Pantouming the Archive

AJ Wells

Overview and Rationale

In both sound and feeling, nothing awakens the senses quite like echoes. Echoes can roll through poetry, offering familiarity, soundness, and even tranquility in times of displacement. The life of this exercise arises from an opportunity to unite the classroom by forming echoes together. If we are able to consider poetry as a manifestation of our personal archives, then the pantoum can help us form such an inquiry in a poem together.

I began to understand poetry as an archive when studying Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s Beast Meridian under the direction of Dr. Rajiv Mohabir. Villarreal performs the archive in her collection, scattering pictures of her family throughout the book alongside poems designed to commemorate her liminal experience in a family of undocumented immigrants. Villarreal allows her poetry to awaken the echoes of her own history, sharing her story alongside the memories of her family.

In fact, creative writing classrooms appear to be growing as an opportunity for students to learn how to mine their own archives. What better place is there to get honest feedback on style from a willing and attentive audience? Poetry offers access to our stories in many ways beyond that of explicit memories. In poetry, we can (like Villarreal) evoke stories of our pasts and remember fallen family members, but we can also allow poetry to be an implicit demonstration of our journeys. The language used, the style offered, and the content can be an expression of students’ experiences—their own echoes performed poetically.

The pantoum is a form designed for echoes: it caters to its lines, affirming solidarity while allowing them to work together for the poem. The pantoum creeps forward and back, with each quatrain containing two repeated lines and two new ones, making the form ideal for evoking the past. The pantoum uses quatrains and often rhymes in abab bcbc scheme. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next stanza, except for the first and third lines of the first quatrain, which are repeated at the end of the poem with the first line used as the final line and the third line used as the third to last line. The pantoum can be of any length, but to have the first and third lines close out the poem, the class needs an odd number of participants. To make an odd number the teacher may or may not wish to join the making of this poem.

Each student needs to prepare two rhyming lines of poetry. The first line should offer an understanding of an archive by presenting the concept of echoes, a special collection, memories, and so forth. The second line will offer an understanding of poetry, which can be an evocation of a formula, rhythm, personal connection, or other element. When students connect the two lines by rhyme, it is interesting to see how creating the lines influences the students’ understandings of both poetry and the archive.

As the students read their lines in the pantoum, their voices will intermix and offer unity within the poem. The students’ lines will stand alone while also receiving influence from the accompanying lines in the quatrain. Together, the class will create art as the students voice new understanding of poetry and archives and use language and rhyme to echo their experiences.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Provide five minutes for each student to write two rhyming lines of poetry. The first line should describe an archive. The second line should describe poetry.
  2. Assign the students the order in which they will read according to the form of a pantoum.
  • It may be helpful to have the order written before the exercise so that students will know when they are to read.
  • Remember, the first student will read at the beginning and end of the poem.
  1. The students read aloud their lines in the order of the pantoum, creating poetry and an archive of their own.

Example of the Exercise

When we studied Villarreal, I led my fellow graduate students in this exercise. My lines were (archive) “for all the thoughts left behind” and (poetry) “adventure crafted in a poet’s mind.”

There is no Truth but truth:

collected dust on memories

of Spanish quelled—stamped out of youth,

picked language delicacies.

Collected dust on memories

metamorphic, both constant and inconstant

picked language delicacies,

within the continuum of itself: its concept to its concept

metamorphic, both constant and inconstant.

Imperfect time machine

within the continuum of itself: its concept to its concept

souvenirs brought back from me.

Imperfect time machine:

a source of our interpretations of history,

souvenirs brought back from me,

open my pages, I’ll show you more about you and me.

A source of our interpretations of history

benedictions chosen in partial representation,

open my pages, I’ll show you more about you and me.

Words sutured together—some ask for explanation,

benedictions chosen in partial representation

among the stacks, fingers tracing spines,

words sutured together—some ask for explanation,

a hidden meaning in words and lines

among the stacks, fingers tracing spines.

Preserved little headstones, revisit anytime.

A hidden meaning in words and lines,

threaded pulses and heartbeats crafted and refined.

Preserved little headstones, revisit anytime

for all the thoughts left behind,

threaded pulses and heartbeats crafted and refined

adventure crafted in a poet’s mind

for all the thoughts left behind.

Incomplete and silence filled

adventure crafted in a poet’s mind,

humblest parts at once spilled,

incomplete and silence filled

of Spanish quelled—stamped out of youth.

Humblest parts at once spilled:

there is no Truth but truth.

Biography

AJ Wells grew up on a farm near Buena Vista, Georgia, before venturing north for undergrad at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where he majored in English and the classics and earned a minor in rhetoric. Now, he is back to enjoying warm weather as a graduate student at Auburn University in the creative writing program.

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