For another one of my classes, we were assigned chapters out of a book called Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, and it’s sparked a lot of horror and also a lot of topics I’m interested in exploring as poetry. For example, I was really interested in the term “resurrection man,” used to describe a man who unearthed bodies for illicit dissection; these men often happened to be African American men plundering black cemeteries, which complicates the history even more. Another snippet that got my attention was learning that the body of Addie Mae Collins, one of the girls who died in the Birmingham Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, was missing from her grave. Neither casket nor corpse was found in the grave when her sisters decided to move her to a better cemetery thirty years after her death; she had been buried in an all-black cemetery. The author writes that “many are convinced that her body joined the untold thousands of anonymous black cadavers on anatomists’ tables” (119). The double sucker punch of that: to be killed at thirteen because of the color of your skin and then to have your body stolen and used for studies in anatomy.
This is all to say: I’m interested in writing a series of poems based off this book and other records like it, but I’m also hesitant. It’s a sensitive topic and it’s racially charged. The last thing I want to do is appropriate the experiences of these people and turn them into spectacle or entertainment (further exploitation). It’s tricky ground for me–I want to tell their stories, but I’m unsure of the best way to go about doing so.
What do other people think? Ideas for treading this ground carefully? Hesitations?
Up until the most recent year, I used Twitter as a purely fun platform, Tweeting about the most inane things (read: weird things that happen to me, observations about my day, lots of whining, etc.,). Once I began submitting to journals, however, Twitter suddenly became much more interesting. Most journals have a Twitter and will tweet updates about contests, prizes, new issues, calls for submission, or link to other cool journals, literary happenings, or promote their authors. It’s a great way to discover new journals and if you’re published in a journal, to get some free promotion! Also, handily,once you follow a couple, Twitter’s convenient “Who should you follow” sidebar suggests other journals for you to follow. (This can be deadly: you get sucked into the vortex of journal-finding and forget about all other useful things happening in your day.) It’s also a great place to meet other authors/become part of a writing community. There’s a group of four or five writers on Twitter that kind of adopted me (long story, having to do with The Rumpus’s Letters in the Mail program, etc) and watching their banter/support via Twitter is awesome. A couple poets who also contributed to Dialogist‘s new issue followed me on Twitter and we struck up a lovely little, complimentary conversation.
If you’re interested in finding or submitting to some journals, here are some cool Twitters (& journals!) to check out:
One thing I’ve always been unsure of is how someone goes about writing a poem (or any other work) with another person. So when Lucia suggested we try and do a collaboration, I was all for it. Our poems often end up being in conversation with each other (intentionally or unintentionally) and I thought it would be interesting seeing how two different styles can come together; what the challenges and thrilling parts of that might be. We got together earlier in the month and started talking about possible topics/themes we wanted to discuss in the poem and finally settled on perception vs. person, unsurprisingly coupled with a healthy dash of feminist perspective. Then the tricky part came: the actual writing.
We wrote remotely & separately for awhile and then loaded what we had so far into a Google Doc. Watching something get written/deleted/re-written/moved around in real time is crazy. Both of our sections ended up getting merged and entangled with the other (after some confused messaging about perspective back and forth). Instead of having two separate sections, it was clear that both of our words and styles were combining into one collaborative work, which was awesome to see!
Do you think you would try a collab? Who would you want to collab with? What are challenges you foresee? What might be awesome about getting to collaborate with someone?
Towards the beginning of this semester, I was asked to do a translation for Gandy Dancer; that is, to pick a German poem and translate it into English. It felt at the time (and still feels) like a daunting task, even some months later, after I’ve wrestled it into some workable English form. Like the punctuation exercise we did, I think part of the difficulty lies in feeling like I’m trying to step into another author’s shoes. I’m translating Bianca Döring’s poem “Allein” (you can find the original here) and in the way of German poetry, it’s straightforward and powerful in its conciseness. There’s a good number of what we American poets would call “abstractions” but a complex layering of what’s simply understood by a word in German. For example, the last line reads “der Liebe sind verbrannt and tun nur weh.” The word “wehtun’ in German literally means to “to do one pain”–and even translation, literal as it is, isn’t doing full justice to the German word. My first translation read: “the love is burned and hurts,” but “wehtun” is a very active word, something not quite captured by “hurts.” Additionally, “verbrannt” is a much more complex word than simply “brennen”–both at their most basic level mean “to burn”, but verbrennen has a more twisted or violent connotation to it, because of the suffix “ver-.” Adding in the complexity of German grammar–depending on the dative or accusative case being used, the meaning also changes slightly again, it’s a welter of various dictionary tabs and texts to German friends asking, Are you sure there’s no other weird colloquialism associated with _____? No? Rats. Okay, well what about ____?
