After Being Asked to Write a Villanelle by David Wagoner

If you say the same words over
and over, the same words
          in a pattern, you’re bound (no matter
          how much you want to sound
as if you’re not) to be trapped
on an iron spiral staircase
          in an old grade-school fire-drill,
          supposed to go down and out,
but always winding up
face to face with yourself
          disguised as a classmate
          while the same dimly familiar
unfamiliar words
keep coming out of your mouth,
          but meaning even less
          this time than the last,
meaning Why are we always
running into each other
          when we’re all supposed to be
          going the same way
and remembering what to do
in case of emergency
          and breathing normally
          till we’re out the nearest exit?

David Wagoner has published 18 books of poems, most recently A Map of the night (U. of Illinois Press, 2008) and ten novels, one of which, The Escape Artist, was made into a movie by Francis Ford Coppola.  He won the Lilly Prize in 1991 and has won six yearly prizes from Poetry (Chicago).  He was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets for 23 years.  He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and twice for the National Book Award.  He edited Poetry Northwest from 1966 to its end in 2002.  He is professor emeritus of English at the U. of Washington and teaches in the low-residency MFA Program of the Whidbey Island Writers Workshop.


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  • Thomas Alan Holmes

    I appreciate this thoughtful piece about how one responds to a fixed form. I also like the wordplay of “winding up” in the midst of describing one’s descending a spiral staircase. Thank you.

  • Ruth Livingstone

    Wonderful expression of (and in words far better than I could ever have found) my own experience of trapped frustration when asked to write a villanelle. I was smiling and nodding in recognition as I read.