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Sandi Sartorelli

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Civil Defence Plan #63


Tēnā koutou katoa. Recently I’ve been making poems from commands and instructions. I’ve written them in the style of recipes, self-help books, educational materials, spiritual guidance books, advertorials and do-it-yourself instructions. It’s surprising how often we use bossy writing.

It’s an interesting theme but I was in danger of overcooking it. I decided to round things off with a final poem. I set myself an exercise to invent titles for instructional books. I soon had a list of unlikely best sellers, such as:

  • How to Build a Quail Coop
  • Winning Ways with Wax
  • How to Fall Down the Stairs
  • How to Live with Yourself

I picked out half a dozen favourites and turned them into instructions, wrapping a sentence or two around each one. Perhaps this had the potential to become a list poem. I numbered each stanza to remind myself this was a list. I should not be tempted to turn it into narrative.

Writing a poem nearly always sends me off on google searches. I found myself reading up on quail care, and searching through lists of volcano-related words. One statute of writers’ lore states that you must be prepared to kill your darlings (Colleen, 2012). I still treasure the darling that was struck from this poem. It wasn’t a well-formed phrase or sentence. It was one of the volcano words:

Quaquaversal: adj. (geol.) directed outwards in all directions from a common centre (Collins Concise Dictionary, 1995).

It was a standout word and I adored it, but its meaning added nothing to the poem. I excised it, sending it into limbo with beloved words I had removed from other poems. Words like nonpareil, lemniscate, majuscule and miniscule.

Immediately after the darling was dead, I had more clarity about where the poem was going. This was not just a list of random titles. It was a survival plan to be used in the event of regret. Extreme regret. Not a subject I would have chosen to write about. Hang on, though, I was the one in charge of this writing. It was my choice to continue with the idea, or not. Was I prepared to stand behind this poem? Damn straight I was.

It was about time to submit something to my poetry writing group, so I polished the poem a little more, chopped out half of it in a last-minute whim, and sent it off. As always, the comments I received were valuable and gave me a lot to consider. I reinserted most of the stanzas I had removed and continued to tinker. I needed to do something with the end of the poem where it morphed into recipe. It was delicious but predictable.

The poem was stuck, so I put it away for a couple of weeks. When I returned to it, I saw that a slight change to the recipe could turn the instruction follower into food. Yum. My inner cannibal was thrilled.

I wondered if the poem was finished. Something didn’t ring true, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Plus, surely I could find a better title than ‘Big Momma’s Survival Guide for Regret’?

I sent the poem to my mentor, Renée. She suggested that the theme was not regret, but something bigger – a betrayal that would end a relationship. As soon as she said it I realised what I had written. I was not in this position at the time of writing the poem, but now as the 4th Floor Journal goes live it sits uncannily close to the truth. I find myself thanking the woman that was me six months ago for the advice.

Perhaps I should try to develop my skills in writing predictive poetry. I might start with a poem about winning Lotto.

Ngā mihi mahana ki a koutou.



Colleen, M. (2012, February 13). How to Kill Your Darlings. Retrieved from

Collins Concise Dictionary. (1995). Wrotham, England: HarperCollins Publishers.


Sandi Sartorelli is a graduate of the Whitireia Creative Writing Programme. She has recently returned home to New Zealand after a year in the Cook Islands. She is an optimist and hopes the food in her poems and short stories rouses memories of your most pleasurable or most ghastly eating experiences. Her website is Sandi Sartorelli – Poetry and Writing


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