Forming Melodies With Words

A couple weeks ago, I asked Lytton about how to concisely produce sound in poetry and his advice garnered an intimate approximation to the words that you choose and how they relate to one another in a line. He referred me to Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” where this relationship between words in a sentence, a line in poetry, is examined. To use Lutz’ own words, “the words have to lean on each other, rub elbows, rub off on each other, feel each other up.” In the process, a sort of sensual relationship between the words is formed and they fit into each other, almost as if they originally belonged together. Lutz argued that a writer must work and rework a sentence so that the outcome produces “a series of departures from what you may have intended to express; a language may start taking on, as they say, a life of its own, a life that contests or trumps the life you had sponsored to live on the page.” And in saying this, Lutz breathes life into a sentence/line/whatever partnering of words you compose like a trumpeter exerts his last aching breath to produce its echoing resonance.

In reading this paper, I began to visualize myself as the writer that I have always been – knit-picky about the words that flow out onto the pages in my stories, and now in my poems. My initial hesitation was considering myself a musician. I had always been terrible at choosing words that went together like a melody. Spoken word did not flow from the tip of my tongue like it would a rapper. In fact, I remember freestyling with my brother as a kid and completely sucking. But Lutz changes what I believed at my core and challenges what it means to be a conventional writer when he resuscitates the heart of a melodist and equates it with the heart of a writer: “In the mouth and in the mind it is three-dimensional, and there are parts that shoot out from it or sink into its syntactic surround.” Here is where I found my sound.

Hopefully, those reading will look up the essay I’ve read and learn a thing or two about the art of making sound beautiful.  

The trigger warning as prevention

This Thursday at a Guerrilla meeting, after going over some ideas, plans, and hopes for future projects, we had a talk about trigger warnings. I realized during that discussion that I didn’t think that much about trigger warnings, or rather that I was not aware of the complete range of reasons for using them. Although I have used them before, I’m still not fully cognizant of how important they can be to certain individuals who have experienced a traumatic event or suffer from PTSD, since I can’t say I’ve had such an experience.

During the discussion, we highlighted the fact that a lot of the hype around trigger warnings as the symptom of an annoying  “social justice warrior” generation is due largely to a general lack of information or knowledge about the purpose of the trigger warning.  Although I have encountered individuals who would still oppose them despite this fact, mostly due to a staunch philosophical defense of free speech, I’m sure that more people would be open to them if they were understood for their purpose.

I can see why people would be doubtful of trigger warnings, and would like to engage in discussion with people who do believe that by tagging the work before being read, or by providing warnings, that the trigger warning is in fact a work of censorship. I think this is an important discussion to be had. My defense for the trigger warning is that it can’t be censorship due to the fact that the content is still there, it’s just a little tucked away under a safety barrier for those who would react to the content in a way that’s painful and potentially dangerous for them.

Someone at the meeting said something about trigger warnings that I won’t forget: they are like allergy warnings. Certain common allergens, like wheat or eggs, should be listed simply for consumer safety. A panic attack for someone with mental illness is in this way something very similar to an allergic reaction, something that is presently innate and hard to control without direct avoidance. It’s time we start thinking more about how we can start taking into account people’s reactions, in every sense of the word.

The Truth Behind a Poem

A comment in our last workshop reminded me of a question Dr. Asher once asked us in our Philosophy and Literature course a year or two ago (side note, great class. Highly recommend). He put forth a poem about a man whose son died in one World War I, and asked if the poem would have any less meaning if the son in the poet’s piece did not truly exist.

As I’m unfortunately blanking on which poem he showed us, I will instead point to “Common Form” from Kipling’s Epitaphs of the War: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

This poem, or, rather, couplet, has stayed with me (haunted, may perhaps be a better word) since I was sixteen and speaking to my father—a major history buff, whose favorite war was WWI—about Kipling’s life.  For those who don’t know the details, Rudyard Kipling was a well-known English writer, big fan of imperialism, and who worked with the English government to write pro-WWI propaganda, an offer he immediately accepted. Much to his delight, his son John attempted to join the Royal Navy, but was rejected on medical grounds due to his terrible eye-sight. He then tried to join the military, but again was rejected for the same reasons. Finally, he was accepted into Irish Guards, but only because his father, who was close friends with the commander and chief of the British Army, pulled strings to get him in. Sadly, John died in battle, and sources say he was last seen stumbling in the mud in search of his glasses, which had fallen off during attack. Shortly after his death, Kipling wrote the famous lines: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” Likely in reference to his grief in being the one to get his son into the military, despite his son’s repeated failed medical exams.

