The Sketchbook Project

There’s a potential source of inspiration that some of you might be interested in checking out. The Brooklyn Art Library serves a very specific function to its local and global community – it is the physical storehouse of thousands of sketchbooks. These sketchbooks are not taken from the estates of famed contemporaries, nor do they hold any historical value. They are specifically the notebooks of normal people. For twenty dollars (and a little extra if you’d like your book to be digitized), you can buy a sketchbook from the Brooklyn Art Library, do whatever you’d like to it – draw, doodle, write, paint, paste, etc. – send it back to them, and it will forever be a part of their archives. It’s called the Sketchbook Project. These sketchbooks can be rented out within the library and read, as well as accessed online by the larger world – all with the intention of giving voices to people who normally would not know where to submit their work to, if they ever even considered submitting their work. I’ve seen people give these sketchbooks to children, whose art is usually looked over.

There are first-time and not-so-first-time poets who write about their trauma (TW for abuse).

Those are just two categories I’ve noticed; I wouldn’t want to take away the experience of you exploring the digital library for yourself. But there’s a lot of poetry on there written by all sorts of people from all different walks of life; just searching “poetry” yields 692 results in multiple languages, skill levels, etc. And there’s a bunch of visual art that isn’t published anywhere other than within these digitized journals, either. It’s worth looking through!

Don’t make me say it

I spent most of last week writing a long poem about a lot of things but mainly grapefruits and my friend Aeryn. She wanted me to write it, and I wanted to write it, and when I was done writing it, she asked if she could post it to Instagram and I made a noise like ‘hnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngnnnnnnnn’. I’m a very private person, which juxtaposes in the worst possible way with being a poet— sometimes I make poems vaguer before submitting them to workshop, sometimes I have to do the writing exercise of the week over again before I feel comfortable sharing it, sometimes I write poems about things and reread them, realizing that even in my head I can only talk about them by talking around them, never allowing things to come into focus. You get it. 

Is it ever really the role of the readers to know what a poem is about? Is that ever your business? I think not. I know that feels rude, and I do think it’s wonderful when poems are open about their meaning, freely accessible and available for others with similar experiences to relate to. I just prefer poems that are hyper-specific, with proper nouns and weird references. I want to write poems and have strangers read them and think that they are beautiful and weird and sad, and then I want my friends to read those poems and laugh and know who and what they are about. 

The expectations of openness are different for poetry than anything else (except creative non-fiction which is maybe almost worse). If I were a Physics major, I could simply share my physics homework and never worry about whether or not my classmate saw through it and into me, suddenly burdened with profound knowledge about what shapes me into a human. They would only know that I was terrible at math and probably should not be a physics major. There’s too much of myself in poetry, just right there in the open for anyone to see. Sometimes I get anxiety sweats the night before workshop, imagining someone asking me what the poem means, exactly. 

I let Aeryn post the poem, eventually, because I felt bad for denying her the opportunity to share it. Once I let her into the poem, it wasn’t really just mine anymore, and, to be fair, nothing bad happened. My mother did not erupt from the earth and shame me for bringing open emotions to our stoic Irish ancestors, no one informed me that my acceptance into the creative writing track was an elaborate prank, there were no locusts or rivers of blood. There was only me and Aeryn and a few hundred readers, suddenly burdened by intimate knowledge. Or maybe not.

Poetry in Pictures

I will admit that I am writing this without any research, but I wanted to get this idea down before I forgot it. In class today we talked about language, and someone brought up that people think in words, and Professor Smith talked about writing poetry in a language that is yours and is not yours. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think in pictures and words. The way I’ve explained my brain in the past is that it’s like going to the TV section of Best Buy and there’s a different station on every single screen, but you can see all of them at once. There’s a screen that has all the words I’m hearing, there’s a screen that has my thoughts as words on it, there’s a screen that has whatever song lyrics that are stuck in my head on it, there’s a screen that has whatever I’m seeing, a screen with the picture representations of whatever I’m thinking of, and so on. It’s very crowded and chaotic. However, if people can think in pictures, could we write poetry in pictures? We write books in pictures (graphic novels).

