Jennifer Givhan’s “I am dark, I am forest”

This summer I purchased and read the poetry collection Girl with Death Mask by author Jennifer Givhan. Givhan is a talented Mexican-American poet who often writes from her raw experiences about culture, identity, womanhood (and patriarchy), et al., and how these things have troubled and changed her speakers over time. I enjoy Givhan’s work and so I would like to look in depth at her poem “I am dark, I am forest” in order to examine its constituent parts as well as admire it as a whole.

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A Review of Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses; In particular, “This book can’t be sung”

Reading through Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses reminds me of the fond times I’ve spent at art museums with my boyfriend. This fondness has a hard edge, however, because this activity always feels to me like it will end in some dangerous discovery; thus it is at the same time coldly arduous and warmly aromatic, like the mouthfeel and digestion of a liquor poured neat. I think that Companion Grasses feels like a walk through a museum because of the way its stanzas so often snap the eyes quickly from the end of one line to the start of another (as eyes from one painting to the next), and groupings of words stand like separate pieces in each others’ midsts. In one section, Teare quotes and interprets texts from authors Dickinson, Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau, et al. (a grouping largely of transcendentalists). These antiquated philosophies, which at the time, rejected traditional ethics and reason, and the brink of discovery which characterizes Teare’s now contemporary poetry feels liberating yet traditional — standardly essentialist, yet enticingly muted, like the stirring of the “coastal prarie” (37) that he recreates in the biology and place of his work.

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Epilogue: Personal Notes to My Fellow Poets

Of course I am aware that this blog is on a public domain, but more importantly, I know that the members of Lytton’s Spring 2018 poetry class read it. And I wanted to recognize the incredible work we all have done this semester which was reflected in our final portfolios. I am so proud of us for the hours and hours spent reading, writing, revising, recasting, and reconsidering ways to write poetry–stretching how we think about form in general and sound in particular. I can say that I’ve learned so much this semester, and I am grateful for the feedback you all have provided for me. Being a part of a community is so important, and my vision and hope for all of us as writers (and authors) is that we are part of not only a visual/word-oriented community but also one in which we care for each other as human beings who are inherently and incredibly valuable. This vision was reflected in earlier blog posts, in my portfolio, which was all about relationships, and in the way I live my life (I hope). I love people, and I love being a part of a community, and I am so grateful for all of you. TC Tolbert and Shara McCallum, while they were here, both impressed upon me the importance of community and helping others, and Lytton Smith did this every week we met together, every time he introduced a visiting poet, and really, every time I saw him.

To conclude this semester, I would like to leave you all personally with a final note, based on your portfolios and what I know about you all as writers. Don’t worry; again, I know this as a public domain, so I won’t be too personal. Email me if you want to get more personal and I will give you my mailing address to be a penpal/postcard buddy (shameless plug–I <3 snail mail).

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Recurrent Theme: “Body”

I never thought of my poems as having “recurrent themes” because they seemed to go in all sorts of directions. But one day recently I was looking at different literary journals and I found one called Love Me, Love My Belly which is a publication of Porkbelly Press, out of Cincinnati, Ohio. I am super excited about this zine and hoping to purchase one of their issues soon. They requested that work submitted be in relation to the body. I started looking through my work, self-reflectively, and noticed that much of it deals with the theme of my conflicting relationship to my body, my questioning of my body, and sometimes, a bolstering of my confidence concerning my body. What’s interesting also is that I really like the word “body” and I use the word itself in many of my poems (I didn’t realize this before). It seems to signify, to me, the mechanism which houses a person’s spirit, the skin and muscles and bones that put a person together. And in a certain sense, it also represents, to me, the sexuality of a body, as the “b” stretches to the “dy” slowly, having to press its way slowly over the “o.”

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Poetic Humor

One significant feature of poetry (and prose) readings that I’ve noticed is that readers can often get the audience to laugh. This is achieved by the use of subtle irony, by a cleverly placed joke, or by railing on an uncomfortable experience to which others may relate. This always astonishes me. Sometimes it takes me a few seconds longer to get the humor than it takes everyone else, and sometimes I don’t understand it at all. The few times I do understand right away, and laugh along with other listeners, I don’t quite know how the writer gets there. Any time I try to incorporate humor into my work (or life really) it’s met with awkward silences and titters. But very occasionally, when my manner is unaffected and I’m just being myself, people will laugh. What gives?

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On the fear of being obscure

I am a man with a heart that offends
With its lonely and greedy demands
There’s only a shadow of me, in a manner of speaking I’m dead
[…] Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me
From fossils that fall on my head
There’s only a shadow of me, in a matter of speaking I’m dead
–Sufjan Stevens, “John My Beloved”

It’s honesty time, friends.

I decided to write the language exercise we discussed in class on Monday. I started with the language of ballet, which is primarily in French, and ended up uncovering something much deeper about myself that I don’t like to think about very much.

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Emotional Frustration in Poetry

Sometimes, writing poetry frustrates me. I’ve mentioned (and probably made it clear in workshop at this point) that sound is oftentimes more important to me than actual content. I’ve always found that music expresses more emotion than words on a page ever can for me, and so I want to express myself in that way (musically) too. Problem is, even though I sing, I don’t play any instruments. Today I was reflecting on this, and considering writing some a cappella solo stuff and recording it, as a small start. My boyfriend and I sometimes talk about writing music together (he plays guitar, among other things) but it’s difficult to do because we’re long distance. We could be the next Postal Service but it’s much harder than it sounds. Besides, as much as I would like to, I don’t have time to be in a band. And I’ve never written music before.

