Next Line, Please

Stanzaic Choreography

By David Lehman | February 12, 2019
Flickr/Universidade de Brasília

Angela Ball coined “stanzaic choreography” as a phrase to describe the effort to combine lines from diverse sources into a single entity. Patricia Wallace seconded the motion, and Katie R concurred. The phrase is a compliment, and I feel emboldened to continue the practice as we build multiple poems from a single given line (“I spent my days in an expanse of spirit”).

We now have five such poems in progress. Each has three stanzas and is missing only a finale.

For the poem I designated as A1, I selected lines submitted by Lutz Ebersdorf, Diana Ferraro, Donald LaBranche, Stephanie Cohen, and Katie R. The poem now has nine authors:

I spent my days in an expanse of spirits,
vodka, scotch, tequila, gin—pick a poison then— [Pamela Joyce]
then spent, I slept; of reality dreamt;
and by mourning, could find no rest. [Koahakumele]

When night unstops its cross-boned bottle,
the dream: he killed a child by accident;
I protected him; even now, parents wait [Angela Ball]
where sat the two children we didn’t have, [David Lehman]

all grown up, as if entire chapters were skipped. [Lutz Ebersdorf]
Their wake precedes dawn. He opens his eyes. [Diana Ferraro]
The wine had turned sour, and the pickled fruit [Donald LaBranche]
smacked us awake in winter, real like medicine. [Stephanie Cohen / Katie R]

Charise Hoge proposes “The Wrong Side of the Bed” as a tentative title, and I think it a good one.

For the third stanza of A2, I begin with a line from Millicent Caliban:

I spend my days in an expanse of spirits,
vodka, scotch, tequila, gin—pick a poison then— [Pamela Joyce]
then spent, I slept; of reality dreamt;
and by mourning, could find no rest. [Koahakumele]

When, like a thieved wallet, the house emptied, [Stephanie Cohen]
we saw the blackbird-clustered face of night. [Donald LaBranche]
No absolution. Spirits, bring me absinthe, [Pamela Joyce]
a doleful pour not tasted before. [Charise Hoge]

Could the blackbirds play the role of ravens [Millicent Caliban]
in an empty house, in which I return the thief’s wallet
and then ingest the salt of absolution, [Donald LaBranche]
the final pinch of grass in a sandwich bag? [Stephanie Cohen]

To this group effort, Pamela Joyce and Donald LaBranche have contributed three lines apiece; Stephanie Cohen and Koahakumele, two lines each. Stephanie’s working title: “Bender.”

Eric Fretz is responsible for three-quarters of the third stanza of B1; I compressed two lines from Katie R to cap the quatrain:

I spent my days in an expanse of spirit,
gave thanks to God for enemies with bad aim, [Jay Ronson]
as snow fell into the trees and blackbirds clustered
thick as leaves on the limbs, glossy shades of night. [Patricia Wallace]

When feathered darkness lifted up her hood
about my head, I saw that this was glory, too; [Christa Overbeck]
returning birds, retreating foes, [Beth Dufour]
the ache you blame on age and episodic sleep. [Stephanie Cohen]

If I could only sleep the length of clouds
and leap the length of August days again,
the snow would melt off blackbirds’ backs and bud [Eric Fretz]
in a blackened crown of night and crows. [Katie R]

Eric’s nominee for the poem’s title is “This Was Glory, Too.”

J. F. “Jeff” McCullers joins the collaborative team behind B2:

I spent my days in an expanse of spirit,
gave thanks to God for enemies with bad aim, [Jay Ronson]
as snow fell into the trees and blackbirds clustered
thick as leaves on the limbs, glossy shades of night. [Patricia Wallace]

When feathered darkness lifted up her hood [Christa Overbeck]
I worshiped in the temple of her trees. [Millicent Caliban]
Blackbirds scattered at the blast. The snow now [Pamela Joyce S.]
about my head, I saw that this was glory, too, [Christa Overbeck]

and shook with cold or fear or joy. I could not tell. [Christa Overbeck]
Come, sing to the snow something new [Donald LaBranche]
amid the shouts of others. The snow my pillow. [J. F. McCullers]
Could the blackbirds play the role of ravens? [Millicent Caliban]

Two possible titles for B2 are “Divine Guides” (Clay Sparkman) and “Gloria” (Josie Cannella). A simple “Blackbirds” might also work.

The fifth poem to emerge from our work was submitted by Maureen, who took what we had and did her own choreography with it:

I spent my days in an expanse of spirits,
with each cross-boned bottle, dreamt
reality quenched: two children killed—
I ached in feathered darkness.

God, no thanks I gave for episodic sleep,
when hood of night, that temple, lifted
and I, mind weak, saw what I worshipped
rent—not once but twice

as blasts un-wrung from limbs of trees
in snow a thick of blackbirds, mourning
all I too well know.

So now what we need is a final stanza—or rather, five such. For A1, A2, B1, and B2 that means a quatrain; for Maureen’s submission, a three-line stanza would complete the sonnet.

Please feel free to take liberties, as I have done, in crafting your conclusions. You may, for example, repeat a line or lift one from a different poem. What I hope we will produce is a sequence of five poems, each with its own subtitle, under a general title governing them all. It goes without saying that I mean no disrespect—rather the contrary—in extracting lines from the stanzas in which they were originally embedded.

Good luck—to us!

Deadline: Saturday, February 16, 2019, midnight any time zone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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