“The joy is that we will not be great imitators. Something in you will resist that. You start in imitation and end in originality.”

–Kwame Dawes

“You hope the poem starts on the right-hand side of the page so that it’s more visible,” says Dr. Colette Tennant about getting a poem published. Even better, she says, is when the poem appears first or last in a publication. “I’m the caboose poem in this one. And it starts on the right-hand side of the page. So that’s nice.”

Dr. Tennant’s poem “At My Mother’s Funeral, My Cousin Tells Me I Have a Sister” is the last poem in the Spring 2017 issue of Prairie Schooner, a national top-tier literary journal. Established in 1926, Prairie Schooner has showcased works by the likes of Rita Dove, Charles Bukowski, and Joyce Carol Oates, and now Dr. Tennant’s work is among them. The surprising part of the story is not that her poem was accepted—she has two books of poetry under her belt (“Commotion of Wings” in 2010 and “Eden and After” in 2015)—but rather that she had written the poem the previous night.

“At My Mother’s Funeral” was written during a week-long poetry conference Dr. Tennant attended last summer. “Pretty much every summer I go up to Port Townsend to study poetry for a week or so at Centrum’s writing conference. And it’s a wonderful week.” She often runs into the same people summer after summer, and they’ve become like family for one week out of the year. “One of my friends up there is Gary Lilley, an African-American poet, and sometimes in the evening we’d get together and sing gospel music. I’d play the piano and he’d play the guitar.”

The guest poet for this particular conference was Kwame Dawes, Jamaican award-winning poet and author of 21 books of poetry. He also writes fiction, non-fiction, criticism, and drama, and teaches for the University of Nebraska and the Pacific MFA writing program.

But most importantly, he’s the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner.

“He was a very wonderful man,” Dr. Tennant says fondly. “Very authoritative, though. We would all sit up a little bit straighter when he came in the room.” He’d tell the poets, “There’s value in imitation. It’s a mistake to begin with originality, because you’re writing into a tradition.” He explained that successful poems actually result from attempting—and failing—to imitate a form or another work of art. “The joy is that we will not be great imitators. Something in you will resist that. Go with that. You start in imitation and end in originality.”

This act of imitation was often incorporated in the daily homework assignments. One morning, Kwame Dawes assigned his students to find a short narrative poem and write their own short narrative poem in response. Tennant remembers sitting with her friends that evening, “giggling and eating snacks,” and before she knew it, it was 10:30 at night—and she still hadn’t found her short narrative poem. The other poets headed off to bed. “I sat there and I thought, ‘I can’t do a short narrative poem. I need a long narrative poem.’” Tennant pauses contemplatively. “And then I thought, ‘I need to use the “Odyssey.”’” She laughs. She could not have chosen a poem further from the homework assignment, as Homer’s “Odyssey” comes in at 12,110 lines.

Dr. Colette Tennant publishes poem in Prairie Schooner

So at 10:30 at night, Dr. Tennant began to ponder the “Odyssey.” “I started thinking about Telemachus,” she says, “trying to go out and find his father, Odysseus. How did he find him?” She pauses, leans forward, and whispers, “Because Athena helped him. She, too, had a missing family member—a sister she knew existed, but whom she’d never met. “And what if I had a goddess that could help me?” She began to write.

The next day during the workshop session, Dr. Tennant was restless in her chair, especially when one of the women attending the conference kept asking long, complicated questions. “I was getting antsy, and Kwame Dawes called me out on it. ‘This one over here, she’s wiggling around in her chair.’ And I thought, oh dear, I’m in bad trouble.” When it was her turn to share, Dr. Tennant thought to herself, “He is going to just let me have it with this poem.”

She read her poem aloud. The other workshop participants offered feedback and suggestions—mostly light critiques—while Kwame Dawes held back in silence. “And then it was Kwame’s turn.” Dr. Tennant was ready to endure a blow of criticism. But instead, “he just looked down and quietly said, ‘I think Prairie Schooner would want to publish this.’”

He suggested that she change only one word. In the fourth stanza, she’d written, “I want to write an anthem for the right ventricle of your rat-a-tat heart.” When Dawes questioned her use of the word “rat-a-tat,” she said, “It’s gone already.”

She submitted the poem for publication the next morning. “I’ve had kind offers like this in the past,” Dr. Tennant says, but admits that she hasn’t always followed through and submitted work. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that this time.’”

Even though Dr. Tennant has published approximately 100 poems in Southern Poetry Review, Rattle, Christianity and Literature, and others, she says, “I don’t think the excitement ever goes away. It never gets mundane.” Her humility and skill show simultaneously as she whispers, wide-eyed, almost incredulous, “It’s especially exciting when you get one in something like Prairie Schooner!” But humility, as Kwame Dawes would say, is all part of the imitation process. “This process of imitation humbles us,” Tennant reads from her notes. “‘The process of imitation is the only conversation we can have with other artists.’” She pauses, then adds, “The conversation I had with Homer that night—I could only have had that conversation because I was imitating his ideas.”

Take a moment to read Tennant’s piece, the last poem in Prairie Schooner, on the right-hand side of the page. Enter a conversation with her. Perhaps you’ll see something there you’d like to imitate.

 

At My Mother’s Funeral, My

Cousin Tells Me I Have a Sister

 

Sometimes I see a middle-aged woman in the shadow

of a monkey puzzle tree.

Sometimes I memorize the nighttime syntax

of a poet reading to herself.

Sometimes I dream about three kisses

and the code for first night.

 

We were given away, Sister—our brief mother

handed me through the doorway to my new family.

They carried me over the threshold like a tiny bride,

everything sweet milk white.

 

If I had a goddess, she would ask me to write about hunger.

Even if I wasn’t her favorite—write about hunger, she’d say,

a tricky-eyed goddess, strong boned, partial,

a big wind over my pinot noir sea.

 

I want to write an anthem for the right ventricle

of your heart, Sister.

I want to study the three creases

in your left thumb.

 

If I had a goddess, Sister, I imagine her telling me,

 

There are nine roads on any atlas,

the first one named forsaken,

the last one always paved in bone.

 

The Persians sent their loved ones to the afterlife

with a pearl in the palm of each hand.

 

O Sister, be somewhere still,

somewhere east of my imagination.

 

Discover more works from Prairie Schooner at http://prairieschooner.unl.edu/print-journal