Comfort Zones


One of the reasons I love workshops is that it pushes me out of my creative comfort zone. Unfortunately, whenever I’m given the chance, I still find myself returning to its (my comfort zone’s) warm embrace.

Not only do I seek out my comfort zone in my own writing, but I look for it and commend it in my peers’ work, as well as published authors. For instance, I recently came across a collection by one of my favorite authors, Joy Harjo. I thoroughly enjoy her work; however, I know that I am not doing myself, nor her work, any favors by only highlighting the elements of her poems that I like. Workshops have taught me to look past the superficial aesthetics of the poems that I used to focus on (well, I still do, but I hope to a lesser extent) and shed light on the deeper, more meaningful aspects of the poem.

If I’m being honest, one of the reasons I chose Joy Harjo’s collection was the predominant equine imagery and the ambiguous female pronouns (sound familiar?) While I know that I am judging the book by its cover, so to speak, I am eager to unearth the grit in her poems, as well.

I want to use this so-called technique in my own work. In other words, I want to write a poem that is appealing on the surface level, but raises questions once the reader actually becomes engrossed in it.

Oftentimes, I get too caught up in the surface-level fluff, aka the pretty picture that the poet paints, rather than the true purpose of the poem. That surface level “fluff” is my comfort zone. While I still want to acknowledge my comfort zone, because that’s what originally drew me to poetry, I want to become a better poet. That means that I must step away from the man-made utopias that I usually associate with poems and look more at raw emotion and human imperfections (the things that I tend to stray away from in my writing.)

What do you all do to get out of your comfort zone in your writing?

Getting out of your own way–

Last night, I sat down to write something for another class. I stared at a blank document on my screen for about 15 minutes before letting out a frustrating sigh, and closing the laptop down entirely. The ever so familiar phrases began in my head while I got up to make a cup of tea: “I can’t think of anything to write because I don’t think I’m good enough to write. I will never be as good as the writers who have come before me. I have nothing in my brain that is worth writing down.” The tea kettle started screeching, and the chain of thought broke. I could feel the cloud of defeat stretching over me.

This assignment that I needed to finish was due the very next day; there was no way around it. I had to write. I opened the laptop again, and groaned. My partner came over, and sat down next to me.

“Is everything okay?” he asked. It had been a stressful weekend, and he knew I was struggling.

“I feel nothing. I don’t have anything that is going to be good enough for this assignment.” I said, sipping on the tea, and basking in the laptop light. I explained the assignment to him, and he looked at me and smiled.

“I don’t know anything about the literary world, but I do know that you’re stuck for a very simple reason.”

“What reason is that?” I asked in an irritated tone. I did not want a lesson, I wanted an answer.

“You’re literally standing in your own way. Cut out the bullshit of other people’s ideas, stop thinking about the process of writing, and just look. Look at this as an opportunity, not as an obligation. Stand up, and let yourself in. You’re blocking what you really want.”

I do this thing where I focus on the writing process, and not the writing itself. I stare into the abyss, thinking of the perfect piece, and then I get stage fright. I talk myself into thinking that any idea I have has either been done before, or will be done better in the future. Then I enter into a never ending feedback loop of bad thoughts, and I accomplish nothing.

This may seem like a very cliche piece, but I thought I’d share it with this blog to explain my fear; this fear of never making it in this world. But I’ve learned in the past 24 hours that nothing will EVER be written or produced in the same voice, because my voice is entirely my own. There’s only one of me, and that is something irreplaceable. Even writing this piece is giving me a sense of self doubt, but I’m here, still in the light of the laptop, persevering.

This post doesn’t really have anything to do about poetry, but this subject can be attached to any type of creative endeavor. If I were to look up resilience in the dictionary, I’d like to think I’d find a picture of a writer at a desk, cup of tea in hand, swimming in self doubt. But I know that writer would still have their head above water, somehow.

Wholesome Penguin RandomHouse

Hi guys!

I came across this cute lil quiz from Penguin and I wanted to share. It tells you what punctuation mark you are and gives you a book recommendation for kicks (or for their sales, whatever). Anyway, I love the literary world.

What Punctuation Mark Are You?

