My new craft book, The Strategic Poet: Honing the Craft, is now available as both a print book and an ebook. I hope that you will consider the book for your holiday gift giving. And don't forget to give yourself the gift of craft talks, model poems, prompts, commentaries from the poets, and bonus prompts. You should not experience any supply chain issues when ordering this book as it's fully available.
I am very grateful to contributor Karen Paul Holmes who made a wonderful video for the book. She recorded herself reading a model poem by Sean Shearer, "Rewinding an Overdose on a Projector," and then her own Sample Poem, "Slow-Motion, Reverse-Replay, Myocardial Infarction," which she wrote using the prompt that follows Sean's poem. Both poems, Sean's commentary on his use of similes, the prompt, and the video appear below.
From the Exciting News Department: My book has just received the lovely honor of being named a Best Book for Writers by Poets & Writers magazine!
Sample Prompt from The Strategic Poet:
Rewinding an Overdose on a Projector
Blacker. Black. The foam drools back
up his chin, over his lips and behind his teeth.
The boy on the floor floats onto the bed.
Gravity returns. His hands twitch.
The heart wakes like a handcar pumping faster and faster
on its greased tracks. Eyes flick open.
Blood threads through a needle, draws into a tube.
The syringe handle lifts his thumb.
The hole in his vein where he left us seals.
The boy injects a liquid into the cotton
that drowns inside a spoon. He unties the leather belt
around his arm, pushes the sleeve to his wrist.
The wet cotton lifts, fluffs into a dry white ball.
The flame beneath the spoon shrinks to a spark,
is sucked inside the chamber where it grows cold,
then colder. The heroin bubbles to powder.
The water pours into a plastic bottle. The powder rains
into a vial where it sleeps like an only child.
All the contents on the bed spill into a bag.
The boy stands, feeds his belt through the loops.
This is where I snip the film and burn it.
What remains are the few hundred frames
reeling: the boy unlocking a bedroom door,
a black jacket rising from the floor, each sleeve
taking an arm like a mother and father.
The narrative action in this poem is reversed. Something horrible has happened—a heroin overdose. As we all do after horrible events, the speaker wishes to turn back the clock. Therefore, he begins at the end of the story, reversing and undoing each action that led up to the overdose and its catastrophic conclusion.
Notice the declarative sentences with their article/subject/action verb construction, e.g., The foam drools, The heart wakes, The boy injects. Notice too the flat, lifeless tone that results from this syntax, ironically at odds with the use of the personal first-person speaker.
The imagery makes the scene one we can see. Much of the imagery results from the strong verbs: Eyes flick open, Blood threads, The syringe handle lifts his thumb. The poet forces us to see the scene. And because we see it, we feel it.
In lines 5, 18, and 25 the poet employs three powerful similes, each of which illustrates that sometimes a simile works better than a metaphor. In the closing simile, the speaker describes the boy’s black jacket, each sleeve / taking an arm like a mother and a father. This closing simile makes our hearts ache for the boy and his parents.
The poet might have given more prominence to the actions by using stanzas, but he opted to use a single stanza which contributes to the poem’s fast pace and the absence of the relief that stanza breaks might bring.
Prompt based on Sean's poem:
For your own reverse action poem, first choose an event that had a negative outcome. This could be something you experienced, observed, or heard about from someone else. It could also be something you heard or read about in the news. Perhaps a dog getting killed by a car, a heart attack, a house fire.
Then make a list of actions leading up to the end. Put these actions in chronological order. This is just a list, not a draft.
Now beginning at the end of your list, draft your poem, ending with what’s at the beginning of your list.
Use a first-person speaker.
Use declarative sentences. Use active and energetic verbs.
As you revise, work in some imagery and similes. Put your strongest simile at the end of the poem.
How does the single stanza work for your poem? Feel free to try a different format.
Sean's Commentary: The Function of Similes in his poem
Although this poem is sparse in similes, the emotional weight of each one tends to be heavier the more the reader moves through the poem. The first one that appears is the heart being compared to the vehicle of the handcar as it wakes. Not much of an emotional weight, but it begins the poem’s rhetorical structure of the body being this rickety vehicle for the subject. The next two similes are the opposite as they compare inanimate objects to a living thing. These similes are hermetically tied to family, i.e., only child, mother, and father.
“Rewinding an Overdose on a Projector” is about the practicalities of shooting up heroin, an ugly subject matter. When you have the amalgam of a family setting beneath the poem, it creates a much stranger and stronger emotional weight for the reader. That last simile in the poem will always haunt me when I read it. The speaker is clutching these bodies that signify a balance or protection in life—a mother and a father—whereas we already know from the very beginning of the poem that the speaker can no longer be protected.
Karen's Sample Poem written using the above prompt:
Slow-Motion Reverse-Replay, Myocardial Infarction
Shards of crystal rise
from the terracotta floor, swirl
as if charmed by a wizard’s circling wand.
They form the stem, then bowl
of last night’s wineglass, which floats
to the counter
just as his heart starts again,
the slow wingbeat of a great heron,
its reliable lub dub, lub dub.
Purple bruises on his cheek fade,
rosiness returns, feet pulse with cozy blood.
His knees unbuckle. He rises.
Settles into his chair’s knowing shape.
That’s the stop-action I want
burnt on my retina.]
He’s like a buoyant boy on a birthday,
lips pursed for the Bulldog kickoff,
a gruff WOOF WOOF WOOF!
He’s glued to TV’s pre-game pomp—
Tide ain’t gonna roll today!
The ambulance never needs to scream.
The house isn’t skin-prickling quiet.
My key doesn’t shake in the lock.
On the two-hour trip, my gut isn’t sick,
my brain doesn’t fast-talk—
his phone must be dead, his phone must be lost.
Instead, I waltz with the hairpin curves,
Cat Stevens singing “Morning Has Broken.”
My heart stays with October’s trees—
the red flags only their leaves.
—Karen Paul Holmes