The Commuter Challenge

2 October 2013

The October 2013 Challenge

by CC @ 00:53

The Commuter Challenge has explored poetry in many different forms over the years. One form that we’ve never looked at, however, is the sestina. Just writing a sestina is too tame a pursuit for us, though. To keep ourselves interested, an extra obstacle has been added: We will not be choosing our own end words. They will be assigned to us, using the technique of electronic bibliomancy. In other words, they will be chosen randomly.

The Results

Sam Bleckley


Sitting among kith and kin is evidence that there exists
a strong-backed and comfortable chair inside of families,
even when they’re not my own (the damning proof: no cleft chin).
Squeeze a recliner between arguments; perch amid mutual
secrets and shared glances; enjoy second-row seats for games
that are played in private, during meals, or while driving.
Oh, driving! The brutish, scalpel things they say while driving!
Quietly pointing out that another route (down the I-5) exists,
and is faster; living fingers suddenly subjected to knife games
played with sharpened steel and how-could-you-forget. Families
hewn efficiently out of mutual disdain, mutual esteem and mutual
minefields, all packed into a Subaru, overflowing with that chin!
Yes. The chin. “She has your eyes, but she has her mother’s chin.”
Isn’t it strange to share bodies? Who, exactly, was driving
this evolutionary bus? Who exchanged arms and doled mutual
extremities? But stranger still not to share them: my body exists
wholly unrelated. Frightening. Foreign. Other chins! Other families!
The games genetics plays are such strange games.
Never so strange, though, as the ancestral family games:
Card games with names like “Walnuts” and “Chinese Fen-chin”
Rules whispered ear to ear along an unbroken chain of families
stretching frozen into the past, mouths wide with driving
passion, arms aflail. Games that continue ’til sullen pain exists
in every eye and a grim silence signals that the anger is mutual.
“Mutual” is not surprising. In families, everything is mutual,
even deaths; each bony body is predestined to the same end-games:
Drooling in an easy chair and wondering if baseball still exists,
or else surgically inserting a telephone pole into the brain via the chin.
Silently, early-onset dementia and hereditary drunk-driving
(ancestral horse-drawn accidents) came with chins and families.
And ten thousand years from now, seeking ancestral families,
philosopher-kings assemble in search of a history that’s mutual.
Their violent, inherited thirsts for blood-kin and pedigrees driving
them forward, they navigate by ancient maps and sphinxian games
of logic, following sudden stars, each rubbing the same uncanny chin.
Gray, homeless journeyers, they are calm, knowing their ur-family exists.
The world is full of families, and full of families’ games.
It’s packed seamlessly with mutual secrets and identical cleft chins,
buckling child after child into safety seats and driving them into a future that barely exists.
Ryan Finholm
Dawn’s light crept westward like a meek rabbit.
Our protagonist awoke, joints hurting,
Headache hammering like a blacksmith.
He weighed his arbitrary loyalty
To a sport he could not love, then slowly
Rose to a dread he dimly recognized.
Strife and failure were states he recognized.
He constantly felt the hard, twin rabbit-
punches of bad choices and time, slowly
Sapping his will to ignore the hurting
Knees, making him question his loyalty
To another hunting date with John Smith.
Still, he was upset when he heard that Smith
Had slept in. This man he had recognized
As his friend chose sleep over loyalty.
It was, to him, like the Easter Rabbit
Being absent all Spring: a mild, hurting
Disappointment that increases slowly.
But then he warmed to the concept slowly:
Time in the woods alone without John Smith.
His mood improved. His pride was not hurting.
This was a fragile state he recognized
As fickle; He’d pulled this upbeat rabbit
From his hat, but it had no loyalty,
For what do rabbits know of loyalty?
Our man went to the forest, which slowly
Revealed signs of fauna: tracks of rabbit,
Owl pellets, holes and nests – things that John Smith
Taught him to look for, things he recognized
As records of movements, meals and hurting.
A fraction of a line apart: “Hurting,”
And “Hunting,” but game was his loyalty.
Through the brush sped a shape he recognized
From past humiliations. He slowly
Hoisted his gun to aim, and blew to smith-
ereens that silly, rascally rabbit.
Hurting joints forgotten, he rose slowly,
Recognized the prey. He was no wordsmith:
“Lost loyalty bugs me. Like you, rabbit.”
Brian Excarnate

