Pick a Subject That Suits the Form

This is paramount if you ever hope to write a pantoum. Consider how Joyce Carol Oates describes the pantoum's ability to convey certain subjects: "The pantoum is a poetic form marvelously suited for conveying extreme states of mind — mania, paranoia, delusion. Writing a pantoum is quite an experience: I've only written two in my entire life, and felt each time as if I were descending into madness, and holding on only by way of a rigorous discipline —in itself a bit mad."

Of course, pantoums don't have to be serious or insane. In fact, Oates observes, "If successful, the pantoum comes across as a comic form. Its gravity, even its tragedy, is transmuted into comedy."

When I write pantoums, sometimes I pick topics that imply a type of mania, paranoia or delusion. Sometimes I don't. But I do make sure my topic suggests something that recurs because my lines will recur throughout the poem.

For example, here are brief descriptions of the last two pantoums that I published:

• "Orphic Chant" concerns the circular layout of the Austrian city of Salzburg. My narrator is lost and thinks that he is walking out of town, miles from his original starting point. Suddenly, landmarks start reappearing and he realizes "I can't escape my life."

• "Mistaken Identity" concerns an American tourist being mistaken for a bank robber in Salzburg. During the arrest, a detective interrogates in German (a good scene for repetition):

He explains the civil code in German:

Sie sind verhaftet, verstehen Sie mich?

You are a suspect. You don't believe this.

Zeigen Sie mir schon Ihre Papierel

Sie sind verhaftet, verstehen Sie mich?

A bad move. He wants to see your papers:

Zeigen Sie mir schon Ihre Papierel

You could be staring at a stiff sentence. . . .

I have also written pantoums about recurring nightmares and sleepwalking, other topics in which repetition can be rich. The pantoum that I composed before writing this chapter focused on hurtful phrases that come back to haunt us all our lives.

But before I even composed the first stanza, I had to consider which type of pantoum would best convey my subject matter.

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