Focus on Word Choice

I’ve been trying really hard to figure out a way to up my word choice game. I’ve noticed that many of my peers in my Poetry Workshop are masters (or, close to) of word choice; they can take a line that could be described as boring or mundane, and flip it on it’s head and turn it into something beautiful, all with their choice of words. It’s astounding sometimes, to read their work, and be catapulted into a different universe with just one word or phrase. Some of the phrases or words are abstract, others just set into a line with a different purpose than they usually serve. It’s impressive, and these poets make me want to be better, to choose better.

I’ve recently started a technique in my writing that I think has helped me in this, so I thought I’d share it. I start off with a subject, and then just write from the heart; no thought, no true attention to the wording or phrasing. And then I read it over and over again. In these close readings, I take stock in the words that are weak, or could be better in the context of the poem itself. I then begin to brainstorm different wording, different phrasing, and then come up with something that is totally different than what I thought it was going to be.

Now, this may seem like a no brainer to some writers- fix the shit that doesn’t sound exciting. We do that in workshop all of the time. But this exercise has actually helped me academically as well. I have started looking up new words, new phrases, and trying to accompany them in my everyday conversations to see where they make the most sense, and where they don’t. I’m taking words that I usually would never use, and trying to make them work in my own poetic head space. It helps a lot to know how to use the word, and when it makes no sense conversationally. Take for example, the word minutiae. It’s a beautiful word, but I hardly ever use it in conversation. But now that I’ve started this new exercise, I keep finding places for it in my conversations, and then finding spaces for it in my poems as well. I’m becoming acquainted with words, and then allowing them to flow within my writing as they would coming out of my mouth.

I’m also focusing on crafting more poetic sentences, so my everyday language can be reflected in my writing in a way that doesn’t seem awkward or forced. A lot of my friends and co-workers have been picking up on it, and it’s been a pretty fun ride so far. Give it a shot, if you’d like! I think it makes the whole world seem like poetry to me. More than it already does, I think.

 

Revision Techniques

I love the recommendations I get from my peers in Workshop. In regards to my line breaks, I’ve been given suggestions for my specific pieces that really make them into a more cohesive unit; the breaks are lush with hesitation now, provide a sense of emphasis that I’ve glossed over. But I wish I came to these conclusions myself.

Throughout my college career, one of my biggest issues regarding my poetry resides in the inability to revise a piece in a completely new way. I get stuck to the “darlings” I’ve created. And more often than not, workshop rounds in college tend to offer good, if not invaluable, suggestions to the pieces in which I’ve presented them. Unfortunately, I’ve only witnessed a few of my peers in the last 3+ years suggest radical revisions to the pieces we go over, or provide any revision techniques that might aid us in the future.

Besides the bare-bones techniques we were introduced to at the start of our careers as undergraduate students, revision is this ubiquitous idea that exists in a state of obscurity; which technique should I use that will truly help take this piece to the next level? The answer is unhelpful: any of them can help your future writing. This vague sense of infinite possibilities can seem welcoming to some, but to writers like me, I have forgotten what revision can be. Eventually, we’ll leave college and we won’t have an arsenal of poets waiting for us in class on Mondays and Wednesdays, ready to offer A+ suggestions. We’ll have to revise on our own, and I seem to have forgotten how to do that with my poetry.

I was inspired by the reading by Espinoza in Rosko’s A Broken Thing. Here, he talks about an undergraduate professor who led them through a revision exercise that involved physically chopping up the poems the students had written in an attempt to reimagine the works. It was a process, which stuck out to me. They had to look at one of the scraps of paper each day. Espinoza ended up completely tossing his.

I guess, at the end of my long rant, my question is this: how can we re-learn how to revise when our old techniques are no longer working?

Bury Me in Bath

Last year, I took Dean Celia Easton’s evening course, Major Authors: Jane Austen. And although now I can speak about Austen’s writing with a respectable amount of grace and poise, the class also drove me near the breaking point of my sanity. To that point, half an hour before the final exam, I wasn’t studying—I was writing poetry.

A Lady Wants Me Dead

Elizabeth Bennett once broke down
my bedroom door and shot me,
sending me straight to hell.

Elinor Dashwood twisted on my ankles
until my feet snapped off at the joints.

Fanny Price sent me into a storm
without an umbrella
and with no horse,
dooming me to a life of pneumonia.

Catherine Morland walked about me in a circle,
slowly slicing my skin
with reams of fresh paper.

Lady Susan sent me a letter
luring me to a pit of sharks.

Anne Elliot took my money for her father’s estate,
forcing me into poverty.

Emma Woodhouse married me
to a a vat of cyanide.

Poems Within Poems

Pick a line. Any line.

Now, consider it a poem.

