I’ve been reading Michael Simms’ blog Vox Populi – A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature for four years now and was recently intrigued by a poetry challenge the poet/curator gave himself. The ten poems he came up with seemed to have a common tone intrinsic to Gothic Americana and almost could have been lifted from ten different chapters of a twisty and meandering epic novel of the ages. But Simms listed the poems before letting the reader know in an author’s note about the particulars of the prompt, or even that they were an answer to (a quite unusual) one at all. For effect, I’ll invite you now to go visit that post so you may read some sample poems of what we’ll be attempting this evening at the pub, before being given the parameters.
When the coyotes surrounded you
They wanted to eat your dog not
You who called your boyfriend to drive
His pickup right into the middle of
The pack and scattered the coyotes
And you knew the coyotes were
In the abandoned country club because
Wolves and cougars were hunted out
A hundred years ago and the coyotes
Keep out the cats so the songbirds
Are everywhere spreading the seeds
Of wildflowers which carpet the old
Fairways and the ruined clubhouse
Where the owls live and maybe
We’re okay with the end of civilization
As we know it.
-Michael Simms, excerpt from ‘The end of civilization as we know it’ originally published on Vox Populi, Jan. 18, 2020
To read all ten of Simms’ poems, if you haven’t yet done so, click here.
This poetry challenge is brilliant for penetrating the psyche of the post-modern ‘people’s voice’, which is more likely to be given five seconds on a Twitter mike to make a smart impression than to be pored over and dissected from multiple angles. Thus the first rule: The poem must tell a story in one sentence.
Talk of ‘the end of civilization’ may have once been taboo or limited to fanciful musings of some distant time or space; but as we individually accept our own inevitable mortalities, so we too contemplate the tangible ways that our civilization’s mortality as a whole can be felt. These are as vast and varied as there are humans on the planet. We see Simms explore the theme with a spotlight on man v. machine, xenophobia, anomalies, and the façade of justice, to name a few. Rule #2: The poem must explore the theme of ‘the end of civilization as we know it.’
With such a weighty theme, there could easily be a compulsion to play martyr, savior, or at least omniscient judge. That’s why I can appreciate the third rule that the story must tell of an odd or embarrassing incident, either heard about, witnessed, or autobiographical. This humanistic element keeps our narrating selves from getting too lofty and far-removed, and may even prove an opportunity for light-hearted humor.
There is one more hidden rule that must be followed if your poem is to be a “death sentence” in its pure form: it must be improvised. This may be the most challenging part of all as we are wont to perfect our craft down to the last exacting metaphor. But this detail in a way is the most important as well, given the subject matter and why we write in the first place. Improvising is arguably the most potent way to exercise what human civilization, doomed as it may be, has given us: the ability to translate, in live action, the cosmic bonding force of love that flows through us all—into words.
And because I never miss an opportunity to share improvisational free jazz–here’s Karen Borca on her bassoon:
You may write up to three story-sentence-poems that answer the prompt. Once you have published it on your blog, link it up below and then read and comment on the other linked entries.