An Open Letter of Thanks to Rebecca Seiferle for “A Table Full of Wasps”
Dear Rebecca Seiferle:
I am writing to share my admiration for your work and, specifically, for “A Table Full of Wasps.” (We’re grateful that you’ve allowed the poem to live online at Verse Daily.) It just so happens that I had the pleasure of seeing you speak at LeMoyne College in 2007. I had just been accepted to my MFA program and was going to literary events to try and start immersing myself in what would soon be my world. I enjoyed your reading and talk a great deal and I greatly admire the poems in Bitters.
One big idea that I’ve borrowed from you is…well…I guess I knew it before. You and your book just slammed the idea home for me. In Bitters, you borrow a lot from mythology in explicit and implicit ways. You helped me realize that writers are never at a loss for material. We’ve all been there; we’re sitting at a coffee place with a steaming cup in front of us. A notebook opened and pen in hand. We tap our fingers on the table wondering what we can write about, hoping a story or a poetic image just taps us on the shoulder.
Next time we’re stuck, why don’t we just retell a story from Chaucer?
Why not write a poem whose central idea is taken from the work of Sappho?
But on to the main reason I’m writing. “A Table Full of Wasps” (also available in your book Wild Tongue) is a narrative free verse poem in which the first person narrator (who may or may not literally be Chana Bloch) sits at a table in a restaurant and bears witness to the sadness that women can feel when they are in an unhappy relationship. (As I’m sure you’ll agree, that sadness is just as powerful when the gender tables are turned.)
One of my eternal struggles in writing is to truly understand the machinations of free verse. (I’ve written about my exploration of the topic before.) What I love about the lines of “A Table Full of Wasps” is that they seem like their own individual breaths of thought. The great liberation of free verse, it seems, is that each line demands to be considered on its own merits. Meter and rhyme aren’t necessarily at the forefront, but the reader (and writer) are invited to appreciate the beauty of the words and their sounds in isolation.
What are some of my personal favorites?
he reads poetry to her each morning, soft with wit
a potbellied, disheveled, middle-aged Dionysius,
to curry favor, or as a horse, caught by a bag
Another facet of the poem that I love is that there IS meter and rhythm running through the lines. I tend to write a lot of blank verse, but I’m always experimenting because, well, it’s fun. (And experimentation is the point of being a writer, isn’t it?) There’s iambic pentameter streaking through the poem like a line of gold in a mountainside.
For example, there is tight meter in the middle of these three lines:
and a huge white carp motionless
in that lead murk. But nothing in her
rises up to meet me; she is cooler than
I’ve bolded the crisp iambic line. The effect seems musical to me, like the moment in a symphony when a favorite theme is reintroduced by the composer. Maybe, as I continue building my free verse muscles, I can think about your poem to understand the many rules that do apply when we compose outside of a recognized form.
So thanks again for unintentionally being a big part of my pre-MFA months and for all of your great work. (Not to mention all of the kindness you’ve shared with the rest of the poetry community during your laurel-rich career.) And thank you for your service as Tuscon’s poet laureate! I wish more municipalities would follow your city’s lead.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
- Smash writer’s block by writing your own version of a great work from the past. What if you go to a random page at Project Gutenberg and see what happens when you borrow from Beowulf or cadge from Cabell?
- Ensure that your lines represent their own individual breaths of thought. Your free verse should consist of a bunch of individual one-line poems.
- Enhance your work with a sprinkling of elements from other forms. Free verse can be imbued with some moments of metrical purity. Nonfiction prose can be improved with brief flights of poetic fancy.