I got “Quotation Marks” and its description is: “We quote to adequately depict our innermost thoughts that we may not be able to verbalize. You’re a reflective and gentle soul who enjoys curling up with a good book. Read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a disturbing and fascinating tale.”

paying homage

I’d like to talk about the purpose of an epigraph. I had to look up what an epigraph was before I wrote this because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I do know, however, that it came up in class the other day when we were talking about inspiration. As writers, we have to make sure that we’re truly inspired before we write about something, so that it actually sounds good. (At least, that’s how it is for me, feel free to share your experiences if you can just write about anything at the drop of a hat).

I think that epigraphs are a great way to pay homage to what has inspired us, but I’ve discovered a different way to do that. I take a line from a song, or a poem or a movie, and I change it to fit the subject of the poem.  For example, I’ll take “The lady loves me, but she doesn’t know it yet” and change it to fit another poem. So it becomes “Oh boy does the lady love you, and don’t you know it yet?” I’ve found that the trickiest thing with this method is finding a new way to convey the sentiment behind the original line, since you’re changing it. I kind of like it when I find a way to change a line and make it so that it’s possible that the original speaker could have said that line. In other words, I like when I preserve their personality and diction when I do this, however it doesn’t come easily. Oh well. What do you think of my method? Is it too cheesy? Is it over done? Is there a way that you suggest I change it? Fire away. 🙂

Martín Espada, poetry, activism, and a what does it mean to live as a poet?

Last week, I had the awesome opportunity to attend the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors (FUSE) Conference with a few of my fellow classmates. Lizzie, Meg, Sara, and I stayed in a super cozy B&B just outside of Philly. I could go on about this fancy Air B&B and its fancy water-saving toilet, but I would digress.

Something I began thinking about legitimately during this conference was a career in writing. Although it would be natural to think about this during a writing conference, this question came about during a particular reading during the first night of the conference. The illustrious Martín Espada, a Brooklyn-born Nuyorican poet and activist, was the keynote reader and workshop-runner. His poetry– and especially his dramatic, funny, and lively reading style– made me laugh and cry. From cockroaches to hurricanes, I felt connected to this poet of my mother’s New York City generation, which is a reason I felt I could relate to his style.

In addition to poems sobre las cucarachas, there were many political poems– in particular, what Espada called his “lawyer” poems– since he was also a tenant lawyer and legal advocate for the Latino community. When I realized that Espada was both a poet and a lawyer for the type of advocacy I aspire to, something clicked.

Folks like Espada don’t live in a poetry bubble. They work out in the world, with their hands and their hearts. I realized that I, too, can think of my future career aspirations– which includes work in immigrant and refugee advocacy– and still write poetry. Poetry can always be a part of my life, as can the other work. Of course this would require some sacrificing, and some balancing. But all hard work does.

When I got my poetry book, Alabanza, signed by Espada, I told him about how I aspire to do work like he does, potentially in law. He addressed my book:

Dear Isabel, future poet-lawyer…

He read it aloud as he wrote it. I said “Now, because it’s in a book, it has to come true.” He agreed.


Seeking Poetic Signature

After a couple rounds of workshop, it’s easy to tell which poem belongs to its respective poet. Even without a name or initials being printed on the page. Sometimes the telling factor is a recurring theme in imagery, a topic, or tone. I’d say that, as a group of poets, we’ve gotten to know each other’s voices really well.

Maybe it’s a result of inundating myself with great poetry [the stack of IDS books in my bedroom is getting out of hand (and that might not even be hyperbolic enough)], but I’ve been noticing how defined and developed these poet voices are. The characteristics show in a poem’s tone, structure, and syntax; some of these/we poets have a signature style that would allow me to quickly identify them even if we didn’t announce who was being workshopped on a given day. Consequently, I’ve been trying to figure out my own poetic voice. Even though I have considered myself a writer for over a decade, I’m not sure I have a signature style. For some reason, that bothers me. It creates, for me, the impression that I do not yet have a poetic identity.

So, over the course of the semester, I’ve been experimenting with different styles, voices, and forms. Workshop has inspired me to try to write in the style of X to learn whether or not certain forms or voices suit what I am doing. It’s tough, but it has taught me more about who I think I am as a writer. These experiments are so secretive for me that I don’t even put them in my Writing Exercise folder (where some of us like to peek for inspiration), because they don’t seem like me. Instead, the Writings folder on my laptop has recently become a kind of theatrical variety show, where each of these poetic voice experiments is an actor. Some of them get the hook. But some of them I’m interested in exploring, and they excite me, even when they don’t feel like my usual poems.

