What The Vietnamese Clerk At K Mart Said Before She Sold The Veteran A Betta

You can find them anywhere, any pet shop, Even the K mart at Muskogee: fighting fish That flare so bright you think of dragons, That come one to a bowl with a story I keep

For the special customer. Long ago a girl With hair like mine, so black the sun Sparked in the paddies, dipped her hands Below some bubbles and scooped a betta

With a little color. The men she knew

Fought such fish as Americans today fight ,

Cocks in the barns and back alleys.

The betta she held was not purple like yours,

But brown with a promise of purple, and the fins Sad as a girl whose hair is shorn for punishment. Still, it was the finest fighter anyone then had seen. If she brought the fish to her husband

Then and there, I would not be selling you A betta today at K mart. She put it in a bowl And vowed to breed this fish until she found The dragon in its blood, and given a dragon

Her husband, she thought, would love her forever. Only a girl so gentle could make such magic, And being gentle this mistake: she bred the best And did not kill the others, as I might have done.

She put them in the paddies. Soon her neighbors Brought home bettas more striking than ones she took

To her husband, to keep her secret. He lost Fight after fight and had nothing left to wager

But the girl. When he told her to serve A new master, then and there she could have Given him a dragon — purple with black mask, Fins like fire. He would have reclaimed her.

Instead, she went quietly to the other man And vowed to breed the blood of dragons In their children. One by one she freed Her fighters that lord to this day in the paddies,

That I sell here at K mart, and when a man Like you comes along, someone I might have bred My bettas for in Saigon, I tell this little story And make us feel okay about what happened.

In the narrative example, the / in the poem —along with the actions, comments, views and tones of voice —can be assigned to the poet, me. (At least that is what it suggests.) Even the presence of the clerk is filtered through the narrator. But in the dramatic version —which also employs the first person — actions, views, comments and tones of voice obviously are assigned to the clerk. Everything is filtered through her, and she couldn't possibly be me because I am not Vietnamese or a woman. The clerk may be invented, historical or a composite — that's my prerogative as poet —but she is above all a created entity.

Now that the dramatic episode has been distinguished from the narrative, here's how you can compose one:

1. In a page of your journal, make a character sketch of the persons in your episode. Simply describe them in a few sentences as you would describe another person to a friend. Discuss aspects of each character's personality and why he or she might have developed certain traits. For example:

The clerk, a Vietnamese woman with long black hair, is attracted to certain men she thinks are veterans. She likes to tell them a story about bettas because that symbolizes the fighting spirit of the Vietnamese. She does this to help herself and them forgive what happened in her country.

2. Conceive a scene with these characters that has some action (however simple, such as buying a betta at a pet shop). Write down a sentence or two in your journal about that scene to remember it vividly in your mind. For example:

The selling of the betta occurs at K mart — an American symbol.

I want the clerk to address the customer as she sells him a fighting fish, sharing her folktale about bettas.

3. Decide which character has the most clout. If you can't, funnel a few lines through each character and compare. This should result in your choosing an entity through which voice and viewpoint can be funneled. For example, the the veteran's viewpoint:

She tells me I can find them anywhere, Even the K mart in Muskogee. I listen As she says, etc.

Here the narrator is too passive. Try again, this time using the clerk's viewpoint:

You can find them anywhere, any pet shop, Even the K mart at Muskogee: fighting fish That flare, etc.

Much better. Now the narrator is engaging.

4. Because the title is so important in a dramatic work, pick one now that introduces your main character. The title should also ground the reader, conveying that the person who speaks is not the poet and setting the stage for the episode to follow (as in the title "What the Vietnamese Clerk at K mart Said Before She Sold the Veteran a Betta").

5. Imagine your episode in three moments of narration ("Now," "Now and Then" and "Then," as decribed in the chapter on narrative verse). Compose a few lines in each moment so you can sense the right one.

A girl went to the paddies. She saw Bubbles rise to the surface and Dipped her palm, scooping a betta.

Result: No perspective to characterize speaker.

(Now and Then)

Long ago a girl with hair like mine, So black the sun sparked in the paddies, Dipped her hands below some bubbles And scooped a betta.

Result: Action and perspective via voice.

In Vietnam you can still find bettas

In the paddies, under bubbles.

If you scoop your hands quick enough,

You can catch them.

Result: All comment, no tension.

6. Imagine your characters in the scene as if you were viewing them on stage. As you do this, make a list of objects (props) that might depict your actors or help propel the episode. In the "Betta" poem, the list would include such words as bowl, paddies, hair, dragon, Kmart, customer, mask, etc. This list will help you visualize your piece later.

7. Imagine the ending to your scene (open or closed). Compose an open ending and a closed one and then compare. For example:

One by one she freed her fighters

That lord to this day in the paddies.

Result: Too vague, no resolution.

(Closed)

I tell this little story and make us feel okay about what happened.

Result: Echoes theme of forgiveness.

8. Review all elements thus far: personality sketch, scene, moment, pertinent objects, ending. Now align tones of voice with the viewpoint of your main character. In the "Betta" poem, the tones need to be descriptive, conversational and candid so the clerk can make her point with the veteran.

9. Do a mini-outline as you learned in the chapter on narrative poetry, detailing topic, theme, voice, viewpoint, moment and ending. If you are having trouble distinguishing your dramatic episode from a narrative work, you might want to compose an outline for a narrative poem and then another one for a dramatic episode (as I did earlier in this section).

10. Envision your poem and compose.

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