Saturday, August 1, 2009

Week 7: Pantoum (The Poems!)

Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 7: Pantoum.

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MICAH LING

White Fox

White Fox, curled on the road
Were you headed there:
Into the wild
When you stopped in the sun?

Were you headed there:
Through late-October stalks
When you stopped in the sun?
A one-eyed nap

Through late-October stalks
You rested your head
A one-eyed nap
When the dust started up.

You rested your head
Dreaming into the wild
When the dust started up
And Harvest Moon crept in

Dreaming into the wild
As dust covered your coat
And Harvest Moon crept in
Cleaning your fur stark

As dust covered your coat
The scent of into the wild
Cleaning your fur stark
Stripped and pure.

The scent of into the wild
Into the wild:
Stripped and pure.
White Fox, curled on the road.


THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
The trick of the pantoum, of course, is to find a subject that has its own complex weaving, so that subject and form work together. I’m not sure this poem’s subject does that as well as it might. I like the sad spareness of the poem’s focus (that dead fox), but for me, there’s something a bit forced about the way the form works in this draft. Part of the problem may be that “into the wild” is used as both the book title and the movie title. The writer seems to have made it harder on herself than need be, and the unnecessary over-repetition worked against the poem, I think, but the spareness of the subject is compelling, and I think a good thorough re-shaping could make the poem work.

Dustin: I thik you might have taken a shot of Mary Oliver before writing this poem--I don't meant that as a negative-- I'm just saying. You definitely have a missed opportunity with your title; we get a white fox in the first line, so give us something different. I really enjoyed your poem from last week, and I wanted to see something as powerful this week, but I don't feel you delivered. Yes, pantoums are difficult to write. Yes, writing a pantoum in fours is freaking hard, but after last week, I know you can deliver a better pantoum than "White Fox."

Dana: What is clear from this week’s poems is that it’s really hard to write a pantoum. You don’t just have to get in gracefully, you have to get out gracefully. And you have to be able to incorporate the repeated lines throughout without losing control of what you’re doing. The pantoum, done well, is like a professional diver’s entry into the water — it ends clean, no splash as the water gets thrown out of place. This poem has some good moments, but overall you aren’t in control of what is going on, and it culminates in an ending with a lot of splash — and not in the good sense of that dead metaphor.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: This poem is...okay. It is not Ling’s best by far. Maybe it was a labor of survival for the poet—we’ve all been there, so I am sympathetic. But in the spirit of pantoums future, let’s take a look at the strategic ways in which the poem could be strengthened.

Molly Peacock has a great philosophy of form: she says that the formal dictates should be a skeleton giving structure to the flesh around it, rather than a box containing the poem. Right now, this poem feels a little too boxed-in by the pantoum. It would be great to see the author challenge himself more with longer lines, or additional enjambment; there’s a herky-jerky quality created by all the endstops, especially that severe colon.

Because the subject is literally “still,” a fox curled on the road, it doesn’t give Ling much opportunity to energize the scene. Instead of a rhetorical build-up, we drift toward an odelike, static appreciation of nature. If we are treating this as a draft open to revision, I would suggest that the two elements that offer the most potential for dramatic tension are the speaker’s questioning of the fox (though I think there are riskier questions to be asked) and the idea of “one-eyed nap.” Does that mean only one eye is closed, and therefore the fox is not as asleep as it appears? I would love to see that pushed farther.

I don’t know how/if the other judges will weigh in on this, but for the record I regard Ling’s doubling of Into the Wild as both book and movie title a clever move, in line with the pantoum formal repetitions. It’s not cheating. Frankly, since I hate prompts, I’m always rooting for those who find a way to subvert them.



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KRISTEN MCHENRY


The Book of Lilith

I could pass for your pious wife.
But then there's that Louisiana
Milk Snake in my Miu Miu bag.
Nights, I study from the Book of Lilith.

But then there's that Louisiana
heat that slithers in my restless hips.
Nights, I study from the Book of Lilith.
I'm teeming with Eden's

heat that slithers in my restless hips.
Nights, I drive to this cave I knew--
I'm teeming with Eden's
canticles of serpent song.