What does this mean, then, for the poems that don’t adhere to the style manual I seem to have set up in this and previous workshops? Is the stylistic departure worth exploring? Just how much does it matter to have an identifiable poetic voice, and how consistent must that be in order for readers to identify your poetic voice? Or should poems not adhere to a style and, in doing so, become universal?

These thoughts have been causing me internal conflict for a while now, so, please, impart some advice on this confused writer.

What do we owe our writing prompts?

Most, if not all, of us have experienced writer’s block at one point or another. I tend to experience writer’s block the most when I first sit down to begin a poem. That being said, I have come to be quite fond of prompts. I honestly believe that some of my best work has stemmed from a given prompt, as they usually force me outside my comfort zone and away from my natural train of thought. Thus, I always appreciate the prompts that Professor Lytton feeds us through our class handout. While, I usually have fun challenging myself to write a poem about a “One night stand with an astronaut,” or reproducing my favorite poem in negative images, I still struggle with writer’s block.

For instance, this week’s main prompt asked us to create a poem that felt like its lines were balancing both gravity and flight. As the wheels in my brain began turning, I could not think of anything “worthy” to write down. This feeling of being lost on the page eventually subsided and a poem began to emerge. It was literally about flight, as in the act of flying in a plane, not the war between weightlessness and mass in my lines. I felt as ifI had failed the prompt, even if it had done its job of giving me something to work towards.

Similarly, last week we were asked to choose ten outstanding lines from other poems, compile them all into one poem, and then build our own poem off of this foundation. I ended up using an image from the first line I chose and scrapped the rest. Again, not what the prompt was asking.

I understand that the prompt is meant to simply lead one down the path to a new poetic concept, yet I can’t shake the feeling that I owe the prompt something once I use it as a springboard (especially considering that none of my latest exercises look anything like the prompts that they originated from.) What are your thoughts on this or prompts in general? Any cool ideas for a prompt? Please feel free to share!

“Captivated Syllabics” by Robyn Schiff

When reading “Captivated by Syllabics” by Robyn Schiff in A Broken Thing, I really thought about the role of syllables in poetry in a totally new way. Although I knew sometimes poets payed attention to the specific use syllables in poetry, I had never heard it put into words in an interesting and comprehendible way. Furthermore, I found Schiff’s discussion of the line itself interesting, from the very first paragraph. Schiff describes, “All lines flicker between two lives; now an isolated unit, now a contiguous part of a sentence and stanza and poem. Lines move like time moves, both in obtained moments, and boundlessly toward eternity. Maybe writing in lines fulfills our deepest and terribly contrary wish both to stop and to keep going at the same time. To hold captive, to be captivated, and also to let go and to be released” (215). This quote, I found, spoke to the way the line is both a statement all by itself, but is also a part of a whole. It’s one moment, but it also compels the reader to keep reading and moving through the poem. So, when someone reads a line, they might both feel like they want to stop at a certain line, but when they do that there is always the need to keep reading to find what comes next. Like Schiff says, the line is fascinating because of its contradictions.

Has anyone else written or read a poem where the use of syllables or the line in general was vital to the poem, or interesting,  or stood out to them in some way?

I think you all should know that I’ve been plundering your poems

As you all know, our class shares a folder via Google Drive, and cached within are our writing exercises, all neatly tucked away in folders labeled with each poet’s name. Of course the point of all this is to share our work, so on some level it’s obvious – any one of you is free to see what I’ve been writing, and vice versa.

Yet I can’t help but feel like I’m snooping when I click on someone else’s folder. I feel weird even saying this, like I’m admitting to leafing through your diaries, even though I’m fairly certain that it’s allowed, and that I’m not the only one (please say I’m not the only one!) doing it.

So yes, I scroll through your weekly poems, see the different ways we interpret the prompts, notice who has more consistent style and whose one-off experiments are vastly different from what they submitted to workshop. At times I want to ask – why didn’t you bring this poem to the class? Did you ever come back to this piece? I want to know if you like the poems I like, or if you just wrote them to write them, to have something to turn in on time. There have been instances when a poem catches my eye, and I like it so much I want to grab the person responsible, and tell them – but many of you I don’t know so well, and we don’t really talk outside of class, so I lose my nerve. I wonder who will mind that I’ve been sticking my nose in things.

