Wednesday, April 15, 2020

#165 Backstory of the Poem "Singing, Studying on Whiteness, This Penelope Strings" by Jeanne Larsen

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***Jeanne Larsen’s “Singing, Studying on Whiteness, This Penelope Strings” is #165 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form?

          Making this poem was, for me, a tasty mix of intellect & surprise: eventually, my unconscious broke it open, took a leap—after a fair amount of study & fiddling with line breaks & tapping syllables on my fingertips.
       It’s the fourth poem in my new book What Penelope Chooses, & the first in which Penelope herself appears. (Like ol’ man Homer in the Odyssey, I begin by calling on the muse—two muses in my case, the second being, alas, our history—and then a set-up shot: Penelope’s husband stranded far from home.)

Step 1: In July of 2014, I took part in an intensive weeklong seminar for college teachers at the Center for Hellenic Studies in DC. To prepare, I re-read the Odyssey (in two new-to-me translations) + a boatload of scholarly commentary. That fall, I taught a lit course built around the story of Odysseus’s travels home from Troy, & Penelope’s crafty endurance.
           So: I started with a fair amount of information + opinions + questions + cool vocabulary words. I made notes on 3x5 slips of paper—one of my key poem-making technologies. (Above Right)
Step 2: I tend to recycle my research. Starting in August, at the Millay Colony, & on stolen moments during the teaching year, I made a few poems responding to Homer, with the vague thought that they might turn into some kind of series. It was a long while before I thought, hey, maybe a book?

Step 3: Early in 2015, on a grey legal pad, I drafted a 41 line poem called “Singing, This Penelope Strings”. It leaned toward iambics but was not metrical; 3 to 5 beats per line, because I can’t not count them.
       In February ‘15, in my application to another colony, Byrdcliffe, I described the sequence-to-be as “multi-vocal, self-reflexive, gloomy, smart-ass, tentative. It explores what lyric poetry can’t shut up about (love, pain, sex, mortality, the divine) & our 21st-century monstrosities: words’ failures, idiotic wars, social injustices, the gut-wrench of seeing a world laid waste by greed & folly.”

Step 4: By the next winter (‘15-‘16), most of my “sassy lyrical footnotes to Homer” were poems in nine lines, with 7 to 9 beats per. I loved the energetic restriction of the form I’d stumbled into, but saw that the long lines wouldn’t publish well. What to do?

       I began changing the poems into unrhymed 14-liners in rough iambics. As the series grew, I stuck with this quasi-sonnet form, making poems of 14, 15, 28 lines, plus one that breaks off after 13, & a few that anyway could have fit into Tottel’s Miscellany (aka Songes and Sonettes), if they’d made the cut back in 1557. (Above Left)
       Maybe these poems’ most sonnet-y feature is the turns, which express themselves in line-skips, not always in the traditional places. Or maybe the sections those line-skips create do the work that rhyme schemes did for Will Shakespeare or John Keats or Gwendolyn Brooks or Marilyn Hacker or…

Step 5: By May of ‘16, the 41 line poem had become two of these busted-up sonnets. The old title & the first half formed the basis of the poem at hand.

Step 6: That July, the word “ivory” entered the poem. It gestures toward the understanding that dreams come from the underworld via one of two gates: one made of animal horn for the true visions, one of ivory for those that lie. (Below Left) This notion first shows up in the Odyssey, when Penelope is telling Odysseus-in-disguise about a dream she had.
          There’s a pun involved in the Greek word for “ivory”. It sounds like the word for “deception”: Penelope’s words to the supposed stranger may have double-meanings. Or: the very language lies, just as her husband does.
     Kinda like poems, eh? The image set up my unconscious for the next step, months later.  

