The Los Angeles Convention Center, next door to the Staples Center, is an expansive building that resembles an airport, high-ceilings, people running to and fro, minus the baggage and with a bit more comfort, in the form of carpeting and space.
At the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles, genre was in the air and writers, professor, undergraduates, and graduates, and editors were all a buzz about distinctions, some defending the boundaries, others breaking them down. In my own experience, I found that fiction writers were most interested, and inclined to, break down boundaries, arguing for writing across genres and exploring the potential for cohesion of genres.
My primary interest quickly became Flash Fiction. One poet, Sholeh Wolpe, shared a flash fiction piece published in Flash Fiction International, and later claimed, “this is a poem as much as it is a flash fiction story.” I agreed. The sharp images, the context, the narrative, all lend themselves to poetry as much as fiction. So where does the difference lie? In the line breaks? What about a prose poem? I think there is great room for exploration between these forms and genres and writers should explore how the similar and different components can cross genres and enhance either type of writing.
A brief poem of four stanzas with fluctuating line length and an ear for consonance and assonance, Frank O’Hara’s “Animals” is a great example of playing with abstractions and concrete images in order to take a particular sentiment and approach a universal feeling. First from “first rate,” to “tricks up our sleeves,” O’Hara uses idiomatic phrases, that position themselves alongside an abstraction like “Time,” both of which are not concrete, but remain familiar to the reader. Standing alone these phrases would not succeed, but coupled with concrete, and still familiar images, such as “apple in its mouth,” “speedometers,” and “cocktails.” O’Hara manages to move towards universal emotions by lingering in an ambiguous, familiar range of idioms and familiar concrete images.
A simple yet crucial concept, especially when it comes to poetry, is the position of the author and the speaker. I’ll provide a brief recap: the author is the person who wrote the work, the speaker is the narrator or who is telling the story to the audience. In poetry, I think of the dramatic monologue by John Donne My Last Duchess, in which the author is Donne and the speaker is a fictional character. You can find the poem here.
I won’t belabor a straightforward idea, but I want to draw attention to it to remind writers of the possibilities of perspective and that “We lose vast amounts of possibilities in writing when we only focus on ourselves as subjects” (quoted from a blog that goes into further detail).
A few moments from our workshop have stayed with me and I have come to notice that they all speak to the same idea: poetry is a matter of picking the right words.
Well, obviously, but what intrigues me further is how we go about doing this once, and then again, and again, and again, ideally. The first moment worth considering is our sestina word gathering exercise. We all have words that float closer to the surface of our thoughts, words that we need to express our ideas, and this exercise helped us scratch the surface and gather a morsel of our lexical materials. So, first, I encourage this exercise along with other generative writings. Make a list of words that resonant, gather 10 new words from the dictionary, write a letter to someone and circle words that repeat or extract ideas (don’t plan on sending the letter, just write!)
An example from class has become a laughable phrase, but actually teaches a useful lesson about diction and syntax. In reference to Rachel C.’s “cosmic latte,” Lytton said: “There is a coffee in your poem.” The point is that each word stands alone as much as it stands together, and some words are more willing to coalesce than others. In this example, we found that “cosmic” and “latte” met with friction. Perhaps our goal is having every word be in conversation with every other word in our poems.
Once I built a rock path to maintain a hiking trail. I learned that a rock is more stable and unmovable the more surfaces it makes contact with. So, first we found the best rocks, boulders in some cases, and rolled them down the hill and into the hole we’d dug. That took a few days. Then, we arranged and rearranged the rocks to make sure they were locked in place, that they touched on at least seven surfaces. That took a couple more. When we walked the path the next day, even though I’d worked with each rock separately, I could barely tell them apart.
A pop musician is not an artist and someone who keeps a journal is not an artist (usually).
Although seemingly on opposite ends of the public-private spectrum, pop musicians and private writers are not artists for a similar reason. They are not actively engaging with social and political ideas, neither are hoping to arouse change or action in a larger population. While exceptions always exist, and while pop musicians are reaching a large audience, I would claim that the majority of pop music today is simply entertainment as opposed to art, thus making them entertainers instead of artists. Similarly, anyone who writes, or paints, or draws, or even plays music in the comfort of their home, or behind closed doors, is not an artist. They are a writer, painter, illustrator or animator, or a musician, or a user of whatever medium they choose, but that does not make them an artist. Every square is a rectangle, not every rectangle is a square; every artist is a user of a medium, not every user is an artist.
