From Word to Poem

As I mentioned before, I’m teaching a workshop at the Attic Institute in Portland this summer, June 30-July 28. Here’s little insight into the word-to-poem process, and a sample of some of the kind of fun we’ll have with words in the workshop (for which you can register here — would love to have some of you in class!).

I was flipping through my Dictionary of Contrasting Pairs this morning, because the radio keeps playing a song that says, “The opposite of love’s indifference,” which has me thinking about opposites, traditional and re-defined. And I came across the entry for “austral/septentrional,” which I now know are rareish equivalents of north and south when used adjectivally (so a ‘septentrional state’ is a northern country, an ‘austral wind’ a south wind).

Which is cool, if pretty obscure, but the entry also had this tidbit about Australia: “The ‘southern’ sense of ‘austral’ lies behind the name of Australia, which was marked on maps in classical times, when its existence was only conjectured, as Terra incognita australis, ‘the unknown southern land.'”

How wonderful, the idea of a Terra incognita australis, a land that was for a really, really long time before it was proven to be so, thought to exist, but no one (speaking of Western explorers, of course), knew for sure, but they kept saying they thought it was out there, kept putting it on the map.

Old maps of the world have always delighted and fascinated me. “New World” exploring too, the curiosity and courage to set out into the blank unknown, the chance to name something, the assumptions explorers brought with them, the ideas, attitudes and hopes that in addition to geography are sometimes visible on old maps.

Australia…the idea of knowing something’s out there but not having found it yet…the look of classical maps…two days I spent in Sydney 20 years ago en route to New Zealand…first learning the phrase terra incognita from a Star Trek movie — all that together felt like it just might be worth noodling on.

And the sound of “austral” took me to pastoral, celestial, nostril, possible, fossil, quell. Australia: paraphernalia, glossolalia, see ya, booyah, claustrophobia, sepia, caw, pariah. Near rhyme brings me pell-mell and boil and perhaps hullabaloo. The beginning and middle sounds net flail, boss, best, twill, stroll, stray. The name of the explorer who cemented the usage of the name Australia was Flinders. Cinders, tender, binders, flint, flim-flam and, ooh, finders-keepers…

When I asked the internet for more about how Australia got its name, I also came across a less-than-credible, but entertaining, post claiming that a man from a penal ship had landed on a beach in Australia, thought he saw a bridle trail, and left his companions (never to be seen again) saying “There’s an ‘orse trail ‘ere” which was “corrupted into Orstralia, [and] subsequently latinised as Australia.” I might have to work that in too.

On a plane pell-mell to Australia in the flail
of teenage claustrophobia, terra incognita
futurus
scrawled in another language
on my Trapper-Keeper …

Not a bad start to a first draft. You never know when you start a poem if it’s going to go somewhere or not, but this seems like it might be a poem worth, well, exploring. All from one little word.

To register for the “Made of Words” workshop, please visit the Attic website.

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