Step 7: In March ’17, I realized I could underline one thread running through the book-to-be by invoking contemporary conversations around whiteness / colorism / privilege. I changed the poem’s title to its present one: “Singing, Studying on Whiteness, This Penelope Strings”. (Above Right: Statue of Penelope in the Vatican Museum.  Credit, Project Gutenberg)
          Felt like a breakthrough, that did: the moment when the true poem announces itself to the one who’s writing stuff down.

Step 8: September ’17, during a residency at Byrdcliffe, I reworked the book-like manuscript-ish thingie I’d accumulated—adding, compressing, rearranging. This particular poem’s last three lines got juggled & re-juggled as I sharpened the set-up for Odysseus-as-monstrous-would-be-colonizer of the Cyclopes’ island in a later poem.
       Soon after, I submitted the ms. to Cider Press Review, for their annual Book Award competition. In February ’18, good news came: publication of the book by CPR in about a year.

Step 9: In spring ‘18, as I was putting the accepted book ms. into final-final form for my patient editors at Cider Press Review, I decided this was the place to weave (ha!) in the duplicitous word “unhealing” (replacing a word I wanted to use elsewhere) & a phrase I’d had kicking around on a 3x5 slip for a couple years: “Her doing is undoing.”
         Those changes brought something, call it counterpoint, I’d been wanting for the poem. (Left: Islands Caldera)

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. In my sunlit living room. Grey-blue carpet, Grey-white walls. Window plants. Trees out front filtering the light. It would have been pre-breakfast, before the day’s classes / email /  meetings / student conferences.
          Picture me on a couch, books & slips of paper here & there, cat nearby. Across the room: a cabinet from 1930’s Shanghai (Above Right), via family friends. It has nothing to do with the Odyssey or Homeric times. But no—its varied & inviting landscape might be relevant, after all…
     Later, key work got done in a dark delightful attic on the top floor of Eastover, the 1905 house at Byrdcliffe where I wrote & revised & slept—with reading / thinking time on Eastover’s porch (Above Left) & in the dining nook.

What month and year did you start writing this poem? Jan. or Feb. 2015. I tossed out the handwritten drafts for this book a year ago. That’s where a lot of the action was, alas.

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?)  Probably 20. Or, like, a hundred, if you count every tweak-ette. Obsessive? Yep.
       The basics came together quickly, perhaps because much of this poem is a catalog. Others in the collection changed far more.
       The photo (Right) shows a polished version of the 41 line poem—see “Step 5” above—call it a fourth or tenth draft, after the initial one or two in longhand. (The second half became a separate poem, “Athene Occurs as a Sister, Fills Her”; it shows up 3 pages later in the book. I’ve never made two poems out of one before.)

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  And can you share them with us? I like the theory that what got cut from the version in the photo still comes through. I sharpened the bit about lying after I figured out that this poem resists a contemporary Big Lie as vicious as the falsehoods (Dulce et decorum est…, women-belong-to-men) that led to so many deaths at Troy.

What do you want readers to take from this poem? Well…. That enslaving people (as women of Troy were enslaved by the victorious Greeks) is bad? That this white woman scorns white supremacy, even though she knows she too is caught up in its web—or shroud? That the fracking wells we’re inflicting on our grandkids are as awful as throwing a baby from a cliff-top tower, which is what one of those glorious Greeks did to the probable heir to the throne of Troy?
          Also, for sure, that the terrible world depicted in the burial cloth Penelope weaves by day & secretly ravels at night is a world of visionary beauty, too: we can discern mythic meaning in the scattered stars, if we look. 

          And, that someone as hard-pressed as Penelope was in Odysseus’s absence can do a thing that matters when she sees patterns, & makes art.
           I’d be very glad if their minds are freshened, opened, by image & sound, in the deep way measured, focused language does that.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional for you to write and why? The late additions. I started with the woman trying to make something of assembled images from the war on Troy—the enemy city Homer makes us love even as he brings it down. Penelope declared herself dutiful to patriarchal ways, but she finds agency in subversion. She persists. By the poem’s end, she questions her husband’s, and her / my culture’s, lies.  So it began in celebrating Penelope as maker (Greek poiētḗs, Scots makar), which = seer (Latin: vates). The upwelling of the rest surprised me—and, yeah, I feel it.

