This poem is another one written in my Forms class at Saint Mary’s College of California with the inimitable Brenda Hillman. And when I wrote it I was a beginner in writing eco poetics, actually kind of nervous of the contents…what would my old company and co-workers think? And here it is in a book and now in a video on the internet. Strange to think back five years ago to my tentativeness. Oh and btw there were only two minor injuries in this horrific explosion, it was incredibly lucky that was the case.
The poem is a pantoum, a form adapted to French and then English but originally a Malaysian song form. Pantoums formally are composed of quatrains in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next. Often each stanza follow an ABAB rhyme scheme or use the same poetic meter. But in this instance the form has been modified in this poem. The rhyme scheme is broken once in the third line, there is a slant rhyme in stanza five with “ground” and “shroud” and the last stanza is only three lines using ABB rhyme with the very last line echoing the contents of the first line of the poem.
So why a pantoum for this topic? I wanted to try using this received form with its constraints to see if I could develop a commentary on the fossil fuel industry. The idea that the next stanza re-used material from the previous seemed perfect for the ecological content but more so it would force me in unexpected directions. The constraint of the rhyme also would help me write material in a form I might not normally do in pure free verse. But I also was willing to break the constraints but not too much. After all the poem is both pantoum and ecopoetry.
One of the hard things about writing about big issues is to not sound too ranty or lecturing. I believe the form really helps with that, it’s formal constraints helping avoid the lecture. Also the kind of trance like effect set up by the scheme with the continual looping back up in each stanza also avoids the rant. The rant maybe there but is interrupted by the looping.
I think that move in the last line came out of the workshop that semester with Geoffrey G. O’Brien who often had us focus on how a poem was “preparing for termination” and also if on terminating it somehow was cycling back to the beginning, a kind of closed loop system that poems sometimes establish. But also I think also that last line enacts the looping back effect of the form which occurs in the earlier stanzas.
In the first version I went a lot further in disrupting the poem, way beyond the rhyme and number of lines. I incorporated many changes in fonts and font size, parenthetical asides with exclamation marks, interjections of dictionary definitions.
All that got lost in the final version. We were sitting in a pizza parlour in Moraga CA for this class and had read the poem to the group and people had commented. Then my friend Dan, said “hey, you’ve actually got the rhyme scheme going in this.” It seemed to me if the poem was going to have the impact I wanted I needed to lose the disruptions so people could focus on the words. So that’s what I’ve done. Left the more subtle disruptions and got rid of the visuals.
I still enjoy the first version and what it is doing but did what seemed best for the poem. I also think I didn’t have confidence in my actual writing so maybe was using the disruptive pyrotechnics to hide that fact, and also perhaps I was trying to hide the message because of that tentativeness I spoke of at the beginning.
When it came to the making of the video I knew I wanted to enact the form as much as I could with the visuals and the music. So the music re-starts with each stanza to provide a looping effect. The same visuals are re-used for the next occurrence of the words. And the exploding scene is re-versed in order to re-purpose it for a different line. The keep-it-in-the-ground image is also re-purposed towards the end. I feel this is very much in keeping with the form the poem is in.
The video is made up of many searched out objects from the US government mainly. I kind of like that. Sure, it is copyright free so that makes it attractive but also, for instance, that the Bureau of Mines furnished the gasoline station from a 1948 film called “The Story of Gasoline” also fits with the eco theme, subverting government propaganda for other purposes. Also I have no idea why the California Bureau of Land Management would post that video of the drive through the oil wells but again it suited my purpose, pretty sure it wasn’t to promote keeping it in the ground.
This is the last poem under my Canada Council grant to ge the video treatment. It’s been three months of doing this. A great experience I never would have done without the grant I’m sure. I will post some lessons learned in a subsequent blog. Also I am going to make a compilation video of the 12 poems, but this is the last standalone poem.
Hope you appreciate the video. Here’s where you can see the book that has the poem.
And this video gallery is being developed with funding from: