On Battery Hill
I push snow with my feet,
suck ice cookies off one mitten
while dragging the sled
behind like a stubborn dog
on an icy leash
to reach the tin drum bonfire
crowded with Big People
laughing, warming hands,
their faces lively
over the fierce coals.
My dad brings me;
he loves the outdoors. His skin
is thick and ruddy, his voice booms
out, a baritone with basso rumbles.
He stays up by the fire, smacking
his hands for warmth, lets me take the hill
myself. The hill is a test;
fly fast enough to go straight down,
but not slide into the frozen lake.
show me where I've been:
all mixed up, criss-crossed
with the runners and feet
of others. Bundled
in big coats, caps, scarves,
anonymous, you can't tell
if I'm a boy or girl—
even I'm not sure yet.
No one knows me here,
my wet bed, my little lies,
how easy it is to make me cry.
Copyright 2009 by Niki Nymark
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
It is winter here in the United States and the beginning of a long season when we will be reminded of Christmas at every turn and thoughts for many move to family. Perhaps that is why I find myself so drawn to this dramatic persona poem by Niki Nymark, of St. Louis, Missouri, author of A Stranger Here Myself from Cherry Pie Press.
Unlike my last two critiques in which I focused upon a few lines or phrases, the issues with "On Battery Hill", as I perceive them, are more systemic.
Let's start with what's working. Nymark has constructed a durable underlying narrative structure. In three stanzas divided roughly in half in terms of plot, she moves the story consistently forward. First she places the character, then gives her a goal—in this case, a visual target. Stanza two begins by introducing the next character (father) then raises the stakes both emotionally and physically with "the hill is a test".
Notice the restraint of the placement of that phrase. Many poets would succumb to the dramatic effect of ending the stanza with it. Nymark makes a more subtle choice.
She then returns to her protagonist and has her drop her gaze. This completes the action—the visual target—begun in stanza one. It also creates a springboard to move the poem into metaphor, the mixed-up footsteps akin to the protagonist losing herself, then questioning herself, then doubting, arriving finally at her touching confession.
This is enough plot for a short poem. Need to tell more story? Write more poems.
So, plot settled, what this narrative will need is a distinctive voice and a setting. With these, I think, Nymark comes up against some problems.
The voice as it currently stands is inconsistent. "Big People" for example, is not the same level of diction as "a baritone with basso rumbles"; "anonymous" not the same as "ice cookies". The author needs to make a choice. Is this a poem in the voice of an adult remembering or of a child experiencing? Remember, there's no law in any country as far as I know that says you can't write two poems and save your favorite phrases!
If the author does choose to adopt the dramatic persona of a small child, she might try simplifying the verb tenses and shortening the sentences. Run-on sentences can be very effective when writing in a child's voice, but even within these run-ons, try and stick to just the present and past tenses.
We are always taught to be perspicacious in poems, but with dramatic persona, this can make the voice unnatural. At least to my ear, "bonfire inside a tin drum" sounds more childlike than its current, more economical, structure.
Remember: dramatic persona is acting. Before beginning to revise, the author may want to use a few theater techniques to help ground her character.
Probably Nymark already knows everything she needs to know about her young speaker: how old she is, how stable and safe and happy. Nevertheless, it might be useful to locate a few pictures of children that age and ponder them.
Next, even though it may not be included in the poem, she might take some time to fill in the family background. For example, where's Mom right now? Has the little girl seen the hill before, perhaps been on it during another season? What is her relationship with her father?
Now it's time to imagine being there. Poll the character's senses. Nymark might examine in her mind the color of the sky, the sounds of other kids, or of the snow. How cold is the speaker? Is she hungry? What can she see of those coats and caps at her particular height?
In dramatic persona, setting is conveyed through props. These are the objects with which the character interacts. Nymark has given us mittens, sled, tin drum, bonfire. Actors take time to explore their props, to handle them, even though that may just mean pantomime. Through this exercise Nymark might find more fresh and specific details—perhaps something about the sled. She might even find more objects to add, though, in the end, for a poem this brief, the three she has named might prove the perfect amount.
Interestingly, Nymark has not described the hill or the lake. This may be an artistic choice, because to dwell on a description of either would greatly change the poem by enlarging the importance of the setting to the point of metaphor, but I offer it as food for thought.
Finally, she is ready to tell the story out loud while acting her character. I suggest she plan to do so at least several times. It can be helpful to intentionally let go of one's own natural rhythm and experiment with others. For this poem, Nymark might even try affecting a childlike voice. Suddenly it may no longer seem natural to describe the father's skin as thick and ruddy as she discovers ways to convey the same notion in an authentic and consistent voice limited to a child's vocabulary and experience.
Warning: these suggestions will probably lead to a longer draft! Many of the best ideas in a dramatic persona poem come from an initial overwriting. She might even try forcing herself to write as fast as she can. Why? Because writing a dramatic persona is about giving up conscious control of the text and allowing the imagination to take charge—at least for a few drafts anyway. Such poems both require and foster empathy. Perhaps because of that, they are enormous fun, both for the writer and the reader.
Where could a poem like "On Battery Hill" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Wild Violet Writing Contests
Postmark Deadline: December 18
Online literary quarterly offers $100 apiece for unpublished poems and short stories
Dream Quest One Poetry & Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: December 31
This website featuring accessible work by emerging writers offers online publication and prizes up to $500 for fiction, $250 for poetry
Pennsylvania Poetry Society Annual Contest
Postmark Deadline: January 15
Top prize of $100 plus smaller prizes for poems in two dozen categories including formal verse, humor, and a variety of themes; no simultaneous submissions
Wednesday Club Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: February 1
Free contest offers prizes up to $700 for unpublished poems by authors aged 18+ who live within a 50-mile radius of St. Louis, MO
Memoir (and) Prizes for Prose or Poetry
Postmark Deadline: February 15
Free contest from magazine of personal essays offers prizes up to $500 and publication for "traditional and experimental prose, poetry, graphic memoir, narrative photography, lies, and more"
This poem and critique appeared in the December 2009 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques