I took a class on British literature during my senior year of high school. I never expected to like it because literature doesn’t get any stuffier than that, but it turns out, I’m exactly the stuffy person who loves British literature. I should have known because I’ve been in love with period pieces for a long time. I did one of my presentations in that class on the sexual innuendos in Jane Eyre, and let me tell you, there are millions. I mean, Jane Eyre literally puts out a fire in Edward Rochester’s room. There’s so much sexual tension in that book, and I loved it. (Not to brag but my poster used an unnecessary amount of red glitter paper to really drive home all those steamy details.)
I think I idealized living in the countryside, and that was one of the main reasons for going to school here. That and teenage rebellion. However, as it turns out, the Geneseo countryside is nothing like the English countryside of the 1800s. Frat parties on the weekends are not exactly extravagant balls, but Geneseo does smell like cows, so there is that similarity. As much as I have idealized the small-town living, I can’t wait to move back to California where I get to sit in traffic for two hours and grass comes in yellow or dead.
Those two very different ideas are often at odds in my poems. Most of my poems are set in California, and while the setting is often very fast-paced, the actions are normally not. The characters have nowhere to be except for that poem, so things don’t really move. If you haven’t noticed, most of my poems are very set in one time frame and in one action. It reminds me of the scene of The Illustrated Man where the children have a room full of screens. I feel as though my characters are on that screen, except they are on a constant loop, while I watch them and move them how I want.
I’m realizing that this blog post is all over the place in terms of theme, but sometimes you just have to word-vomit your thoughts.
When thinking about what got me into poetry, I had said it was because my parents introduced literature at a really early age, which is completely true; however, when thinking again about what actually got me into poetry, it was poetry in response to a tragedy that got me writing, specifically, slam poetry. Whether it was a rape survivor’s story, or survivors of a shooting, or a political statement, the readings piqued my interest. What took me by surprise was the emotion from the poets when they read their poetry. It was a performance, not just a recitation.
In class, when Lidabel mentioned Button Poetry, I was immediately brought back to my 15-year-old self staying up late on youtube, under the covers, headphones turned all the way up to “Somewhere in America” by Los Angeles Team on Youth Speaks. After watching some of their videos, I found Button Poetry, and a bunch of other channels with young poets writing and reciting poetry I could relate to. I would play the videos over and over, eventually being able to mimic the exact way the words were spoken by the poet. Like a song, I recited them in my head, sometimes writing them in my science notebook when I got bored in class (something I still do). I was attracted to the rhythm of their speech and the progression of their poem, revealing one thing after the next.
It’s really interesting to think back on it now. Those videos inspired me so much that instead of copying their poetry over and over, I started writing my own poetry in the spines of all my notebooks. My parents get upset with me now because I refuse to get rid of any book or notepad from high school, but every single one obtains pages upon pages of poems and scribbles of ideas I had that day. I have now developed an appreciation for poetry that doesn’t necessarily have to be read out loud; however, I think it will always have a special place in my heart, as cheesy as it is. Slam poetry got me writing on my own. It was a creative outlet for me at first, but now it’s something that I want to improve every single day.
In all things I do, I’m and educator. It’s impossible for me to do anything without bringing education into it, so while I thought about what I could write this week, education came to my mind as it often does. I can (and probably will) write so many posts on poetry and education, but this week I want to air out a grievance I’ve had since student teaching last semester.
Being the “cool English teacher” that I am, I assigned poetry as a final project for my 10th graders who had just finished The House on Mango Street. I tasked them with taking one vignette from the novel and creating a found poem in the shape of an important symbol from the novel. I thought this was a pretty awesome final project. It was certainly one I would have loved to do in high school. However, my students hated it! My rowdy class actually started yelling at me when I assigned this. I want to know why so many students (and people in general) hate poetry.
I think that it has a lot to do with teachers. English teachers either don’t teach poetry or they teach it in such a way that makes students resent it. So many English teachers refuse to introduce new poetry into the classroom. I truly believe that if it weren’t for teachers beating “The Road Not Taken” to death and then not touching any other poetry, students might enjoy poetry more. That’s not to say Robert Frost isn’t great, I just don’t think he’s the best introduction to poetry. First of all, students like to see themselves represented, and teacher’s who only teach white, male poets are doing a disservice to their students. I remember having to research a poet in tenth grade. I had to pick from a long list of white, male poets who were all long dead. There were only three women on that list, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, and there was only one poet of color, Langston Hughes. I picked Sexton purely because she was a woman I had never heard of. So many students were not able to see themselves in the poets on that list. Nevertheless, that list is the standard for English teachers if they want to teach poetry at all.
