Next Line, Please

This Prophecy Merlin Shall Make

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By David Lehman

April 3, 2018


 

I write this on that rare day when four events coincide: Easter, Passover, April Fool’s Day, and the start of National Poetry Month. The latter two events always coincide, of course, but I will pass over this fact while praying that the last nor’easter of the season is behind us. In honor of April Fool’s Day, let me direct your attention to the announcement that I will co-host (with James Franco) America’s Next Top Poet. More details will be divulged in time, but for now I can say that in the pilot, contestants (including Peggy from Mad Men and Zoe Barnes from House of Cards) are asked to memorize and recite a soliloquy from Hamlet, to write a bad sonnet on a quotation to be pulled from Susan Sontag’s literary essays, and to take part in the “Instant Haiku” round. Veteran impresario Bob Holman and singer Stacey Kent join Franco and Lehman as hosts and judges.

Now that Next Line, Please: Prompts to Inspire Poets and Writers has been published, messages keep coming in from friends, readers, and erstwhile participants in our challenges. From Paul Michelsen, who won NLP’s MVP award two years ago, comes this cento in our honor: Its title: “Next Line.”

Midnight champagne,
And we are drinking Gallo Burgundy
The sickle begins to dream,
Drunk on the sacrament—

Roll the words to start a drumbeat in your brain.

We scrabble for an icy antidote,
A busy spray of flaw and folly
That tastes like candy,
Strewn across a barren no-man’s-land,
Marriage on the rocks
Rehearsing its surrender
As things sour beyond hope.

You make promises.
Now it’s too late.
Flamingo-pink tinctures mixed from
catastrophe—
Made to look like something we can stand in.

What coda might make the whole emerge?

The lines were culled from poems by:

Christine Rhein
LaWanda Walters
Paul Breslin
Carlos Alcala
Millicent Caliban
Elizabeth Solsburg
Berwyn Moore
Rebecca Epstein
Jennifer Clarvoe
Charise Hoge
Barbara Shine
Paul Michelsen (thank you, by the way!)
Michael C. Rush
Marissa Despain
Angela Ball
John Gallaher
Patricia Smith

The list of sources is itself a poem.


For this week’s prompt, I found myself turning to hard-to-solve riddles, metaphysical jests, memorable sentences lifted out of context. Let me give some possible opening lines and see whether one or another will stimulate our imaginations:

— A good liar needs a first-rate memory.

— This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.

— Neither fugues nor feathers enchant the fool.

— No one will read what I write here; therefore,

— The desire to make love in a pagoda

See what at you can do with one or more of these lines in a poem 12 lines long (or shorter).

Deadline: Saturday, April 7, 2018, midnight any time zone.


David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.

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