Nights, I drive to this cave I knew--
before men, before trouble, before
canticles of serpent song.
Nights, the stars would rush at me,

before men, before trouble, before
I was a cherished breakable.
Nights, the stars would rush at me,
I was the thrum of their hustle and flow;

I was a cherished breakable.
Eden brides married blind and bustled.
I was the thrum of their hustle and flow;
now I'm your willow-shelter, your choking-roots.

Eden brides married blind and bustled.
I should keep my eyes cast down, given that
now I'm your willow-shelter, your choking-roots.
I'm the bitch in the kitchen with a cooling knife.

I should keep my eyes cast down, given that
Milk Snake in my Miu Miu bag.
I'm the bitch in the kitchen with a cooling knife.
I could pass for your pious wife.


THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Something about this poem charms and thrills me, even though a few of the lines are a bit of a stretch “heat that slithers in my restless hips” (does heat slither? maybe this is referring to a man’s genitals? hmmmm). But mostly the poem has an energy and sonic power that works well with the formal constraints, so the poem feels like it is weaving forward, weaving forward, the way the best pantoums do:

I was the thrum of their hustle and flow;

I was a cherished breakable.
Eden brides married blind and bustled.
I was the thrum of their hustle and flow;
now I'm your willow-shelter, your choking-roots.

Eden brides married blind and bustled.

Does it get much better then “now I’m your willow-shelter, your choking-roots”? And what about that “milk-snake in my Miu-Miu bag”? How wonderfully weird! The quirkiness and beauty of this poem is refreshing and certainly makes me glad we’ve given Kristen a ‘second chance’. Well done, Kristen!


Dustin: I absolutely love your last two lines: "I'm the bitch in the kitchen with a cooling knife. / I could pass for your pious wife." I almost want the last line of the poem to be "I'm the bitch in the kitchen with a cooling knife." Don't get me wrong, your last line works-- just a small personal preference. I love "“milk-snake in my Miu-Miu bag" and "But then there's that Louisiana / heat that slithers in my restless hips." I'm not sure about heat that slithers, but I find the line so sexy that I'm not distracted, in fact, I'm drawn. Small item: Toward the end of the poem. I'd remove "now" from your repeating line. I think the poem could use a touch-up here and there-- very small stuff as I just mentioned. There is no denying that this is a good poem. Now, I have to say this: I love that you wrote about Lilith. Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with the story of Adam's first wife who wouldn't submit; therefore, I was happy to see a poem on the topic.

Dana: So the hard decision for me this week was between this poem and Emily’s. Both are amazing. I wouldn’t even pick between the two under normal conditions because I don’t tend to compare poems in that way. But this is a competition, after all, so I sat with both pieces in front of me and what I came away with is this. Your work is exceptional, very exciting to read, extremely polished. I can see why you just placed as a runner up in Qarrtsiluni’s chapbook competition. The only thing I would say is to maybe, maybe think about a little *less* control in some of your pieces. Step in a little shit, if you will. Just a little. Sometimes it feels a little too pulled together, like a room that uses all the same hues instead of varying the undertones just enough to create the uncomfortable energy that gets us going. This is a 1% complaint, mind you. Teensy.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: McHenry has been turning strong poems throughout this competition, and this is no exception. With its rich sounds and sassy tone, “The Book of Lilith” was genuinely pleasurable to read, and offers a supple handling of the pantoum form.

One of the poet’s trademarks seems to be intelligent compression. In lesser hands, the complex power dynamic captured in “I’m your willow-shelter, your choking-roots” would have taken a whole stanza to communicate. Here, it’s accomplished in five words. I liked the bold pairing of contemporary vernacular with biblical reference. The strategic positioning of “Eden” and “Louisiana” at line breaks—meaning they each got a turn at modifying the heat and snake motifs—was a clever way of making form serve theme.

That said, I’m not sure the theme is fully developed. Clearly the Lilith-like figure has evolved through several selves. What is the transformation of character that we, as the reader, are supposed to be most invested in? When the speaker says “I could pass for your pious wife”—a line which has to bear up under extra scrutiny because it both opens and closes the poem—does pass equate to “I could be mistaken for, by someone not looking hard enough…” or does it mean “I could choose to play the role of…”? It would be easy to coast on that wonderful end rhyme in the final couplet, and not ask for a greater narrative satisfaction. But I’m charged with being more demanding.

