My pen got velocity

After listening to A Tribe Called Quest’s most recent album, We The People, I began thinking of my role as a poet in today’s world. It’s not the first time I thought about the position we all have as artists — where do we fit? — but I have placed myself within the binaries of what I’m allowed.

I feel that my little planet is pronounced by the hood I grew up in and the things I witnessed as a kid. What has intimidated me is how I shape this voice as a poet/writer. But I realized that this voice began taking its form when I was growing up. My brother would come up with bars to spit on a beat. I followed rap battles vicariously through him, my favorite being when Nas murdered Jay-Z in “Ether.” It was a Brooklyn-Queens thang.

As a shy, book-worm, growing up I stayed away from practicing this. But I thrived through these lyrics, Pac reminded me to “Keep Your Head Up” and Biggie taught me that “Sky’s the Limit.” Everyday, I was a witness to how the system failed my community. The melodies I found in their lyrics kept me going because they looked at the world I was seeing everyday and told me that I could push pass that bullshit. Much of what I’ve struggled with this semester is creating my own sound, something that I still don’t think I’ve managed to create.

In a talk last night with Carolina, I began to conceive the idea that this “sound”/voice is created over time. She told me that since I’ve written narratives, I need to write these kinds of poems (I’ll write a blog post on narrative poetry in a bit.) I’ve just started writing poetry. It’s difficult for me to identify as a poet for this reason, but it’s exactly what I am and what I have been for most of my life.

LL Cool J says that we are “metaphorical freaks” in a song and says that he’s creates a movie. I began questioning what this meant in terms of accessibility. How could I make sense of the world I was brought up in and transfer this so that people from my community could understand me? Maybe what we call Geneseo poetry has stunted me from getting there, but what I’ve learned is that I need to keep going. I need to go back home, back to my roots. Back to authenticity. Geneseo is like a reprieve. It took me away from this for a while, for many reasons. But the music that booms through my earphones reminds me who I am and what I grew up with.

Lend me your thoughts, PAAAA-LEASEEE.

Role of the Poet

It’s been hard to think about poetry since our pre- and post-election discussions without considering it in terms of the role of poets in the face of injustice, like we talked about, and since then I’ve been thinking about exactly what those things are, as we didn’t come to many solid conclusions besides the usual thoughts on a poet’s responsibilities to speak out. I don’t really have an answer of what it is that a poet should do, but I wanted to take a minute to ramble and try and sort out some of my thoughts from the past few weeks.
At first, I wanted to look at how poets responded to particularly awful moments in history through their work, so I looked at a lot of poetry from the First and Second World Wars. I got off of that because most of what I was looking at were poems that were written after the fact, or were written to recount the experience of fighting or being in the position of a refugee, and while these are valuable what I was looking for were poems that were written with the purpose of effecting change, and maybe some that had a measurable impact. As you can imagine, those were hard to find, and I don’t know that I found any. I started thinking that it’s maybe asking too much of poetry to expect it to have an immediate or even noticeable effect on the world, and that it might be unfair to judge art based on political intent. Should we all be trying to write poetry that’s explicitly political, with set goals? That’s probably the ethical thing to do, but I’m sure it’s not something that everyone is interested in doing. I started to think about what it means that we’ve started to talk in this class about poetry as a political tool now that the election went the way that it did, even as terrible things were happening around the world all semester — is it hypocritical of us to only be concerned with the political effects of poetry now that we’re personally impacted by a bad situation? What should the poet take it upon themselves to address? Is it still okay to write poetry that doesn’t talk about any of this? After all, it must take some kind of courage to produce work that’s apolitical — that itself, though, is at odds with the idea (which I believe) that art is inherently political, and apolitical art is essentially decoration. I don’t have answers for any of the questions I’ve been thinking about, and the only thing that I can definitively say that a poet has to do is write poetry. Let me know if you have thoughts about anything I’ve brought up.

The Duty of the Writer

I know that this idea has been discussed so many times, both on here and in class, but it’s still on my mind, so I figured it’s something worth bringing up again:

As a poet/writer, do we have a duty to write about current events, especially events happening now (e.g. Dakota Pipeline, Trump, possibilities of a Muslim registry, the state of the economy from the generational group most heavily effected, the attack on Roe v. Wade across the country… this is the short list…)? The obvious answer would be, “if we have a passion to do so,” as writing without passion results in empty words strung together. But are we more expected to muster up the passion?