I’m not talking about paintings or photographs because those are stationary in a way that poetry is not. I mean could poetry exist as a visual representation? I think that it could. Literacy is so much more than most people realize. It’s possible to be literate in more than just languages. Coding is a great example of something that isn’t a traditional language, but is something you can be literate in. Another example is graphic novels. Those take a completely different type of literacy to read. The most abstract example I will give in memes. Some people can look at a picture and find the humor behind it because they are “literate” in memes while someone else will just see a random picture.

Going off of these different types of literacy, I wonder what poetry would look like if it were all in pictures. Because people can understand graphic novels, it’s possible! I think that this idea might look like a comic you’d see in a newspaper, but vertical instead of horizontal and more abstract than cartoon. I’m not sure that any of this made sense, but if anyone knows of some completely visual poems, I would be so interested in reading them!

Happy Poems Just Don’t Happen

I have never written a happy poem. I am sure that I am not the only one who struggles with writing something happy, but I simply cannot bring myself to writing about something that makes me happy. Sometimes, I’ll start to brainstorm, and then get a few lines out, but I immediately decide that I hate it, so I move on. I also chose a poetry book that is about grief for the book review. Actually, I’m kind of expecting there to be at least one poem that is perhaps about happiness, because as someone who has experienced grief, it definitely is not just “sad.” I suppose that could be an interesting thing to write about, the happiness experienced during grief, but I feel like it’s not the “happy” that I’m looking for. It’s sad happy. I need just happy happy, does that make sense? Whether it’s about romantic love, or familial love, or a kid on their birthday, or maybe being able to get your favorite meal that you haven’t had in a while–I don’t know, anything without something sad tagged onto it.

Has anyone written a “happy” poem? I’m really stuck on the process. Where I typically start when I’m writing poetry is to create a certain atmosphere using imagery, and then go on from there. I suppose I also haven’t read a lot of uplifting poetry, or at least none that I liked or didn’t find cringy. If anyone has a suggestion, or perhaps a good poet who writes about uplifting, “happy” things, please let me know.

Cadence & Presentation

As an introduction to found poetry, Professor Beltz-Hosek made a poem out of the back of a pack of Sticky Notes. She cut up each sentence into lines, and what surprised us all is that it didn’t not work. Breaking the lines into the kind of rhythm and cadence we associate with poetry, and the words themselves felt different.

That exercise had led me to think about poetry as presentation, not just wordcraft. I think, despite how minimalist the format of the printed poem is, we still impart an air of power and reverence that comes with the written poem. This is why, I feel, spoken word poetry gets so much flak in popular culture for being “awkward.”  The change of the format removes that air of reverence, at a surface glance it isn’t how people imagine poetry, it’s someone speaking in a tone that isn’t how they’ve seen people usually speak before.

The inverse of this is also true- people will almost always look over beautiful word craft and form when it appears in places we don’t associate with poetry. I’ve seen people respond to very banal posts online and say, hey, wait a sec, this is poetry, you wrote this in iambic pentameter. I feel like it’s only when we see markers of certain presentation do we think “Oh, I’m reading poetry” and begin to look at the words as more than just information to be skimmed. Cultivating found poetry and making blackout poems train us to not just skim, but to train our poet’s brain to pick up phrasing we may have missed. Online poets and on Twitter or Instagram get around the problem of skimming through how they present their format- they’ll scatter the words across the screen in a way you only see in poems, or they’ll put a sunset background on the words, not to fit the theme, but to communicate to the reader “this is not a post, this is poetry.”

Here, Bullet

In this week’s blog post, I was gonna talk about a point I brought up in my previous one. In which poetry and writing has the ability to bring forward suppressed memories. However, my copy of Here, Bullet by Brian Turner came in and wow, I’m loving it. So I thought I would take this blog post and talk about it so far. Right now, I am little more than half-way done with the collection and I can’t stop reading it. The themes of the collection follows: the emotional turmoil of both American soldiers and Iraqi fighters during the conflict in Iraq, how the fighting affect Iraqi citizens, how American soldiers are viewed in Iraq and many more. Turner switches POV in this collection between American soldiers, Iraqi fighters, and Iraqi citizens. Poems such as What Every Soldier Should Know and Two Stories Down are two of the many that show the reality of war. The first poem mentioned has the narrator presumably an older vetran speaking to younger men. He tells them some of the customs of the Iraqi people, but also intertwines threats that they should be aware of while on patrol. The second poem mentioned shows the brutalness of combat and I would hate to spoil it because it has a “oh damn” moment in it. One of my favorite poems so far though is called Ashbah The poem’s title means “Ghost” and it follows the dead of both sides as they struggle to find their way back home. I believe it is Turner’s ability to have such elegant brutality in his poems that make them so effective. I encourage everyone to give it a read.

If you want to give it a read, just ask me in class and I’ll let you borrow it 🙂

Things I am going to STEAL

I forget what day we talked about this in class, but there was a quote that said, “Good poets borrow. Great poets steal.” I wish I had copies from the poems we have already workshopped, but there are definitely lines that I am in love with from the writers in class, but alas, I can’t remember them. Here’s a working list of things that I want to steal:

  • Grimay’s idea of relating things to flies
  • Grimay’s relation between telescopes and guns (I already compared cameras and guns, so I need something more)
  • Troy Seefried’s line “fog-filled morning” that I misread as “fog-filled warning” which I loved
  • The way that Tora’s music makes me feel
  • The entire song “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” by Bright Eyes
  • Ilya Kaminsky’s line “I must write the same poem over and over again, for any empty page is the white flag of their surrender”
  • From 6LACK’s “Luving U”, the lines [I stand up, say ‘I had enough’/ She stand up ‘Oh, you think you tough’] (Oh, the joys of toxic relationships!)
  • Elieen Myles’ line “She never resembled/ the woman/ but she became/ her… like looking/ death in/ the face/ and saying/ okay/ get going” from the book Not Me
  • From The Triggering Town, “There is always a body of water, a sea just out of sight beyond the hill or a river running through town. Outside of the town a few miles is a lake that has been the scene of both romance and violence.” 
  • From Yeek’s song “Cleaner Air”, the lines “I was born and raised/ I don’t know where/ She’s from Florida/ Probably breathing cleaner air”

Abstract Reality

One of the most challenging thing for writers, in my opinion, is avoiding abstraction in your work, especially in a medium like poetry. I’ve fallen victim to the use of words like “fear,” “anger,” and ironically, “clarity.” The words seem powerful enough, but they can vastly differ from person to person. Reading poems from Gandy Dancer, Erin Kae’s Grasp This Salt, as well as Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria, I was greeted with vivid imagery like “Our roadmap folds into a fan and shoots into the puck//ered eye of a toll booth worker,” in Mitchell Angelo’s “Motion Sickness.”

I think some of it lies in the fact that when I get inspired or get an idea for a poem I feel compelled, like many, to write it down. But in the process of getting it down, I overlook the necessity of revising and editing my lines to include more specific details rather than just broad ideas. To me it feels like writing an outline for a short story, or maybe writing the entire thing in just exposition. To get the idea of what you want to say but it’s not as fulfilling as it could be.

I’ve been exploring the poetry resources online and found a few places where they list abstract words to avoid in writing. I think some of the most surprising I’ve found have been “envy,” and “sorrow.” They feel like strong words, but I can see how they lack the specificity required to break free of the “abstract” label.

Mass Hierarchies and Art Monopolies

The 21st century has brought with it advancements and complications that nobody in the pre-digital age dealt with: the dotcom boom is our modern Gutenberg press.

