Me, Stripped Down Ugly — Notes

Background Notes — Me, Stripped Down Ugly

Sending a poem through a condenser can be an excruciating process. The art of writing a poem is getting the words right, whether for rhyme or to fit meter or for a sestina’s teleutons, or to free the freest formed poem from excess weight. If a poem had the right words after the poet has already worked it through dozens of drafts, then how can a single word be eliminated, or how can any carefully selected adjective be converted to verb?

Yesterday I worked through multiple drafts before being satisfied enough to post one of my longest recent poems — Me, Ugly — as my first response to a WordPress Daily Post prompt at Daily Prompt: Shape Up or Ship Out. Then nipping right at that prompt’s heels comes the Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge: Papa Says Get Economical. Now I do realize that the weekly writing challenge was not meant as a critique aimed specifically at my response to the preceding daily prompt. But this was an irresistible challenge.

Here’s the text of the original poem, in response to the daily prompt—

Me, Ugly

Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
Hideous. Hideous.
Don’t you be shaking your head at me.
You didn’t even read each one of those the way I meant each.
You just skip over it and act like you know me better
than the one who’s stopped reading,
because I chased her off
because she took the time
but I didn’t like her seeing what I know
so I was my ugly me to her
because I’m hideous, hideous, hideous, hideous.
Stop telling me I’m not.
I know why you try to convince me,
and it makes me smile a little to know you desire me
but you don’t even see the sorrow behind the smile,
the sting of knowing that your desire is about you
and how I make a decent substitute for your hand,
rather than having anything but false compliments
about me, since if you really saw me for what I am
instead of what you wish I were, then you would know
that I will always be hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
She saw it. She didn’t pretend it wasn’t there
like you try to do. You think I am beautiful
only because you don’t see I’m hideous
and try to prove to me that I’m not.
You see only what you want for yours.
You want some lovely creature to fill in
for your wet dreams and shower fantasies,
and the hideous bitch I really am won’t work,
so you act like it’s just an ugly rumor passed around
by someone more deceitful than I’ve been known to be.
She saw through it all and still loved me.
You say you do, but you don’t even know
because you don’t realize it’s true,
how hideously hideous I am.
She saw and she knew.
And she loved me.
It didn’t chase her off.
To know I am hideous.
I did that.
Because I am that hideous.
Want to know exactly how hideous I am?
Ask me why I haven’t chased you off like I did to her,
and make sure you watch how straight I hold my eyes,
that practiced gaze to keep from showing the flicker of the lie.
When the truth is that I haven’t chased you off
precisely because you don’t know me well enough
to know how hideous I truly am. Hideous.
The minute you actually realize it,
you’re on the next bus out of town.
If I wasn’t going to put up with her loving me
even when she knows how hideous I am,
what makes you think I’d let you keep using me
if you were to actually catch on?
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
Yeah, stop reminding me how truly hideous I am
by tickling my ear with soothing talk
about how she’s the hideous one
as though it’s proof you’re better than her
that I allow your lies instead of her love.
Stop reminding me, already. Stop.
You only succeed in showing me how much I’ve lost
and I only feel more hideous than ever.
You can’t prove to me that I’m not hideous
by reminding me how hideous I have been
by losing the one love who truly knew.
And anyway, you don’t know her either.
You try to make me feel better
by arguing that she’s the hideous one.
She’s not. You don’t know her.
You only think she’s hideous
because I told you so.
Because I’m hideous.
You really don’t get it, do you.
I’m hideous.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
She knew. So I pointed and said it was her.
She saw. So I laughed at her like it showed how awful she was.
She loved. So I chased her off. Because I’m so hideous.
You stand me at my mirror to tell you what I see.
I know what you want to see so I know what to say.
If I tell the truth about what I see, you don’t listen.
You make me lie about what’s obvious to the naked eye.
I’m hideous. I am. Hideous. It does no good to say no.
On a very private wall that only she ever saw
is a mirror you will never know.
And it doesn’t lie
the way you want me to.
It shows every flaw,
every ugly scar,
every twisted knot,
every imperfection,
every grotesque wart,
hideous on hideous on hideous
to the bone, to the heart.
My poetry sometimes reflects like a mirror
of another mirror of a hall of mirrors
down to the shadows cast
by that private mirror you’ll never see.
And you don’t even hear it in my poetry.
You can’t feel me sobbing.
You can’t hear me shrieking.
You can’t see me gnawing at the edges
of the hole I dug into myself
for her and her love.
You think my poetry is nice.
It’s not.
It’s hideous.
Like I am.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.
You’re still shaking your head no.
I’ll smile nice and tell them all that means you know me best
but it’s not really so.
You’re just trying to flatter me
back to bed.
If you really knew what she knew and loved,
you would know how hideous
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀it is to lose her.

