Sunday, March 8, 2009

Delta Flight 659: to Sean Penn, by Denise Duhamel

Welcome to poem: an online poetry salon, of sorts! Our poem for the month of March is Denise Duhamel's Delta Flight 659: to Sean Penn from her latest collection of poetry, Ka-Ching!

Read it once, twice, or twenty times. Read it out loud. Read it to a friend. Copy it into your favorite notebook, word by word. Absorb the poem. Be the poem. Consider the poem. When you're ready to talk, you are invited to stop by and discuss the poem in the comments section.

Next week, we'll post a prompt for writing your own piece inspired by the poem. Thanks for stopping by! Enjoy the poem!

Delta Flight 659
to Sean Penn

I’m writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ball point pen.
Ever since 9/11, I’m a nervous flyer. I leave my Pentium
Processor in Florida so TSA can’t x-ray my stanzas, penetrate
my persona. Maybe this should be in iambic pentameter,
rather than this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn

variant. I convinced myself the ticket to Baghdad was too expensive.
I contemplated going as a human shield. I read, in open-
mouthed shock, that your trip there was a $56,000 expenditure.
Is that true? I watched you on Larry King Live—his suspenders
and tie, your open collar. You saw the war’s impending
mess. My husband gambled on my penumbra

of doubt. “So you station yourself at a food silo in Iraq. What happens
to me if you get blown up?” He begged me to stay home, be his Penelope.
I sit alone in coach, but last night I sat with four poets, depending
on one another as readers, in a Pittsburgh café. I tried to be your pen
pal in 1987, not because of your pensive
bad boy looks, but because of a poem you’d penned

that appeared in an issue of Frank. I still see the poet in you, Sean Penn.
You probably think fans like me are your penance
for your popularity, your star bulging into a pentagon
filled with witchy wanna-bes and penniless
poets who waddle towards your icy peninsula
of glamour like so many menacing penguins.

But honest, I come in peace, Sean Penn,
writing on my plane ride home. I want no part of your penthouse
or the snowy slopes of your Aspen.
I won’t stalk you like the swirling grime cloud over Pig Pen.
I have no script or stupendous
novel I want you to option. I even like your wife, Robin Wright Penn.

I only want to keep myself busy on this flight, to tell you of four penny-
loafered poets in Pennsylvania
who, last night, chomping on primavera penne
pasta, pondered poetry, celebrity, Iraq, the penitentiary
of free speech. And how I reminded everyone that Sean Penn
once wrote a poem. I peer out the window, caress my lucky pendant:

Look, Sean Penn, the clouds are drawn with charcoal pencils.
The sky is opening like a child’s first stab at penmanship.
The sun begins to ripen orange, then deepen.

(reprinted by permission of author)


Michelle said...


There's so much to unpack here.

Thank you.

jillypoet said...

The simple fact that she found so many Penn variants amazes me!

christine said...

Cool! It's very clever and witty, but at the end creates a scene of beauty. And all with variations of Penn! I'll keep reading it.

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

What fun this was to read! I love it from top to bottom--what a great use of words containing "pen."

My comments are pending. Will I be penalized if I make no other comment? Will there be a penalty to pay? And will I have to do penance? Well, while I take my pen in hand and try to think of a penetrating comment, I will raise a pennant to her for this, and would pay a pretty pence to have written it myself!

Linda Jacobs said...

What a delicious poem! I've chewed on it a couple times already. Last Thursday I had my poetry-writing students try sestinas so will share this with them as a cool alternative.

Great choice!

Daniel Nester said...

It's a super poem -- a sestina, in fact, one that I was happy to publish over at the McSweeney's Sestinas section; see it as it orginally appeared here.

Usually, the sestinas has six different end-words, but Duhamel here decide to use all Penn end-words (as she refers so postmodernly in the poem itself). One might think it's easier that way, but I suspect not. It's just that Duhamel is a master. Oh, and she rocks.

Mommy said...

I kept trying to figure out if she likes Sean Penn or loathes him.

The end few lines bring in the imagery and metaphor which separates them from the rest of the poem. It's almost like it signaled an end to her "soapboxing" and a return to the tranquility of the flight during sunset.

Michael K Mullen said...

First of all, I wish to thank the creators of this website and my dear colleague for inviting me to this delightful discussion of inspired verse.

I was not aware of this style and its homonymous foot printing, but I find the "mock sestina" interesting.

They say that when we travel, we metaphorically face our death in that we are taking leave of ourselves temporarily. The author uses this element heightened by a reality based albeit somewhat irrational fear of flying.

The author also mentions how our irrationality is not without consequence as the post 9/11 increased security causes her to leave her treasured laptop at home.

Is she penning to relieve her fears? Distracting herself with poetic rambling? Emulating a celebrity hero?

Then her verse, like the plane takes flight, "the sky begins to open."

And so in a world fraught with war, terrorism, and fear, we are reminded that all of this can be changed by applying our better nature.

And thus art and poetry can change the world. Love, not fear is the Answer. Selah.

Anonymous said...

I love this.