     Has this poem been published before?  And if so where? In July ’18, it was published in the indomitable online magazine, Scoundrel Time. link to   

The book, What Penelope Chooses, came out in March 19.


Anything you would like to add? Reader: by all means, go read the Odyssey. Robert Fagles’ translation or Emily Wilson’s, your pick. Then maybe Fitzgerald’s, or Lattimore’s. Also, well….I do love to do poetry readings, class visits, workshops…

Singing, Studying on Whiteness, This Penelope Strings

along suitors & the lyre-warp of her loom.

On last night’s unspun body bag, weaves pictures:
deployed youths, broken masts, horses’ heads
hacked. An infant prince flung from a tower
tall as a fracking well. She lights a lamp,
swears her maids to speechlessness, unpicks
the fabric. Looks skyward. Makes out smoggy threads
between stars. Calls them demigods, grotesques,
captives, tracks of what’s not. Come morning, depicts
with water-skeins, veiled eyes: Asia Minor
widows thralled in murderous beds. Her doing

is undoing. That burial wrapper signifies
unhealing rumors. Marvels. A liar’s name shouted
as rocks crash wet. Her ivory dream-talk, raveling.

          Biography of Jeanne Larsen: I’m a low-grade language geek, with an undergrad major called “Phenomenology of Religion” & a Ph.D., sigh, in Comp Lit: that makes me an officially sanctioned dabbler.
  I’ve just retired from teaching in the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins, & still live in the Roanoke Valley, in southwest Virginia, where the mountains are as darkly purple-blue as Homer’s sea.


001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”

012  March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”

029  August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”

030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”

031  September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”

032  October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”

033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”

034  October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”

035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”

036  October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”

037  November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”

038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”

039  November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”

040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”

041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”

042 November 22, 2018
Haroldo Barbosa Filho’s “Mountain”

043  November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”

044 November 30, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor’s “This poem is too neat”

045  December 03, 2018
Ian Haight’s “Sungmyo for our Dead Father-in-Law”

046 December 06, 2018
Nancy Dafoe’s “Poem in the Throat”

047 December 11, 2018
Jeffrey Pearson’s “Memorial Day”

048  December 14, 2018
Frank Paino’s “Laika”

049  December 15, 2018
Jennifer Martelli’s “Anniversary”

O50  December 19, 2018
Joseph Ross’s For Gilberto Ramos, 15, Who Died in the Texas Desert, June 2014”

