The Commuter Challenge

1 December 2007

The December 2007 Challenge

by CC @ 12:31

Write a Random Rubaiyat. That is, go to Wikipedia, click on the link titled “Random article”, and write an interlocking rubaiyat on the subject of the article that comes up. No, you may not click on the link a second time if you don’t like the one that comes up. Seriously. If you happen to get a Disambiguation Page, then you should use the first link as your subject. But otherwise, you must accept what first comes up.

What is a rubaiyat, you ask? The rubaiyat form was popularized by Edward FitzGerald’s well-known English translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It consists of any number of four-line stanzas, with a rhyme scheme of AABA. For the “interlocking rubaiyat”, which is what we’re doing this month, the third line provides the rhyme for the next stanza, thus AABA BBCB CCDC. For the final stanza, possible forms include XXYX, XXAX, and XXXX. Probably the most famous example of the interlocking rubaiyat is Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

The Results

Eric Maland

on the subject of Hiroko Hatano

Oh fine Kurata Yumi
In the drama Love Story
With the theme Haruka by Spitz
Of it I never saw any
The ratings were the pits
Twenty percent of viewership
But that hasn’t held her back
This one was just a blip
Her agent she chose to sack
And JVC picked up the slack
A commerical for DoCoMo
Brought her career on track
From the bar at Kokomo
Her Beach Boys debut was a go
Overall her career
Hasn’t been great, though
Circle K got her selling beer
To no fan’s great cheer
Now playing Yamazaki Shigenori
On Ikiru you can see’er.
Brian Raiter

on the subject of 31st Daytime Emmy Awards

Radio City Music Hall.
Thousands heed the yearly call.
May 21st, 2004:
Stars will rise and stars will fall.
Actors, actresses galore,
Producers, writers by the score,
Photographers stand wall to wall,
TV cameras for decor.
Some the ritual will enthrall.
Some the ritual will appall.
Some awake the following day
And find no part they can recall.
Jewels and pinstripes on display,
Hair in perfect disarray,
Dressed up as if for the ball,
People smile, pose, sashay.
Some will go home feeling tall.
Some will go home feeling small.
Some will take home statuettes.
Some will carry home their gall.
The forty-four awards begets
As many speeches, listing debts
To friends and family, and withal
Cardboard jokes and limp vignettes.
Radio City Music Hall.
Thousands heed the yearly call.
Stars will rise and stars will fall.
Each year’s show repeats it all.
Sam Bleckley

on the subject of Electronic funds transfer

the modern world is driven
like in books by larry niven
by the flashing sight of bit and byte–
as homo datus makes his living.
paper money gives a fright
for the bankers bank in light
gone printed ways of older days
1’s and 0’s push back the night
in cryptographic method lays
a deathly dark and hidden maze
hacker-cancer wants an answer
is it safe the way she pays–
electronic funds transfer?
Ryan Finholm

on the subject of Arctiidae

It was late Spring, the sun was getting low
As I surveyed the lawn I had to mow.
The light would soon be gone, and yet I tried
To find cause to delay an hour or so.
I wandered towards the mower, and I spied
A darker patch upon the engine’s side.
I looked close and identified the thing:
An Arctiidae moth, trying to hide.
It must have found my presence threatening;
It took off in an awkward flapping fling.
I watched as two quick, midair paths were traced
By intersecting arcs of banking wing;
For suddenly, the flitting moth was chased,
And caught, and crushed, and chewed in careless haste,
Then spat out by a temperamental crow
Who loved the hunt, but couldn’t stand the taste.


  1. I wish all of you could have been there.

    This was a great month for the Commuter Challenge. First of all, the basic idea was great. Ryan came up with the idea of using Wikipedia’s “random article” feature. (We thought about doing sonnets, but settled on rubaiyats because a) it was novel, and b) it allowed people to pick a length appropriate for their topic.) But what made it really fun is that we had everyone submit their subject to the website immediately after looking it up. So we all had all month to imagine what everyone else was struggling with.

    Ryan Finholm had tested the random article feature extensively beforehand, and was quite nervous about the results. Apparently about one time in ten he would get a stub article about some random parish in England or Germany or whatever that was five sentences or shorter. That wouldn’t be as bad as (say) an article about a minor character in some obscure anime series, but still. Ryan happened to be visiting Seattle on the first, so he and I decided to generate our subjects in each other’s presence. I sent out the email, and within ten minutes Eric and Sam had already responded with their subjects. Eric’s really made me laugh, a random Japanese model/actress who had been in commercials and soap operas. Ryan disagreed, arguing that there’s a long tradition of writing poems about attractive women. He felt “electronic funds transfer” was much worse. We then sat down and did ours. Ryan went first and got “Arctiidae”, which was actually a very nice, open-ended subject. Then I hit the mouse button. The instant that “31st Daytime Emmy Awards” appeared on the screen, Ryan jumped up, laughing and cheering, and danced around the room. He then announced: “Best. Commuter Challenge. Ever!”

    Even though it was at my expense, I wish all of you could have been there to see it.

    by breadbox — 13 February 2008 @ 19:12

  2. But anyway, about the rubaiyat itself.

    I was unable to find much information about the event, other than the list of winners and photos of the celebrity attendees. (Oddly, had lots of clips from the 32nd Daytime Emmy Awards.) So I naturally wound up talking about it in generalities, which in turn led to the thrust I selected.

