Poetry in reverse: Part 3 of 3

Juliane Okot Bitek. Photo from her website.

Juliane Okot Bitek. Photo from her website.

For 100 days, Juliane Okot Bitek recorded the lingering nightmare of the Rwandan genocide in a poem—each poem recalling the senseless loss of life and of innocence.” (UAlberta Press website)

Bitek is a Vancouver poet and a PhD student in UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues. She writes and speaks about issues of home, homeland, exile, citizenship, and diaspora.

In 2014, as a poetic response to a series of photographs by Wangechi Mutu, Juliane Okot Bitek wrote a poem a day for a hundred days and posted them on her website and on social media. The poems were featured with the photographs on Zócalo Poets and were later published as the book 100 Days (University of Alberta Press, 2016).

This post is the third of three posts about the poetry reversals workshop I took part in last weekend with Vancouver poet Elee Kraljii Gardiner. In the spirit of reversal, I’m posting this one first.

I wanted to post the poems we wrote in the workshop because I was astounded, first by what emerged from each of us in just ten or fifteen minutes, and then by the diversity of our responses to the same poem.

2017 Rural Writers in Residence, poetry reversals workshop. Back row, left to right: Harold Feddersen, Norma Kerby, Joan Conway, Leslie Prpich, Adrienne Fitzpatrick. Front: Baxter Huston, facilitator extraordinaire Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Suzanne Ross

2017 Rural Writers in Residence poetry reversals workshop. Back row, left to right: Harold Feddersen, Norma Kerby, Joan Conway, Leslie Prpich, Adrienne Fitzpatrick. Front: Baxter Huston; facilitator extraordinaire Elee Kraljii Gardiner; Suzanne Ross. Missing because she took the picture: Solveig Adair

Elee, when she introduced the poetry reversals workshop, suggested that “we can articulate what is by concerning ourselves with what is not: great poems can be seeded with thoughts of opposition, rejection, and resistance that do not appear in the finished poem.”

She created a supportive space of enquiry in which she invited us, eight rural northern BC writers, to respond to two small, very different poems by reversing them, whether word by word, line by line, by mood, or by ideas. Elee encouraged us to approach the assignment any way we wanted to. After warming us up on a poem by William Carlos Williams (see Poetry in Reverse: Part 1 and Part 2), she asked us to respond to one of Juliane Okot Bitek’s stunning poems from 100 Days. (We didn’t see the photo in the workshop. We responded only to the poem, which spoke to the photo.)

Day 23, photo by Wangechi Mutu. https://zocalopoets.com/tag/wangechi-mutu-100-days-of-photographs-for-the-rwanda-genocide/

Day 23, photo by Wangechi Mutu. https://zocalopoets.com/tag/wangechi-mutu-100-days-of-photographs-for-the-rwanda-genocide/

Day 23
Juliane Okot Bitek

Some of us fell between words
& some of us onto the sharp edges
at the end of sentences

& if we were not impaled
we’re still falling through stories that don’t make sense

Ten or fifteen minutes of scribbling produced the following poems. See if you can find the relationship between Juliane Okot Bitek’s poem and ours, and where we tried to reverse what she had written. (You can click on our names for links to our work.)

Adrienne Fitzpatrick

Cross the street slow, motorcycles hurtling towards you, swerving, human pylon. Men on the streets drinking coffee, swatting flies. Children selling coke and cigarettes, calling buy from me, madame, buy from me. Swathed women squeeze on motorcycles, ice tethered to thin backs, dark stain following their tracks. Bomb drops in a field.

Suzanne Ross

the world is yelling
no words
no sentences
lost stories
impaled on noise

Harold Feddersen

I fly around
this predictable embrace

in the beginning, consonants,
lonely singles before dull curves
then silence flew over me

Baxter Huston

From the page rises worlds,
and from the blank spaces on the page rise inhabitants.
Whole, unblemished and Holy.

But when, not if, they fail to bleed enough
they will stand and fight forever, to enforce their logical laws.

Norma Kerby
32 Second

everyone is leaping over songs
but none soars to the soft pillows
at the beginning of the crescendo

but for certain one of us will land gently
trapped at the beginning of the concerto where lies the truth

Night Even

all rose and raced toward the silence
but no-one ran beyond the wall
at the beginning of the words

one jumped over glass which all believed unbroken

Leslie Prpich

don’t stories fall
having impaled us with words—
sentences end?

the cracks between the words engulf us
days are numbered in a sequence that cannot
make sense

what if I were to punctuate
your sentences with stillness?

what sense then?

Sheila Peters interviewed Elee Kraljii Gardiner last weekend before the Rural Writers in Residence retreat. Their conversation airs at 10:00 this morning, Friday, May 5, 2017 on Sheila’s radio program “In the Shadow of the Mountain” on Smithers Radio CICK 93.9. Sheila’s programs are archived, so don’t fret if you miss it. You can listen anytime.

2 Responses to “Poetry in reverse: Part 3 of 3”

  1. Elee

    Such a fantastic exploration! The skill in these pieces is fantastic. It’s really lovely to see them here. Thank you, Leslie! And thank you to all the writers for making this workshop so fruitful.

    • commatologist

      Thank you, Elee, for acting as midwife to help us birth poems. Thank you for sharing your insights, your generous, gentle, fierce spirit, and your poetry. Always and forever, thank you for transforming a scud into the flight of larks and piercing the clouds. Meeting you was pure joy.



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