Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Poet Showdown: “Prompt” by Allison Joseph

By Cindy Lyles

Allison Joseph initiates a poet-to-poet write-off in “Prompt” from her collection Voice: Poems. In a free verse, imperative-style poem, she challenges fellow poets to compose unforgettable poetry. Joseph expresses that desire by these memorable lines: “Write me a poem that smokes, / that leaves ashes in my bed, / thumbprints on my skin.” Here, Joseph is requesting poets to write in ways that are strong and engulfing like cigarette smoke, in ways that leave a residue and an unshakeable, lasting scent in her mind long after the poem is done. These specific lines by Joseph seem to jump off the page and leave that same impression she wants from other poets, but how exactly does she expect them to produce such work?

Just prior to Joseph’s aforementioned lingering words, she offers examples of the kind of poems she wants to read. For instance, Joseph craves poetry that details “the last good barroom brawl / you witnessed, how the patrons / spilled out of their seats / at the smack of fists” in addition to poetry about “the last peacock you saw--how the sly unfolding of feathers / could still stop you as you pivoted /through the zoo, balloon / in one hand, three-year-old / in the other.”

These descriptions imply two things. First, the foundation of creating memorable poems is laid by capturing the simplistic yet intriguing moments of life, detail by detail. The person viewing the peacock, for example, is watching the animalistic wonder spread its feathers but is furthermore looking on with a kid and with a balloon in hand. These minute details are documented to highlight the significance of specifics. Second, the type of poetry she wants calls for an appeal to senses as seen through the visual description of the zoo trip, as well as the aural nature of hearing fists smack flesh at the bar fight and that “loud and dissonant” poem that sometimes recalls a lazy lisp. The sense of smell is also called to mind with “…a poem that smokes.”

Joseph’s request is clear then: undeniably, unforgettable poetry from poets. The methods are implied: write poems that both appeal to the senses and depict life’s nuances in a strong, engulfing way, a way “that smokes / that leaves ashes on my bed / thumbprints on my skin.” Such mind-lingering lines as those just mentioned help issue Joseph’s challenge to fellow poets, and it is now their turn to respond to the “Prompt.”

Allison Joseph Week

Cindy Lyles is a poet, graduate student in literature, and program coordinator for Black Studies @ SIUE. In addition to producing verse, she writes about black women and urban space, African American poetry, and her hometown East St. Louis. This past summer, Cindy participated in a Sonia Sanchez Seminar sponsored by the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison.

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