And then here’s the condensed version, in response to the weekly challenge—

Me, Stripped Down Ugly

Making her out to be ugly’s me at my most odious
reflection in my poetry’s most private mirror —
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.

Stop saying I’m not. I feel all the more heinous
when you elevate your desires above all my error.
Acting like she didn’t see’s me at my most odious.

She saw. She knew me at my very most invidious.
You don’t know. That’s why I let you come nearer.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.

Shut up how nice I look in your bed. The fastidious
lover in me knows the lie by its torment and terror.
Letting you chase her off’s me at my most odious.

And she loves me anyway. The whole insidious
heart of it all’s how I’ve fancied her love the horror.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.

Want the longer version? You’d think it tedious
gnawing, shrieking, sobbing, me none the clearer
for losing her. This howl’s me at my most odious.
Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous. Hideous.

Maggie collaborated with me rather heavily on the condensed version. Both she and Sara have done many poems where the final version they’ve shared has only emerged after they’ve done variations of the same poem in various verse forms, sent the poem through massive changes in tense and person and style, and stretched it then chopped it then twisted it and leveled it out again. So what I wanted with this challenge is pretty much the standard routine for any of hers.

For the topic of my original poem, my own drafting kept steering toward the ceaseless rant we hear in our head when we feel as I do. A senryū might could capture the ugliness of the beating hailstorm of it only with the most artful pen. Mine thought to echo just a scrap of how bad it really is — if anything, the original poem was a super-condensed version of what it really sounds like.

So trying to condense that was truly going to be a challenge. My first impulse was to reach for the villanelle form. The original itself already has some villanellesque feel to it, what with all the repetition and circling one hears in that ugly-me ugly-me rant, especially when wrapped up with the knots of the relationships I was tangling into it. Again, thanks to Maggie for collaborating — I’ve written only a few lame villanelles; she’s written several hundred, many of those rather polished, in my opinion.

Maggie suggested keeping the self-deprecatory “hideous” chant central to the revision. Which, given the limitations of rhyming in English, set us out on a path somewhat looser than the most strictly rigid villanelle form. Only the most pedantic ideologue would judge against us tagging our final revised poem a villanelle. I can only imagine the rant that would have sent Sara into, with how deeply she delved into verse form variants.

As Maggie does with most of her villanelles, we then worked through the closing couplet, the pair of repetons that hold the rest of a villanelle together. I was thinking more along the lines of a line that might reflect off my hideous-hideous chant like what a “nice” poem of mine might see in my most secret mirror. I think Maggie was more in tune with the challenge that got us writing this — to work toward condensing the original poem, rather than to use the original as a springboard to a completely new poem. And when she stripped everything down and listed out the key points of my rant, the base for the second line of the repetons couplet pretty much popped out: how the worst I am can be seen by how I treated her.

Oh, and so ok, English doesn’t have enough 100% true rhymes for “hideous” to fill out a rigidly formal villanelle, but Maggie and I did get to laugh at me for how all the words that do rhyme are so tight a fit, confirming the choice of “hideous” as the base for our villanelle’s main rhyme group.

The secondary rhyme set seemed almost as obvious: words we want to line up behind “mirror,” as I feel my poetry to be a mirror of that private mirror that knows the truth about me. Besides, a good rhyme is a lot like a mirror anyway. So if my original rant version wasn’t going to seem to rhyme (although Sara would argue that claim), then it felt appropriate for this pocket-mirrored version to sneer at me through its echoes.

Returning to Maggie’s list of key points in my original poem, together with continually refreshing our reading of the advice and direction given in the weekly challenge post, filled out the villanelle from there. Polish, redraft, polish again, trim, polish some more, try and discard a few alternative words and phrases, read it out loud to each other a dozen times, polish it yet again, and what we’re posting now is what we have so far. We have page and pages of notes we exchanged in getting from there to here.

I still feel that my first poem could be considered miserably short, given what it was reflecting. But our villanelle does say the same thing with fewer words and still manages to capture the truth. Shall we take it on down now and try for that senryū?

— Cyn

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