Monday, July 3, 2023

Vince Montague : Process Note #20 : The Box Poem

The 'process notes' pieces were originally solicited by Maw Shein Win as addendum to her teaching particular poems and poetry collections for various workshops and classes. This excerpt and process note by Vince Montague is part of her curriculum for her upcoming class at the University of San Francisco in their MFA Program and for Poetry In Process: Creating Together, A Workshop.




Next Door (Bottlecap Press 2023) is a collection of prose poems based on walking and dreaming about the private worlds and the public faces of living in communities. Each poem in Next Door has a mailing address rather than a title, a location rather than a name. Each poem is a fragment, a glance inside a window, a conversation overheard on a sidewalk, a flight into the imagination of what we call “community.”

During the height of the pandemic, the world stayed at home, sheltering in place. The stress of the moment was palpable but mostly invisible. I started writing these poems as a way of absorbing the shock of lock down. There was a sense of freedom in the beginning, before we knew how long the process might be, when we believed the lock down might be over in a few weeks or months. That “window” of freedom led me to think about the form of the poems themselves.

I work with clay and ceramics. Most of my work evolves around circular forms. When I conceived of these poems, I thought of them as “boxes” much like the box-forms of apartment buildings and the many simple houses I passed on solitary walks for my mental health. Everything around me felt empty, and I could see the lines in the buildings and the streets: one squared form after another squared form.  Boxes upon boxes. The only thing round were the trees on the sidewalks.

Think of the paragraph as a box. Consider the box a type of poetic form. It may seem boring and predictable, efficient, and mundane, but inside each box is a rich complex world of survival, deep struggles, personal obstacles, persistent doubts. What’s so compelling about using the paragraph as a boxed form is the visual focus of the poem.

I think of these boxed poetic forms as individual prose poems, but prose is just the veneer of poetry. These poems are stand alone, but I also like the way when I combine them together, poem next to poem, they begin to take on new meaning. The juxtaposition of each box piled beside another box begins to shape the ideas in the poem in the mind of the reader. Proximity in community is something our culture feels almost blind to because we rely on technology to keep us connected. The walls we build around ourselves are of our own making.


1520 Laguna Circle


I remember looking up from my book because I sensed something collapsing outside our window. It was a beautiful spring morning, the kind of day when a person doesn’t expect bodies plummeting out of the sky; and yet, a dead robin lay on its side staring back at me. My first thought was to look away and pretend I didn’t see a bird die in mid-air, but every time I looked up from my book I saw the stiffened carcass, and I imagined to myself the final moments when this robin had a heart attack or a stroke, falling like a rock tossed onto our porch.

I could hear our oldest when she came upon the dead robin. I saw her step back in shock and fear, but rather than turn away completely, she found two oversized hydrangea leaves, scooped the dead bird up in the foliage and placed its body underneath the canopy of the plant. Then she found some pine needles and draped them over the birds’ wings. She closed her eyes and said something to herself. Later, when I asked her what she had whispered to the dead bird, she shut down and regained her teenage posture. She said she couldn’t remember and told me to leave her alone.


3850 Aspen Lane


The wailing sound you hear is not the sky falling, but the ceiling fan blowing both night and day because the air conditioner was damaged in the storm. There is nothing one can do with afternoon heat but move it around the room from one end to the other. And so all right, fanned air moves all about and still the heat will not relent. What somebody should do is write the neighbors a note and leave it on their door asking them to tidy up their front yard. Everyone knows an unkempt yard attracts robbers and thieves. It has been pointed out no one has proved this idea about unkempt yards, yet the theory persists. The fan needs to be cleaned before anything else; it sounds like a hole being bored in the sidewalk, ventilating these grievances and pushing them from one end of the room to the other, thinking their weight can somehow be ignored just by moving.


     463A Beacon Street


You walk inside the front door and you know instantly you can never live in this apartment, but you tell yourself to keep an open mind, until you pull open a drawer beneath the kitchen counter and you feel something sticky on your hand and you don’t know what it is, and then you think well whoever lived here before probably did a lot of cooking, that they were probably a lot like you and didn’t have that much money and that was why they were living in this apartment and cooking food that was sticky, and you find some comfort knowing there was a stranger who lived here, making his own sticky food, and then somehow managing to escape this apartment and you think maybe that could be you, maybe you could rent this apartment, make your own sticky food, and then someday escape.






Vince Montague is a writer and artist living in Northern California.  He is the author of Cracked Pot (Latah Books 2023), a memoir of grief, ceramics and creativity. His poetry and prose has appeared in The Southern Review, The Florida Review, Green Mountain Review, and many others. His sculptural and functional work in ceramics has been exhibited nationally in juried exhibitions, galleries, and can be found in many private collections.


Maw Shein Win’s most recent poetry collection is Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn) which was nominated for the Northern California Book Award in Poetry, longlisted for the PEN America Open Book Award, and shortlisted for CALIBA’s Golden Poppy Award for Poetry. Win’s previous collections include Invisible Gifts (Manic D Press) and two chapbooks Ruins of a glittering palace (SPA) and Score and Bone (Nomadic Press). Win’s Process Note Series features poets and their process. She is the inaugural poet laureate of El Cerrito, CA and teaches poetry in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco. Win often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers and was recently selected as a 2023 YBCA 100 Honoree. Along with Dawn Angelicca Barcelona and Mary Volmer, she is a co-founder of Maker, Mentor, Muse, a new literary community.


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