When I’m staring at a blank page, I just want to bleed the sound in my headphones onto it until it forms the lines of the letters that would be right to make someone’s heart detach the way mine did. To open my emotions, figure out their pattern, and translate it to language. That’s a daunting task, and no science or technology can do it. It’s up to me. And sometimes I honestly just want to punch a hole in the wall because I can’t figure it out. Emotions are important to me, but I can’t seem to convey them through the cold monochromatic letters on a page.

I enjoy other ways of expressing myself besides music. I’ve danced since childhood, and I enjoy visual art a lot (though I know little about it, and am not good at it). I desire to use movement, lines, and color to express myself rather than simply the words on a page. I’m starting to think through ways that I could use multiple forms of media to express emotion rather than just poetry by itself. I want to branch out as I create rather than stick to one thing at a time. I think that different forms of art compliment and inform one another.

I apologize for the angsty nature of this post and I want to open it up for discussion: Do any of you feel a similar emotional frustration when writing poetry? What other modes do you prefer to express emotion? Have you created any multimedia works, or collaborations?

Limits in poetry

I think that every poet has limits–what they come to understand they will and won’t do in their poems. They may be based on structure, content, form, et. al., but I am willing to bet nearly every poet has them.

For example: Sound poetry. I am fascinated by sound poetry and would see myself moving in that direction in the future as I continue to explore down to the letter level where I’m going in my poems. Other poets are not so interested in sound poetry or think that poems should explore real things/have functional properties. This is an okay limit to have, but I can see myself moving past it. I don’t necessarily see poetry as being tied up in the emotion of the speaker. Sometimes it has to do with the visceral, psychosomatic reaction that a reader has to the poem. And sometimes, the poem just sounds fascinating and intricate. It may just be a work of art, an experience. That’s okay with me.

But there are limits I don’t even want to get close to. For me, those are not structural or formal limits. They’re content limits. Moral limits.

Though I see poetry as an exploration of some of the deepest parts of the human, including the grotesque ones, I’m not sure how far I could go in describing depravity and evil. As a Christian, I think that there are lines I wouldn’t want to cross or even toe near. Some poets may agree with me and others may argue that I’m limiting myself to certain subject matter. I’m okay with limiting myself in this way. I think that each poet ought to decide what his/her limits are in poetry. These limits may change over time as each of us develop, but right now I’m starting to consider for myself what it means to guard morality within a poem. (For myself? For readers?)

Do you see yourself having limits when you approach your poetry? If so, what are they?

Sorrow, a present moment

Sorrow is not generally a publicly appropriate emotion. Unless there has been a tragedy, most people (and especially women) are expected to be emotionally neutral or even positive all the time. This can be a dangerous expectation. For example, I have a period app, and if I ever log that I’m feeling “stressed,” “sad,” or “emotional,” it tells me that I can actually control my emotions to remain positive all the time. I don’t think that this is healthy advice. Humans feel sorrow for different reasons, and arbitrarily pushing these feelings away produces a culture of inauthenticity and a fear of honesty. A sociological term for this would be “emotional management,” in which people are expected to subvert their prevailing emotions in favor of more socially acceptable emotions. Women have been historically labeled as “emotional” with a negative stigma attached to it, and so, many of us have learned to be “emotionally intelligent” by processing and dealing with our emotions so as not to bring them into a wider sphere.

I am not saying that handling emotions in healthy ways and having emotional intelligence is not good, and in fact, emotional management ensures that society continues to run smoothly. So there are some benefits. But our society has taken this too far IMO. Many people do not learn to process sorrow in a healthy way, or even to accept the fact that they are sorrowful and to allow themselves to remain there and be in that place. Rather, sorrow is seen as an emotion that is only a process on its way to yielding greater positivity. A dynamic process rather than a present moment in life.

I don’t think either that people should romanticize sorrow or seek it out. It is good to take joy in everyday life. But sorrow will come, and when it does, it’s OK to sit in it, to be a human person who is emotional and at times, overcome with emotion. It will help us to be honest with each other when this happens.

Right now I am feeling deep sorrow, the kind that pushes its pressure through the veins and makes the heart feel a bit waterlogged. When this happens, sometimes I will have words forcing themselves out of me and other times, all I can do is let the feeling ripple through me. The latter is where I’m at right now, and that’s OK. It’s okay not to be able to write poetry, and it’s okay to be a human being person and let yourself process emotions. There is no gain in false guilt or shame.

If this post is making anyone kind of uncomfortable, I’m not surprised, partly because of the stigma around sorrow or “negativity.” I also don’t blame anyone for their discomfort. People don’t talk about these things often, and it’s normal to become uncomfortable about them and want to offer condolences. But though I am feeling sorrowful, I also have hope, and this hope does not put me to shame. I am realizing that I don’t need to perfectly manage my emotions so as to avoid sorrow. In fact, I can’t. Sorrow will come, and sorrow is here, and I am being me, right where I am right now. I have peace with that.