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.”
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?
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.
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?
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 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.
I was in the shower so I could not tell my nose was bleeding
Dripped down my body to the floor right below my feet and
I looked in the mirror at my face, I thought I had a disease
-Jack White, “Missing Pieces”
There are some who frame sleeplessness as edgy or desirable, and this is a temptation that occurs only until one is actually staring at the ceiling at 3:50am with Jack White’s voice blaring through their mind. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy and all (I guess) and an excellent musician; in fact, I’m going to see him perform this May. But I would appreciate not being woken up by his antics, especially because the words and sounds fit together seamlessly to become stuck like gum on the bottom of my shoe. “Missing Pieces” isn’t exactly a bedtime lullaby.
But I can’t blame Jack White for my lack of sleep. I often have dreams with “arguments,” and by this word I mean that I will have to solve some kind of task. Because dreams are oftentimes nonsensical, this task is impossible for me to complete, and I will wake up frustrated, “dazed and confused,” as it were (to continue with the music theme, and maybe I could compare the desire for the elusive woman in Led Zeppelin’s song to my overwhelming desire for the likewise elusive rest).
Last night I had one of these dreams of arguments, where I, as a Creative Writing major, had to singlehandedly work through the logic, i.e. the epistemology and ontology, of poetry, understanding and explaining them for an assignment (I know, it sounds like one of those didn’t-study-woke-up-late-for-the-exam kinds of dreams). But I think it goes deeper than that. To consider questions like these in such depth cuts to the marrow of who I am as a writer and publicly displays my insecurities. Of course, I couldn’t accomplish such an argument, so I woke up disoriented with “Missing Pieces” blaring in my head and had to explain to myself why it’s okay that I couldn’t do it.
I am not making this up. “Missing Pieces.” After a dream about an impossible assignment. *cue face palm* (and by that term I have just aged myself. Ah well.)
But what’s even more fascinating about all of this is that yesterday I was actually confirming in my mind the importance of collaboration and community, and understanding how important these are in every writer’s (and author’s) growth, professionally and personally, for enjoyment purposes and also for mutual caring. Successful authors would not have written the incredible works they did without an editor, a publisher, a workshop, a mentor, a friend, and, more crucially, a family. I’ve been asking questions like “Is it okay to go to office hours just to spend time getting to know my professors?” and “Why don’t creative writing students enjoy each others’ presences outside of class more often?” (These questions expose the sociologist in me.)
Of course, no person can singlehandedly define poetry or writing in general, or examine its core theoretical premises and explain them. This is a semi-developed tradition that requires collaboration. It’s a tradition that’s continuing to develop as we humans write, and write about, our writing. I don’t think that we can know everything, or even close to everything, and I’m comforted by this. But I do think that by caring for each other and prioritizing each others’ needs, we can fill in the gaps here and there where I (or you, or someone else) may have “missing pieces.” I view this as an ongoing way to move towards a culture of caring, a culture shared by those who love words and sounds.
I have no idea what I’m doing.
I don’t. Really. I thought there might be a point where I’d have a breakthrough and be able to cut through the noise that surrounds my days, but I can’t. I thought that one day I might have a reason for every word and phrase I use, but I don’t. And I thought that I would develop a method, an approach, for writing lovely things. But I don’t have that either.
And (I think) that’s okay. I’m (maybe) not the only one.
Now, methodology, the planning and deliberation that goes into each detail of a poem, the words, sounds, lines, is important. I’m not denying that.
But if I were to start off every poem with an exact plan then I would miss the excitement of discovery, and the thrill of the unexpected–the moments where my tongue continues to trace a melody long after it’s gone, and my mind repeats over and over a phrase of words that are, to me, music. I had more moments like these when I was younger than I do now. I miss them.
That’s basically my greatest difficulty. That I don’t, or won’t, go for anything unsafe. This includes not only failing to write things that are out of my comfort zone, but also refusing to sit and be silent, to read things over and over, to take the time that it takes to let my experiences soak into me and change me. (What if it took too much time? What if I ran out?)
It’s just a little too scary sometimes for my adult brain, taking that much time. I wonder what I’d do with myself. I’d get restless.
I’ve forgotten how to rest.
But good things take time. And if I want to create good things, I need to live slower. Breathe more slowly. Rest in the words that I hear, that are intriguing, or beautiful, or challenging. If I rush past the present moment, I will lose not only it but the future as well. And I will definitely not be able to write with any sort of fortitude.
Slow down, Abby dear…
In the past few years, I’ve become more interested in food and tea, and I’ve tried my hand at more complex cooking and brewing. When I was a kid, for example, my version of “making tea” was pouring whistling water over a black teabag, and adding cream and sugar. I thought I loved tea and that I knew a lot about it. But I had no idea what tea was made of, where it came from, or that my methodology was crude. It was only recently that I looked into the different types of tea, the locations, the brewers, the ceremonies, and the cultural significances behind the drink (I now understand how little I actually know about it). Each type of tea, whether it be black, pu’er, oolong, green, yellow, white, or even herbal tisanes, are intricately complex and have many diverse forms with different shades, flavors, aromas, colors, and effects.
Where am I going with this? you may ask, and I understand. The point is that I’m realizing how important details are in doing things well. Of course, if I fussed too much over the exact temperature at which I brewed my white tea, I may miss the experience of sensing its aroma and the pleasure of tasting it. So I can’t lose sight of the big picture, certainly. But if I want to cook a dish well, I ought to pay careful attention to the spices involved. I want to brew my tea at the right temperature and for the correct amount of time. I want to pay careful attention to what sounds bother (or delight) my loved ones, so that I can care for them by creating silent spaces, or spaces swelling with the sound of their favorite record. I can turn off the TV, the music, my own voice if it’s too stressful or stimulating. The quality of the food, the tea, and the space all create an emotional response in the person experiencing them, whether positive or negative.
I’ve realized something that should have been clear, that every little detail is important when writing poetry, and if I want to create excellent poetry I ought to pay attention to every small detail in order to create the best poem I can. A number of things were brought up in the last workshop that I hadn’t considered before. One of them was pitch–I didn’t realize that poetry could have pitch, because I thought that words were just words. But when asked to consider pitch, it suddenly came to me in Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting,” and I would like to examine how Owen used pitch and to try to use it myself at some point.
I felt most compelled in considering letter choice, though. I didn’t necessarily think that dwelling on a poem at the word level or even the level of the letter was useful, but exercises we went through in class led me to see how important it is to consider not only what poems say, but how they sound. As we learned in workshop, content and form should be embracing one another, and if I have something to say in a poem I want to say it without saying it, i.e., I want to say it through the form, by creating an emotional response in the reader synonymous with how the speaker is feeling rather than “telling them straight” what’s going on.