Never Really “Done”

A friend of mine always used to say that a poem is never really finished. From what I’ve learned from workshop, it seems apparent that there’s no way to please everyone with every word choice and punctuation mark, but that doesn’t stop me from trying in the revision process. So what about you? When do you know you have a satisfying enough product that you cease working on it?

There are different layers to this question, I think, because I think there’s a certain level of “done” that I get to before I show a poem to anyone else. Then once I get feedback, however, I often get stuck. It’s honestly usually more helpful to get feedback from only one or three people, since the heavy influx of advice we get in workshop always has me wanting to split a single poem in about a dozen different directions.

I feel like this post is getting a little scattered, so my main concern is this: I’m looking to submit my poetry to some different lit mags pretty soon, but I need to figure out when my poems will feel accomplished enough to take that step. Maybe they’ll never feel like they’re completely done, exactly, but maybe I’ll be able to get them to a place where I’m satisfied with where I’ve gotten them. Does anyone know what it takes to bring a poem to a satisfactory level of completeness?

Writing Exercise: Paradoxes

Ugly Perfection vs. Beautiful Ugliness: Think of an image or incident where there is artificial/empty/superficial beauty, and think of an image or incident where there is a raw beauty that comes from something ugly or bad, or at least is ugly/bad on the surface. Write about both things, either one stanza for each image/incident, or having the two things intertwine and interact with each other – both of these structural techniques can be used to highlight their differences.

Being Close to the Far vs. Being Far from the Close: Think of something or someone you are apathetic towards, but encounter almost every day. Write about this thing or person in a familiar yet detached way. Think of something or someone you hold dear to your heart that is far away from you (geographically, or maybe because of death…). Write about this thing or person either with the narrator being aware of the distance between him/herself and the thing/person, or with the narrator forgetting the distance.


Writing Exercise: Thread a colorful poem

Write one line describing a a vivid image. It can be vivid in terms of sound, color, touch, or smell. If it helps, think of something absurd, or something you once saw or experienced that has stayed with you throughout the years. It could be a painting, a person, a setting, etc.

Use this line as the title for your poem and write a poem that responds or interacts with the title in some way. It could be about the emotion the image in the title stirred in you, or an imagined narrative, etc.

Make sure to incorporate one word in another language that you think fits into the poem, if you don’t want to do that, alternate for one specific name of something, someplace, or someone.

Geneseo School of Writing?

We talked a bit about “Geneseo Poetry” in class yesterday, and I’d like to push back against this.

I don’t think there is one type of poem that we, at Geneseo, consider good. I do, however, think that the workshops we participate in are fundamental to our development as writers, and that we do influence each other in workshop. I’ve seen a lot of this in my writing, specifically with the double colon (that we talked about in my poem last night) and creating compound words in our poems.

Continue reading “Geneseo School of Writing?”

Poets: Where do we go from here?

We find ourselves at an interesting intersection in history. Just yesterday in class (can you believe it?) we spoke prophetically about  our first woman president, our Madam President, predicting the epistemic event it would incur, all with a quiet surety hidden with “whens” quickly corrected to “ifs”, the “ifs” serving more as a “knock on wood” rather than an actual question of chance. Maybe it’s because we couldn’t mentally assimilate the other possibility. Last night, chance took the wheel and created a reality that millions of Americans’ minds and mouths hadn’t made room for.

Last night, the working people of America spoke and told us in their own words their fatigue with the establishment, with the status quo, with the harsh realities of an increasingly isolated world. We elected a president who uses racist, xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric to reel in the whims of a tired and aching working class, and it worked. This says something about words and what they can do to bring people together. Words can bring people together in the most powerful ways, creating both the most humanistic and most grievous moments in human history, many too painful to recall.

It’s not my place to tell you what to do as a poet, but I think today is a good day to think about what that title means to you. It’s also not my job because I’m struggling to figure that out, especially now. Whether you use your words to highlight corruption and discrimination, or you speak loudly about the human condition, or you remark a moment of human beauty or fragility, or irony, or elation, or abysmal sadness—you’re changing the reality; you’re changing the status quo. Whether or not you consider yourself political, I’m sure you consider yourself a human being. And with your human words, words that drip with more surety and experience and commonalities than we can even begin to comprehend, perhaps we can make room on our tongues for the future.

Can’t vs. Can not

So, for those of you who don’t know, I’m an intern at a drug rehab center. Basically, my job is to follow whatever unfortunate therapist got stuck with me for the day, sit in on their group and therapy sessions, take notes, give out breathalyzers, and basically just do whatever else the shrink doesn’t want to do (oh, the joys of free college aged labor).

The therapist I found myself with today does this thing where he’ll think out loud. Sometimes he’s talking to me, sometimes (coughmostlycough) it’s to himself. Which ever the case it was today, he brought up an interesting point.

He wrote two sentences on a piece of paper that he wanted to use in some group therapy at some time. The first one read, “I can’t use.” The second read, “I can not use.”

