily, I would check the obvious. A rough fret, a burred edge, even a pick too heavy for the strings. I might get hooked on playing four instead of five, but I’d know that anytime I could replace the damn thing and let my instrument sing as it was meant to. But no, me and my front row seat for the crisis of corporate America. Big surprise: slashing staffing means more rushing, more mistakes, more work, less time to think my God what have we done. Some sleep. More coffee. Letting legal addictions sprout like green weeds. Nothing to be done but tell myself Friday’s payday. Perhaps I’ll think of something money can buy to spend that precious paycheck on.

#16 Write a poem about the story of your name. Things to consider: What do you know about the source of your name? What name/nickname have you taken on and why?

Again, two prompts combined in my head and I got a poem.

#17 The cocoon is a place of transformation. What happens there is a mystery. If this time is your cocoon moment, what transformations are occurring? What might emerge? Alternatively, work with the Phoenix mythos: the burning down; out of the ash a new creature is born… rises. Maybe your poem has space for both.

Dead Name

Phoenix, must you leave your nest in ashes to be reborn? I prefer the torn cocoon, you with monarch wings. This isn’t about what I prefer, is it? Your past must be burned. You fill your nest with baby pictures, toss in every reminder you can find, even that old photo of you in a lady’s hat, which I would think would make your new self smile. This isn’t about what I think. But when the ashes cool, I will search them for a keepsake.

#18 What do you know about water?

I liked that this prompt wasn’t just “write a poem about water.” It made me think about water—and knowledge—in a different way.

What do you know about water? It runs, but it is not afraid. Rushes without hurry.

What do you fear about fire? The heat will be wasted, flames leaping.

What do you expect from earth? Rock will smash scissors, scissors will slice paper, paper will wrap rock.

What do you assume about air? It will always be there.

#20 a prompt from Jessica Reed

Reverse-engineer a poem: take a published poem that you love and remove all the nouns and verbs—all the content. You should be left with a skeleton of a poem, just a syntactic structure (you might have to remove a few adjectives or adverbs as well—whatever it takes to get to the skeleton). Now, start filling in the blanks with fresh content. The supplied syntax will guide your poem in unexpected directions. If that isn’t happening—if you’re making too much “sense,” try listing words on a separate sheet of paper and plugging them in “Mad Libs” style. You can also mine for fresh vocabulary in a book that you wouldn’t normally read, perhaps from another discipline.

The poem I chose is “Separation,” by W.S. Merwin.

Our honesty betrays us like a stream underground: cracked pavement, flooded grass.

#21 Choose a spice, herb, or flavor. Do a bit of research—does it have medicinal qualities? A history? Where does it come from? If you have some on hand, spend a bit of time smelling or tasting it, and allowing images, memories, thoughts to come up and write them down. If not, imagine the smell or taste—what does it make you think of? Can you cobble a poem out of these notes? Does one of the notes trigger a poem?

Cream of What Now?

It’s not the oldest item on my spice rack— that would be the allspice from 1997. But Cream of Tartar is the weirdest. It is no fishy sauce but an acidic powder that makes mile-high meringues and boosts the chewy tang of snickerdoodles. Mixed with vinegar, it cleans stainless steel like nobody’s business. Homemade Play-Doh would be lost without it. Video: the many benefits of cream of tartar. Watch as it stabilizes whipped cream and polishes copper. (Add lemon juice in a 1:1 mixture. Rub on, rinse off.) Herbs and spices come from plants, but cream of tartar comes from the crystalline crud that builds up inside casks as wine ferments. It’s not creamy like dairy, but think of creaming as whipping egg whites to a high foam. Are you dismayed when boiled veggies lose their color? Just a pinch of this miracle shit will help your beets stay bright. Science! Science for the win!

#22 Since it’s Earth Day, I thought we could explore ecopoetics. Ecopoetry is poetry with a strong ecological emphasis or message. Some suggested questions to ponder: How do you try to reduce your impact on the environment? Do you ever feel guilty about what, or how much, you throw away? What could you live without? Ecopoetry often uses environmental elements in the poem, pastoral or nature details. It is poetry produced as a result of an environment and humans in the environment.

#23 Docupoetry is poetry created out of primary source materials such as news articles, interviews, medical records, diaries, court transcripts, and other public records. Either utilize direct lines from a source (or more) and rearrange them, interpret meaning through your own words, or use a mix of both approaches.

There’s poetry online. I mean poetic language in unexpected places. For my spice poem, I googled “list of spices” so that I could have a bunch to choose from. I read a few articles about cream of tartar, and all of them had some terrific turns of phrase. I ended up copying several things right into the poem. And today we’re writing docupoetry! I wasn’t feeling the eco-poem yesterday, but today’s prompt reminded me of Holly Haworth’s March 2020 essay “Undefined Waters,” which has some moving thoughts on language and our environment—as a result of Trump’s recent gutting of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

It’s easy—too easy—to be seduced by language, to stop thinking critically and just love the sound of words.

Rill and runnel. I used to think of creeks and brooks when I saw those words. But a rill is something more specific: an ephemeral stream, a trickle of water that springs up after heavy rain.

Once rills were all over the poetry map, sonorous, easy to rhyme. Mismanaged agriculture causes most rills today. Sliding hillsides, preventable erosion. A gully is an overgrown rill.

Holly Haworth wrote about the ephemeral streams and semi-permanent puddles that grace her land in Georgia during winter rains. Rills and runnels as they were meant to be, yet may not be for long.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 protects waters, but Trump & Friends have tightened that definition, excluding headwater streams and wetlands. Our waters will burn again, said an attorney, referring to the 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

#24 choose a cliché and write a poem which makes it fresh

I couldn’t resist starting with Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, which challenges the love clichés of his time.

Poem in which My Husband Looks a Bit Lame in Comparison to Today’s Weather

Shall I compare you to a warm spring day during a pandemic? You’re cute, but wind and sun and sky are vital to my mental health. Redbuds are my favorite flowering trees— The contrast of pinkish-purple flowers against dark bark, especially after rainfall, rocks my world. I smile when you waggle your eyebrows at me, but a warm and windy day inspires me to write after something of a drought. To be fair, I’ve written many poems because of you, but mostly to express frustration. Nature’s working hard. Even the phlox is exerting itself, though it appears to be lazing around like ground cover. You worked six hours today, but I don’t think you’ll clean the litterbox. You could surprise me, though, like an unpromising forecast that turns into a lovely day, or a curve flattened by a Republican governor who’s quick close the state—so much better for being unexpected.

About Tracy Mishkin

Tracy Mishkin is a call center veteran with a PhD and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Butler University.  She is the author of three chapbooks, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s (Finishing Line Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This Is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018). She been nominated twice for a Pushcart — both times by Parody — and published in Raleigh Review and Rat’s Ass Review.

National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.