Poet-a-Day: Meet Elise Paschen
It is such an honor to feature one of Elise Paschen’s poems in How to Write a Form Poem. “The Front Room” features in the main sestina chapter of the book, and wow, does it make the form look good! As Paschen was inspired by Bishop to craft her sestina, I trust readers will be inspired by Paschen to write—and be surprised by—their own spirals of beauty. Paschen says, “You begin with a form and you allow the form to take you places you didn’t expect.” That’s the adventure.
I’m including just the first two stanzas here. Want to read the rest? Get a copy of How to Write a Form Poem, of course, or read it in Paschen’s Houses: Coasts.
The Front Room (excerpt)
There is a grand piano in the corner of the room
where music sheets and magazines pile like a story
on a story, a story of a story, built of stones.
For years, no one had entered that circle
of rug where the corner holds the piano like a flower
closed, or a parasol open against the rain.
But this afternoon it is the rain
that shuts windows, curtains, and house. Room
shrinks to matchbox size. Only a flower
crumbled on the piano top is able to tell a story—
a stem with petals scattered (somehow) in a circle—
while the house hushes as if buried under stones …
Here’s what the poet has to say about her work:
Tania Runyan (TR): Tell me a little about the origin story of “The Front Room”:
Elise Paschen (EP): I wrote this poem when I was in college. After reading Geography III, I fell in love with the poems of Elizabeth Bishop. As you may know, Bishop is the master of the sestina, so I intently studied her sestinas throughout her work.
Looking back at “The Front Room,” I realize it was an exploration of an imaginary world I inhabited. We did not live in a house, but we did have a piano in the corner of our apartment’s living room. The poem was included in my first chapbook: Houses: Coasts which was published by Sycamore Press in Oxford, England in 1985.
TR: Why did you decide to write the poem as a sestina? Or did the form “cause” the poem to happen?
EP: My intent was to write a sestina, and “The Front Room” was my first. At Harvard, I had the great fortune to take a class with Robert Fitzgerald my sophomore year called Versification or English Tar. In that course, we studied the history of English prosody, beginning with classical alcaics and sapphics. Although I did not write this poem in Fitzgerald’s class, studying prosody taught me to understand poetry from “the outside in.” You begin with a form and you allow the form to take you places you didn’t expect.
In writing a sestina, it is important to choose your end-words or teleutons with care so they may open up mysterious possibilities. You could consider using end-words which can function as different parts of speech—as do the words “circle,” “rain” and “flower” in “The Front Room.”
TR: What do you hope poets can learn from a book like How to Write a Form Poem?
EP: I teach in the MFA Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In every poetry workshop I try to introduce my students to various ways to write in form. I even teach a class devoted entirely to form called “The Formal Impulse.” These poetry workshops led me to edit an anthology called The Eloquent Poem (Persea Books, 2019). Richard Wilbur beautifully sums up the importance of writing in form: “[Traditional forms] can liberate you from whatever narrow track your own mind is running on, and prompt it to be loose and inventive, to entertain possibilities it hadn’t foreseen.” All in all, I love how experimenting with forms leads you to surprises.
About Elise Paschen
Elise Paschen is the author of The Nightlife (named one of the top poetry books of 2017 by the Chicago Review of Books), Bestiary, Infidelities (winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize), and Houses: Coasts. As an undergraduate at Harvard, she received the Garrison Medal for poetry. She holds M.Phil. and D.Phil. degrees from Oxford University. A recipient of the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs Medal, Paschen is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.
Her poems have been published in The New Yorker and Poetry Magazine, among other magazines, and in numerous anthologies, including When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry and The Best American Poetry 2018. She is the editor of The Eloquent Poem and has edited or co-edited numerous other anthologies, including The New York Times best-sellers, Poetry Speaks and Poetry Speaks to Children. Former Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America, she is a co-founder of Poetry in Motion, a nationwide program which places poetry posters in subway cars and buses. Dr. Paschen teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute and lives in Chicago.
Photo by It’s No Game, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.
How to Write a Form Poem: A Guided Tour of 10 Fabulous Forms
With How to Write a Form Poem by your side, you’ll be instructed and inspired with 10 fabulous forms—sonnets, sestinas, haiku, villanelles, pantoums, ghazals, rondeaux, odes, acrostics (the real kind), found poems + surprising variations on classic forms (triolet, anyone?), to challenge you when you’re ready to go the extra mile.
You’ll also be entertained by Runyan’s own travel stories that she uses to explain and explore the various forms—the effect of which is to bring form poetry down to earth (and onto your own poetry writing map)!