Schools and teachers need to be more open to teaching modern poetry. I hate to hear “but that won’t be on the Regents.” Not everything students need to learn will be on the Regents! Teachers should include more modern and diverse poets (this is not to say we shouldn’t still teach Robert Frost, there just needs to be a better mix of poets) when teaching poetry. That way more students might even enjoy their poetry assignments. This is a side note, but teaching creative writing is a whole separate post.
There is a happy ending to my students who hated their assignment at first. They ended up writing some fantastic poetry! A lot of the students actually liked the assignment way more than they thought they would. In fact, the student who protested the assignment the most, wrote one of the best poems, and enjoyed the assignment the most. He actually gave me an extra copy of his poem because he wanted me to be able to read it and “remember my favorite student” as he put it. If anyone wants to read it, I still have it!
It’s an inevitability that you encounter poet Phillip Larkin’s piece “This Be the Verse” at some point within your poetry career. Sometimes it’s an embittered eleventh English teacher who shows it to you partly because its use of the word “fuck” will catch your class’ attention long enough that they stop texting under the desks, partly because they have their own shit going on. It’s a short enough poem that it makes the rounds on platforms like Facebook, lends itself to Pinterest typography, can be photographed from poetry collections using Snapchat filters and sepia for Tumblr. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. /They may not mean to, but they do.” Well-constructed as the rest of the poem might be, there’s little need to read the rest of it. Those two lines bleed universality. It doesn’t matter how idyllic your childhood was; no parent/guardian is perfect, and they dropped the ball at some point. If they were even holding one to begin with.
How, then, do you integrate universality into poetry? If a poem is interpreted to be a snapshot stuck somewhere between the author and the outside world – depending on where you believe the source is – how do you write a line that can be so applicable to most of the population without being so vague as to devalue the poem as a whole? There are very few universal experiences to begin with – being raised by something or some entity, no matter how removed or of what quality, is one of them – and what does that leave us with?
While the recommended blog post this week was supposed to explore our beginnings in writing poetry, I believe that I covered that sufficiently in my last post. Instead I would like to deviate from the path a bit and talk about a novel whose imagery I try to model the imagery in my poetry after. The novel which I refer to is “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. The novel’s author writes interactions between characters in a minimalistic style, choosing to forgo quotation marks and keeping the dialogue brief. Instead, McCarthy focuses more on the imagery of the novel. Emphasis is put on the environment in the novel and how the Hell wrought apocalyptic scenery United States is one of the main driving forces for the story.
For those that haven’t read “The Road,” here is a quick summary I put together: The Road takes place in the barren United States in the near future after an unknown apocalyptic event ravages the world. The reader follows an unnamed father and son as they make their way across the US. They are trying to reach the coast, where they believe they can find some semblance of safety.Their journey is filled with a bleak and dark landscape; woven together with grotesque scenes of other survivors that depict the descent of the rest of humanity into madness. Along the way the father questions his own humanity and whether or not he wants to raise his son in this new cruel and decrepit world.
The Road is a truly fascinating read and it draws readers into the pages. Mainly due to the imagery that it establishes. One of my favorite passages in this novel is:
“She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He’d taught her himself. Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick. And she was right. There was no argument. The hundred nights they’d sat up debating the pros and cons of self destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall.”
It’s passages like these that make me excited to write. The way McCarthy is able to show the events of a suicide is crude,but is masterfully done in the “show, don’t tell” art. Language such as “The edge an atom thick” or “the coldness of it was her final gift” just jolts my metaphoric phrase library in my head awake. If anyone is looking for a good, but heart wrenching read, I implore you to give this novel a read.
Trigger warning: This novel does contain grotesque violence between human and human, Human and animal and Implications of slavery, suicide and rape.
What does it mean to straddle the line between the logical and the
literary? Our vernacular use of the word “literal” has the connotation of “intended”
or “most obvious and easily deciphered,” yet that which is heralded as the most
literary is typically the most cryptic and confusing blend of
metaphor, allegory, intertextuality, and imagined exploration into realms that
are not “obvious” nor “intended.”
Think of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. At once absurd it is also methodically organized, showcasing Wallace’s expansive philosophic and technical vocabulary through pharmacological language and his pioneering use of footnotes. These become integral to a canonical “literary” text of the late 20th century. So where does this then leave the dichotomy between inspiration and rationalism? In reading of the Duende, the writer’s vehement assertion of the inspired and literary as of more value to the poet than the logical is clear. Yet, an irony remains as poetry ascribes body to sentiment in the form of words and letters, compressing inarticulable thoughts into tiny lines and swoops on paper. Our words are technically syllogisms combining to form sums of sentences necessary to create any literary sentiment or symbolism. In other words, the literary is dependent on the logical.
Could this be just another expression of the primeval dichotomy between
order and chaos? Writers use both revision and inspiration. Syllogisms and
sentiment. Perhaps it is not that logic is the issue, but an illogical
emphasis on its utility. Engineers build bridges between lands, while artists
build bridges between minds. As much as we encourage our engineers to have some
sense of aesthetic, we should not discourage our writers to have some sense of rationality.
