Poets Online Archive


September 2023  -  Issue #312

Whenever our call for submissions involves formal poetry, submissions decrease. I understand that. Forms - villanelles, sonnets, sestinas et al - can be difficult. They can also remind some poets of the kind of poetry that was pushed upon them in their early schooling and might have turned them off to reading and writing poetry. But there are other forms for poems that are far less "formal."

I was reading “Walking Home” from Magdalene by Marie Howe and it struck me that the poem is a conversation. It lacks the punctuation of dialogue but maintains the form.

This is the kind of poem that will sometimes make a reader ask "How is this a poem and not just a chunk of prose lacking punctuation?"   A fair question.

I suspect that this conversation actually happened to Marie Howe and her daughter. Is it an exact transcription, a paraphrase or is it a poet's version of a conversation recalled. I think it is the latter. The opening "Everything dies" is a good poem opening but the poet doesn't recall how that came up as the topic of conversation. Was it something they saw on their walk? Maybe it is an imagined conversation that might have happened but didn't.

The tone of the poem seems light, with laughter and joking, but the topic is one of the classic big and serious themes - death.

This month's call for submissions is simply a poem that is a conversation. How you format the dialogue, how much narration and commentary is contained and the topic or theme is up to you.

Though it is difficult to draw a clear line between this kind of prose and poetry, there are clearly poetic elements that can be employed that separate what you write from a prose passage.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


John, how's this for an opening line?
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree"
Will people get those references in a hundred years?
Not my problem
I'm writing an ode. I think this is a good line:
"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter"
That makes no sense, John. Melodies unheard are just unheard.
I'll rethink that one, says John. I'm in a writing dead calm lately.
You are?, says Sam, I am as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.
Now that is a good line. You should use it, says John, and sips his port.

Albert J. Reeves


It feels a little funny doing this …
   Don’t be ridiculous. I’m happy to oblige --
But there’s really no one here that I can talk talk to
   I understand. That happens as we age --
Remember how, as kids, we felt immortal?
   Like nothing bad could penetrate our armor --
The World was there for the two of us to conquer
   The few times that we failed, we were amazed --
Looking, back — there’s much that we accomplished
   We didn’t do so bad. I must agree --
I never doubted — you were always there for me
   We had each others backs. Even though we sometimes disagreed --
Yes. But in the end, our friendship couldn’t save you
   And yet, for me, it was a crucial source of comfort --
You say that now. But, at the time, I felt so helpless
   In times like that, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important --
   But that’s not what is troubling you today --
It’s true. You always saw through my facade … forced me to take a closer look
   So, let’s do that now, while there’s still time. What’s really going on? --
I guess that’s pretty obvious. I’m scared. I’m stuck. I feel lost.
   I remember feeling terrified. Like I was trapped inside my head and couldn’t breathe --
That wasn’t obvious to me. You always seemed so brave
   And, for that, I do apologize, my friend. I wasn’t sure if you could tolerate my desperation --
-- But when it comes to brutal honesty, it’s more difficult to trust the living than the dead --
Is that why I trust you … with this disgusting frailty? I’m not sure I understand.
   Being weak and being vulnerable are not the same. It’s a common misconception --
So, you’re saying I’ll get through this … even if, at times, I don’t know how?
   I knew, if we talked long enough, you’d get it. Strange as it may sound … I do --

Frank Kelly


The first conversation we had was outside the college library
where people would go to have a cigarette and drink coffee
both banned inside and so we were a group of outliers.
I was the English major with dreams of being a writer.
You were, the classics major with no plans at all.
Me with my Virginia Slims and you with your Newports
finally started talking in the smoke.

So what are you going to do with the classics?
Probably nothing. Dust off things in a museum?
You could teach.
Never, he replied. Why is that something you’re going to do?
It’s not my first choice but I have an ed minor as a fallback.
That’s a long way to fall back, he said with a laugh,
but we both knew it wasn’t funny.

And then less than a year after graduation
and almost 2 years since we started dating,
there we were.
I was teaching in a girls' Catholic school
and he was working temp jobs.
I was becoming more comfortable with teaching
and he hated every job they gave him
even if it lasted for only a week.
What I recall of the last of our last conversation -

I don’t think I have anything else to take, he said.
If I find anything, I’ll put it in a box outside the door.
We had a good run, he said, Short, but a good run.

I left that line just hanging.
Today, decades later, I still don’t have a reply.

Pamela Milne


Do we have to do this every day? she asks
like it’s the craziest thing.

Yes, I explain again, doctor’s orders, for my bones.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with my bones.

Now she’s got me going. Good for bones, heart,
psyche, breathe fresh air, forget the world.

These walks, she says, are at the blatant expense
of my happiness.

She’s been listening to too much politics.
But afterwards don’t you feel better, more alive,
like that crow overhead?

She stops walking. You feel alive because a crow
is alive? How about that dead mole we found?
Did that make you feel dead?