One small thing: revising the repeating lines can be a slippery slope, but alterations also prevent distracting confusions. The speaker’s story hinges on contrasting the past (“before men, before trouble”) to the present. But because McHenry needs to use the same phrasing in two different contexts, she ends up with the weird tense conflation of “I drive to this cave I knew.” It’s a jarring moment, but I can’t judge too harshly when her hands were tied by the assignment. It can be easily fixed in a post-contest incarnation.




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EMILY VAN DUYNE


For My Girlhood Best Friend

I need another heart, two brand new eyes, a bigger boat:
I’m on her bedroom floor. Jaws flickers on the little screen—
She floats above me, blue lit, drunk, remote.
It’s August 21, 1996, her sweet sixteen.

I’m on her bedroom floor. Jaws flickers on the little screen—
the party’s finished, everybody’s gone. I’ve spent the night, instead.
It’s August 21, 1996, her sweet sixteen.
She fucks some blond boy in her pink, four-poster bed,

the party’s finished, everybody’s gone. I’ve spent the night, instead,
too late to sneak out now, to wander home. It’s 4 am!
She fucks some blond boy in her pink, four-poster bed—
I bind a pillow over my dark head, choke out a loud ahem!

too late to sneak out now, to wander home. It’s 4 am!
Now he’s growling lines in tandem with the flick!
I bind a pillow over my dark head, choke out a loud ahem!
On their bodies tumble, his balls slap; they heave and slick—

now he’s growling lines in tandem with the flick!
How she grunts and groans: a man-eater, ferocious.
On their bodies tumble, his balls slap; they heave and slick,
each novel sound stays with me— I’m a virgin, I’m precocious.

How she grunts and groans: a man-eater, ferocious,
I just have to look; it’s like something from Justine!
Each novel sound stays with me— I’m a virgin, I’m precocious,
I’ll take this night to heart. I can’t forget this scene, I mean

I just have to look; it’s like something from Justine!
She never read a goddamn thing, she kissed the boys, instead.
I’ll take this night to heart. I can’t forget this scene, I mean,
I used to plait her curls in that pink bed!

She never read a goddamn thing, she kissed the boys, instead.
She floats above me, blue lit, drunk, remote:
I used to plait her curls in that pink bed!
I need another heart, two brand new eyes, a bigger boat.


THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
Easily and hands down my favorite poem of the week. What I love about this poem is that the form becomes completely integral to the meaning of the poem, the intensity of the experience being described, the dream-like horror of the scenario. So the repetition feels absolutely in keeping with the subject of the poem. Even the hyperboles: i.e. “his balls slap” seem absolutely right for this character and her enforced voyeuristic episode. Fabulous work here!

Dustin: Last week C. Dale Young wrote, "Wow. I mean, Wow!" I'm stealing his words for this week. Wow. I mean, Wow! There is so much to love about your poem that I feel like a glutton. What a first line: "I need another heart, two brand new eyes, a bigger boat"-----a great first line to pull in a reader. I immediately wanted to know why the speaker needs another heart, two brand new eyes, and a bigger boat. I also want to applaud you. The past couple of weeks I've stated that you've had some issues with flow--- Not this week. Using a date in a line that repeats in a poem can be tricky business, but you make it work. Small item: In the second to last stanza, I wanted to see "pink, four-poster bed" instead of "that pink bed." This poem is very dramatic, and I think keeping it "pink, four-poster bed" helps keep it operating at a high drama level. I'd love to see what you would do with to this poem with a little more time. Good job!

Dana: I need another pantoum, two brand new pantoums, a bigger pantoum. Not because I don’t like this poem and want a trade, but because I like it so much I want more. I actually have some technical things I could say about it, so I suppose I will. It feels a little redundant in stanzas three and four, and it’s hard to sustain the same tension and drive that you have in that marvelous first stanza. That first line! That second line! I also think there’s more spit and polish you could put on the middle stanzas. The only time the repeated lines really aren’t working for me is when you use the “ahem!” Twice. A vocal utterance like that calls a lot of attention to itself and it’s hard to finesse that twice in the poem without it standing out. But here’s the thing: Your poem is dangerous and complicated, on the whole and in and within individual lines. I could sit with “She never read a goodamn thing, she kissed the boys, instead” all day and I was so happy that you used it as a repeated line. Your poem does step in a little shit, but it has all the emotional, raw, smart, complex stuff going on in it that I find in my favorite poems.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: Van Duyne’s poems have fascinated me throughout this competition—she’s totally unafraid of hyperbolic language and extremist viewpoints. I wish there was more of her wildness among today’s poets.