To be honest I never found myself attracted to the idea of
writing poetry. I never wrote poems growing up, nor did I find myself picking
up poetry books in high school or in college. But I did eventually grow to
appreciate the creative outlet that is poetry. One of my assignments in class
included finding a poet and trying to imitate their style and form. My friend
had given me a book titled “Love Poems” by Pablo Neruda. In it he writes these
amazing poems about the time he vacationed on a tropical island with his lover.
The intense focus on nature, and duality of love for his girl and love for the
earth inspired me in my own work. Although, more in fiction than in poetry.
The main reason I’m in this class is to pick up some
techniques that I could use to help me better my fiction. When I was in fiction
workshops, poets were the ones who always brought the most unique and experimental
fiction to class. While occasionally it fell flat, there was always something in
their stories that I was envious of and wanted to try out in my own fiction. I
think it’s the courage to try out something new, something game changing, that
I really want to learn from this semester, even if I don’t pursue poetry in the
I began writing when I was eight years old, composing lyrics to songs with no music behind them. I thought music was the only thing worth writing in a world concerned with fame and money. But I thought it always had to be about love or pain to be popular. So I wrote about my nonexistent romantic encounters and faults. I never approached topics that meant anything to me. I grew tired of hearing no instrumentals to the words I wrote so I stopped writing for a long time (almost 6 years). In ninth grade, I started writing short stories about the people I saw walking into train cars. I wrote stories inspired by Criminal Minds episodes and my amazement at peoples judgmental attitudes towards the arts. Amidst transcribing a rant about politics and conformity, my friends looked up the qualities that pertained to my astrological sign. And since was birthed my first official poem, “Ode to a Gemini.” That’s when I realized words could explain more things than just love or pain. They can dig out all the hate, disgust, lust and trust in you and bring them to the surface, without any music in the background.
I ended up writing poetry in a way that felt natural but accidental: more a tumble than a growth. When I really reflect upon it, I think I honestly owe it to an inherent and intense hatred of math. I fell in love with language in the first grade, as my teacher always gave us the choice between free-reading or writing continually higher and higher numbers on a scroll. I invariably chose to free-read, and I proceeded to get super into books for the rest of my life. The earliest poem I remember writing was in third grade, about an imaginary mix between a cat and a bunny— very creatively entitled ‘Catabunny”. Following that, I remember writing some (horrible, horrible) poetry in middle school, but it was never out of some instinctive draw to the art form. I guess I took vague inspiration from poets on Tumblr, as much as it pains me to admit it, but I wasn’t thinking about it as poetry, just as a form of journaling. I was a very sad middle schooler 🙁 . In high school, I was part of the literary magazine, and I think that played a very large role in my getting into poetry. At some point in reading my peers’ poems, I was like “man, I could do a better job than that”, and so my poetry path was born! I had the fortune of having really incredible English teachers throughout high school, and they were vital in my development as a writer. From the moment I decided I wanted to be an English major, (a moment I genuinely cannot remember) I knew I wanted to do poetry. It feels very natural to me, and I find that poetry is often simply my way of interacting and understanding the world around me. Once I write a poem about something, I can stop thinking about it constantly. I guess I’ll keep writing poetry until I either die or that stops happening, whichever comes first.
In middle school, I found time to read a book every two days over the summers. I started writing poetry around that time, inspired by the unrealistic but nevertheless adorable love stories by Sarah Dessen in particular. In high school, I became close friends with the librarian, and we would routinely organize poetry readings in a local record shop. The back room was used specifically for open mic nights with couches that were sunken in from years of use and posters from every band you can think of. At the time, I wrote mainly for a boy that I thought I was in love with, but in truth, I just idealized him. Just typing all this feels so cliché. The record shop closed within a couple of years, though, and so did our poetry readings. I stopped writing as frequently because I didn’t really have any incentive, and once I moved to Pittsford, I rarely wrote because all my poet friends were in Redlands.
My freshman year of college I was randomly assigned to Professor Caroline Beltz-Hosek’s Poetry of Place class, and I absolutely loved it. It was where I was introduced to Ilya Kaminsky, and my love for him has blossomed since then. Professor Beltz-Hosek also made us keep a writer’s notebook. This has become one of my main sources of inspiration, so I loved having to do it again when I took the introduction class to creative writing with her a year ago. I have continued to work on this notebook. I have probably a hundred magazines back home that have been cut up to use as material for my notebook. I have decided to attach one of my pages to show my work because I doubt I can explain it enough, but essentially I cut up magazines and glue the cutouts into pages. These pages have a lot of themes, and some pages are definitely darker than others. However, because a lot of my poetry is fiction, my notebook is a great way to outline my poems.