I’m trying to figure this out for myself. Kind of –
diminished, you know? Maybe it subtracts
a few moments from my life. But I don’t keep count.

Taylor Graham


Five Years Old

She stands beside the big loud wringer
Washing machine,
So much taller than she.
The sound it makes, over and over again,
Sloshing the clothes back and forth,
On and on, carries a sadness
That crashes down on her like a hot cyclone.
She has to tell someone.
“I feel like I don’t have any mommy or daddy,” she says.
Her mother, on the other side of the washer,
Looks down at her.
“Who do you think I am, the washer woman?”
The girl has no answer.
Soon she will learn
To stay silent.

Eight Years Old

She has become a child who sleeps late
With her head under the ratty old quilts.
No one ever comes to wake her,
Though there are people in the house.
Finally, she wanders into the kitchen
And eyes the cereal boxes, haphazard on the counter,
And the neat line of ants focused on a glob of glistening jam.

Outside, her hair uncombed,
She sees a sweet toddler,
Rosy and round in clean new clothes.
She wants to slap him and make him cry,
But instead, she turns to the hillside
Behind the buildings, sits in the dirt
And watches grasshoppers.
She has spoken to no one,
Though her mind is filled with thoughts.
Alone with the insects, at least
The thing that makes bad dreams is not near her now.

Sixty Years Old

How glorious the red maples are in spring, she thinks,
How stunning the deep pink azaleas.
She walks under new oak leaves,
Sees the robins bouncing on bushes
Just before twilight.
“How lovely it all is,” she mumbles in her mind,
Until the dove, invisible in the shadowy branches
Calls over and over in sad, slow notes,
A sound she heard, so long ago,
When the wound came
And everything grew dark.

Rose Anna Higashi

after Warhol’s Marilyn, 1967

I round the dimly-lit bookstore’s corner, and there she is in white,
pleated, halter dress, reading Ulysses. You’re Marilyn, I whisper.
In her signature, child-like tone, she responds, I never wanted to be
her. It just happened. I’m a poet at heart. Well, then, I continue,
bowing her way, from one poet to another. She smiles. I am
smitten. The 50's pin-up girl, twentieth-century icon, here,
consuming Joyce, and beside her, a pen and green leather journal.
So, you’re a writer, I stammer, hoping for one more upward
glance. And with pouty-red lips and eyes like a diamond’s fire,
she teases, they say one’s personal life is much more interesting
than her professional one. I shrug my shoulders and drop a couple
of names. We will allow Andy and Elton that debate. There’s
sadness in her smile this time, and she closes the book. Oooh, I am
late for my acting lesson. There must be thousands of girls dreaming
of becoming a movie star, but I’m dreaming the hardest. Got to be
careful, though; in Hollywood they pay you a thousand dollars
for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. Reluctantly, I hold out
my phone. Could I, please? She takes it, throws her head back,
and snaps the selfie, one, two, three. Smiling,
her pleated dress billowing about her thighs like a tea
kettle’s exhale, she returns my phone and waves goodbye.
They say I have a rapport with the camera, she adds
in her breathy voice. I watch her exit, and as her figure fades
like amaranth-colored regret, I call out to her, Find the real you,
Miss Monroe!
She was Marilyn, but she never wanted to be.

Jo Taylor


not a time to be writing in my journal
as I sometimes do when I sit here
with my breakfast croissant and coffee
or on a lunch break with someone from work,
but tonight alone.
The neighboring table has a couple
both on their phones talking,
having a conversation with someone
but not the person they’re sitting with
who I imagine is their mate,
date, more likely,spouse.
I hear snatches of their separate conversations
and at times it is almost like they are talking
to each other through their phones.

We don’t have plans for the weekend says one.
I’d love to get out of the city and do some forest bathing she replies.
All right, I’ll talk to you before the weekend.
Let’s make some definite plans he replies.

They put their phones down on the table at the same time.
They pick up their drinks and finish them
and get up and leave without a word.

Katie Milburn


I blurt it out without thinking as the anger boils inside.
“Why is he nearly deified? Why did he merely adhere to what
now appears to be errant advice? Others might stumble or blunder
but their bruises reveal the price.”

Suddenly remembering, I temper my tone and my words. “Sorry,
I forgot that you support him, or you did. Do you still prefer
your party over mine? Can I ask you why?”

She hesitates. I’m not surprised, then thoughtfully replies.
“I’m concerned about over-spending to appease a voting bloc,
lining pockets of those who seem to have holes in their own.
I care about porous borders depleting our meager resources
and flooding us with highly addictive drugs. I worry about
inflation and the plots to tax the rich to pay for social
programs and climate change. I’m concerned about poor students
stuck in failing public schools and believe that vouchers
for parents might be the answer.”