The industrialized automaton of book printing is one thing, but the mass sales and proliferation of their hard-cover copies in an international market is another. In the most interconnected age in history, competition within art is more stratified than ever. Whether the shelves of our grandparent’s local libraries where the Book of the Month Club dished out copies of Richard Wright, or the airport bookstore’s exaltation of Stephen King’s newest novel on the top shelf, or even the Carolingian monks studiously copying Cicero in 8th century, the geography of publication always seemed limited by access; and therefore the acclaim and popularity of authors had always been restricted by access… and the total amount of authors.

With educational opportunities abounding, the brightest amongst us have access to the literary craft and artistic domain like never before. Yet the massive marketplace available through Amazon and other distributers makes a few favored authors the catch all for book sales. Where poets could once be “the best around,” it seems to be noticed one needs to be the “best” period. How many brilliant artists are lost in the river of an oversaturated, never-going-to-be-egalitarian-and-that’s-ok kind of market?

For those familiar with the infamous Pareto distribution, it seems the swimming pool for creatives is only getting bigger and a few fish fatter. But where does that leave the novice poet? A job in academia? Well statistics are equally dismal.

The bottom line is that we all want to be published and we all want to be read. Hopefully making enough income so that we don’t become the emaciated embodiment of a “starving artist.” But I don’t think that’s possible… I think the only thing that I am left with is the desperation, joy, and final conclusion that despite overwhelming odds, I will choose to write; and as I do so with the hope of being published one day, all that I can strive for is to write something worth reading.

The Jungian Revelation: The “Unconsciousness” and Inspiration

In Carl Jung’s influential essay “Approaching the unconscious,” found in the larger work Man and his Symbols, Jung defines cryptomnesia or “concealed recollection” in relationship to a passage in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“I myself found a fascinating example of this in Nietzsche’s book Thus Spake Zarathustra, where the author reproduces almost word for word an incident reported in a ship’s log for the year 1686. By sheer chance I had read this seaman’s yarn in a book published about 1835 (half a century before Nietzsche wrote); and when I found the similar passage in Thus Spake Zarathustra , I was struck by its peculiar style, which was different from Nietzsche’s usual language… I wrote to his sister who was still alive, and she confirmed that she and her brother had in fact read the book together when he was 11 years old. I think, from the context, it is inconceivable that Nietzsche had any idea that he was plagiarizing this story. I believe that fifty years later it had unexpectedly slipped into focus in his conscious mind.” (37)

Jung is exploring the relationship between our “conscious” and “unconscious” knowledge. As part of a psychological model that includes the “unconscious” as an objective component of what it means to be human, Jung believes that our attentional focus can only perceive a certain amount of what our cognition is experiencing, the “conscious” part, and that thoughts can “slip” into our conscious experience without our realizing of it. In addition to cryptomnesia, he defines dreams as the primary mode of communication between the “unconscious” and “conscious,” stating:

“The British author Robert Louis Stevenson had spent years looking for a story that would fit his “strong sense of man’s double being,” when the plot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was suddenly revealed to him in a dream.” (38)

A dream, an “unconscious” crytpomnesia, and the “muse”? What I am most interested in, is if these are synonyms. I don’t think that it would be too much to posit that Jung believed the “muse” of old was the inspiriting “unconscious;” thrusting a new connection, absurd synthesis, or in the case of Nietzsche, an unknown regurgitation of a former story into the passionate fervor of an author. How much artistic plagiarism is intentional? How much is malevolent? How much is our rearticulating of themes found from the dawn of literature explicit plagiarism opposed to unintentional association?

If in poetry, there is a sentiment to “stop being logical,” I am curious if this decommissioning of focus on the executive functions of conscious experience has been the means for individuals to try and let “unconscious” associations flow forth and rearticulate the world in a dreamy, dare I say, poetic sense.