Unfortunately, the frenzy of exclamation points is not as well suited here as it has been in her past work. The problem is that we’re in narrative space, rather than a dramatic monologue (at which Van Duyne excels, i.e. the Plath poem). As a reader I took the cues of specificities such as “It’s August 21, 1996, her sweet sixteen,” and invested in the story. Would her friend actually consummate the act? Would the speaker look? Would this kill the friendship? But ultimately, the story doesn’t offer any kind of conclusion, or explicit conflict; it’s just a crutch for the acrobatics of voice. Exploiting a hermit crab for this purpose is fine; using “My Girlhood Best Friend” feels a little strange.

This assignment simply does not complement the poet’s skills. The long lines each have a lot of internal momentum, but those comma-heavy clauses suffer in the pantoum repetition. Both titles are referenced in a literal way (the movie as a movie, the book as a book), and the Justine reference feels particularly tacked-on.

Yet I want to say that this poem includes my favorite line of this round: “I need another heart, two brand new eyes, a bigger boat.” (Though I’d strike “brand” and just say “new eyes.”) In its latter appearance, we know this rhetoric is grounded in details of the evening: the speaker’s heart is broken by her best friend; her voyeuring eyes no longer match the rest of her virginal self; “bigger boat” is a witty Jaws echo. But even as the first line—with no knowledge of these cross-references—I fell in love. What better paraphrase of achy adolescence is there than the universal wish for another heart, two new eyes, and a bigger boat?




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W.F. ROBY

Singing “Death Letter” at Dawn

Crickets out there singing “Teach me, teach me.”
My baby she wrote me a candle
just long enough to read her letter by,
in the time it takes to flip the record.

My baby she wrote me a candle
in the moonlight sharp as chicken bones.
In the time it takes to flip the record
my baby kicked holes in the toolhouse.

in the moonlight sharp as chicken bones.
Now I look for the grave at my toes.
My baby kicked holes in the toolhouse
until the sun went cannon dark,

now I look for the grave at my toes.
My baby she wrote me a cloudburst --
until the sun went cannon dark,
just long enough to light a candle by,

My baby she wrote me a cloudburst --
my baby she wrote me a letter
just long enough to light a candle by,
just short enough to skip the record.

My baby she wrote me a letter
just long enough to read her letter by,
just short enough to skip the record.
Crickets out there singing “Teach me, teach me.”


THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
For me, the best of this poem happens in the four lines below:

my baby kicked holes in the toolhouse.

in the moonlight sharp as chicken bones.
Now I look for the grave at my toes.

I really wish the rest of the poem had this kind of freshness. The poem veers for me too much into what feels like song lyrics. The repetition of “My baby wrote me” pushes the poem toward a country western ballad, and it seems to finally overwhelm the poem which feels like it doesn’t move much past what happens in the opening two stanzas. The danger of the pantoum is that it can feel like it doesn’t go anywhere (oh, yes, I’ve written my share of these!), and I fear that’s what happened with this poem even despite the surprise and delight of the above quoted lines.


Dustin: Your title contains an allusion and grabs attention. If I saw the title of the poem on a table of contents, I'd flip directly to it. I sort of like the first line, but I'd lose the "out there." However, I am lost with "My baby she wrote me a candle." While it seems nice, the lines works against the poem by creating a distraction--- througout the poem my mind kept wandering back to that line. Yes, I know pantoums are hard. Repetition can a troublesome task to handle. Unfortunately, I think this troublesome task got the best of you. I feel like your poem is a bad country music song. You're a good poet; however, at times I feel like you don't trust yourself when writing. Maybe I'm wrong. If I'm not, trust yourself--- just do it.