I love Duhamel and how she takes forms and makes them her own, the self-refferential way that she breaks poetry "rules".

This poem is fantastic. Love the pens, love the thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I love this poem. I lobe Duhamel. I love the self-referential way that she speaks in the poem, and the way that she always breaks "rules" so perfectly.

She read at my school in college. I've been in love ever since.

Love the way she made the sestina her own. Love the imagry. Love love love.

Leah Maines said...

What a wonderful poem. She has really mastered the art. Delta Flight 659 (domestic) now goes from Dayton, OH to Atlanta, GA. But there is something about that isn't there? We can find our own Penn/pen in our daily lives--this inspires us...this keeps us flying toward the sun.

Anonymous said...

say this five times fast: "poets in Pennsylvania ... chomping on primavera penne pasta pondered poetry."

what fun!

i am amazed at how the repetition of "pen" words seems not at all repetitive. it's brilliantly done -- like when someone truly skilled with rhyme uses rhyming words without them sticking out. (when i attempt rhyme, it sticks out in a "roses are red, violets are blue" kind of way.)

i am also delighted by the thought of writing a poem to a celebrity. i am infamous for my long-list of celebrity crushes (although denise does say she's not one of "those" kinds of fans), but i never thought of writing a poem to any of them.

maybe it's time. :)

rob kistner said...

Carolee - I appreciate being invited to participate here in the "Poem" activities. I am going to spend a bit of time with Denise's poem, then stop back with some thoughts.


Anonymous said...

i also wanted to ask, how did denise come up with so many "pen" words? did she brainstorm a long list? if so, which "pen" words didn't make the cut?

and how did she work on the piece? did she put the "pen" words at the end of lines and then try to lead up to them or did she start telling the story and find (more organically) a "pen" word that worked at the end of the lines?

i love thinking about the poet writing the poem and what her process may have been.

rob kistner said...

Penultimate didn't "make the cut"... ;)


rob kistner said...

nor did pentangle...


jillypoet said...

Whenever I have written a sestina, I've tried it both ways. Big blank page with end words in order and writing organically and trying to get a word to fit some way. It's tricky. That she uses only one word (or variant)over and over without gagging the reader (or herself) is even more amazing. Usually it's six different words.

Yes. It is true. She rocks!

One possible exercise for next week is to reflect on Sean Penn's acceptance speech and write him yet more sestinas! Heh.

ps: Denise's new book is amazing. Everyone should read it! Buy it! There are poems with this same levelof wit and sophistication, as well as a whole series about her parents' escalator accident that will leave your mouth hanging open. Seriously. We should maybe use one of those poems for another month and look at the process of writing well about tragedy.

sp8cemunky said...

This poem was a pleasure to read. I will have to read it again quietly and then I can make a better comment.

This forum is a great idea!

Tammy said...

Very creative sestina. I must go look up sestina again. I loved the last stanza.

Anonymous said...

I love the play on the traditional form -- and the directness of her address to Sean Penn.

I love how baldly she announces her form: "...this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn / variant."

I love the playfulness, the sound of "gambled on my penumbra."

I'm also finding myself obsessing on the differences between this version and the one printed in McSweeney's. I'm fascinated by the variations across drafts, particularly for poems that are published and ostensibly 'complete.' (I've had the unnerving experience recently of rewriting a poem, quite significantly, and only remembering after the fact that it's already been set in stone in its former incarnation, somewhere out there in the world...)

Linda said...

I passed this out to my poetry-writing students today and read it out loud to them and I'm glad I did because I got to hear it and chew on the words a bit.

They loved the last stanza and how poetic it is but they also were captivated with "the penitentiary
of free speech." This led to a good discussion!

Thanks, again, for choosing such a cool poem! I think I'm definitely going to have to buy the book.

...deb said...

Linda, that "penitentiary of free speech" caught me, too. Wish I could have listened into your class.

Daniel Nester, it was a treat to read the first draft, especially after reading and re-reading this one a few times.

Jilly & Carolee, I'm so pleased you got permission to post her poem here for our pleasure and discussion. Nice! I have to stop buying new books for a while, but will put this one on top of my list!

Even though the poem is addressed to Sean Penn, it seemed that he and the "pen" words were just a tool in her love-poetry language. Well, not just a *tool,* but that the poem was about *words.* It could have been any celebrity, and play on *that* particular name. (We know the poem may not be factual, right? And this version seems to have made Penn & the Iraq war a bigger piece of it, drawing another potent layer in.)

But she wove it all around her fear and her need to distract herself from that fear. (... "can't penetrate my persona" ... she may not be afraid of flying itself -- after all, it is the cost, not time in the air that dissuades her from going to Iraq herself.) The line about her husband saying "what happens to me if you get blown up" was hysterical. So wry.

The gathering of poets (poet/poem is used 6 times, BTW) is what brings Penn as poet to the narrator's mind, and the skilled poet in this poem riffs on him as if an obsession, when it is really the poetry that is the obsession.

I think. :-)

(Joyce, nice pen words in your comment.)

Anonymous said...

and she gets away with "menacing penguins" -- that takes skill!

