Teach Me How To Otis

Otis Nebula started out as a writing prompt among a group of writers from the Intermountain West as a reaction to the ossification of poetry’s beating beast heart that was taking place in many of the nation’s MFA programs at the time. In an otis, twelve lines grow out of twelve “seed” words. You, the writer, are there, haunting the process, while allowing yourself to be lead by the words, rather than the other way around. Suddenly you are open. Suddenly you are free. You might even be having fun. Also worth mentioning are the social possibilities of the prompt. Each otis feeds the next, dismantling the idea of the poem as an alienated and alienating commodity. Please do try this at home. Here are the rules:

1) Use one seed word per line, in order.

2) The word may appear anywhere in the line, but the form of the word cannot be altered (capitalization is OK).

3) When you are finished, choose 12 new seed words from your otis. They may come from anywhere in the otis, in any order.

Hint: starting an “Otis Train” is a super way to stay connected to distant people! Do this and then send us your otises and tell us where you’re from. We love connecting to otisi from all over the world and beyond.

The following otises were written by sixteen contributors to this issue. For this round, writers were encouraged to publish their otises anonymously, in the belief that by so doing, they would experience a unique sort of creative liberation in the writing. (Only three of the writers opted out of anonymity. Their otises link to their other work in the issue.)

The seed words used to start this train were taken from the last otis in issue 14.

See also Dee Allen’s wonderful otis, which he sent us back in July, using these same words.

singular, dreamed, presence, or, interlude, mind, previous, perhaps, chance, beyond, wisdom, continue

The singular is consumed

by singularity as if the body

and its life were dreamed

by a stranger without presence

feeling or history in an impossible world or

time and the world a traceless interlude

made of thirst and waiting and the mind

a rootless transparency forever previous

to every wished for meeting. Perhaps

the earth the inexhaustible chance and patience beyond

thought and longing was never lost, and in the unlanguaged wisdom

of that knowledge and that longing we continue coming home undestroyed

undestroyed, knowledge, longing, meeting, waiting, thirst, wished, stranger, consumed, traceless, rootless, transparency

Viscum album

Hope undestroyed

despite hard knowledge

longing undiminished

after meteor meeting

Buzzed waiting for

a stranger called Thirst

my wished for burning

mighty stranger than fiction

Boredom consumed

and forgotten nearly traceless

rootless whistle white

berries tell transparency

after, tell, than, hope, meteor, undiminished, boredom, burning, mighty, whistle, nearly, despite

After the rain, the winnowed towers

Tell of flowers that were, honed

Biers brighter than knives

Where hope drained, melting

Under the reddest meteor — the wake

Undiminished behind the hydrofoil

Racing towards boredom’s golden

Cupolas burning above the tennis courts

Where the mighty daughter spat

And gingered the lawn previously. Whistle

Of time’s weening nearly doubled then

In white despite the night.

rain, flowers, biers, drained, wake, hydrofoil, golden, tennis, daughter, lawn, weening, night

I count coins for another month out of the rain

slide a few to the side for flowers

so I won't reach the stacking biers empty-handed

my bank account drained, my energy drained, my compassion drained

no longer thinking I'll wake up and this will all be over

any nod from a stranger, any semblance of kindness, I fashion into a hydrofoil,

fit it between my shoulders, let it carry me to the end of the day, that golden moment

when I can walk past the grass where my neighbor's spray-painted lines for a makeshift tennis court

a diversion for their daughters who always wanted to be doctors, to someday afford their own tennis courts and now --

as I cross my lawn, watching the arcs of their racquets, their young arms and legs, maskless faces, the invisible net

I find myself weening (a word I just found in Coleridge's Christabel) maybe we'll get out of this alive

I looked it up one night: hope; wish; believe; suppose wrongly. maybe, maybe not, don't they all mean the same thing?

coin, slide, stacking, compassion, thinking, semblance, carry, grass, diversion, arcs, alive, believe

Estrus Recess

We rolled a coin

down the playground slide,

which would grind to a stop, kids stacking

on the rungs. We had compassion

for those in line, thinking they'd get their turns,

a semblance of care, until

Tara snatched the penny, to carry

it to some nest across the grass,

her diversion a ruffling feather, a shrill snap,

arcs of love like the slide I descended,

alive, hoofing the wisp of her dark hair,

chasing a small wage I wanted to believe.

rolled, grind, rungs, get, turns, until, penny, nest, ruffling, descended, wisp, wage


I rolled over into you by cosmic circumstance. Enspelled,

you begged me to grind down your bones for my bread:

fatal commands shaped from rungs upon an uneasy ladder of wanting.