Dana: There is some really creative work going on in this poem, but I feel like it’s suspended between different approaches, if you will. Is it a song? Is it absurd? If it’s a song, I want it to be its own song, not thrust Joe Cocker in my ear in line two – Joe is very, very difficult to get out once he’s in, by the way. If it’s absurd, I want it to go more in that direction and really push the weird. Your way with language is really wonderful, and I've seen daring, strange, disturbing poems you've written that I adore, but I think this assignment tripped you up. I want you to be fierce and unapologetic. Your poems, that is. You are clearly already both in real life.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: Much like the sestina, the pantoum is a form that can fatigue the reader. Many people resist this risk by masking the repetitions. Rather than backing away from the inherent repetitions, Roby doubled down on the risk—adding his own both within a line (“Teach me, teach me”) and with the use of anaphora (“My baby she wrote me a cloudburst— / my baby she wrote me a letter…”). That’s a really bold move, and it shows an admirable openness to play at this critical stage of the competition.

On top of the movie and the book, Roby also embeds a reference to a third creative genre, song. The title invokes Son House’s “Death Letter” (and those more likely to know Joe Cocker will hear “My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter”). In terms of these labyrinthine assignments, he’s saying Bring it on. Awesome.

The big problem is a lack of coherence. This feels less like a poem, more like a riff (House was a 1930s blues musician). I’m not always looking for story—I appreciate lyric. But this relies on the framework of “Death Letter” (in which a man learns of his loved one’s death via a letter delivered in the morning, goes to the morgue to identify her body, buries her, and returns home depressed) in order to make sense.

There are some gloriously strange word choices here, modifying a “poetic” object with an unexpected adjective; the tradition goes back to Wallace Stevens and, further back, many of the Japanese nature poets. I want to relish phrases like “moonlight sharp as chicken bones,” or “until the sun went cannon dark.” But I can’t quite make it all stick. Ideally, these surrealistic pairings should illuminate both halves; but telling me the moonlight is as sharp as chicken bones doesn’t make me see the moon in a new way. The bones stay bones. The speaker and his baby never achieve a third dimension of personality. I admire the aim, but the execution felt sloppy.



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KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR

From the Phrase Book of my Fearful Mother

Adventures are for careless people.
Life is dangerous—then you die.
Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.
Watch out for the other guy.

Life is dangerous—then you die.
Every man will want your body.
Watch out for the other guy.
Eating dessert first is naughty.

Every man will want your body.
Knee his groin; poke out his eyes.
Eating dessert first is naughty.
Don’t believe their twisted lies.

Knee his groin; poke out his eyes.
Never say I didn’t tell you.
Don’t believe their twisted lies.
Unrequited love can kill you.

Never say I didn’t tell you.
Henry James, The Wings of the Dove?
Unrequited love can kill you.
Sex, drugs, rock & roll, and love.

Henry James, The Wings of the Dove?
You should go rent Vertigo.
Sex, drugs, rock & roll, and love.
Stop that, now! You know, I know.

You should go rent Vertigo.
Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.
Stop that, now! You know, I know.
Adventures are for careless people.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth:
I very much like the conceit of this poem, but in a way the conceit becomes a trap. The phrases of the poem are made up mostly of all-too-familiar bromides. “Unrequited love can kill you.” is a winner, and helps to sharpen the mother’s character, but most of the lines don’t do that kind of hard work, and then as the poem unfolds, the language feels kind of clichéd and uninteresting. It’s a tough assignment to be sure, but this poem was a bit of a disappointment.

Dustin: I'm not feeling this poem; it doesn't move me. I don't think this is your best work in the competition. Using cliches can be tricky business, and I think the tricky business got the best of you. Also, I don't think the cliches are even wovenly together nicely. I almost feel like you tossed lines together. Bottom line: This seems like a rush job. You have written better poems.

Dana: This poem fails in one essential way, which is that it does not make use of the turns between lines that make the pantoum interesting. Without those turns, the shading of the lines when they repeat is very close to the initial use of the line, even if the surrounding lines are different. The end-stopped lines might work very well, splendidly in fact, if this were a list poem and not a pantoum. But as a pantoum, I am just not feeling it. I also don’t feel this piece develops, and too many of the lines are clichés, which might work as a device if they were used more strategically or laid the groundwork for a poem that then breaks through to something deeper and broader. But I don’t see that happening in this piece.

