A while back I posted a poem that was generated from a prompt Ellen Bass gave at a workshop. She used Frank Gaspar’s poem, Late Rapturous, as an example of what she coined as a “long-armed poem.” In that workshop I wrote a poem about, among other things, my meeting with Leonard Cohen in 1976, which was included in an issue of Room Magazine. Later, in one of my workshops, I offered the same prompt and wrote: Rajneeshpuram, Hiraeth, and the long-armed poem

I love the prompt’s confines and its endless possibilites, so in a day-long workshop recently, I offered it again for participants to work on in the afternoon’s free time.

Here is the list of things to try to include:

  1. The name of someone famous
  2. the name of a city or town
  3. razor
  4. amnesia
  5. cradle
  6. song title
  7. time of day
  8. canyon
  9. despise
  10. name of a drink
  11. scratch
  12. mercy
  13. time of day or season
  14. fragment of a lyric or poem

I hope you’ll try it. Swing wide and scoop up whatever you come across and see where it takes you and where you land.

Here is what I wrote:

After almost two hours scraping through dense brush and sniffing the ground for vestiges of a path, I found the house—just a one-room cabin, really, with a sleeping loft. Decades ago, I’d known many paths through those woods; travelled their zigzag routes down to my new friends at the bottom of the mountain or to the post office. Winlaw post office, the one building that made it a town. Cradled at the edge of the meadow, a mile up from the road, I found it still standing. It wasn’t amnesia or emotional mercy that made my old home so hard to find again—it was growing things and decaying things—landmark buildings that had been were no longer and trees not then sprouted now thirty feet tall, sudden yurts where birches had grown, marijuana farms replacing tamarack and pine. I looked for the path leading through the woods, down the ravine, across the river and up again to Ely’s A-frame. After that first night with him, Susy and I laughed as we sang, “Ely’s coming, hide your heart, girl. Ely’s coming.” Laura Nero. We loved her. What happened to Laura Nero? All romantics meet the same fate, sang Joni. The scratch of those women’s voices, not like razors, but more like the tongues of cats. Those were the days of Ladies of the Canyon, Suite Judy Blue Eyes, and Me and Bobby McGee. Those days. Remember? When I moved into that sweet little cabin with its window frames painted blue, its wood cook stove, and gravity flow water into a white enamel sink from an uphill spring, I believed I’d come to stay. Roberto and Halcyon were on their way south to earn enough money to finish their dream house on the other side of the meadow. That little cabin was just a landing place. They fed me a deep Spanish red and Skijost—coffee-coloured sheep’s cheese wrapped in red foil. You can stay, they told me. I slept that night on their floor, which would soon be my floor, and woke in the morning to coffee percolating in a glass pot on the wood stove. Twice I’ve purchased that cheese in the red foil to feel its creamy muskiness melt into my mouth. But it didn’t work. It never does, really. Like when you’ve tried every brand of vanilla ice cream to get it back—that moment when it first cooled your throat and made you dance a little outside the Port Elgin Dairy. Forty years after I packed my 1961 Valiant and lay across its sun-warmed hood to mourn the leaving of those blue-painted windows, having to leave the nights of breath and wind, of waking at midnight in January to a cold fire, of the tilled garden rows of just budding peppers and beans and peas, at last I broke out into the clearing to find the blue paint peeling. The man who lived there smiled when I told him how I’d lived there for a year. He let me in. Gestured as if it were a house of many rooms—the cast iron cookstove replaced by a simple heat stove, the spring water flowing now into an upside-down plastic jug, the hand-hewn countertop disintegrated. I despised those who’d shown no mercy, no kindness to the perfect home. But on the other side of the meadow, I found the dream house. Halcyon poured me a glass of crystalline water and Roberto asked if I still wrote poems. They watched me drink. “Magical, isn’t it?” Halcyon asked. “Yes,” I said, letting my eyes close, believing for that sweet shard of a moment, that it had worked.