I guess I’m mostly asking out of my feelings of selfishness. I’ve spent the semester writing about personal problems which, although arguably important for my mental health and overall well-being, feeling painfully insignificant in the bigger picture. I want to say, “who cares about x, y, and z. A madman has just been handed the fucking nukes of the United States!” But then I think about everything happening, and I feel overwhelmed. But I guess that’s why we have the need to focus on what’s happening in our own lives. We can’t have both the empathy to carry everything and our sanity.

And I suppose it’s also arguable that the smaller things speak to larger problems within society. My writing so heavily of rape and childhood abuse and mental illness are by no means “insignificant problems” when they affect a greater proportion of the country than those willing to talk about it. Nonetheless, my ability to make a difference feels too narrow as a result.

Hiding Behind a Private Language

I’ve found out that when I write or sing in a language that I know other people cannot understand, I feel more secure. It comforts me to know that I am the only one who has access to the words, at least in most situations in Geneseo. There is no room for judgment, and it is a reminder to others that I have a whole other world they will never understand.

I think this reflects a flaw of mine: sometimes I would rather people not understand me than for people to judge me. I would rather they acknowledge the fact that they cannot put themselves in my shoes than to let them put themselves in my own shoes and let myself be vulnerable to whatever interpretations they may make of that experience. To be a successful writer (or to be successful in general), one cannot be afraid of failure and rejection. It is so hard with creative things because one’s creation is usually so tied with the creator. When one’s creation is attacked, the creator feels personally attacked. And so sometimes to protect my creation (or myself) from attacks, I would rather create something others obviously cannot understand enough to judge.

However, connection is the very thing that makes writing, or any form of communication, alive. Not trying to get too philosophical here, but I believe it is what makes the human alive too. We were made for connection, for deep, intimate connection. Our greatest desire is to be known and to be loved; our greatest fears are either to be unknown or to be known but rejected/unloved. Instead of using a second language as a barrier of communication that serves to protect my weak self-esteem and ego, I want to use it to communicate something that the reader’s native language would not be able to communicate. This is a reminder to myself that the purpose of writing in a language the reader does not understand must be meaningful even to the reader, that I cannot just use it as an escape mechanism.

Writing Exercise: Places & People

The book of poetry that I’ve been following has is an anthology of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poems on San Francisco. Many of his poems are based in a specific place, but focus on the people/ a specific person in that place. (The one I find myself reading over and over again is the poem “They were putting up a statue”). Here’s the poem in type format and in an audio format.

So my prompt is this:

  1. Find a place & event– this place could exist in a photograph or on the screen, but it’s better if it’s somewhere that you can physically go. For Ferlinghetti’s poem, it’s the St. Francis church in San Francisco while they were putting up the statue of St. Francis.
  2. Pick a person in that place OR imagine a person in that place that doesn’t quite fit in with the events going on in that place- this person can help provide the “why” of writing a poem about a place or event, and they can serve as an additional way to view the event. Ex. In the poem I mentioned, the main person is a “young virgin /with very long and very straight / straw hair,” who contrasts with the rest of the onlookers both because of her movement (she was passing through the crowd and the crowd was standing still) and the fact that she seemed to be the only one “welcoming” the statue (Ferlinghetti mentions that the birds, a symbol of St. Francis, weren’t singing while the statue was being put up, but this girl was). When writing, your person might stand out because of something like this- action when others are silent/ apathetic. Or the person you choose for your poem might go against the norm in some other way.
  3. When writing, don’t shy away from repetition. One of Ferlinghetti’s strengths as a poet is his ability to repeat phrases throughout a poem without making the poem sounds repetitious or annoying. That’s a skill that I’m still working on developing, because I tend to feel like repetition is unnecessary in most of the poems I write.

That’s it! Pretty short and sweet. Use your skills as a writer to observe what is going on around you, and let the place and the people define an event, instead of the other way around.

(And, just as a little aside, I think that this prompt would work pretty well for political poems, if you wanted to write one. You could focus on an event that’s happened in the past few weeks and create a scene from the images that stuck out to you (such as the “glowing green time from a microwave oven” in Pam’s poem.))