Get yourself a priest, they said. Get thee to a nunnery. But as

the old stories promise, love always concludes with this: two taking turns

destroying one another until nothing remains

but the shadow of a moan. A penny, or a handful of pennies,

an empty nest, the wind

ruffling through slow-dying branches.

Descended to its baser instincts, passion glimmers

where once-solid fingers grasp at empty air, reaching for the wisp

of an incantation kept: the wage, the cost, the profit, the loss.

cosmic, bread, ladder, nunnery, two, remains, shadow, branches, glimmers, grasp, profit, circumstance


Behold the cosmic queen

who once ate god as her daily bread.

Now she sits at the foot of the ladder,

babbling at flowers like ophelia in her nunnery.

It would have split anyone in two:

her father caught in the remains of perpetual nightshriek,

her mother a shadow to catch the night.

She climbed the branches to the savior in her mind.

The white shape glimmers in the hall,

the ghost beyond her grasp

no kingdom now to profit.

She claws the caul of circumstance.

ghost, kingdom, queen, flowers, father, god, claws, shape, mother, mind, ladder, split

That time I thought I saw the ghost of Paul

walking down the sidewalk of the boys kingdom.

A queen of an idea was asleep in the portico

of the sunflowers leftover from the flower flowers.

Who can father more than cornbread in an oven

like that. Who will mother god better than sleep.

Our laughter stalking and clicking. Bear claws

are edible and have the shape of shadows left

in a mother heart after the child brain has danced

out the door (and we don’t have to mind anyone

any more). Look, down by the pond. The ladder

Paul raised into the clouds, the night of the day split.

Paul, sidewalk, asleep, sunflowers, cornbread, better, stalking, left, child, door, look, raised

The Fall of the Roman Empire: Another Account

Saint Paul and his puppy pug,

Ambled amiably along the sidewalk

When they came upon a man asleep,

Wearing a crown of sunflowers.

“Share with him, your cornbread, pug,

And maybe fed, he’ll feel better.”

“Master, is this the one we’re stalking?”

“Yes, he’s the only emperor left.”

“He’s only a child,” remarked the pug,

Who guarded once Caligula’s door.

“Yes, and think of the hell he’s raised.”

pug, amiably, came, crown, share, feel, master, emperor, child, guarded, hell, raised

Ack! Not pug. I meant plug. Will you unplug me from the matrix?

He stared at me dumbly (amiably?) or at least I imagined.

A phrase came out. Look, bub. We can’t change your request. 

It’s done. It’s coded. It’s the crown on the sun. We are going

to unpug you from the matrix on Wednesday and share the sum

of the algorithm with the “feel” you’ve indicated here on Line 12: 

Master. Huh, he mused. What kind of feeling is that?

Oh Christ, not master. Munster. Munster cheese! (I grabbed his emperor face.) 

You know, white and soft and pure, a child, a fucking kite!

I was hysterical, taken to a cell, guarded until my unpugging day.

This is going to be hell. The endless rewiring, the simulation rebooting

these glitches: another ten thousand years raised up, chained up, and dogless.

years, rewiring, cell, kite, munster, mused, algorithm, Wednesday, coded, phrase, dumbly, you

Wading, I was, through tangled lines of years,

rewiring a thicket of misremembered recollections

in the locked cell of my brain. A circuit suddenly electrified.

