(W)Right Side of the Page

Okay. So we have the left side of the page, right? That’s where most of our poems start. Martha Rhodes mentions in her essay in A Broken Thing that she tends to stay to the left side of the page in the fear of her writing sounding to wordy or rambling when she begins to stretch to the right. The left side of the page is safe. The left side of the page is quick and neat and, as we read from left to right, sensical.

I’m only going to talk about poems that are situated to the left and the right side of the page. More abstract poetry works differently here and, for the sake of emphasis, I’m only going to talk about juxtaposing ways of writing (ie. right and left).

It got me thinking about white space and what white space does when we write starting from the left. The physical margin of the poem is close to the edge of the page, so when it begins, it’s like the words are forming from nothing. It’s a natural start to the poem. It’s a neutral location, one that we’re used to experiencing. We’re not distracted by white space beforehand: it’s just the reader and the word. The end of the line, here, also makes sense, especially in regard to line breaks. We have this beautiful yawning space of white following our caesuras and breaks and pauses and it serves to heighten the intimacy with which the reader experiences the break. When writing from the left side of the paper, the white space functions as a contextual and emphatic way to strengthen the meaning of the poem, whether the poet realizes it or not.

The right side of the page works in a different way. At the start of the line, this aforementioned yawning space acts becomes more than a neutral zone; it’s this overwhelming statement and the poem becomes this invading force that strikes the reader without them realizing it. It serves as a dreamy space that cannot be ignored by the reader. It says something. From the absence of nothing, comes something: the poem. Following that, we don’t have this break that serves to highlight the end of the line. We aren’t left to sit and mull over the lines final thoughts because suddenly the page is done and you simply have to go to the next line because all that’s left after is paper, then table, then the rest of the world, but you want to stay locked in this beautiful poem so your eyes are scrambling to be welcomed back to this white space followed by the start of another beautiful line.

Then you can take a breath.

Let me know what you think! Please contradict me or agree or just say that I have no point in the matter and everything I said is complete nonsense.

calling all right brains !

My brain thinks in pictures.

Mostly big ones.

This makes poetry hard when we’re dealing with small units like the line, punctuation, a space, a breath.

I was having a phone conversation about music yesterday in which the person I was talking to referred to albums as a “collection,” which I’ve heard many times before, but it hit me right then that a poem, too, resembles an album: a poem is a collection of lines. Just as each song in an album is it’s own entity, singing its own melodies and showcasing it’s own rhythm, tone, and meaning, each line in a poem has its own agency and independence within a poem. It gets interesting to think of many different independent lines or songs working together as a collective whole.

I admit that I generally think more often about the collective whole: the meaning of a poem or the narrative flow of a poem and how to convey certain things to a reader either directly or indirectly. Only recently have I discovered the independence that lies within a poem and how lines can be listened to over and over again on their own, shuffled with other lines, or even stolen and put in a “playlist” with other lines by other poets. What I once thought was only pure interdependence actually turned out to be a network of independent things linked together, or broken in a way that they may fit together.

This is not new information to many of us, but by putting an analogy with what we are learning about lines, I became a bit more flexible in how I think about poetry and the line.

For any of the rest of you right-brained “big picture” type folks, what has helped you understand the line in poetry specifically? What has helped you to focus on the unit rather than the whole in our discussions of the weight each line holds?

Poetry in the Grass

For some time now, I’ve been mulling over genre. Perhaps it’s a result of the classes I’ve taken in college or the people I spend time with, but I’m starting to think the boundaries of genre are as real as the monster I thought lived in my mother’s closet until I was ten. Not that it’s a bad thing; maybe, though, the lines don’t always have to be so clear.

Despite reassurance that I don’t need to limit myself to one genre, I grow increasingly anxious as fellow writers call themselves “poets” or “fiction-writers.” I am drawn to each genre for its specific strengths, and what my writing needs in an isolated moment. So when people ask what do you write? the answer is poetry-nonfiction-hybrid. Always accompanied by a question mark. A better answer would simply be: I write.

Poetry was my first college workshop and, after considering myself a fiction-writer until that point, it was a shift. I became enamored. Poetry provided me with the space I needed to breathe, to let the reader engage. I was propelled by an uncontrollable compulsion to write. It forced its way in with shooting stars and white wave crests. In the curve of a dancer’s body. Bright graffiti on a brick wall. In apocalyptic snowstorm, power-outage, and hearth-light.
Does this make me a poet, though? I don’t know.

Recently, I experimented with creative non-fiction. I’d never, consciously, written in the genre, but I figured it would be best to try it out. Just to be sure. Turns out, it was just the genre I needed to be writing in. The result was a, quite lengthy, lyric essay. Fragmented, lines sloping across the page, the denser prose broken up with short poems. This was exactly what I had been looking for.

So maybe I’m biased. But I don’t think we require such clear and defined boundaries. I like finding poetry in fiction, in nonfiction, in dance, on the grass, in dew on the grass. It might still be challenging to answer the what do you write? question in a thirty-second elevator pitch, but I’ll figure it out eventually.

My moment of validation came on a spring afternoon, after reading T Fleischmann’s book Syzygy, Beauty and hearing them speak on toeing the line between genres. I’m curious if you have found a book formative for you in your writing? If you’ve read any hybrid works, do you have any reading recommendations?

Comparing Poetry and Music

One thing that interests me is the discussions of white space in poetry during class. For instance, we have read several poems and discussed the large amounts of space in between words, and what effect that creates. I thought it was fascinating how having empty space can put more emphasis or less emphasis on a word or a phrase. It was something that I hadn’t given much thought while writing poetry before. Furthermore, it reminded me to also think about how the poem looks, visually, because I think that also can say something. Is the poem full of space, with the words all separated? Or are all the words crunched together? It also made me think of rests in music. When playing a piece or a song, musicians often be sure to give the rests their full value. If they change the rest’s value, they most likely have a specific justification and know exactly why they are doing it. Just because there is no sound there, doesn’t mean that it’s not important to the piece. Skipping over rests or cutting them short can have a big impact, for instance it could throw off the rhythm or get rid of the breathing space that rest gave, even though it doesn’t seem like rests would be important. In the same way, I think line breaks and space work the same way in poems. They are important even though there are no words. It should be well thought out what the tone that the big spaces between words in the poem gives. Also it can give the poem very different feelings, depending on how it is set up. Even though there aren’t any words, the empty space in poems is still significant, and shouldn’t be ignored.

An “aha” moment: Why I need to stop overlooking syllables

“Focus on what you normally don’t focus on,” Professor Lytton advised as we began class. He told us to devote a minute to writing down techniques that we generally overlook- this written statement would serve as a visual reminder to step out of our comfort zones.

I made a note to spend more time looking at the syllables that compose each line. While I will sometimes pay attention to the rhythm forged by line structure, line breaks, and syntax, I tend to disregard the vital role that syllables play in a poem’s rhythm and sound. As a result, both my critiques and my own writing suffers.

My tendency to ignore syllables within a poem became even more apparent as I read Finch’s essay in A Broken Thing. Finch dove headfirst into the world of syllables; spewing words such as meter, iambic pentameter, and dactylic verse. The only time that I could breathe a sigh of relief was when she referenced free verse. Free verse is my comfort zone– like me, it ignores the conventions surrounding meter and syllables.

After attending class in which we made a conscious effort to look at our technical shortcomings and reading an essay regarding my own weakness, I have realized that I am doing myself and more importantly, my poetry and my peers, a disservice. This realization has inspired me to take on the challenge and work syllables and different forms into my writing.

more on moments

We’ve been talking a lot about the line as moment, but what should we do about the poetic moment overall? I mean to say– what do we do when we are struck with a moment of beauty, or sadness, or *insert other abstraction*– where do you go first?

There are deeper parts of my mind that I feel I am gaining access to lately, and they have an essence of nostalgia and longing. I think of my hometown in Florida, or the streets of my Long Island home, the way the library looked when I was in middle school. Does anyone else feel these pangs, these yearnings, for something deeper in the self?

I feel these yearnings are deeply rooted in the past, but also occupying my sense of the present. Sometimes I try to hone in on it, to understand the mindfulness of when I focus on he shadow on my dresser or the the sound of my housemate doing the dishes. But it’s something more than mindfulness.

What do you do when you find these moments? Do you pick up a pen and write? Do you let it sit for a bit? Do you eat some food? Do you go to bed? I’d like to know.

poems and song writing

I found it really interesting that John O. Espinoza writes about a new way to piece poetry together with scissors and scotch tape. I think that using multiple methods to create poetry is useful in that it creates new and unique work almost every time. When I first read the passage, it brought me back to why I started writing poetry, and that was because I was writing song lyrics and music. I feel as if the process of writing poetry for songs is much different than writing just for it to be on paper. The symmetry is different, it has to match a melody, and all of the words must carry weight so people know what they’re singing about. Other things that factor in is whether or not you want the song to highlight the voice, lyrics or melody, and that might be something interesting to consider when writing a poem. A bit of role-playing as a writer, if you will. I think this might serve as a prompt for different writing styles as well, since it has such narrow parameters, and may produce some of the best work for someone that has never tried it. Even to combine the two methods of poem writing could produce a new style altogether, as well as stimulate new topics  for even more poems.  This would also solve the problem that Espinoza writes about when he speaks of the words not being able to stand alone because they do not relate to what happens before or after each one. Also, it may provide for more thinking about what gets put into a line in order to accommodate the format. It may allow for more grouping in terms of themes and topics, which may work in terms of more understanding and more seamless transitions between lines.

Sound Across the Line

Reading Annie Finch’s chapter in A Broken Thing titled, “Grails and Legacies: Thoughts on the Line,” reminded me of the first poetry workshop I took while at Geneseo. We studied the poetics of sound and what sound does in a poem. In regard to this workshop, I think it’s incredibly beneficial to mention how sound can work across the line and tie different thoughts together while still making an appealing auditory quality for the reader.

Alliteration and (half-)rhymes are often the easiest, and most common, way to do this. Finch, herself, mentions the importance of this by the first stanza of William Carlos Williams’ poem as an example: so much depends / upon. The stretch of the p sound across the line creates a more cohesive effect by pairing similar sounds together. It also renders the use of a one-word line, whereas the second line would not have felt as effective if the author used a synonym like “on.” Also, it just sounds cool.

Sometimes, words sound cool paired together because they have similar sounds. If you’re feeling jammed, just brain-storming cool pairings or off-beat phrases can help. I guess this is also a weird way to call back to my revision post and answer my own question.

Lemme know what you guys think!

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.