When we visited Florida’s Sanibel Island a few years ago, the chilled morning air didn’t stop early risers from waiting for the first glimpse of sun. Lucky me: I caught a pelican mid-air against the orange sky, yet the memory the photo took me back to my youth, to a special person, to an affirmation of his life, to an inspiration for the way to live mine. As I stood in the cool sand, awed by the sight, the narrative was nowhere in my mind, yet weeks later the poem came to me along with a flood of emotion.
Pelicans at Sunrise
Just before sunrise at Sanibel,
pelicans gather, soar high above
the Gulf, then dive and soar again.
My high school friend swam in waters
like these as a young man. Awed by an
avian fisherman that could gulp whole
fish into a waiting gullet, he squinted
toward the sun, unaware that this circling
hunter would swoop down, pluck out
He married much later than the rest of us,
chatted at class reunions about his progeny
as the youngest: ours were wed and parents,
his just starting their college days.
We never could tell which eye was taken,
they seemed alike, it would have been rude
to stare, but the incident was the icon
that defined him throughout his life.
You remember, we’d say when he was
out of range, a pelican took out his eye.
When I read about his passing a few years
ago, I recalled a sweet man, bespectacled,
who didn’t seem his age, whose generous
smiles belied his trials, who gave his eye
to a pelican and never looked back.
—First Published in Exit 13
Take some time to look through your memories. Is there a photo that sparks a special event or a meaningful time or season in your life? Is there a box of sepia-tinted family photos with people you don’t recognize? Did you stop the car to photograph wild turkeys along a Greek roadside? Or drive (on the wrong side of the road) to Stonehenge? Wait! Look at these: you with a favorite childhood toy, you with arms around your best friend, you as a four-year-old with your first dog (what was his name?), you at your wedding, you at your youngest child’s wedding. Take some time to relish the feelings your chosen photo brings. Can you smell salt air in the background? Can you taste that birthday cake? Does the photo spark a memory outside the image?
Use the photo you choose to create your piece—as a narrative with stanzas, a prose poem, something formal . . . Tell the truth or make up a new truth. Inspire yourself as you bring your image to life. Use whatever implements you keep in your poetry toolbox and publish your poem with “the music in it” on this blog’s comment section—or continue to revise it. Click here for editing tips. Perhaps you will submit your poem to a journal.
Here’s a link to another poem inspired by a 2010 photo of my granddaughter trying on my wedding dress. Note the allusions to an era of protests, to life’s challenges, to times lost, to times gained. Go to www.chayacairnpress.com, click on Excerpts from Dear Kinfolk, and scroll down to “Wedding Dress, 1968.” Or check out the kid with the braids and her Dy-Dee doll by clicking here.
Time to dig out those photos now. Happy writing!
1. Write from a distance. Tap your memory to see if the photo evokes an emotion long gone. Tell your story.
2. Write from the photo subject’s point of view.
3. Write in the third person from the point of view of someone (not you or you as someone else) who finds the photo.
4. Pose questions to the photo’s subject(s).
5. Address the subject(s) by name(s).
6. Exaggerate. It’s your poem. If you don’t know who the subjects are, make up a story.
7. Is someone missing from the photo? Let that be your prompt.
8. Incorporate elements from another photo into the poem.
9. Allude to the photo’s era through images. The adage applies: show, don’t tell.
10. Use poetic devices, rhythm, repetition, stanza structure, etc. while simply describing the photo.
11. See how your poem looks on the page. Tighten it. Read it aloud.
12. Have fun!
Many thanks, Gail!