Site icon Margaret Coombs

Problems in Writing Historical Poems

One of the problems I ran into when writing about the story of the U.S.S. Lincoln was the missing element of surprise.  My poems followed the facts I had collected from several eyewitness accounts.  This took away from the joy of writing.  There were no twists, no turns.  It was hard to enter the characters’ lives and see things from their eyes, hard to imagine entering the mind of a 20 year old serving in the Navy in 1918, hard to swerve away from the sources to create something that sings.

A solution I discovered when studying with Marilyn Taylor last summer was to pour the material into a form. This seemed to work when I turned my grandfather’s account of the torpedo hitting the ship into a pantoum titled, “Jack Carlton, Fireman First Class:  Eyewitness.”  This poem will be published in the Write Like You’re Alive: 2018 anthology published by Zoetic Press.

The restriction of form forces the poem to go into unexpected places.  Unfortunately, I found that I’m not very good at writing haibun, but I think as a form it could serve the source material (an interview) very well.  The problem is making the leap between the prose poem and the haiku.  I can’t leap. 

Another form to try is a sonnet, the form dedicated to love.  The contrast between material and form might force a surprise.

I’m also thinking of a technique that Fisher used in Kettle Bottom. That is, discover a voice that I can inhabit more easily.   Perhaps one of my grandfather’s older sisters could narrate a poem.  Perhaps a child, a mother could write a letter.  Enlarging the scope of potential narrators might help me blast past my plateau.

Not giving up.  Pushing through.  Something will loosen. 


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