That flighty kite of tissue and thin balsawood --

my memories -- flared like a Jan van Munster sculpture,

then sputtered out. And I mused in the dim room

on the algorithm of time plus loss

minus every Wednesday divided by too many

Sunday evenings coded by fear, misery.

A phrase rose from me, "But I thought we were...."

But we were not. And I'm left staring dumbly.

I wished I had -- but I had not -- forgotten you.

tangled, thicket, suddenly, thin, like, room, loss, many, by, rose, left, wished

nothing quite like the tangled mess of sailboats wrecked at dawn

and me spitting out seawater, adrift in a thicket of breaking waves.

suddenly remembering the reckless keel of my heart is what

landed me here, with the air thin in my lovesick lungs.

nothing quite like the surf's harsh knuckles and my face turned

oceanward thinking to find room out there for the gyre of me

to propagate itself beyond loss, beyond grieving. i want

many days of endless water, i want my wounds cured in salt.

o to be sieved through my own fingers. o to be carried by the current.

i clipped the rigging loose and rose with the tide come its turning,

left my footprints transient on the pebbled shore.

wished no more for human bodies, but only for the horizon's open mouth.

reckless, air, my, loose, footprints, knuckles, find, lungs, breaking, want, water, only


Leaving the light on was reckless. The thought of me stuck

in the night air and in a photo I took the summer everybody left. Luckily, I captured myself

in a mirror on my bathroom wall, and stayed there, in every intimate moment. I really was 

shy, just blessed with loose lips – I talked to be filled with sound. I needed to be 

known but left alone, so I left plaster molds of my footprints at the bottom of Martian oceans. 

I spent the moments in between admiring my knuckles, like watching the action frame of 

a piano. I remembered music in my hands. I’ll open up one day and find that singing and fortune 

cookie crumbs have invaded my lungs. It’ll be the alarm to sound that it’s time to start

breaking down that war memorial you thought would comfort me. It’s wrong when I know

she’s still alive in there. I know what I want, but can still be stubborn

as water – freezing, evaporating, slipping away – if you try to force it. But maybe, when we go

for a walk, you’ll let me break the silence, and I’ll start by insisting I only know what I have held. 

light, left, intimate, lips, martian, frame, music, sound, memorial, there, slipping, held


Omar has this kind of light that hides just behind the crown of his head.

When you look at the left corner of his doe eye, that’s where you’ll find his star begins to shine. 

In his intimate broiling room, he sings to me. 

His lip quivers as he tries to control the notes brewing at the base of his throat. 

And like a damn Martian, that star at the top of his head is glowing again. 

In moments like these, if I could, I would frame his brilliance in a photo so he could see it too.

The women and men at his concerts, they come for his music, 

the uniqueness of his sound,

But when he's on stage, I feel like I'm attending the memorial of the man I love. 

There amongst all his fans,  

I can tell he'll begin slipping away from me when the fame starts to corrupt him.

I just hope he remembers I held him close not because I knew who he one day could become, but because I loved him.

crown, star, sings, quivers, damn, glowing, photo, women, stage, corrupt, day, become

Our Smiles at Night

Each Coke bottle wears a silver crown. You fling

your bottlecap up in the air like a star.

When it pings off the lamp post, it sings,

and the air quivers around our ears.

Damn! How you can make music

out of the smallest things. Under the streetlight, glowing,

we sit, as if in a photo, illuminated

for passers by, two women alone together.

If the yellow lamplight is our stage,

we don't let the dark corrupt our play,

our fake day. We are such good actresses

our smiles have become who we are now.

bottle, air, pings, ears, music, smallest, photo, alone, yellow, dark, fake, smiles

Otis Nocturne 2

a bottle rolls away in an alley, a soft wind pushing it out of the frame

the air becoming visible

pings of summer dust settling on the surface of everything  

ears stuck in a single note of existence

a music

of dark(ness)

ever smallest

the photo(graph) held inside an aging object

questioning Yellow is useless

though she smiles often

alone as she is

the moon meeting her stare with a fake glow


rolls, settling, darkness, stuck, ever, useless, she, is, meeting, existence, summer, moon