I think you all should know that sometimes, if I don’t know what to do with the week’s exercise, I check to see if any of you have done it in a timelier manner than I have, for inspiration. And, in my private poems (more private than those in a digital folder, the kind that live in a red notebook in my bag) I take your line breaks, your themes, images, the occasional, meaty two-or-three word phrase – and I try them on for size, like we do with the poems from the reader.

I don’t post them. But I do wonder how you feel about that.


This Blog is Problematic

I’ve been thinking about this for three months now, and when we had the conversation in class about Sorbello’s transphobia, thought of it again.

To spare you the entire tweet thread, queer historian Morgan Page argues that controversial, iconoclastic, and thought-provoking queer art is being pushed out of the contemporary art community due to artists harboring a fear of their being labeled as “problematic,” and rejected on political grounds. She chalks this up to social media’s “immediacy” and accessibility; on the internet, everyone and anyone can be a critic, and those critiques—which are often framed around a moral viewpoint—can be shared with ease. However, on sites like Twitter and Tumblr, there’s a tendency for critiques to become mobs. As Page recalls, there’s always been provocative art. However, she also says:

…in the 80s what was someone going to do? Write a nasty letter to the editor? Now they can send hundreds of messages directly, dox you.

This creates the danger of art becoming stagnant, as artists focus their efforts only on work that’s considered socially acceptable, in fear of that mobbing.

Certainly, at times, heavy backlash is appropriate—as Page notes, when we dismiss social media criticism, we also “run the risk of dismissing legitimate critique, particularly of racism” (which is particularly pervasive in white gay communities). (Or of transphobia, as demonstrated here on campus.) But it can also pose a threat to beginning or otherwise vulnerable artists, as critics, convinced they have the moral high ground, take it upon themselves to diminish and belittle an artist’s lived experiences.

Take Glip, a comic artist better known by the name “Glitched Puppet,” who produces the comic “Floraverse.” Earlier this year, a large group of ex-readers grouped up to accuse Glip and their partner of a number of “problematic” things, one of which was asexual erasure in Floraverse. According to these critics, Glip had claimed a character, Beleth, was asexual, then shown her having sex as a way to invalidate asexuality and cater to a homophobic audience.

Glip’s response was to remind their critics of a simple fact: Glip themself is asexual. And showing Beleth having sex was a way for them to convey their own experiences with sex as an asexual person in their art. In response to these critics, however, Glip made the decision to stop calling Beleth ace—Glip would rather stop telling their story than deal with what they call “gatekeepers.”

Elsewhere in the art world, gay artist David Wynne has argued that many “younger people” involved in queer discourse take too narrow a moral view when discussing how LGBTQ+ people live today. In a short Twitter thread discussing the 50th anniversary of the legalization of homosexuality in Britain, Wynne notes that growing up as a gay man in England, queerness was considered “an unspeakable thing” in many areas. As such, he was forced to hide his sexuality, and adopt a heteronormative and at-times-homophobic view of the world, as a way of keeping himself safe—an act that, he claims, has received criticism from younger artists. In his thread, he lashes out, stating:

…when we tell our stories in fiction, they are messy, they are complicated, they do not conform to an idealised narrative. It’s become a thing now, where I see one of my peers tell their story, then get dogpiled by 22yr olds for furthering problematic narratives. Well, I’m sorry, but our lives have been fucking problematic.

On an unrelated but still-kinda-related note, we also have to think about what the proper reaction should be when we find content that is offensive… but is being produced by artists who belong to the group that should be offended (for lack of a better term).

Consider Larry David’s monologue on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, which came under heavy criticism for some of the jokes he made, which included pointing out that many of the Hollywood executives recently accused of sexual assault are Jewish, and an extended bit about romance in Nazi Germany:

I often wonder: if I grew up in Poland during the time that Hitler came to power, and got sent to a concentration camp, would I still be checking out the women in the camp? I think I would!

A number of critics decried David’s monologue as anti-semitic and offensive. Yet, as David points out himself in the monologue, he himself is Jewish, and has built a career off of making jokes about his heritage. Do critics have a right to criticize David for making such jokes on moral grounds?

This is a lot of words to say that as the world continues to evolve, we need to consider how our art and our critiques will evolve with it. Nuance is key.