The process of writing inevitably turns into the process of editing and revision. If I gave every line the tender love and care that I devote to each poem, perhaps I would not settle for mediocrity. Unfortunately, I have the habit of writing lines that fall into two different categories: my favorites and space-fillers. These space-filling lines would be exponentially more appealing as white space. Or quotes. Or abstractions. Anything but space-fillers.

As Patrick Phillips states in A Broken Thing, “the line is not ornamentation.” I must learn to write this in the margins of my poetry. This shall become my mantra. When my lines become space-fillers, or ornamentation, they lack “ground beneath [them]: the conveyance that keeps [them] going where [they have] to go” (190). In other words, each line must maintain enough momentum to propel the reader to the next line or the following white space. There is a fine balance between urging the reader forward and letting them linger. In other words, each line is a paradox– it must be fulfilling and yet leave them wanting more. While Phillips claims that the answer to writer’s block is to “write the first few words that will become the line, which will become the craft I need to carry on,” I happen to disagree. I believe that this is the starting point for lines that lack purpose. When contemplating the conclusion of a poem, Phillips reminds himself that he has just “one more line to make the stanza…five more feet to make the line…” (191). I believe that this approach subjects the poem to monotony. Lines written in this manner will lack spontaneity and craft. As a result, the blank space will transform into space-fillers– both of which are undesirable. Instead, each line deserves time to grow and reach its full potential. If I wrote every line with the intention that it was a poem itself, I believe that my poems would slowly lose their staleness. Cliches, ill-placed line breaks, and space fillers would all be eradicated from my work and only the lines that deserved a spot at the podium would remain. All in all, we must not forget that each line is a poem and must be treated as so.

Lively Lines

 

When I think of a line, I think of a moment. A snapshot. It is a space in which I linger while being pulled forward, as though a tour guide is leading me through a museum. But a painting catches my eye! I must pause. The artist has put away their brushes and the reader makes meaning of the completed work. I find, though, that this proves troublesome to me as a poet and a reader.

Recently, I have been paying more attention to the conversation between my poem and the reader, and not enough on that created by the individual lines. When Albert Ríos writes that the line “a line does its own work. And in this way, it is a contributing member of that society,” I begin to imagine lines as entities of their own (209). Moving, breathing entities. I no longer see a gallery of related or complementary artworks, but a village of lines that all have functions necessary for the poem’s survival. This interpretation leads me to think more about how each line stands on its own: that they must be self-serving as well as participating in community service.

Looking back at my newest poems, I am finding that lines in some of them rely on their neighbors to hold them up. Maybe I focused too much on line breaks rather than the lines themselves, and a wanting to be clever about it. But I have put consideration of the lines as whole, singular beings at the back of my mind. This probably contributes to why I am unsatisfied with those poems.

Ríos reminds me that the lines need to be whole and survive even if they were to migrate to another poem, another place. But this poem needs them, so they stay. And so the poem, full of movement and voice, lives. Its buildings are well-kept.

It becomes a space for the reader to visit and, by doing so, the two create something new. The lines talk back and their concurrence becomes the poem’s law. I want my poems to become villages, and to make laws that the reader must respond to. But to do that, I need my lines to be whole and strong again. Maybe we’ll have a potluck, and invite the reader, too.

on abstraction

I hadn’t truly thought about the extent of how abstract poems can be before my workshop. To me, what happened in my poem was clear, but I was also the one experiencing it. Metaphorically, I tried taking my story and shattering it, only using a handful of shards to put it back together. In hindsight I don’t really know if that’s an effective way to share unique experiences, because not everyone can grasp onto some of the concepts being expressed. That’s not the fault of the reader, but the writer. So to what extent can you alter the deliverance of a story before you change the story told altogether? Continue reading “on abstraction”

Trouble with Prose Poetry

I used to think I understood prose poetry on a deeper level since I’m primarily a fiction writer. Well, maybe not understand it, but I felt like I connected to it more at the very least.

Since starting this poetry class on the line, including its breaks, meanings, and uses in poetry, I’ve found myself stuck in the way I think about the line as my previously-held beliefs are solidified when I’m able to catch my preferences in another’s poetry: primarily, the line being used as a way to provide double-meanings, suspense, and most importantly, emphasis.

When it comes to prose poetry, line breaks are somehow…less thought out to me. I see the merit in recognizing that each line – when it breaks – can do a different thing, or continuously expand on the initial idea presented (these ideas have also been solidified the more I’ve read prose poetry), but the margins really control the poem, whether it takes up a whole page or is broken by an indented margin. The language doesn’t dictate the line break, but the end of the line’s space does; it seems that form, here, is controlling content, when I’m used to thinking about it the other way around.