    It all started with “Radio City Music Hall”. I decided that it made a nice line all by itself. Thus trochaic tetrameter became the meter. This lends itself to a heroic-saga sort of sound, which lends itself very nicely to the way I approached the subject matter.

    I no longer remember why I had the idea of using -all as the rhyme for every other stanza. I’m pretty sure I had a reason for it, but obviously it didn’t figure much into the final result. What happened instead is that when I listed all of the -all rhymes I could think of, I found some nice antonymic pairs, such as small/tall and appall/enthrall. Those stanzas pretty much wrote themselves, and then the third line would dictate the rhyme for the stanza that followed it. In any case, the repeating -all rhyme does lend itself to the cyclical image of the poem’s thrust.

    Of course, I have no idea if the audience numbered in the thousands, or if jewels and/or pinstripes were really that popular, or if all forty-four awards were received with a speech, or if the jokes really were thin and flimsy. Or even if there were any vignettes of any kind. I’ve never watched an awards show, not even the Oscars.

    My favorite one on this page is Ryan’s, which isn’t surprising since I also think he had the most flexible subject. Unlike the rest of us, he chose not to focus on the subject itself, but nicely worked it in as part of a story.

    by breadbox — 13 February 2008 @ 19:36

  3. I’m glad this comments section is available, so I can explain a couple things about my submission:

    First off, the ‘story’ of my submission is semi-autobiographical, but with lots of big changes to fit the topic, meter, and rhyme scheme. During a summer vacation trip to my grandparents’ house in Minnesota (I think I was 16, maybe younger, I can’t remember) I was asked to mow their lawn. Before I got started, I saw on the side of the mower a big, beautiful moth with intricate designs on its wings. I admired it for a minute or two, and then watched as the moth took off and flew halfway across the lawn before a bird swooped down and plucked it out of the sky. The scenario made an impression that really stayed with me for some reason. But it really happened closer to noon , the sun wasn’t setting; it was one of those old push mowers, so it didn’t have an engine; although it was a moth, it almost certainly hadn’t been from the Arctiidae family; the moth took off because I started moving the mower (not just because I was there); the bird that ate the moth was a sparrow or lark or something instead of a crow; and so far as I know the bird just ate the moth – it flew off with the moth in its beak.

    The only thing that makes the moth in the poem an Arctiidae moth is the crow’s dislike of the taste – many Arctiidae moth species, “retain distasteful or poisonous chemicals acquired from their host plants (Weller et al., 1999)” [thank you, Wikipedia]. Arctiidae moths eat specific vegetation (in caterpillar form) that contains nasty chemicals, and they retain the stuff in the adult body, making them unpalatable to their predators. I added the crow’s ptooey as a nicely bent ending to the poem. And I’d like to self-indulgently mention that I can sort of sympathize with the crow on a general level, for I, too, occasionally find ‘the chase’ more compelling than ‘the feast’.

    Yet I wish I could’ve crammed more Arctiidae-specific info into the poem. And I admit that I got the easiest topic of the four.

    by RyanF — 14 February 2008 @ 00:07

  4. As for the other entries:

    I liked Eric’s. He packed that poem chock-full of actual information in a way that I wish that I would have for my submission. And it’s got good humor and charm.

    [Note: Logrolling alert] Brian’s submission was a joy to read, and it made me laugh out loud. I think he got the tone and imagery just right. He did really amazingly well with the ironies, too, and the disparate experiences of the attendees. I was also somehow expecting Brian’s entry to be more cynical, less balanced and less careful, so I was surprised and impressed when it turned out to be more than just a hatchet job.

    I was present when Brian got his subject from Wikipedia, and I cannot describe my feelings when “31st Daytime Emmy Awards” popped up on the screen. Those of us who know Brian understand that “31st Daytime Emmy Awards” may be the exact topic that he cares least about in the whole universe, something he would find 0.00% interesting. Unless, of course, he were compelled to write a rubaiyat on the subject. Sucker!

    And I think Sam did a great job. First off, he got a tough topic. I would never consider “Electronic Funds Transfer” to be any kind of material for any kind of poetry. Then instead of aaba bbcb ccdc, he did more of an c.c.dd.c d, which was new, clever, and much more difficult. And the last line (the final “d” rhyme) capped it off really well.

    So it was a great month for the Challenge. But now we’re running out of poetic forms to try for future challenges…

    by RyanF — 14 February 2008 @ 00:50

  5. As far as mine goes, I didn’t really spend as much time on it as I wanted to — a few more stanzas with some gritty technical detail would have been nice. In my opinion, I got the best topic — electronic funds transfer is a great topic for poetry because it is an everyday occurrence, but so very unexpected. Anyway, as it is, I think I got a nice rhythm out of it, a driving urgent beat. The pyrrhic-trochee-trochee-trochee sound makes it sound like the Song of Hiawatha.

    This was a great idea. One of my favorite Commuter Challenges so far.

    by Sam Bleckley — 14 February 2008 @ 07:56