Concerning Craft: Playing with Form

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Pat Valdata. Photo by Linda Joy Burke.

Pat Valdata. Photo by Linda Joy Burke.

Several years ago, I was sitting in the audience during a less-than-riveting session at a writing conference, and did the literary equivalent of doodling: I wrote an Italian sonnet. Well, a sonnet-to-be. It had the required number of lines, most of the lines rhymed, and there was a rudimentary shift in direction in line eight (technical term: volta, which is a great word, isn’t it? Such fun to say out loud. More fun than the English translation: turn). After the conference I revised and got a couple of opinions about it from poets much more skilled in form than I am, and then revised some more. Eventually, the sonnet was published in a chapbook called Rhymes for Adults, edited by Mary Alexandra Agner (Virginia Reals Press, 2006).

The subject of the sonnet is Bessie Coleman, one of my heroes. It tells about her dreams in what I imagine might have been her words:


Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), first African-American woman pilot

White men in Waxahachie plain won’t
Teach me, nor any men North or South.
Being female, and black, they say, I can’t
Learn such things. But my full-lipped mouth
Loves aileron, chandelle, empennage.
So while I file the flapper’s smoke-stained nails,
I practice aerodrome and fuselage
And save my tips. One day, I’ll do a tail-
Slide overseas, and split-S slow roll where
La vie est belle; instructors, color-blind.
Then, when I’ve joined those masters of the air,
I’ll glide beneath the cloud base unconfined,
Make my way back home, barnstorm the sky,
And watch the white folk pay to see me fly.

I had so much fun writing that one poem that I decided to do a whole series of poems about women aviation pioneers, and, in what poet and writing teacher Peter Murphy likes to call a “challenge for the delusional,” I decided to do most of them in form.

I love free verse; almost every first draft of mine starts out that way, but I don’t like writing the same thing over and over. So I started reading contemporary poets to see how they handled form, and saw that poets nowadays don’t use the poetic contractions and inverted word order that make many formal poems sound so old-fashioned. Here, for example, is a villanelle by Julie Kane:

Kissing the Bartender

The summer we kissed across the bar
I felt sixteen at thirty-six:
as if you were a movie star

I had a crush on from afar.
My chest was flat, my legs were sticks
the summer we kissed across the bar.

Balancing on the rail was hard.
Spilled beer made my elbows stick.
You could have been a movie star,

backlit, golden, lofting a jar
of juice or Bloody Mary mix
the summer we kissed across the bar.

Over the sink, the limes, as far
as you could lean, you leaned. I kissed
the movie screen, a movie star.

Drinks stayed empty. Ashtrays tarred.
The customers got mighty pissed
the summer we kissed across the bar.
Summer went by like a shooting star.

Isn’t that fun? I took a few workshops and enjoyed introducing more formal elements into my poems. When decided to give received forms a serious try, I bought a copy of Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms. As I researched the accomplishments of each pilot, I found a form in that book to suit her story. The pantoum, for example, is a repeating form in which lines 2 and 4 of each stanza become lines 1 and 3 in the next. That interlocking repetition was perfect for poems about flying consecutive loops or coping with the monotony of an endurance flight. I chose French forms for French pilots, a Spanish form for a flight around South America, a Sapphic, a blues form, a Fibonacci, acrostics, a tritina, and others. Some forms I followed quite strictly; others I stretched a little. A few of the poems are blank verse dramatic monologues; some aren’t in a set form at all, but I played with the rhythm anyway. One poem does its best to avoid iambic lines. Another riffs on the number 13, because that pilot thought it was her lucky number.

Photo by Pat Valdata.

Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Photo by Pat Valdata.

It was a lot of work to research each pilot, find the right form, and craft the poem. I am not ashamed to admit that a rhyming dictionary came in useful at times. I drafted most of the poems during two writing residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and revised them when I got back home.

But it wasn’t all work—I had an absolute blast writing these poems. Paying so much attention to sound and rhythm reminded me of why I love reading and writing poetry in the first place: word play. What fun it is to make the sound an echo to the sense!

Pat Valdata’s book of poems about women aviation pioneers won the 2015 Donald Justice Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from West Chester University in June.