Obviously, there are countless stories and poems about death and loss of loved ones, but part of what makes Kipling’s poetry, particularly these two lines, so haunting to me is the tragic nature of his son’s death and the guilt he suffered for the rest of his life due to the role he indirectly played in causing it. In essence, it is Kipling’s experience that comes through in these lines that gives legacy to the poem. Even if Kipling did not have a son, and is instead an incredibly empathetic writer, I believe that true experience still must come into play in order for the poem to stick with the reader the way “Common Man” had for me. In the case of “Common Man,” the true experience came from knowing Kipling’s life, but I’m sure if it were a fictional poem read by an individual who had Kipling’s level of guilt for losing someone, and who read these lines, the reader’s true experience would come forth and take hold of the lines more than a reader who lacked that guilt… if that makes any sense.

Truth and Emotion

Something about what philosophers in our readings have been saying is bothering me – they seem to think reason and emotion are two opposites, that the truth is independent of emotions, that having your emotions affect your actions is a sign of weakness. But to me that is simply not true.

The truth cannot be apart from emotion. We experience satisfaction when we do a good deed, and it is part of what drives us to keep carrying out good deeds. Emotions convey truth, and to me they are proof that a truth exists (the fact that different people can relate to a certain thing together but in individually unique ways too is a miracle; it’s like we are parts of a whole). For example, when I feel the joy my mother’s banana bread gives me, to me the emotion stems from the knowledge that I am loved by her (and also from the knowledge that she makes really good banana bread). When I learn something from new from class and get excited about it, it is from knowing that I have learned a new truth, and that I love learning about truth. When I feel empty despite all the work I’ve done to be a good person/student/friend, it is pointing at the truth that I need something other than myself to fill me up and fuel me. Without emotions, how would we know from right and wrong? Righteousness would then become mere rules and legislation, and there would be no joy in learning what is true.

So often people see truth as a boring, inflexible thing, something that puts people in boxes and limits them. I have a friend who refuses to commit to one truth because she thinks it will limit her ability to relate to people and appreciate art. But I think truth involves action, and that is the action of loving others, which of course involves and is often aided by emotion. We may have differing views on what truth is, but I think most people can agree that things like being kind, being generous, being encouraging, being patient, and so on, are good things i.e. things that align with our truth/our view of what is good. And all those good qualities come from a love for others.

Professor Ashley Pankratz (who, sadly, is not in Geneseo anymore) once shared a quote that talked about writing as an act of love. It is the writer’s attempt to make the world a better place. If so, writing that conveys strong emotion and reveals the weaknesses and struggles of the writer must not be seen as fallacy so much as an act of love and of truth.

Poetry Experience vs. Environment

Like Isabel mentioned in her post a few weeks back about Guerrilla’s display at the Fringe Festival, I’ve also been thinking about poetry in different ways; specifically, I’ve been thinking on the interaction words have with their environment.

One of the things Guerrilla tries to do is put poems in unconventional places -bathroom stalls, trees, chalked on the ground, etc., – to make poetry more a part of everyone’s daily lives, and surprise poetry* is a side effect of that. When we’re not expecting to encounter poetry, does it mean something different to us? And how is the environment altered?

In my experience, I’ve found myself having a stronger connection to poems when I’ve stumbled on them accidentally. There’s something about surprise poetry that really strikes me in a way I’m not sure the poem would have been able to accomplish on its own.  It’s like how words graffitied on a wall sometimes seem more profound than if you were to be reading them in a book.

But the environment is altered too.  Poetry becomes an agent of change, in how its presence can take something ordinary – a wall of a building, a sidewalk, a public restroom – and give it meaning past its intended purpose. A bathroom stall becomes more than just a bathroom stall when there’s a poem in it. (I also just really love reading poetry while I pee, but that’s me)


*This makes me think of poetry ninjas. Which would be awesome.


Hiding from identity

One of the things that first attracted me to creative writing and reading/writing poetry was the notion of it as an almost otherworldly, sublime escape from the rigidness and mayhem of daily life. One reason that until now, I have not (purposefully) brought my history major or my political views very far into my writing is because I tended to separate my “material” and methodical thoughts about history and politics away from my writing, which I saw as living in its own world: a world that is strictly personal, unhinged, almost spiritual in itself.

