It began with small things. Mornings at Lake Geneva Youth Camp went like this: We’d gather around the flag poll and sing a song or seventeen before we got to eat breakfast. (Frosted Flakes and “bug juice” never tasted so good after 400 rounds of “Kumbaya.”) One morning, it must’ve been midweek because I remember feeling somewhere between settled and monotonous, one of my cabin mates was whimpering next to me as we sang. I remember she had thick, curly blond hair. I remember, too, that she was nice.
Another girl noticed as well, and while I just stood there with my hands in my pockets, she threw an arm around our friend and said, “What’s wrong?”
The blond girl put a hand on either side of her mouth, bent toward us (and I admit I flinched because she was making all the same moves as if she were about to throw up) and said, “If I open my mouth, I’ll cry.”
It’s not a sentence that screams “poetry,” but my friend’s declaration had a powerful simplicity to it that produced an empathetic reaction from both me and my other cabin mate. My eyes filled immediately, and my cabin mate whispered, “Oh,” and then the two of us whisked her away. The Frosted Flakes could wait.
A friend and I were talking recently about writing, specifically, about our writing voices. “I want more me and less poet,” she told me, and I chuckled because I knew what she meant. When we don’t trust ourselves and our own abilities, we start to try too hard. I told my friend a story about a stretch of time I didn’t trust my own voice and so began writing in a style of a popular writer instead. My editor gently but firmly called me out and told me to, well, give it a rest.
It’s hard to trust that the big feelings can be expressed plainly or that nuanced or even overwhelming experiences could (or should) be whittled down into simple sentences. I’ve been thinking lately that the desire to express oneself ought to come second to understanding oneself. That is, I am beginning to believe that understanding myself — my thoughts and my feelings — makes me able to turn what I know into something shareable.
Take Anna Kamienska’s poem Small Things. In it, she suggests that it is in the “clumps of moments” in life: “quivering carrot leaves,” “a trampled daisy,” and “laundry hung on a balcony” that a life is built. Each of these “clumps” are images expressed plainly, but each also has that powerful simplicity that gets at nuance and unsaid things.
In the introduction to Kamienska’s book Astonishments Grazyna Drabik, and David Curzon write, “Kamienska strives to speak in a straightforward manner, without any defensive masks. Within this intentional linguistic simplicity, she addresses the problems of loneliness, uncertainty, and the transient nature of human existence. She searches for explicit and exact words to confront death, the yearning for love, the unknowable.”
Perhaps I faced a young Kamienska that year at summer camp. I can’t think of anything more explicit and exact than “If I open my mouth, I’ll cry.” She understood herself exactly, and her words were vulnerable and true, and I remember the sting in my eyes, the catch of my other friend’s breath, the flag’s smack against the wind, and the scratch of the gravel underneath our feet as we helped our homesick friend get somewhere, where, if she wanted to, she could open her mouth and tell us more.
Try It: Small Things Prompt
This week write your own Small Things poem. Give us a glimpse of your day using plain but specific language. After all, it doesn’t get more simple than a quivering carrot leaf or a trampled daisy.
Photo by kuhnmi Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Callie Feyen.
Browse other poetry prompts
If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.
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Laura Lynn Brown says
Thank goodness for smell,
the breath of coffee in an upstairs bedroom
that says someone is awake downstairs,
the ahem of oil in the pan
to the desk around the corner
I’m too hot and that egg on the counter
isn’t going to break itself,
the unapologetic earthiness
of a short-haired soulful dog
on the jeans he leaned against,
the kiss of lavender
on the hand that strokes it.
Not so simple, I realize. And I think the oil was really asking, “Have you forgotten me?”
L.L. Barkat says
I like the idea of our foodstuffs asking us questions. 🙂 (And the “ahem” made me smile. 🙂 )
Bethany Rohde says
Laura Lynn Brown, I’m so happy to see your writing here. (I’ve been looking for some LLB pieces to read lately. 🙂 Love that “breath of coffee” phrase and the “unapologetic earthiness” of the dear dog. Stroking lavender too, I can see, feel, and smell it 🙂
Bethany R. says
Callie, I appreciate what you’re saying here. “It’s hard to trust that the big feelings can be expressed plainly or that nuanced or even overwhelming experiences could (or should) be whittled down into simple sentences.”
It’s one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to Ted Kooser’s poetry. I feel like he can express a distinct memory, complex feeling, or flavor-thought, in words I can directly access. It comes across to me like he’s allowing any reader into the room. When I read his poem, “Mourners,” during a year of losses, it felt like—relief.
Thank you for sharing this post with us.
L.L. Barkat says
This is what I love about Michelle Ortega’s chapbook that we’ll be doing for book club in October. The big experience she puts into the slimmest sentences is something that few could find words for. And there are only the barest hints across the collection, regarding what that experience is. And amidst all of it, there is startlingly simple beauty. It’s so good.
I’m thrilled about that book club. I have her beautiful chapbook here and love her writing.
Megan Willome says
I’m excited for it too. Bought the chapbook a few months ago, so it will be good to go through it in community.
Crystal Rowe says
Just when I thought I’d take a break from poetry for the month of August, I read this and noticed my asparagus plants in the yard have bright red balls on them. Your prompts are like magic, Callie. Here’s my try:
We planted asparagus last year as a feeble experiment
in designing an edible perennial garden.
You should wait to harvest the first asparagus
for at least three years after planting;
it needs all its energy as an infant
to become a sustainable living thing.
But I couldn’t resist the temptation
and cut three stalks when they first appeared;
I ate them raw right out of the ground;
their crunch lingering on my tongue, sweeter than candy.
When the next stalks started to grow, we caged them
with old tomato cages lying in the yard and left it alone.
I gave up on tomatoes this year—
on all gardening really;
we don’t get enough sun
and I don’t have much patience or discipline
Yet the abandoned asparagus towers above the grass,
with its fluttering fronds and ruby red balls
like ornaments on a Christmas tree,
promising gifts to come.
Katie Brewster says
This is so lovely. It brought a smile to my face and sigh to my heart:)