051 December 23, 2018
“The Persistence of Music”
by Anatoly Molotkov

052  December 27, 2018
“Under Surveillance”
by Michael Farry

053  December 28, 2018
“Grand Finale”
by Renuka Raghavan

054  December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry

055 January 2, 2019
by Larissa Shmailo

056  January 7, 2019
“The Seamstress:
by Len Kuntz

057  January 10, 2019
"Natural History"
by Camille T Dungy

058  January 11, 2019
by Brian Burmeister

059  January 12, 2019
by Clint Margrave

060 January 14, 2019
by Pat Durmon

061 January 19, 2019
“Neptune’s Choir”
by Linda Imbler

062  January 22, 2019
“Views From the Driveway”
by Amy Barone

063  January 25, 2019
“The heron leaves her haunts in the marsh”
by Gail Wronsky

064  January 30, 2019
by Terry Lucas

065 February 02, 2019
“Summer 1970, The University of Virginia Opens to Women in the Fall”
by Alarie Tennille

066 February 05, 2019
“At School They Learn Nouns”
by Patrick Bizzaro

067  February 06, 2019
“I Must Not Breathe”
by Angela Jackson-Brown

068 February 11, 2019
“Lunch on City Island, Early June”
by Christine Potter

069 February 12, 2019
by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

070 February 14, 2019
“Daily Commute”
by Christopher P. Locke

071 February 18, 2019
“How Silent The Trees”
by Wyn Cooper

072 February 20, 2019
“A New Psalm of Montreal”
by Sheenagh Pugh

073 February 23, 2019
“Make Me A Butterfly”
by Amy Barbera

074 February 26, 2019
by Sandy Coomer

075 March 4, 2019
“Shape of a Violin”
by Kelly Powell

076 March 5, 2019
“Inward Oracle”
by J.P. Dancing Bear

077 March 7, 2019
“I Broke My Bust Of Jesus”
by Susan Sundwall

078 March 9, 2019
“My Mother at 19”
by John Guzlowski

079 March 10, 2019
by Chera Hammons Miller

080 March 12, 2019
“Of Water and Echo”
by Gillian Cummings

081   082   083    March 14, 2019
“Little Political Sense”   “Crossing Kansas with Jim
Morrison”  “The Land of Sky and Blue Waters”
by Dr. Lindsey Martin-Bowen

084 March 15, 2019
“A Tune To Remember”
by Anna Evans

085 March 19, 2019
“At the End of Time (Wish You Were Here)
by Jeannine Hall Gailey

086 March 20, 2019
“Garden of Gethsemane”
by Marletta Hemphill

087 March 21, 2019
“Letters From a War”
by Chelsea Dingman

088 March 26, 2019
by Bob Heman

089 March 27, 2019
“Clay for the Potter”
by Belinda Bourgeois

#090 March 30, 2019
“The Pose”
by John Hicks

#091 April 2, 2019
“Last Night at the Wursthaus”
by Doug Holder

#092 April 4, 2019
“Original Sin”
by Diane Lockward

#093 April 5, 2019
“A Father Calls to his child on liveleak”
by Stephen Byrne

#094 April 8, 2019
by Marc Zegans

#095 April 12, 2019
“Landscape and Still Life”
by Marjorie Maddox

#096 April 16, 2019
“Strawberries Have Been Growing Here for Hundreds of
by Mary Ellen Lough

#097 April 17, 2019
“The New Science of Slippery Surfaces”
by Donna Spruijt-Metz

#098 April 19, 2019
“Tennessee Epithalamium”
by Alyse Knorr

#099 April 20, 2019
“Mermaid, 1969”
by Tameca L. Coleman

#100 April 21, 2019
“How Do You Know?”
by Stephanie

#101 April 23, 2019
“Rare Book and Reader”
by Ned Balbo

#102 April 26, 2019
by Jefferson Carter

#103 May 01, 2019
“The sight of a million angels”
by Jenneth Graser

#104 May 09, 2019
“How to tell my dog I’m dying”
by Richard Fox

#105 May 17, 2019
“Promises Had Been Made”
by Sarah Sarai

#106 June 01, 2019
“i sold your car today”
by Pamela Twining

#107 June 02, 2019
“Abandoned Stable”
by Nancy Susanna Breen

#108 June 05, 2019
by Julene Tripp Weaver

#109 June 6, 2019
“Bobby’s Story”
by Jimmy Pappas

#110 June 10, 2019
“When You Ask Me to Tell You About My Father”
by Pauletta Hansel

#111 Backstory of the Poem’s
“Cemetery Mailbox”
by Jennifer Horne

#112 Backstory of the Poem’s
by Kate Peper

#113 Backstory of the Poem’s
by Jennifer Johnson

#114 Backstory of the Poem’s
“Brushing My Hair”
by Tammika Dorsey Jones

#115 Backstory of the Poem
“Because the Birds Will Survive, Too”
by Katherine Riegel

#116 Backstory of the Poem
by Joan Barasovska

#117 Backstory of the Poem
by Michael Meyerhofer

#118 Backstory of the Poem
“Dear the estranged,”
by Gina Tron

#119 Backstory of the Poem
“In Remembrance of Them”
by Janet Renee Cryer

#120 Backstory of the Poem
“Horse Fly Grade Card, Doesn’t Play Well With Others”
by David L. Harrison