If you couldn’t tell, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks feeling like I’m chasing my tail.
In addition with “borrowing” someone else’s words, there is of course, the fear that I’m interpreting or changing the poet’s original meaning. I don’t want to do her the violence of taking her words and completely changing them. (This terror is only heightened because the poet requested I send her my translation when it’s finished. I half wanted to write back and go I’m only twenty-one and I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m so sorry if I eff your beautiful poem up. Although I’m not sure how that panic would get translated into polite, formal German.) Our styles of writing are very different and the abstractions like “bright” or “night” make me twitch every time I read them and I just really, really, really want to muck around with white space and punctuation more than I already have, while still trying to stay true to her original poem.
Dr. Smith suggested I just take a look at the English version I’d managed to squeeze out of the German poem and consider it from that perspective. If this was to be workshopped, what would I change? What precise tightening of the language could I do? Would the addition of a word here or there reinforce the overall tone of the poem or the feeling of the line, even if it wasn’t in the original poem? What about taking out some words? (I gleefully cut a few of the “ands.”) Translation is an interesting process for sure, and one that has made me think of language in a much different way. It also astonishes me how many things are simply understood by speaking the language–all the nuances and complexities that are simply assumed by speaking that language and understanding those connotations.
Have any of you thought about doing translations? What are your worries if you have done/are thinking about doing a translation?
Punctuation in poetry is like a whole different language. I remember during Poetry I, people suggested I use em-dashes or colons in place of words like “but,” “because,” “then,” etc. It was a way to earn yourself extra words in a line, complicate the meaning of a line, and reduce wordiness in poems. It was something I had never really considered before. Needless to say, I got incredibly enthusiastic about punctuation, and it was a good class in which to do so, with a large number of advanced poets to introduce me to new forms (like the em-dash-colon combination and double colons).
However, the exercise we did on Thursday got me thinking about how many different ways we interpret punctuation. For example, I tend to use colons to define something, while I know others use colons as a mirror. What I really want to speak about is the double colon, which has made a grand entrance into poems in the last couple of weeks & it’s something I (& a lot of others, I think) struggle with. The poem I’m submitting for workshop this week has a double colon in the title & I’m still not 100% sure that’s the correct usage, but we’re going for it. I frantically Googled “double colons” and re-read some poems from This Coalition of Bones (Cori Winrock), where double colons can be found aplenty. I found a useful hint on how some authors use a double colon (thanks to a poetry collection review) and Dr. Smith sent me a section from The Poetry Handbook he’d found.
In the review, Phillip B. Williams comments on how the poet’s double colons “function as a sticky board of allegorical possibilities, both defining conditions and labels and effectively confining such definitions to signifiers that carry an unconscious cultural and historical legacy.” (You can find the complete review here; the collection itself looks fabulous.) The Poetry Handbook suggests that in “maths (double) colons express (compound ratios, ‘punctuation’ : words :: cartilage : bone’ (punctuation is to words as cartilage is to bone).” Over the summer as I wrestled with double colons, Lucia told me she saw double colons acting as a mirror/”having your cake and getting to eat it too.” In other words, the poem is enhanced/complicated/furthered by both sides of the double colon, but the poem could function if you took one side away. All things to consider and struggle further with when contemplating tricky punctuation.
I wonder if our different interpretations of punctuation influence how we read/critique each other’s poems. Is there a real standard in poetry, where boundaries are constantly pushed & re-shaped? What new punctuation can we introduce in our poetry? Over the summer, I used inequality signs (<>) in a poem as a visual guide for the reader/a different way to create white space. Has anyone else played with unusual punctuation or punctuation combinations in their poetry? What’s a punctuation mark you’d like to further explore?
One of my friends today mentioned that one of her plans for tonight was sitting down with a glass of wine and poem revisions.
I all but howled in longing. (I think I actually gave a quiet moan and put my head down on the desk.) The cantankerous, perpetually dissatisfied old lady voice in me went, “I wish I had time to do that. Grumble grumble. Wish that could be my night. Wow, that sounds so nice. Wish I had spare time. Kvetch kvetch.” In reality, I technically do have time to do that. I’m just not making it the priority it should be. Even thinking about my day: if I cut out the ten minutes I spend checking my email and Facebook (every hour) and the twenty minute nap I take religiously, I would have thirty minutes (at least) to write or revise a day. It’s just not a priority and it should be.
