A few years ago I started a writing project called Weather Report, about internal and external weather: the changing landscape of my spiritual evolution/dissolution, and global warming. It seems like a lot to roll into one ball, but you understand that one can’t really separate the environment from what one is.
However, this post is not about that collection, which languishes in various slush piles. The lack of attention did cause me a brief period of despair and self-doubt, but against or despite or irrelevantly to my will, I found myself working in a form I call “Little Coffins.” In about a year’s time I found I had written about 45 poems mostly on purpose which I collected into a new manuscript I’m calling Marble and Rasp.
The name I gave the form doesn’t so much have to do with my despair and self-doubt as with the shape of the poems: They appear in a rectilinear layout created by using a monospaced font and the same number of characters per line to create a poem that is right-justified without tracking or kerning. That’s one reason I call them little coffins. In terms of craft, the form puts pressure on the ideas, a little like a sonnet, but without a rhyme scheme, meter, or length constraints.
The first time I heard of this form was thirty years ago in a poetry workshop at Writers & Books, our literary writing and reading center in Rochester, NY. The instructor told us he had spent a week with another poet holed up in a house in the desert just writing. One day they challenged each other to only write poems that were completely justified on both margins. They were doing this on typewriters. I think he presented it to us in the same way Stephen Dunn once explained his tendency towards tercets–as a “compositional strategy.” At the time I thought it was a dumb idea.
In January, 2021 I went out for a winter day’s walk. I sometimes compose out loud while I’m walking, recording on my smartphone. I was looking at the clouds and the crust of snow outlining the suburban landscape and the dendritic trees against the atypically blue Rochester skies and the poem “Emendation” sprang out of my mouth. The next morning I typed it up, and wholly by accident the way I broke the lines they were almost perfectly right-justified. So I tinkered with the poem to make them align. Then I remembered the dumb exercise and laughed.
That June, attempting to protect my garden from marauding woodchucks, I accidentally caught a rabbit in my Havahart, and the next day her kitten. “Object Lesson” sprang out all of a piece, aligning on both margins with only minor tinkering. After sending it off to my writing group, I dismissed it as a lark. In September I wrote, “Object Constancy,” and something in the poem seemed to beg to be crammed into this form. I think it was the way they had a recognizable structure: introduction, development, conclusion, but without obvious logical hooks. Then “Slot Canyon” emerged, kind of on purpose, and I was off.
Fortunately, I have the advantage of a word-processor rather than a typewriter, which makes it a lot easier to edit. I realized after sending out “Emendation” that it might drive editors crazy to make my fonts accord with theirs. I realized this form would require composing in a monospaced font (like what you had on old typewriters, and which “Courier New” imitates) so that everyone (author, editor, typesetter) agreed about line length. I had typed up “Emendation” in Garamond, my preferred font, so it took some editing to make it conform. In fact, it was one of the hardest poems in this collection to align, since I had really liked it the way it was. But writers get used to merciless revision.
When I get stuck for the right line length I refer to the Thesaurus, and the site RhymeZone.com, which has a filter to let me search synonyms by word length, but most of the time I have to fall back on my own ingenuity to get not only the right number of characters in a line but also the right words.
I call these poems “little coffins” partly because of their shape, and partly for the reason suggested in the line from “Object Constancy”: “Words are shadows that mime shadows on a wall,” a twisted allusion to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. There’s the ideal reality, then there’s our perception of reality, then there’s our expression of our perception, three degrees removed from the ideal.
I tried to find out who that instructor was. For some reason I thought it was Campbell McGrath, but he responded to my email very politely and firmly that he had no idea what I was talking about. After discovering The Meadow in the Vermont home where I was sitting Fitzie, Anni MacKay and Doon Hinderyckx’s Tibetan Terrier, it seemed sure that it was James Galvin who told the story of the typewriter exercise. I wrote to what I thought might be his email address, but either I was mistaken, or he ignored me, or something came up. At any rate, I still don’t know who it was for sure.
So far I’ve gotten one of these published. It’s currently the second poem in the collection, “Weaver” (below), which I initially wrote in Ross White’s September, 2021 Grind which was published in The Orchards Poetry Review. They weren’t able to use a monospaced font as I had hoped, due to layout constraints, but were able to approximate the effect by manually adding spaces.
The Orchards happens to be published by Karen Kelsay, who also runs Kelsay Books, which published my first book, Where Is the River Called Pishon? A coincidence, I’m sure. Thanks to Karen Kelsay and the rest of the staff at Kelsay Books and The Orchards!
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