All About Writing

16 April

Constructing A Villanelle by K. Alma Peterson

Sea Fan, originally uploaded by Super Cab Driver.

Notes on the construction of “Undiminished” (a villanelle):




by K. Alma Peterson



In the shallows the furrowed brain coral reports

its deathwash to the scoured beach     sea fans

snapped off      sea whips    lacy delicate sorts


confirm the incremental cruelty of watercourse

over and against the grooves     thinkless pans  

wherein our coral brains to shallow resort


rockslap     foam fringe gathers waveworn

in backchannels    while the pendant sea fans

whip delicately and snap the likes of us shorn


who’d leave them in their morgue    but of course

we fill our pockets to the sagging end

the furrowed brain coral over eons the corpses


smooth and blacken      far-off depositors

clog the Caribbean sink       laughing you contend

the snappish whips don’t require a lacy form


so against your blistered mouth the sugar calciforms

happily you’ve feasted since cane knows when

our furrowed brains in hallowed ruts of dead coral

snap to     the indelicate sea sailwhips the racy sort



I like to think of writing poems a process of investigation and construction, a sort of archaeological dig and assembly of the pieces, or underwater dive and recovery mission. The investigation starts with an idea, phrase, image, or remnant of a dream, and then goes off on all sorts of tangents that those things suggest.

The fact that in the villanelle some lines, or variations of them, repeat throughout the poem, and other lines appear only once, made me think of an ocean beach with various life forms being washed up on shore and others moving back and forth with the action of the waves. Rearranging the words and phrases in the repeating lines also seemed appropriate to the action of water on objects in and around it. Changing a word slightly, e.g. “lacy” to “racy” suggests how looking through water as a kind of lens can change the way things are perceived. Unless a villanelle has repeating lines that really do bear repeating, I prefer to really mix up the line, and usually the meaning of the line.

The poem’s title reflects the relentless nature of repeated elements: in a poem, in nature, in our inclination to link and associate words, images, ideas. Writing a poem, especially in form, requires assemblage; fitting the parts together to make a cohesive whole.

Spaces within the lines, in contrast with words that are pushed together (deathwash, waveworn, rockslap, sailwhips) mimic the action of brain waves, ocean waves, sonic waves, and the like.

The fact that shells are the skeletons of marine creatures brings to mind our own mortality: “we fill our pockets to the sagging end” refers to crowding the poem itself, as well as the way we crowd our surroundings with “stuff.” We are easily distracted by these “shiny objects” which is both pleasurable and worrisome. This villanelle explores competing impulses, and plays with the way we present them, to ourselves and to the world.

K. Alma Peterson


About Poet K. Alma Peterson: Graduated with an MFA from Warren Wilson College. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The New Orphic Review, Skidrow Penhouse, Perihelion Review, garrtsiluni, Wicked Alice, and others. In 1999 her poem “Between Us” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Rosemount, Minnesota with her husband and cat. “Undiminished” first appeared in her chapbook Befallen, and now is also included in her first book of poetry Was There No Interlude When Light Sprawled the Fen is just out by BlazeVOX Books.