this truly was… the perfect rhyme

NaNoWriMo starts but I have a bad feeling
I have no plot, no characters, I need rescue!
Perhaps I should use a Ryan North plot, his
Excellent ideas could get me started, annoying
No one. These new cartoonists welcome fans like brothers
Though Ryan won’t mind, I know T. Rex would be grateful
Although I lose sleep, I should be grateful
Building servers and scripting is fun, but I have a feeling
That there is another side that needs nurturing: my brother’s
Forte, creative expression. Creativity may be my rescue
Or perhaps lack of sleep will cause mistakes thus annoying
My coworker. They are our servers, not mine, not his
A lovely detective story, albeit off-kilter, his
Sense of humor is off kilter. I am grateful
For the license where I am allowed. Spot finds it annoying
He is not allowed. Still, 50,000 words gives me the feeling
I have bit off too much. I may need encouragement and rescue
From a fellow writer. I hear they can be like sisters and brothers
Although they very well may be a band of brothers
Writing this novel is my solitary task and his
Encouragement can’t write my story of a daring rescue
Or perfect crime, or…. Help here would make me grateful
Now to pick a subject, some characters, mood and feeling
Start writing with concentration, interruptions would be annoying
It is not indecision that I find so annoying
That would mean I had choices, perhaps the brothers
That I need sing plainsong with deep feeling
The Friar would listen to me sing, then put his
Hand on my shoulder “Maybe writing is better”, grateful
That the noise had stopped and he didn’t need rescue
Alas, I know that the practice and struggle is my rescue
And that lack of sleep, forcing words out may be annoying
If I end up with anything approaching a story I’ll be grateful
I’ll count the words and won’t care if they are short, brothers
Ultimately care about you, and if the process improves, his
Happiness will be for your joy and he’ll congratulate with feeling
Annoying as it may be to my friends, my brothers
I’ll stave off calls for rescue, and it will be his
Grateful task to congratulate the effort, with feeling
Brian Raiter
The jazz combo that plays tonight is named “Measure for Measure”.
The lounge is filled with chit-chat more than people, more’s the pity.
A sweaty stagehand is ensuring microphones are hooked
Up, and the people talking loud are not so much aware
Of what the men onstage are doing. But then some eyes are caught
When from outside the spotlight steps a man of dapper keeping.
At first nobody notices the way he’s keeping
His arm around his contrabass, and for good measure,
In one F hole at top his right-hand thumb is caught.
The drummer briefly flashes him a look of pity.
Then slowly, one by one, the audience comes aware
Of how unnatural the way his hand is hooked:
His hand is gnarled in its position, hooked
Around the bass’s fingerboard, thus keeping
The fingers pointed at, they’re now aware,
A slashing scar that marks the place and measure
Of sharpened stainless steel’s shortage of pity,
Where a fishing hook had once been caught.
A miscast line had gotten caught.
His tendons tore where they were hooked.
(The nurse had said, with little pity,
He was lucky to be keeping
The hand at all. In some measure,
Of that he had been well aware.)
Yes, now they’re quite aware.
Attention has been caught.
From his initial measure,
The audience is hooked.
Upon him they are keeping
their study, and their pity.
Of their pity
He’s not aware.
A beat he’s keeping:
Downbeat caught,
Upbeat hooked.
Start the measure.
Pity caught,
Aware, hooked,
Keeping measure.


  1. Yow, “his” is pretty tough, so I allowed myself to break a line at convenient spots, a la

    by Brian Excarnate — 31 October 2013 @ 21:43

  2. I like Brian R’s approach to the final stanza — did that choice come first, Brian, and then you worked backward from there? Or did you discover it fortuitously? Whole I like that stanza think “downbeat caught/upbeat hooked” is my favorite excerpt; the analogy is fresh but apt, and the prosody is impeccable.