Helen said...

I have been reading all the comments, and am enjoying the insight lent by others.

My immediate thoughts when I read it: would I have noticed all the "pen" references immediately without her mentioning it? (No way to know!)

At first I honestly thought her telling us about the pen words made it a bit contrived. But as many have pointed out, the last stanza MAKES it -- with the six "Pen" words...mock sestina, maybe, but very crafty.

My favorite part, besides the ending was: "waddle towards your icy peninsula/of glamour like so many menacing penguins." I don't know...seems so "Sean Penn-ish" to me. The metaphor is amazing.

This poem seems to be a call to awareness to Penn: "I know who you really are" in spite of his posturing. Of course, I am assuming there really was a poem, although one writer here suggested there wasn't.

blythe said...

Hi. I've been lurking and thought I should at least say hi. Mad props to the poem. ladies; great discussion, all.

Jessica said...

For me, this poem seems so fully formed, I'm having trouble analyzing it as something that was written. All of the components work so well together: celebrity, form, politics, tone. I cannot imagine trying to write something even close to this poem.

I am also awed at the last stanza, as others are. It totally elevates the poem to the next level. It's more than just a witty riff on celebrity and politics, it becomes almost spiritual.

I'm so glad that you picked this poem to discuss.

jill said...

After the last comment, I had to go back and see if the last stanza struck me as spiritual, too. What I noticed, on yet another read, is, and I think this has been mentioned, it seems as though Sean Penn has been a "tool" for getting the speaker through the flight. Just as the word "Penn" is a tool in the creation of the sestina, Sean Penn, the man, is used as a distraction for the "nervous flyer."

Sort of like how some people babble when they're nervous. While this poem is in no way babble (let's be clear on that!), the repetition (also a nervous habit) could be seen as idle chatter. The form, the sestina, like a rosary, repeated for comfort.

KrisUnderwood said...

Just now have the time to check in. Like this poem. Liked the use of "pen"/mock sestina w/out it sounding trite.

It sounds delicious rolling off the tongue...

Marilyn Zembo Day said...

I wrote a long comment yesterday and the day before, and then had trouble setting up a Google account. Right now, I'm just trying to make sure it will work... but, for the record, I've been trying... and I already wrote a poem inspired by this poem!

christine said...

Great discussion. It was fun to come back and read what everyone thinks.

Marilyn Zembo Day said...

OK, now that I'm set really signed on, here's what I wrote the other day and tried to post (luckily I saved it in Word):

I guess I would see the last three lines as spiritual, but my initial reaction was different than others. It seemed to me that the tone changed too much from the other stanzas, but then upon re-reading I thought about it differently: if the whole poem was an affirmation of herself as a writer (in addition to a distraction from her fear of flying), then these last lines were her ultimate statement. The sky is "opening" (end of the inner critic's influence, even if temporarily, or end of a term of writer's block?) "like a child's first stab at penmanship" (originality?)... and her writing, therefore her inner life/world transforms (deepen[s]). This fear of flying, to me is a metaphor for (most) writers' constant feelings of inadequacies-- do I have anything to say? hasn't it all been said before? who'll want to read it? it's too hard to share my writing... all that crap that I hear from so many writers, especially women.

By the way, I was so taken with this poem that I've already witten a poem inspired by it. It's what I've called a "pseudo-sestina" because I used the same end-words for each stanza, or words from the same root, except for one instance. I just started to create a blogsight and will be posting it during the appropriate week. And who knows, maybe the writing prompt on Sunday will "prompt" another poem for me! Carolee & Jill, thank you so much for doing this. This is the first poem I've written in months!

rob kistner said...

In general, poems of specific "form" are not my favorite fare. They generally feel somewhat manufactured, less powerful to me. I resonate much stronger to the voice of unstructured free verse. It feels closer to the poet’s soul, more genuine to my ear. I understand, this is my personal opinion.

That said, this poem held several fascinating passages for me. I was especially touched by the vulnerable optimism I perceive in the closing lines.

"...I reminded everyone that Sean Penn once wrote a poem. I peer out the window, caress my lucky pendant: Look, Sean Penn, the clouds are drawn with charcoal pencils. The sky is opening like a child’s first stab at penmanship. The sun begins to ripen orange, then deepen.”

• I hear this person saying anything is possible, isn’t it? (…Sean Penn once wrote a poem…) • I see the person truly wanting to believe that unexpected possibility exists (…caress my lucky pendant…). • That desire to believe begins to feel more and more like authentic faith -- evolving from hope (Look… the sky is opening… the sun begins to ripen orange, then deepen.). I find an engaging and captivating sense of childlike innocence, purity in that closing passage.

niina said...

Although it is visually striking, I do not find the closing image cheery. In fact, I think it's a bit dark. I can't help but believe this because of "deepen" -- what does orange deepen into if not red? It takes me back to the mentions of war earlier in the poem.

Anonymous said...

i'm still reading this over and over, and i agree that that when i read it, i read the last stanza as a little bit ominous, as well. she rubs her lucky pendant right before it. i think she's still fearful.