#121 Backstory of the Poem
“My Mother’s Cookbook”
by Rachael Ikins

#122 Backstory of the Poem
“Cousins I Never Met”
by Maureen Kadish Sherbondy

#123 Backstory of the Poem
“To Those Who Were Our First Gods”
by Nickole Brown

#124 Backstory of the Poem
“Looking For Sunsets (In the Early Morning)”
by Paul Levinson

#125 Backstory of the Poem
by Tiff Holland

#126 Backstory of the Poem
by Cindy Hochman

#127 Backstory of the Poem
by Natasha Saje

#128 Backstory of the Poem
“How to Explain Fertility When an Acquaintance Asks Casually”
by Allison Blevins

#129 Backstory of the Poem
“The Art of Meditation In Tennessee”
by Linda Parsons

#130 Backstory of the Poem
“Schooling High, In Beslan”
by Satabdi Saha

#131 Backstory of the Poem
“Baby Jacob survives the Oso Landslide, 2014”
by Amie Zimmerman

#132 Backstory of the Poem
“Our Age of Anxiety”
by Henry Israeli

#133 Backstory of the Poem
“Earth Cries; Heaven Smiles”
by Ken Allan Dronsfield

#134  Backstory of the Poem
by Janine Canan

#135 Backstory of the Poem
by Catherine Zickgraf

#136 Backstory of the Poem
“Bushwick Blue”
by Susana H. Case

#137 Backstory of the Poem
“Then She Was Forever”
by Paula Persoleo

#138 Backstory of the Poem
by Kris Bigalk

#139 Backstory of the Poem
“From Ghosts of the Upper Floor”
by Tony Trigilio

#140 Backstory of the Poem
“Cloud Audience”
by Wanita Zumbrunnen

#141 Backstory of the Poem
“Condition Center”
by Matthew Freeman

#142 Backstory of the Poem
“Adventuresome Woman”
by Cheryl Suchors

#143 Backstory of the Poem
“The Way Back”
by Robert Walicki

#144 Backstory of the Poem
“If I Had Three Lives”
by Sarah Russell

#145 Backstory of the Poem
by Andrea Rexilius

#146 Backstory of the Poem
“The Night Before Our Dog Died”
by Melissa Fite Johnson

#147 Backstory of the Poem
by David Anthony Sam

#148 Backstory of the Poem
“A Kitchen Argument”
by Matthew Gwathmey

#149 Backstory of the Poem
by Bruce Kauffman

#150 Backstory of the Poem
“I Will Tell You Where I’ve Been”
by Justin Hamm

#151 Backstory of the Poem
by Michael A Griffith

#152 Backstory of the Poem
by Margo Taft Stever

#153 Backstory of the Poem
“1. Girl”
by Margaret Manuel

#154 Backstory of the Poem
“Trading Places”
by Maria Chisolm

#155 Backstory of the Poem
“The Reoccurring Woman”
by Debra May

#156 Backstory of the Poem
“Word Falling”
by Sheryl St. Germain

#157 Backstory of the Poem
“Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of 7,000 Jews Detained in an
by Liz Marlow

#158 Backstory of the Poem
“Why Otters Hold Hands”
by William Walsh

#159 Backstory of the Poem
“The Invisible World”
by Rocco de Giacoma

#160 Backstory of the Poem
“Last Call”
by Ralph Culver

#161 Backstory of the Poem
by David Dephy

#162 Backstory of the Poem
“Mare Nostrum”
by Janice D Soderling

#163 Backstory of the Poem
“Winnipeg Noir”
by Carmelo Militano

#164 Backstory of the Poem
“Needlepoint Roses”
by Jason O’Toole

#165 Backstory of the Poem
“Singing, Studying on Whiteness, This Penelope Strings”
by Jeanne Larsen

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