One of the struggles of writing/revision is always finding the time. Everyone I know has an incredibly busy schedule, between a full course load and various extracurricular commitments. Sometimes all we want to do at the end of the day is drop into bed and stare mindlessly at our Netflix options for the night. Writing is hard. Revision is hard. It involves brain power and thinking and creativity. There are definitely days that we need to give ourselves a break, but I find myself pushing writing and revision back farther and farther in my to-do list as the semester picks up. Almost every seasoned writer offers the same advice: Try and write every day.
I was very good last semester–I tried to journal once a day, even if it was to put down three good things that happened in my day, and was constantly carrying around a poem to revise/made the effort to be in some kind of creative process. I would get up early or stay up late and write. This year for some reason, it’s been much harder.
How do other people incorporate writing and revision into their daily lives/schedules? When do you write best? Do you feel that you make writing a priority in your busy college life full of other commitments? How do we best go about this juggling act?
One of my favorite parts of workshop is the community that gets built around that particular class. It’s an opportunity to see what other people are doing/trying out/thieving from other people. And because trust is so vital in a workshop (because offering up your baby to be critiqued is often painful), I find my peers in upper-level workshops to be much closer than other classes. I think it’s important to be constantly in conversation with not only your texts, but those of your peers, and more established writers. I found our discussion on meter last class incredibly interesting and something I hadn’t really considered before. It’s also just great to see people get excited about poetry and see all the variety brought to the table–long-lined poems, short-lined poems, form poems, sectioned, white space, funky punctuation, etc.
After the poetic whirlwind, I noticed a lot of double colons and semi-colons in recent workshop poems and some poems shifting away from the left margin. I love that we’re constantly absorbing and taking things away from each other. It got me thinking about what I want to work on myself. For example, Romy’s short lined, compact poem makes me want to try and write one of those, Erin’s dirge made me start thinking about the form of elegies/dirges/etc., and Savannah’s resonant & lovely images have me thinking about the richness of my own images and how to better those.
How do you feel about the idea of workshop community? What things do you want to try after seeing what other people are doing?
My German professor decided to start our literature class off with a whimper, not a bang this semester. By this I mean we opened with poems. In German. I’ve noticed that in many of my [English] literature classes, when discussing poetry, the room goes silent. The professor skims the room, looking for volunteers, and everyone studies their text with increased fervor, praying they won’t get called on. So imagine that scenario, but add the fun of a foreign language to it. You could almost see the shoulders rise in defensiveness. Predictably, a friend who knows me kicked me under the table and hissed, “You write poetry, say something.” Heads turned my direction. And for the rest of the class period, I was the Poet [designated class speaker] who suddenly had authority and was expected to provide interpretations for the poems we read. This got me thinking about why students often hate poetry units in creative writing and are stymied by poetry in literature classes when discussing Dickinson, Wordsworth, Whitman, etc.
Perhaps it is because our poetic ancestors are precisely that: ancestors. Older. From a different time. Reading Shakespeare is quite different from sitting down and reading a work of contemporary poetry. References that audiences in the 19th century might have understood escape us. The cultural values and literary movements that informed our ancestors’ poetry are different than today’s. I remember groaning about one having to read one more Romantic poem in Brit Lit (“If I see one more pastoral scene, I swear to God…” I think part of the problem is the accessibility factor. Because we don’t identify to the poetry taught in literature classes (no matter how important reading our ancestors is), we tune it out. We say we don’t (and can’t) understand it. As poet Andrea Springer (class of ’14) mentions in an interview done with Gandy Dancer: ” there’s still this pervasive belief that poetry is this secret code and without the exact key you won’t be able to decipher it to arrive at any kind of meaningful reading. Teaching poetry is important to me because I want to tell as many people as I can that poets aren’t trying to trick us” (interview found here).
I’ve been on the student side of it, as I’m sure we all have. However, as a poet who also gets to work with fabulous contemporary poets in the classroom, who is required to read modern collections for class, and who is actively engaged in our own small poetry community here in Geneseo, I wish every student was required to pick up a collection of poetry published in the last five years. The issues and thoughts that take up much of our collective consciousness today are reflected in today’s poetry: there are feminism poems, sex poems, poems that deal with homosexuality and bullying, poems that are pushing form and language and poems that thrill with being alive today. I wonder if students would still feel as alienated from poetry (which to the average person seems to evoke images grim-faced black & white portraits, counting syllables, being forced to memorize lines, etc.) if they read a modern collection like Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. (Interestingly enough: two of my peers mentioned that while they hated reading poetry in high school, they loved Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss, which may be two of the more modern poets mentioned in high school.)
Why do you think students tend to shy away from poetry? How can we break out of our small poet nucleus to share with the larger world? What are things done in classrooms (both in secondary schooling and college) that could change the attitude toward poetry? Is making poetry “accessible” something positive that contemporary poets should strive for?