What remains is everything

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiNov 05, 2015 | 13:55

What remains is everything

Old stories grow in confidence as they age. As with people, they accumulate experience; their circle of acquaintance expands; they learn new languages and geographies, and create new memories for themselves. Old stories are formidable in their effortlessness. They can exchange everything in them and still be recognisably the story one has always known.

Everyone knows the dramatis personae in those oldest of all stories: myths. Everyone knows the outline and the shape of the story and how it will all end. What remains is everything.


The poet who tells a myth anew has innumerable choices: tell the story straight up as if to someone who knows nothing about it; recount it from the perspective of one or many characters; place it in a modern context; make visible the story's politics or recast it altogether; make a screenplay-like poem out of it, as if the words were a camera moving where it likes through the action.

All these variations have been tried. I'm thinking of Christopher Logue's All Day Permanent Red. I'm thinking of Anne Carson's Antigone but really - any Anne Carson. I'm thinking Arun Kolatkar's Sarpa Satra and Kathika Nair's Until the Lions.

Between them, these poets have written screenplay-like poems, play-graphic novel poems, poems that give voice to characters whose names you didn't even know from the first (and every other time) you heard the story and poems that cared as much for the form of the poem as they do about the things the poems say.

And yet the stories haven't exhausted their possibilities. Even after all these riches, it is possible to say these stories in one more new way, to begin elsewhere, to do something no one has done before.


This month, I'd like you to tell a story from myth in your poem. Take a character, an event, something minor that you wished the myths had said more about, something major but from a wholly new perspective, a story unfamiliar to your context until you make it familiar, a mash-up of two myths meeting for the first time in your poem - anything your imagination allows.

Know why you've picked your particular myth and you'll have a reason for why this poem is necessary. Think of how the story will play out: are people talking to each other? Are you describing the action? Are things taking place off stage/screen, as it were? What senses does your poem evoke?

Read extracts from the works I've mentioned: Logue, Carson [ scroll down to Euridike's monologue if you don't want to read the entire essay], Kolatkar, Nair, Rao. See what you can learn from them.

As you will see, most of these works are book-length poems. Though that is an impossibility in the context of this prompt, this month The Sideways Door will allow you 40 lines instead of the usual 20; but you must send in your poems, titled, and as a word document. Do not paste your poem in the body of the mail.


Write, re-write and examine your submission before you send it. I'd prefer if you didn't mail me several times with changes.

Send your poems to thesidewaysdoor@gmail.com by November 20.

Happy mythmaking!

Last updated: November 05, 2015 | 13:57
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