He asked me what the difference was between the two sentences (shot in the dark, he wasn’t referring to the grammar).

The first was a demand, the sort a parent would tell a child. “You can’t use today because you are not allowed to, and you’re not allowed to because I say you aren’t.” Show me a person–addicted or not–who isn’t degraded and belittled by this statement… But emotions aside, the statement takes away any chance of autonomy the client may have, which is something I hadn’t noticed until looking at the second sentience: “I can not use.”

I want to focus on the two words: “can” and “not” and note that they are separate in the second sentence, as opposed to being fused into one: cannot. Breaking “can” into it’s own word is what returns the power to the clients in outpatient by reminding them that they can use, if they choose to do so. Granted, we’d rather they didn’t choose to use… but in the end, we acknowledge that it’s their life, and their choice, and we cannot stop them. The “not” is what gives them the strength to do just that. They “can” opt to use, but they won’t, or rather, they will choose “not” to.

The “can’t” in “I can’t use” denies both the can and the not, and this is what strips the client of their rights to choose, just as their addiction stripped them of their rights to choose what would become of their lives.

Just some small words that make all the difference to those who hear or read them.

Writing Exercise: The Image in Succession

francine j. harris’ poem “what you’d find buried in the dirt under charles f. kettering sr. high school” depicts exactly what it says it will in the title, and shows the debris and remnants of student life at a Detroit high school, presented as a series of images in a stream-of-consciousness delivery that almost overloads the reader with the sheer amount of objects and the histories and implications that each of those objects carries. Try to imitate harris in delivering a surplus of images – how can we present a multiplicity of objects or ideas and maintain coherence within that excess? How can we create a linking narrative between images without becoming caught up in any particular image? This exercise can be done with ideas or events serving as the image, but push yourself to try for tangible objects. If you need help starting, look for ten objects that you could hold in your hands in the book you are following and describe the context in which they might all be found together, and proceed from there.

In Response to Carolina and Amanda

I love Carolina’s question: what kind of poet do we want do be? For me, another way to word it would be “what do we want out poems to do, and what kind of relationship do we want to have with our poems?” Personally, anything I do must be honest and sincere. That is an expectation I hold for myself, because I have found that whenever I am not honest or produce something not out of honesty, it results in either guilt or disconnect between me and the product. Sometimes I don’t intend to be dishonest in my writing, but sometimes my writing is not skilled enough to or crafted in a way that represents my honest emotions and thoughts in their true meaning and depth.

Just as I finished typing that paragraph and checked my Facebook messages, I see this photo of a poem by Rupi Kaur that a close friend sent me:


How interesting….and timely…

And as I clicked onto the homepage of Facebook, I see this post from my dear friend Louis Marzella (Geneseo alumni) whom some of you might know:

*warning: midnight linguistic relativist rant ahead*

I truly believe that writing is an almost magical process and one of the most powerful things a person can do. When you are able to apply language to subconscious thoughts, feelings, and instincts, you not only come to more thoroughly understand those abstractions – you also arrive at totally new insights that conceptually may never have existed without language. I so often zip through life on autopilot without taking the time to reflect on my state of affairs, but I find that the times that I engage in deliberate verbal reflection – beyond passive, vague mental reflection – are the times I most consciously, clearly, and intimately know my self. If it’s your thing, I would encourage everyone to keep a journal or at least talk to yourself in the shower or the car. I really believe it can empower you in a concrete way and help you to see things differently.

I think Louis makes a great point. Writing is an act of self-discovery as is reflecting, except that it’s a concrete way of reflecting – there’s something about being able to see your thoughts visually and not just hearing them in your head. You realize things about yourself you wouldn’t have known if you didn’t write them down. You are able to step further away from yourself and look at yourself in a new light. Why we must know ourselves truthfully is another packed question, basically alluding to “is there an unchangeable truth ” and “what is the meaning of life”… Personally I don’t think any writing (or anything, actually) matters if there is no constant truth we can hold on to, if anything we do is permissible and if all boundaries are empty, meaningless or even harmful social constructs. But I digress.

If those are the two things that are most valuable about writing – the healing and the self-discovery – then I would say Kaur is right in his poem (although as Carolina has suggested, we cannot be sure whether those are Kaur’s true thoughts). Personally I think that is the kind of relationship I want with my writing – my writing serves as a mirror, sometimes a painting (this involves more manipulation and intention than the mirror), as therapy, and if none of those apply to me, that they would be those things to the reader. I’m fine with people relating to writing that I may not relate to or agree with anymore, but that piece of writing will probably lose value in my own eyes (unless the difference between what I write and who I am or think I am is so notable and telling of how I’ve changed).

So to summarize, what matters most in your writing (Amanda’s question) depends on what kind of poet you want to be (Carolina’s question). I value honesty in my writing since I have found that honest writing brings me the most healing, freedom from hurt/narrow-mindedness/shame/apathy, and joy, and so I want to be the kind of poet that either heals/frees/brings joy to me or the reader.