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How to Write Lost and Found Poems and Equations – guest post by Rob Carney – Trish Hopkinson


Most sequels aren’t better than (or even as good as) the first of something, I agree. But re-inventions very well might be. For instance, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies are better the two by Tim Burton, and if you don’t like the reboot of the Star Trek movies better than the first ones with Shatner as Kirk, then I don’t know. Anyway, if you checked out my exercise on list poems a while back, then I hope you think of this one (well, two) as a re-invention rather than a sequel.

In the interest of space, I’m not going to include the text of my example, just a link to the audio. It demonstrates an offshoot possibility and is arguably as valid a “formal poem” as, say, the sonnet or sestina. How come? Because this kind of list, the Lost-and-Found Bulletin, is pretty boilerplate and rule-bound (or at least expectation-bound). However, unlike sestinas, everyone’s already familiar with this form. Meaning, you can capture the attention of a bigger crowd, or at least I think so.

Go ahead and give my example a listen and see what I mean:

“A Million-and-One Things Missing, Plus a Couple Items Found”


I had a good time doing that, and I liked (since I was inside a kind of expected tone and language shell anyway) getting to use bureaucratese to point out the Absurdism of bureaucracy. And I shouldn’t be the only one having fun by expanding what “formal” can mean.

The other offshoot of the list poem I want to suggest involves stacking up a social problem in the form of an equation. If you give this a shot, you’ll 1) seem more objective; it’ll blunt your subjective edges and seem less like you’re getting up in people’s faces, and 2) you’ll already have organization and momentum since the catalog form has those structural advantages already built right in.

Here’s what I mean:

21st-Century Math Exam

A woman goes into debt to be a 5th-grade teacher,

x    amortization schedules mean that someone taught bankers their math,

x    29 kids in the classroom,

x    22 are bilingual, everything from Maay Maay to Navajo, from Spanish to Samoan,

x    1/3 of them can translate if their parents come to school,

÷    7 Payday Cash-Advance Lenders and a handful of stations for Auto-Emissions Inspections,

x    no doctor’s office, no shoe store, nowhere to swim,

+    all the neighborhood housing is rental,

–    I.C.E. keeps taking people,

÷    TV yelling “illegals” a lot: They’re sneaking over the border to steal our jobs and live luxuriously,

+    her students do 10 more hours of testing,

x    their scores reveal she’s not teaching enough,

=    raise your hands now, higher, if this isn’t adding up.

When the poet Diane Raptosh reviewed my book Facts + Figures (Hoot ’n’ Waddle 2020), she singled out that one as possibly her favorite poem in the whole collection, so I don’t think I’m giving you bad or loopy advice: Write your own equation poem and see what happens.

By the time you get to the other side of the equal sign, my bet is you’ll have something interesting and vivid—a poem appearing, step by step, that you didn’t even know you had inside you.


Rob Carney is the author of eight books of poems, most recently Call and Response (Black Lawrence Press 2021), The Last Tiger Is Somewhere (Unsolicited Press 2020), Facts and Figures (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle 2020), and The Book of Sharks (Black Lawrence Press 2018), which was a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Book Award. In 2014 he received the Robinson Jeffers/Tor House Foundation Award for Poetry. His work has appeared in Cave Wall, The American Journal of Poetry, Sugar House Review, and many others. He’s a Professor of English at Utah Valley University and writes a regular feature called “Old Roads, New Stories” for Terrain.org.

For more on Facts and Figures, check out “Revamping Creation’s Calculus: A Review of Rob Carney’s Facts + Figures” by Diane Raptosh via Sugar House Review.


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