I’m realizing that although not a fallacy, this impression wasn’t one where I was being completely honest with myself about what I wanted to write. Perhaps I was trying too hard to create this separation, because now I am developing a notably different relationship with my writing. As I’ve become more comfortable with poetry as a discipline, all of my heated rantings and ravings have begun to start to take lineated form inside the deep and dark corners of the “poetry” folder on my desktop. Lately, all of my writing exercises, and even my most recent workshop pieces, have been delving deeper into identity politics and my thoughts on history—not because I’ve been trying to change my writing, but because my bubbling frustrations and concerns about myself and the world have, for some reason I cannot yet pinpoint, started to take lineated form.

My poetry is becoming more political because I am political, my academic studies are political, and integral parts of my identity are political in nature. I think my voice comes through stronger when I don’t hide this due to a semi-archaic and self-imposed mindset that poetry is more “pure”—a rule that just separates me more than what I could write. My most recent piece, where I tied together the election, womanhood, and my history research project on 20th century Jewish girlhood is a good example of my recent tendency to tie in identity, politics, and history into the poetic—


“The other day my coworker said that

in political discussion,

I tend to attack people and that I

am intimidating. Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times

in the debate. Marion Metz leans on her friend

in her shortcut bathing suit, laughing.”


Perhaps I’ve avoided the political because of discomfort, because of fear, or perhaps because of an even deeper fear of offending people. But as my voice has gotten bigger, so has my desire to write about big things.

A Rant from a Writer and a Social Worker

While I am open about my double major in my writing classes and do include on my resume that I study both creative writing and psychology and ultimately become a LCSW (you’d be amazed how many social workers/counselors/therapists don’t know how to write their own damn case notes…), it’s not something I typically broadcast in the workplace. I’m sure every writer has gotten Are you going to write about this/me? question at some point; however, there seems to be an added layer of ignorance and flat out stupidity whenever someone asks, So, you plan to study sick people and then write about them?

…Where do I even begin explaining how offensive that question is to both me and my future clients?

Yes, imaginary person standing in for every person I would like to slap—you caught me. That’s the only reason I’m studying to be a therapist. It actually has nothing to do with wanting to help people or anything weird like that. I just want to take advantage of other people’s trauma and misfortune.

Yes, typically writers borrow from the experiences or traits of those around them, and if I am a therapist, I’m going to be around a lot of people with a lot of different experiences all day. So, yes, some aspects of the stories I hear may seep into pieces of mine (although, let’s not forget every confidentiality contract I ever signed with every treatment center/organization I’ve taken part in). But the question seems to carry a certain stereotype occasional seen in writers: That everything we do has the alterative motive of just looking for another story idea; that we care more about our work than those around us. Or, and this is probably the worst, we only involve ourselves with others to use them for our own benefit.

Unfortunately, there have been therapists and social workers looking to make some cash or find some fame by telling the stories of their clients (CoughCorneliaWilburCoughCough), who have made a mockery out of field of social work—and I don’t believe I’m exaggerating in claiming they make a mockery out of a field that’s still put down by other sciences. On top of it, the question implies a writer has no other goals or life outside of writing. Yes, writing is a passion, but so is working with trauma victims. It puts the writer in a box and forces the single title of writer when there are more aspects to a person.

But that’s all I have to say. Thanks for reading that little rant of mine.

Response to “Poetry and Science” Pt. 2- The Mid-Atlantic Ridge

“Clearly a divide separates the disciplines of science and poetry.  In many respects we cannot enter one another’s territory.  The divide is as real as a rift separating tectonic plates or a border separating nations.  But a border is both a zone of exclusion and a zone of contact where we can exchange some aspects of our difference, and, like neighboring tribes who exchange seashells and obsidian, obtain something that is lacking in our own locality.” – Alison Hawthorne Deming in “Poetry and Science | A View from the Divide”

I’ve been dealing a lot, both on this blog and in my poetry, about how I relate science and writing. This line from “Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide” might best represent my feelings on the subject “The divide is as real as a rift separating tectonic plates.” I’m biased, probably. Definitely. It’s a geology metaphor, how could I not be biased? But Demings also has a large point here with her metaphor, whether it was intentional or not.

