One of my favorite books to use in creative writing classes is the short book Talking Back to Poems. The author takes four of our concerns in writing poetry—sound, imagery, structure, and meaning—and uses them to talk about a collection of poems. Then he asks the writer to “talk back.” If the poem uses sound in interesting ways, he invites the reader to respond by writing a poem that uses sound in a similar way.
Writers do this all the time, consciously and unconsciously, borrowing ideas, forms, and thought progressions from other writers. That’s one reason why it’s both important and sometimes unnerving to read widely and often as a writer.
As I’ve been reading lately, I keep noticing a poetic line form that seems somewhat random to me. Writers would indent every other line, not as a way to indicate that the previous line continued but as an inexplicable (to me) affectation.
Everywhere I turned, I saw this form. Like in this poem by Adrien Matejka
Those Minor Regrets
We ran Carriage House East
nonstop like a bunch of hungry mouths—
in jacking-jawing & ravenous orbits—
& the huffing in the throat stack
& double-ply knee cracks as we slid
Toughskin thick past the dented
buckets on blocks & lover-graffitied
walls, one after another in industrious,
planetary circuitry. All that symmetry. . .
I trusted the poet. There is control of language, distinct imagery, effective use of couplets and single lines. But I did not understand the indented lines.
So I talked back to it. I was writing a poem about traffic in Cairo (see above) and the form seemed to fit the subject. I tried it. And, in writing it, I discovered the fun of making one poem hidden in another. And though it wasn’t a form I’d ever tried, it felt organic to this poem. It fit in this draft poem tentatively titled “Cairo Road Song.”
On the road from the airport
the driver will not stay in his lane
though there is no reason
he aims the car right down the broken yellow line
it’s late at night
the other traffic bobs and weaves, boxers. . .