    I’m glad that Ryan, like I did, bowed to the frustration of a too-particular word, and sneaked it inside a larger word a few times. Smith-ereens, particularly, has an Ogden-Nash-like surprise to it that I love.

    Brian E has, has he pointed out, some sexy enjambment going on; I like that ‘brothers’ led to plainsong, and then to the joke — the entire content of the stanza emerges from a single part of the constraint. It’s always exciting to me when constraints are generative like that.

    Line length was obviously something BR was conscious of; it’s something I struggled with. Usually I’m am strict about meter and prosody, but I spent the first week trying to make even a single stanza work in iambic pentameter. No success. So I tried a different rhythmic device, which turned out to be well suited to the form. Whitman and Ginsberg both have poems that return again and again to a single word — think of “who” in the first part of Howl — at the end of each breath, there’s the root word again, and that repetition is the core of the rhythm. I figured I’ve got six words I have to repeat *anyway*, maybe repeating them *more* will soften the harshness of the format? Blah blah, each line is roughly half a breath, and the key words appear many additional times mid line, making a sort of internal rhyme.

    Forgive any errors in this comment; no Internet in my apt this weekend, so I’m typing on my phone.

    by Sam Bleckley — 1 November 2013 @ 17:07

  3. The form I picked for my sestina is one I’ve seen before, though I no longer remember where. As Sam guessed in his comment, I wrote almost completely backwards, starting with the envoi (I tried out three or four arrangements of the six words before picking this one). After composing the sixth and fifth stanza, I had given myself my subject, so from there it was just a matter of setting up the scene to lead to what I’d written. Working backwards to the larger stanzas made it possible to fit in the details necessary to get to where I had already determined I was going. It would be all but impossible to write a sestina like this forwards.

    To randomly select the words sets, I had a list of the 5000 most commonly used English words. I generated my list first, and when I saw it I figured that I had chosen my source material well. It was disconcerting that every set of six words I generated next was a little bit worse than the previous one. When I generated Brian Excarnate’s list (who, it should be noted here, requested his words on the 29th, after two other people had already submitted their finished sestinas) and saw that one of his words was “his”, I just about wept in sympathetic frustration. (Not for a moment did I doubt that he would finish, though!)

    by Brian — 1 November 2013 @ 21:35

  4. One problem with last minute is typos. When I’m at my computer I’ll send corrections.

    I noticed Sam’s repetition and really felt it reduced the awkwardness of the adjacent end words–before reading his comment.

    My wife enjoyed these. Hopefully she will be inspired to try her hand at November’s challenge.

    by Brian Excarnate — 2 November 2013 @ 00:44

  5. I find myself strangely tempted to write a cycle of 12 or even 24 of these. The format is such a straight jacket; it almost forces a novel metaphor on the writer. You’ve invented a winner here, Brian.

    by Sam Bleckley — 3 November 2013 @ 05:31

  6. Also, I have to say that it looks like many (all?) of us sestina-writers are going to be participating in Nanowrimo this year….

    Sam: To give credit where it’s due, the idea is not mine originally. It grew out of a half-dare from an online conversation between writers (and writer-wannabes). Though in their version, you had like 24 hours to write your sestina, and the wordlist was an actual dictionary. Most of the sestinas you had to read a couple of times just to figure out what they were saying. My set included the words “flotillas” and “toboggan”. I had a lot of metaphors involving toboggans.

    by Brian — 3 November 2013 @ 09:57

  7. Brian/Ryan, here are the typos–I don’t know if it is OK to fix the after the fact. corrections in [square brackets].

    For the license where I [am] allowed. Spot finds it annoying

    Although they very well [may] be a band of brothers

    Ultimately care about you, and if the process improves[,] his

    Spot, FWIW, is a reference:

    by Brian Excarnate — 3 November 2013 @ 12:15