Guest Judge Sandra Beasley: There’s confidence in this poem’s assembly. Morrison-Taylor uses a palpable four-beat line and full end-rhyme, which is another way of intensifying the pantoum’s formal requirements. Although in many cases this would read as too precious an effect, in this case the title—“From the Phrase Book of my Fearful Mother”—justifies a certain sing-songing quality in the verses that follow. The title is doing a lot of work, and the median line length is suited to the pantoum’s repetitions.

As with a list poem or an abcedarian, the artificial premise clarifies the reader’s expectation; the challenge is to keep the gimmick from limiting the experience. In a way, “Fearful” undermines the joke—we should extrapolate our understanding of the mother’s personality from the phrases offered, versus having it labeled at the outset. In a few cases the rotation of phrases produced pleasingly weird juxtapositions: “Life is dangerous—then you die. / Every man will want your body,” for example, made me wonder if this was a particularly necrophilia-wary mother. And although the invocations of Vertigo and The Wings of the Dove aren’t transformational, I like the friction between the two in the sixth stanza (as if one is being recommended one in response to the other).

Some of the lines feel like Jello, though—too easy to make, too easy to swallow. “Don’t believe their twisted lies” takes up valuable space that could be devoted to unpacking the child’s finger-game of “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple,” which has some double-meaning here (or a potential for one) that’s out of focus. From the approach of potential revisions, I wonder if phrases could be added that reflect the mother’s own experience. I recall plenty of warnings in my childhood that began “When I was your age I…” I’d like to engage the mother as a person, not just a mouthpiece.

The craft is solid. A poem that takes bigger risks, though, could garner bigger rewards.


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13 comments:

Dana said...

Tag: You're my queen. Was there ever any doubt?

http://mygorgeoussomewhere.org/2009/08/02/queens-of-all-things/

Dana said...

(Now you have to name seven other queens. Have fun with that!)

Emily said...

Dana-- totally mystified by this. However:

Queen Elizabeth I&II, Mary Queen of Scots, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Bloody Mary... & Bruce Vilanch...

Dana said...

Emily, I *try* to mystify people! ;)

I gave Dustin and six other people (and one robot) an award called "Queen of All Things." It's an online meme. Yes, this is how I spend my spare time, when I am not reading pantoums.

Once you do the meme and select your people, you have to tag them people on their blogs. Dustin now, per the meme's rules, has to tag seven people to be also be Queens of All Things.

I was only supposed to tag women, but that gender-based limitation felt like pants that bind in the crotch, so I named two women, five men and one robot.

W.F. said...

I just want to mention that I've never listened to Joe Cocker -- isn't he the guy that does nothing but Beatles covers, and that right poorly?

I don't understand the "Joe Cocker" reference thing. But we shall see.

Sandra said...

Hi W.F. --

Joe Cocker has a pretty famous song called "The Letter," and the dominant lyric is "My baby, she wrote me a letter...." Hard not to acknowledge, since I was already on the subject of how the poem references songs. But I did reserve the possibility that it might be a coincidence.

No mistaking on the Son House reference, though, I hope? That seemed pretty clear-cut intentional.

Cheers,
Sandra

W.F. said...

Oh, absolutely. I wish Son House was my brother, or at least a cousin of some kind.

I couldn't avoid writing a song informed by the blues due to the repetition inherent in a pantoum.

I wasn't angry about the Cocker reference, just confused. I get it now.

Thanks, and cheers.

The Good Typist said...

Nice job on a tough assignment, everyone--especially with not being allowed to change punctuation in the repeating lines! I really enjoyed reading everyone's work this week.

Emily said...

Hey-- for the record, I love Joe Cocker's Beatles' covers... and WF, how did you miss 'My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter?'

Anonymous said...

Sorry. Roby's pantoum is an absolute mess. How did Ling get kicked out in favor of this?

Emily said...

What IS it with people that won't leave their names??

W.F. said...

They're hi-LAR-ious.

W.F. said...

By the way, anonymous, you're right. That pantoum is a mess. But I really really love my messes. You should see my closet.