Writing Exercise: Mix & Match

For this exercise, the idea is to choose two prompts/exercises, one from the first group, one from the second group in a sort of mix & match. From there, blend the two together and see what comes out.

Pick one:
1. Write about what the earth would say if it could speak, and include in your poem the time you felt the most big and the time you felt the most small
2. Write about a time you were terrified, and connect your writing to the place where you find is easiest to fall asleep in.
3. Rename yourself five or more different times according to the different perspectives through which you are viewed. Make sure to be specific!
Now pick another:
1. Turn your paper on its side so that its at landscape now instead of portrait. See where the longer lines take you in your writing.
2. Create a word bank of about 30 words inspired by everything that a skyscraper represents to you. Now stick a few pairs of these words together. Now use most of these words in your new word bank (both single and compound words) to create a poem
3. Write in third person plural (we) or in second person (you). Be mindful of the dynamic created between the speaker and those referred to with the pronouns.

Writing Exercise: Word-bank a poem

For this exercise, you take a poem from your follow a book, or an old poem of your own, and make a word bank with all of the words in the poem. (This part takes a little bit of time, but is worth it!) Once you have that, you write an entirely new poem using only those words, trying to construct a different or new image than the one in the original poem.  This is helpful to look at the original image in a new way, and create something that says more of what you intended.  It’s also helpful if you, like me, tend to be overly wordy in your poems–with this word-bank, you’ll see all the the‘s and and’s that you use, and cutting those out can help clarify the image of the poem even more. It’s also a great way of radically revising a poem if you feel stuck with revisions!

You can be as careful as you want with staying close to the original, but you can always leave out words, add a few new ones, or change tenses of verbs to fit the poem as you go.

Writing exercise: glossary poem

In Solmaz Sharif’s Look: Poems, pieces about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rely on using the dual meanings of words of war utilized by the government. Those include words such the one used in the collection title and first poem—

look— (*) In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence. 

We can then note the last line of the poem, “Look,” in which the meaning is both relied upon and subverted to its original usage:

Let me LOOK at you./ Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.

In this vein, try writing a poem that uses a of glossary of specific terms, allowing their use to perpetuate and/or subvert those topical definitions. Use the definitions or specific terminology in a way that gives a newness to the knowledge set: whether it’s a set of confidential government codes or a compilation of terms used to describe antique watch restoration, let the definitions create new meanings while also staying true to their world.

Snowy night and reflection on Joan Kane’s reading

Last Thursday, quite a few members of Geneseo’s English community took a breath as we listened to Joan Kane’s poetry. Not to my surprise, her poetry read aloud is as quiet as it is on the page. The natural imagery, icy but fluid, evoked senses and sounds of softness, of motherhood, and of peace, all occupying the space of the Doty Recital Hall and insulating it from the world outside. At one point in the reading I closed my eyes to feel the kiss of snow and the susurrations of moving water, along with woods and quiet air. I wanted to cry because in a world of so much uncertainty, I heard sounds and proof that the world was still moving around me. After the reading, I discovered that a few others felt the same.

These moments seem especially relevant now in the face of apparent chaos, and it felt extremely timely to be hearing these messages of life and of quiet contemplation at the dawn of a time filled with so much noise. I forget how much I learn when I stop and listen, like Joan Kane’s poems suggest we might do. As I write right now I look outside at snow whirling in the Onondaga field. As I was trying to do research earlier, one of my fellow RAs and I decided that we would go outside and walk into the white-covered and icy wind-whipped arboretum despite our responsibilities, and in that windy hour I spent roaming I was reminded of the word “katabatic” from “Force Majeur” and also of the second stanza of “Love Poem:” “If there was wind,/ I walked into it.”

Writing Exercise: Changing the Perspective

Go through a handful of your past poems and try to identify one or two (or more, if you’re feeling ambitious!) works/techniques that you use most often. Re-write one of your poems without using this technique in order to approach the subject from a different angle. If you’d prefer, you could also write a new poem completely without the technique, but keeping the same subject seen in your older work. The idea is simply to approach an old subject from a new perspective to see what comes of it.