Continue reading

Tarfia Faizullah’s “The Poem You’ve Been Waiting For”

This past week I signed up for daily poems to be sent to my email on behalf of the poetry foundation. It pleases me to wake up with a poem every day because it helps me interact with the poem more closely—and my day begins on a pensive note. Today’s poem was called “The Poem You’ve Been Waiting For,” by  Tarfia Faizullah. The poem is beautiful and seems to be about a reflection—within or outside of oneself. The lines reflect one another, and move across moments seamlessly in a sentence. It’s feels like a train, passing destinations within seconds. Except Faizullah accomplishes this technique with a subtlety that feels like a whisper, and readers are left to dwell on what they just read, why it makes them feel nostalgic, and how it felt like a magical blur. For example:

to take me. I saw then the gnawing

sounds my faith has been making
and I saw too that the shape it sings

in is the color of cast-iron mountains
I drove so long to find I forgot I had

Notice how the speaker moves from one line to the next, without hesitance or ending. The lines move fluidly. Everything she speaks about such as “the shape” or the “the color” are vague and are only used to create an outline of an image as opposed to a real image. This allows the reader to fill in the outline with their own associations. This poem gave me goosebumps because of it’s ability to create universality. I can relate this poem to many aspects of my life. The “you” could be an older version of myself, or it could be a lover, or even a family member. The magic of this poem is that it applies to whoever reads it, and leaves a significant message. It encourages readers to think about their lives in a deeper way and to consider re-evaluating the moments that have led up to their current self. It is very much a poem that someone might have been waiting to hear, an extra push forward or a symbol of hope. There’s a lot more to be considered here that I will continue to think about. And I am intrigued by Faizullah’s skillful use of language.

I saw then the white-eyed man
leaning in to see if I was ready

yet to go where he has been waiting
to take me. I saw then the gnawing

sounds my faith has been making
and I saw too that the shape it sings

in is the color of cast-iron mountains
I drove so long to find I forgot I had

been looking for them, for the you
I once knew and the you that was born

waiting for me to find you. I have been
twisting and turning across these lifetimes

where forgetting me is what you do
so you don’t have to look at yourself. I saw

that I would drown in a creek carved out
of a field our incarnations forged the first path

through to those mountains. I invited you to stroll
with me there again for the first time, to pause

and sprawl in the grass while I read to you
the poem you hadn’t known you’d been waiting

to hear. I read until you finally slept
and all your jagged syntaxes softened into rest.

You’re always driving so far from me towards
the me I worry, without you, is eternity. I lay there,

awake, keeping watch while you snored.
I waited, as I always seem to, for you

to wake up and come back to me

Response to “Poetry and Science”- Language Use as a Divider of Disciplines

I found an article the other day, while looking for a quote on crafting CNF, titled “Poetry and Science: a view from the divide.” Being the person that I am, I’ve been playing with and reading this article for a good week now, trying to decide what parts of it to respond to. Truth be told, this may be an article that I write multiple blog posts about.

One of the things that Alison Hawthorne Deming does in this article is try to define science and poetry in terms of each other to figure out what is different about them. One of my favorite paragraphs on this subject, which I’ve quoted at the bottom of this post, compared them in terms of language and word use. Deming says that the two disciplines “use language in a fundamentally different manner.” She claims that science uses it as “a tool of measurement” and an “auxiliary tool.” Language, for poetry, is at the forefront of everything. It is the emotion and driving force behind a poem. In both cases, though, scientists and poets use language carefully to tell stories and to explain. The stories they create and explain are very, very different.

Over the summer I had to write a proposal for a directed study. In this proposal, I was talking about pits in the Laki lava flow, a large lava flow in Iceland, and one of the comments that my professor wrote back was about the precision of language. He told me that I could not call some of the pits, which I hypothesized where formed by a collapse of the rock, collapse-pits, because it implied that I already knew they were collapse features. I did not know this, obviously, it was what my entire study was going to be on. Likewise, I find myself reaching for precision when writing poetry, because every word counts when you only use 83 of them. My take away, at least from this part of the essay, is that language use is one of the ways we can define disciplines. Furthermore, the way language is used for interdisciplinary writing requires care, because it combines the original disciple, the everyday understanding of that word/ discipline, and whatever metaphor/ wordplay the poem is suggesting. Scientific words sometimes require that you unpack and understand them to use them. Poetry words require that you think about them within the context of the poem. Both ways, language asks its users to remember that they are part of a subgroup, to use the language of this class, and that they and their poetry doesn’t exist within a void.


Quote from the article Poetry and Science”:

“But science and poetry, when each discipline is practiced with integrity, use language in a fundamentally different manner.  Both disciplines share the attempt to find a language for the unknown, to develop an orderly syntax to represent accurately some carefully seen aspect of the world.  Both employ language in a manner more distilled than ordinary conversation.  Both, at their best, use metaphor and narrative to make unexpected connections.  But, as Czech immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub points out, “for the sciences, words are an auxiliary tool.”  Science–within the tradition of its professional literature–uses language for verification and counts on words to have a meaning so specific that they will not be colored by feelings and biases.  Science uses language as if it were another form of measurement–exact, definitive and logical. ”