In Defense of Small Towns Oliver de la Paz

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Writing Prompts: They Hide in the Wide Open


Traci K. Smith divides her anthology, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, into five sections: “The Small Town of My Youth,” “Something Shines Out From Every Darkness,” “Words Tangled in Debris,” “Here, the Sentence Will Be Respected,” and “One Singing Thing.”

Think about it. Each of those section titles would make a great prompt. Five stirrers for your daily writing cocktail. The first opens up memoir-like possibilities from your past and the town you grew up in.

The second offers a study in contrasts where you can use the rhetorical device of antithesis to explore one small phoenix that poked out from the ashes.

The third? Play with words and see how even tangled debris can take on significance.

Looking at the fourth title, I think of how the word “sentence” can be taken two ways, one if my diction and two if by the judge’s gavel.

And finally, the wonder, the shout, the ode of “one singing thing.”

So much for “I have no ideas.”

As an example of a poem Smith chose for the first section, “The Small Town of My Youth,” here is a poem by Oliver de la Paz:


In Defense of Small Towns
by Oliver de la Paz


When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there. September,
once filled with animal deaths and toughened hay. And the smells

of fall were boiled-down beets and potatoes
or the farmhands’ breeches smeared with oil and diesel

as they rode into town, dusty and pissed. The radio station
split time between metal and Tejano, and the only action

happened on Friday nights where the high school football team
gave everyone a chance at forgiveness. The town left no room

for novelty or change. The sheriff knew everyone’s son and despite that,
we’d cruise up and down the avenues, switching between

brake and gearshift. We’d fight and spit chew into Big Gulp cups
and have our hearts broken nightly. In that town I learned

to fire a shotgun at nine and wring a chicken’s neck
with one hand by twirling the bird and whipping it straight like a towel.

But I loved the place once. Everything was blonde and cracked
and the irrigation ditches stretched to the end of the earth. You could

ride on a bicycle and see clearly the outline of every leaf
or catch on the streets each word of a neighbor’s argument.

Nothing could happen there and if I willed it, the place would have me
slipping over its rocks into the river with the sugar plant’s steam

or signing papers at a storefront army desk, buttoned up
with medallions and a crew cut, eyeing the next recruits.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I could be anywhere,
staring at a hunk of asphalt or listening to the clap of billiard balls

against each other in a bar and hear my name. Indifference now?
Some. I shook loose, but that isn’t the whole story. The fact is

I’m still in love. And when I wake up, I watch my son yawn,
and my mind turns his upswept hair into cornstalks

at the edge of a field. Stillness is an acre, and his body
idles, deep like heavy machinery. I want to take him back there,

to the small town of my youth and hold the book of wildflowers
open for him, and look. I want him to know the colors of horses,

to run with a cattail in his hand and watch as its seeds
fly weightless as though nothing mattered, as though

the little things we tell ourselves about our pasts stay there,
rising slightly and just out of reach.