STEEP TEA: Mimi Khalvati

A villanelle is a tricky form to pull off. The challenge is to make the two repetends look inevitable and earned. I I wrote "Novenary with Hens" as part of the Poetry Free-for-all Apprentice Contest. The participants were given a choice of two odd titles. I had to look up the meaning of the word "novenary." Hens reminded me of the time when I was a kid and stepped on one of my chicks. It died on me and I have never had a pet since. While I was writing about this experience, two lines repeated themselves in my head: "I couldn't count to ten till I turned eleven" and "One, two, buckle my shoe, nine and a big fat hen." Surrealistic, rhyming dissonantly, they became the repetends of my poem, an elegy for the deaths of a pet and childhood innocence.

Mimi Khalvati's line "No one is there for you. Don't call, don't cry" is the perfect epigraph for the poem. Repetitively in Khalvati's own villanelle, titled simply "Villanelle," the line evokes the child's helpless loneliness acutely. In my poem, Mother is part of the cause of the death. Father is not around to fix it. The Shopgirl adds horror to the trauma. I have never forgotten this incident, and I hope the repetends fix the poem in the reader's mind too.

Mimi Khalvati is an Iranian-born British poet. She was born in Tehran and moved to the Isle of Wight for boarding school at the age of six. A feted poet, she has published many collections with Carcanet Press. Her skill with poetic forms appeals to me strongly. Her sense of not belonging can be deduced from the name "Theatre in Exile," a theater group that she co-founded and directed and wrote for. I found her "Villanelle" in the Everyman's Library edition of the poetic form, edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. Given the closeness of our last names--Khalvati and Koh--our poems were only separated by one other poem. Close but not together. Similar but not the same.


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