While the year is coming to a close, I couldn’t end the semester without saying something about ekphrasis, writing inspired by art. It has long been one of my favorite methods of writing. It allows for an expansion of the conversation that the art has established. In this way, ekphrastic writers have the opportunity to create a powerful network.
Why do so many writers go to coffee houses to do their work? It’s become a bit of a trope, sitting there for a couple hours with a laptop, earbuds, and a long empty mug. I can easily answer my own question, because I am one of those writers. When I feel the urge to write, I pack up my laptop, trek over to the nearest shop, stake out a table, order a three dollar latte, and suddenly I can start.
Going home for the holiday reminded me just how much, as a writer, I rely on coffee shops. I cannot write at home. No matter which room I set up in, no matter what hot, cozy drink I warm my hands with, I can’t generate. Maybe it’s the white walls in our living room or the sad look on my dog’s face because I’m not playing with him. Usually, I end up at the town’s popular coffee spot. Only this time, it was so busy I couldn’t find a place to sit, let alone stand. Overwhelmed, I got my coffee to go and headed home, disappointed. Even with the caffeine, the only writing I could do was revision of a critical paper. It was clear: the atmosphere was more important than a caffeinated brain.
It isn’t surprising that location and vibe play a large role in writing. Many find inspiration amidst travel, when they encounter things that are new and interesting to them. Other writers can only work in the morning, some at night. Some can only work at their desktop while loud music plays over the speakers to drown out the white noise. My perfect writing location is a café with faint acoustic or jazz in the background, an excess of natural light, and warm coffee. Ideally, a crackling fireplace.
What about you? Do you have a specific atmosphere that you need to be in to write?
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.
Picture a tea kettle. It’s boiling, but not yet whistling. Steam tumbling from the spout and fogging up the hood of the stove.
There’s a poem in that.
I’m laughing at myself, because it’s something I say nearly every day to fellow poets. “You should write a poem about it!” And, actually, I have neglected to take my own advice.
Our class this week reminded me that even though I find them mundane or of little significance to my writing, the little things that make up my everyday experience are sometimes the hidden greatest pockets of inspiration.
A common piece of advice flows in and out of almost all of the writing classrooms I have been a part of: write what you know. Suddenly, I’m looking at this in a different light. I have always thought of this phrase as relating to what interests you, what experiences you have had, what background you come from. The truth is, though, it can be both that definition and this new one I’m starting to really enjoy. I know my tea kettle really well. Down to the scratches on the side from packaging it up in a cardboard box to transition from a dorm to an apartment. How the white measurements have rubbed off up to the 1.0 liter mark and how after I empty it, the metal frame makes a clicking sound as it cools. I use this kettle every day. I’m sure it holds a poem for me, or for you.
Right now, I’d like to leave you with two questions. The first: how do you interpret the “write what you know” phrase? The second: what is some advice you give to other writers that you would want to give also to yourself?
My first literary love, I confess, was William Shakespeare. Although I smuggled the Harry Potter books out of my elementary school library, it was not until reading “Twelfth Night or As You Will” at the age of twelve that I fell for poetry. I swooned for syllables. Devoured the copy of the Completed Works of William Shakespeare my parents gave me on Christmas. Strangely, though, I only read the plays. I laughed at the banter of Beatrice and Benedick, and cried with Queen Margaret over the death of her son, but the sonnets in the back of the red leather book I sought not.
When we discussed Burnett’s “Refuge Wear” in class, Lytton mentioned that it was, in fact, a sonnet, and I was stunned. Even after spending a previous course entirely on poetic forms, I still thought only of Shakespeare at hearing “sonnet.” How did I forget to break form? We break the line all the time! Yet, I’m not sure Burnett is exactly breaking form, not in the sense that it feels broken. No, Burnett uses the rules of the form and ignoring them when it suits the needs of the poem.