Though I grudgingly acknowledge some discomfort with our debt,
I can’t resist insisting her priorities are wrong. The next thing
I know I’m practically waving a banner in her face: “We must protect
the rights of individuals to choose their identities, relationships,
and medical interventions. As for public education, I’m disturbed
by its decline and the fact we’ve failed for years to stop the slide.
But the vouchers you suggest will only close the system down.”

I expect her to retaliate with forcefulness in kind, but it isn’t
the hill we’re climbing that prevents a rising storm. Her voice
is well-controlled and even consoling: “Let’s defer this heated
discussion to another time or place. We might even reach consensus
if we’re cooler and we’re calm.”

At the top of the rise we stop to raise our water bottles high—
a toast to the success of her suggestion. Draining them nearly
empty we agree it’s time to head back, since the blush of burning
sun has invaded the shelter of our hats.

Both of us grow quiet then until it’s time to part. “See you
again next Saturday,” I call as I wave good-bye. She waves
in turn and yells “You bet,” before turning around to the right
as I go left.

Sharyn Rafieyan


Dear Hannibal,
no, the game isn't up
I didn't step on you favourite cup
these baseless accusations must stop
yes, I´m a buff war elephant
but I´m not a bull in a china shop.
And by the way, you´re the reason
I caught that dreadful cold in the Alpine pass.

Dear Surus,
I did not expect your sneezing would last
all the way to Rome
but it's always snowy season
at Col de Traversette
if anyone, Baal himself should apologise for that
and you´re right, that cup was a favourite one.

Dear Hannibal,
with all said and done
an amphora might better serve your coffee addiction
and wasn´t scaring off those Romans fun?

Dear Surus,
we were at the gates. But I want the city at my feet
standing on the top of the Palatine Hill
I´m not stopping till I get my fill
incidentally, how would you like to be a senator?

Dear Hannibal,
Well, I could see myself as the voice of reason
among those human predators
but marble floors and seats
might ruin my skin and feet
also, are we going home yet?
Mating season awaits.

Dear Surus,
this is just the beginning. We were at the gates!

The rest, of course, was decided by the Fates.
Hannibal never entered Rome.
His native Carthage was razed to the ground.
Tourists occupy ancient Roman fora
and coffee is still not drunk from amphoras.

Rachel Vanbora


She was sitting at the dining room table
wearing a housedress
small and serious

She said, Do you "skeeve" me?

I'd later write about it; a professor circled it in red
and placed a question mark next to it

English slang from the Italian schiafare - to disgust

My grandmother
Who had had both legs amputated
Wanted to know
If she repulsed me

I replied, Grandma, no. Never.

Shaking my head, I knelt down
eye level as she sat in her wheelchair

I love you
You are my Genevieve
You are beautiful and strong and brave
and you love to laugh and make others laugh

I looked into her hazel eyes and she smiled
My hands gently atop her shoulders
I kissed her on the cheek
No longer powdered but still soft and fair

Then I hugged her. For a long, long time.

But the actual dialog and memory go more like this:

She said, Do you "skeeve" me?

The answer, my answer, was short.
I said, no
And it was true
But it was a don't be silly kind of No
My hands waving away her words

Dismissing her feelings, her pain, my pain
Her words
Words that took me by surprise
That made me feel bad, uncomfortable
That froze me in place - in time

Decades later
Her words
And my failure
Still linger

Terri J. Guttilla


In the dream you said, “I love
this time of day. It’s called the cholera.”
I said, “I thought the cholera was a disease.”
You said, “It is a disease but it’s also
a time of day.” There was no dictionary
in the dream. We were sitting outside
at a cafe or a hospital. You said, “Have you read
Love in the Time of Cholera?” I said,
“I started it once but never got past the first
50 pages.” And you said, “That explains it.”
I wondered if you meant the book explains
the time of day you love and why it’s called
the cholera, or if you meant something else,
something about me and the way I am, namely,
someone who can’t get past the first 50 pages
of a book you love. Which would mean
something else entirely. And then I said,
"I think cholera is one of those words that,
if divorced from its meaning, would make a beautiful
name for a girl. Like Treblinka." You gave me
a pained look in the dream, and I wondered
if it meant you didn’t agree with me or if it meant
what you were eating didn’t agree with you—
Either way, it was plain to see you were suffering.

Paul Hostovsky


Robert DeNiro
Harvey Keitel
Little Bob

“It’s 10 already? What’ll it be?”
“Two regulars, one light and sweet and one black, and three buttered rolls.”

“I didn’t hear a please.”
“I never hear a thank you.”

“You always stir your coffee so slow?”
“You always fill the silence?”

“Has Marty even called you?”
“Look at us, look where we’re at.”

“Not good enough for you?” Gus says.
“You talkin’ to me?” Little Bob says.

“Now, that’s a line.”
“Maybe Marty can use it.”

“Tell Frankie that he owes me from last week.”
“Tell him yourself.”

"Whoa, there, young man."
"Another one."

Rob Friedman