Trying to break out of my set views on the line is what I intended to do at the start of the course, but I find myself getting more and more wrapped up in the views I already held. Even when I read advice offered in Rios’ work, I curtail other ways to view a line, seeing that these all connect back to emphasis or tension in some way. How does one rectify this problem?

Sincerity in Line Breaks- An Understanding of Rios, and the second quip in “Some Thoughts on the Line”.

I’m consistently trying to find meaning in my lines. I’m somewhat new to writing poetry, even though I’ve been reading it for quite some time. After taking my first poetry analysis class last semester, I can’t help but think that my line breaks are sometimes insincere; I only put them in the poem to complete some sort of “poetic-ness” that I feel is necessary in the poem that I am trying to write.   In Some Thoughts on the Integrity of the Single Line in Poetry”, by Albert Rios, he brings up a point that I feel will help me on this poetic journey, and not just add line breaks because they feel like they are poetic in the moment.

Rios explains that a line break can “present a moment of small melodrama” when it is broken in a certain way that is seen as suspenseful. The major differentiation of this though, is the fact that not all moments need to be melodramatic. Poetry, to me, seems to have a lot at stake. With every moment and narrative presented, there needs to be something pushing the narrative, or the poem won’t go anywhere. But from the statement that Rios made, there is an understanding that melodrama will seem over dramatic if not done correctly. Some lines are meant to drive the narrative, and that may just be it. If someone is on their way to a doctors office, and needs to open the door within a poem, there is no harm in saying:

he then opened the door

The author could however, use the open space as a way to show the door opening, though.

he then opened

the door

But there should be no shame in using the characters actions as a way to begin suspense on the next line.

he then opened the door,

to find a nurse

covered in someone else’s blood.

That is a very dramatic statement in itself, but the lines after the initial reaction serve more purpose being broken than the lines above, showing that the speaker opened the door to find a scene more detailed and gory in a more suspenseful way.

 

Rios states that “inserting a line break does not add to the poetic nature of the moment.” I think that was the line I needed to read the most. To recognize that lines should be broken because they drive the speaker to do something, feel something, see something. Not just because the line break would look “poetic.” The moment should be sincere and raw, and with unnecessary line breaks, the reader may be pulled from that sincerity for the sake of being poetic.

the option to linger

I value poems with a story and a general narrative flow from A to Z. As a writer, I tend toward creative non-fiction, and thereby adopt many of it’s inherent principles even while writing other genres. When I write poems, many of my lines are vehicles used to get to the next line, the next great revelation of plot or another link in a sequence of narratives. I establish setting, mood, conflict in the beginning and work it out throughout the piece…voila, a creative non-fiction poem has been born!

When I read something like Ríos’ declaration that, “a line is a moment, and moment is intrinsically non-narrative. That is, a moment does not move forward, not readily, not right away. A moment stops, and stopping is the friendly nemesis of narrative. A line is a moment that has value right then, and which deserves some of our time,” (207), I freeze up a little. I’m inclined to move forward and propel the piece towards itself, but there is value in asserting that the line is indeed a moment.

I think of picture frames, the amount of times I’ve spent staring at a photo and dwelling in whatever small moment was captured and caged. If a poem is a collection of moments, then it is like a wall of picture frames, with the reader gently stopping at each successive photograph and reveling in whatever images or truths are present. Only when the reader is done lingering do they stroll over to the next picture; suddenly a gallery of moments has been strung together in some sort of magical oneness, though each moment is distinctive and salient on its own.

I have difficulty crafting potent lines that offer the option to linger. My lines at times aren’t anchored, I’ve broken them in a way that they depend on each other. A goal of mine is to turn each line into a self-sustaining entity that in turn lends itself well to the poem as a whole; hopefully this semester will be for new growth in this area.

 

 

 

Ríos and the “long line” as a moment

Thinking about the line as a moment said exactly what I’ve been trying to articulate about poetry for a while. What draws me to poetry is something about the way that words and lines work as units that provide something intangible and sentient to me as a reader. For example, I’ve always been fascinated with the word “geography”—the way it looks, the connotations it brings, and the way that for some reason, it reminds me of my second grade Montessori classroom back in South Florida, and an image of a map on the wall. This is a very specific, nostalgic memory (and feeling) that is evoked by just one word that is only marginally related to the original content of the word.

Ríos’s interpretation of the “long line” is key: “[They are] lines that are long in their moment, that make me linger and give me the effect of having encountered something, something worth stopping for—the antithesis of our times, which seem to be all about getting somewhere else, and fast, we’re late already.” For Rios, the line is something we need to stop and appreciate. This is especially timely for me in a very personal way. After spending the summer recovering from a rough academic year, the concept of being mindful and honing in on a moment is both comforting and inspiring. It makes me want to write more as a practice of mindfulness in addition to an artistic practice.