If I look at my current writings, I only see free verse, free-form poems. I tend to let lines write themselves. I’m just the pencil. After class, though, I set a challenge for myself: write a sonnet. A contemporary sonnet. I find that traditional poetic forms are off-putting. Maybe because of the rules: the rhymes, the syllables, the line count. Maybe because, to me, they can sometimes feel stiff. It becomes easy to say I’m not going to follow someone else’s rules. I’m going to make my own. It’s kind of exciting to feel like a rebel. But, right now, I’m wondering if I have a cause. Why shouldn’t I make use of established forms?
Maybe I need to reexamine Shakespeare’s sonnets, after all. I may want to challenge the stricture of form, but to effectively do so, I need to know the rules I’m breaking.
Do you, conversely, prefer to write in form?
And for those who, like me, tend to avoid formal rules: I extend my challenge to you. Write a sonnet, or a pantoum, or a villanelle. Conform to the form, break the form, whichever you choose, but engage.
For some time now, I’ve been mulling over genre. Perhaps it’s a result of the classes I’ve taken in college or the people I spend time with, but I’m starting to think the boundaries of genre are as real as the monster I thought lived in my mother’s closet until I was ten. Not that it’s a bad thing; maybe, though, the lines don’t always have to be so clear.
Despite reassurance that I don’t need to limit myself to one genre, I grow increasingly anxious as fellow writers call themselves “poets” or “fiction-writers.” I am drawn to each genre for its specific strengths, and what my writing needs in an isolated moment. So when people ask what do you write? the answer is poetry-nonfiction-hybrid. Always accompanied by a question mark. A better answer would simply be: I write.
Poetry was my first college workshop and, after considering myself a fiction-writer until that point, it was a shift. I became enamored. Poetry provided me with the space I needed to breathe, to let the reader engage. I was propelled by an uncontrollable compulsion to write. It forced its way in with shooting stars and white wave crests. In the curve of a dancer’s body. Bright graffiti on a brick wall. In apocalyptic snowstorm, power-outage, and hearth-light.
Does this make me a poet, though? I don’t know.
Recently, I experimented with creative non-fiction. I’d never, consciously, written in the genre, but I figured it would be best to try it out. Just to be sure. Turns out, it was just the genre I needed to be writing in. The result was a, quite lengthy, lyric essay. Fragmented, lines sloping across the page, the denser prose broken up with short poems. This was exactly what I had been looking for.
So maybe I’m biased. But I don’t think we require such clear and defined boundaries. I like finding poetry in fiction, in nonfiction, in dance, on the grass, in dew on the grass. It might still be challenging to answer the what do you write? question in a thirty-second elevator pitch, but I’ll figure it out eventually.
My moment of validation came on a spring afternoon, after reading T Fleischmann’s book Syzygy, Beauty and hearing them speak on toeing the line between genres. I’m curious if you have found a book formative for you in your writing? If you’ve read any hybrid works, do you have any reading recommendations?
When I think of a line, I think of a moment. A snapshot. It is a space in which I linger while being pulled forward, as though a tour guide is leading me through a museum. But a painting catches my eye! I must pause. The artist has put away their brushes and the reader makes meaning of the completed work. I find, though, that this proves troublesome to me as a poet and a reader.
Recently, I have been paying more attention to the conversation between my poem and the reader, and not enough on that created by the individual lines. When Albert Ríos writes that the line “a line does its own work. And in this way, it is a contributing member of that society,” I begin to imagine lines as entities of their own (209). Moving, breathing entities. I no longer see a gallery of related or complementary artworks, but a village of lines that all have functions necessary for the poem’s survival. This interpretation leads me to think more about how each line stands on its own: that they must be self-serving as well as participating in community service.
Looking back at my newest poems, I am finding that lines in some of them rely on their neighbors to hold them up. Maybe I focused too much on line breaks rather than the lines themselves, and a wanting to be clever about it. But I have put consideration of the lines as whole, singular beings at the back of my mind. This probably contributes to why I am unsatisfied with those poems.
