A few years ago, I was in the midst of a very uninspired period, when work and life seemed to be draining all the energy out of my writing. I decided to adopt a writing project with rigorous restraints, and to commit to writing one poem for this project every Sunday. I had already been engaging in a regular exchange of poems with a friend, which was probably the only thing keeping me writing at all at the time. But I knew that I wasn’t producing anything all that interesting, even to myself, and that I wasn’t pushing out into any new areas.
I’ve always collected strange and unusual words, turning them over in the back of my mind until I find a use for them. So for my inspiration, I took my first linguistic love—the dictionary—and dove into it. I bought an old Websters at the St. Vincent DePaul down the street and ripped out one page from every letter of the alphabet. Yes, it was a little strange to deface a dictionary, but I still have four or five undefaced ones on my shelves.
My ritual was to get up early, make a cup of tea, and read the page all the way through. Then, I would list out the words from both sides of the page that I wanted to use in the poem—as many as possible, leaving out tiresomely obscure or repetitive choices. I would draft the poem below the list, pulling down the words into the lines as I went.
The longer I did this, the more I found myself reaching for other alliterations, beyond the letter at hand. It was fun, it was a game, and I was discovering or reacquainting myself with electric words—ziggurat, zoonoses, and zoomorphic, for example. In the end, I went through that dictionary twice, and if it weren’t for the scarcity of X, Y and Z pages, I might have done it a third time. I probably spent a year and a half of Sundays working at this project, sometimes going back to a letter for a second look, sometimes taking weeks off to work on other poems that were now demanding my attention. The rhythm of it, and the safety of the restraints, inspired me in a way that is maybe the closest a free verse poet can get to the challenging comfort of writing in metrical verse or a tight form.
I love reading these poems out loud, and I hope that a reader encountering one of them will also be entertained by their music and their unapologetic use of unusual vocabulary.
,zo- ə/ m0rf1k zoomorphic
Zero hour. All the gorillas are quiet.
You hate the zoo, its cages, its smells,
but most people can’t tell the difference
between diamonds and cubic zirconium,
between Zeus as swan and a swan.
Your zipper always sticks halfway up,
refuses to pull over your breasts.
Social dressing is a zero-sum game
when you’re outside the ziggurat, anyway.
The asters and the zinnias unfold their Zions
for the bees and you wonder if your need
to follow each bee’s mission, to lick the pollen
from your fingers, could be a new
21st century zoonoses.
Phoebe Reeves was published in Issue 56 of Hayden's Ferry Review.