Ríos reminds me that the lines need to be whole and survive even if they were to migrate to another poem, another place. But this poem needs them, so they stay. And so the poem, full of movement and voice, lives. Its buildings are well-kept.
It becomes a space for the reader to visit and, by doing so, the two create something new. The lines talk back and their concurrence becomes the poem’s law. I want my poems to become villages, and to make laws that the reader must respond to. But to do that, I need my lines to be whole and strong again. Maybe we’ll have a potluck, and invite the reader, too.
First, apologies for the cheesy title, but it was far too tempting. Second, this semester we haven’t spoken much on ekphrastic poetry, which happens to be one of my favorites. I like the idea of linking the written and visual arts, much as I like the idea of linking forms and manifestations of writing. So here, if you’re interested, is a prompt:
I’ve provided a few of artists that I enjoy and find provoking and hopefully they will lead you down a road in your poetry that you wouldn’t otherwise have ventured!
Paintings (in order):
Beethoven Frieze -Gustav Klimt
Houses of Parliament Ablaze -J.M.W. Turner
Dancer -Joan Miró
Japanese Scroll Paintings- Unknown
Disclaimer: this is less a discussion about poetry and more about language. Due to a specialized and, therefore, biased past, I fail to see the displeasure and struggle that surround the works of William Shakespeare amongst students. Throughout my academic career, most students I have spoken to dread reading his plays and/or analyzing his sonnets. They argue that the language doesn’t make sense to them, that the syntax is complicated, even that the stories are irrelevant. Perhaps it is because of extensive study and involvement in productions of Shakespeare that I find the language easily comprehensible and beautiful. For example, in Act I, scene ii of The Winter’s Tale, the character Hermione says:
“You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say, Sir, no going. Verily,
You shall not go; a lady’s verily’s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner or my guest? by your dread verily,
One of them you shall be.”
Not only is there the obvious “unsphere the stars” that is beautiful to both the eye and the ear, but there is a repetition of sounds that makes this line a fun experience for reader and actor. Following this, the “e” in “yet” and “verily,” then in “guest” and “fees” lets that sound linger on the tongue. This is not simply a mastery of the English language, but also one in comedy. I would argue that the actor portraying Hermione enjoys this wordplay using “verily.”
I suppose the question I am posing here is whether or not you find Shakespeare an arduous experience, and whether or not you enjoy his poetics (this including both his sonnets and plays)? What is it that puts students off from reading or watching Shakespeare?
In honor of National Poetry Month, I’d like to highlight one of the poets currently on my mind: Reginald Shepherd.
His poem “My Mother Was No White Dove” plays extensively with sound and images, which is probably the reason it drew me in. Immediately, the first line seems to be a statement continuing from the title: “no dove at all, coo-rooing through the dusk.” We begin with a very simple but captivating image, a contrast of colors –the white of the dove and the dark of dusk. Out of all the images, though, the one that I find most enthralling is at the start of the second stanza: “My mother was a murder of crows/ stilled, black plumage gleaming/among black branches.” These images imply a realistic view of the speaker’s mother, viewing her as a dimensional, imperfect human being rather than the saintly, pure perspective taken by a child looking up to their hero. The speaker even goes far enough to refer to her as an “obscure bruise across the sky.”
Not only does Shepherd use images to pull readers in, but also a mastery of assonance, consonance, rhyme, and alliteration –not in a sing-song way, though. The final stanza serves as a good example of a non-musical rhyme that is working very well: “was never snow, no kind/ of bird, pigeon or crow.” The second stanza repeats “b” sounds with two iterations of “black,” the second of which is immediately followed by “branches.” The third stanza sees alliteration in “flight of feathers,” along with the juxtaposition between two lines harboring the words “perch” and “purchase.” Shepherd, here, makes these techniques of sound feel natural, despite their musical qualities.
The majority of the poems written by Shepherd that I have read incorporate these techniques and create a style that I greatly enjoy. I hope that, by sharing it with you this month, I have led you to a poet you will enjoy as well. Happy April!