John Cage was an artist because he took risks in cultural, social, and political spheres.
Having recently read John Gallaher’s In A Landscape, I cannot help but point to the man who inspired Gallaher in multiple ways, John Cage. Two examples are his composition 4’33” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4) and his question posed to world leaders (cited in Gallaher’s poem): “Why do we kill people?”
I don’t mean to discourage anyone from expressing themselves creatively because I am in full support of all forms of expression, they are meaningful for the development of self and even for relationships. However, there is a reason we question the responsibilities of an artist; they have responsibilities in their interactions with society.
John Gallaher’s autobiographical poem, In a Landscape, consists of seventy-one poems in which Gallaher lays bare his thoughts, intimate experiences, and personal life.
In his poem titled XXVII (http://pinwheeljournal.com/poets/john-gallaher/) Gallaher creates a three-stanza (in this case more like paragraphs) arc, a common tactic used throughout his prose-style poems. Early in the first paragraph, a question is posed, “Is this what thinking is like?” that acts as an inciting incident (first part of a formal narrative arc). Gallaher conjures up images of dirt and flowers, uses a cultural reference to plant the idea of “getting somewhere,” and ends the first paragraph with a question that proves that the paragraph has an arc of its own: “It’s why we’re said to come back as ghosts, right?” A simple arc: question, idea, question.
The second paragraph chooses to explore the first question regarding thinking. Gallaher hypothesizes an image: a group of people in a room, quietly thinking their own private thoughts, and he explores why that drives him crazy. The momentum is propelled halfway through with a sentence starting with and, and an “inevitable question” about the purpose of our thinking. He neatly ties ideas back in from the first stanza, probing at our idea that thinking is getting us somewhere, and that there may be a bouquet of flowers there. By the close of this paragraph, the reader is juggling, thinking, getting somewhere, and flowers.
Then, in the final paragraph, Gallaher, making sure to tie up loose ends, returns to ghosts. With brief and clear images he brings the poem into his home where ghosts are having their way, until “Halloween is over.” In the middle of this paragraph he quickens the pace with longer sentences, and lines that roll over by having one word hang on the end of a line, helping the reader “get somewhere.” His final three lines broaden the scope again to bring these “accruing” thoughts together. The reader is left with an unexpected and poignant image of Gallaher playing clarinet in high school in the second chair, wondering where their thoughts might get them.
A phrase from workshop continues to ring in my ears:
“Prose is not the opposite of Poetry.”
And how thankful I am for that. Moving abruptly from a year and a half of writing prose into poetry has been difficult, but remembering that I am not starting from scratch has been helpful. So…
What have I learned in writing prose that I can translate into poetry? From my short experience, I saw that prose was based in streams of images, based more deliberately in certain environments (settings, cultures, timeframes) than poetry. However, inevitably, it seemed that prose was exploring these realities, which seems to be how poetry is functioning as well. Prose remains realistic (literary fiction) and, simply put, it presents a story that leaves room for interpretation.
Now, there’s poetry, and how similar it is. Poetry thrives on streams of images that interpret and recreate realities in order to probe social aspects of our lives. David Foster Wallace says, as optimal advice to his fiction workshop students, “the reader cannot read your mind,” and he repeats it again and again in an interview with Bryan A. Garner, transcribed in a highly recommended book, Quack This Way.
Moving from prose to poetry, or residing in poetry, we must not forget that we are writing sentences, changed primarily by line breaks.
Nearing three weeks into the semester, the reality of poetry casts a long sharp shadow. Poets grapple with lines of images and writing them well is like tuning a guitar, turning the knobs, listening, waiting, turning again, until the sounds ring true.
As workshop enlightens, it shrouds. As it clarifies, it blurs. This dual nature is the basis of the relationship between image and line. Thus poets are juggling bowling pins and balancing plates with as much grace as they can muster, but how do they perfect their act? Why do some deserve to be read and others dismissed?
Enter a simple, refutable opinion: practice, patience, and time spent alone go hand-in-hand with writing poetry or perfecting an act. Poets must be willing to deprive themselves, they must bore themselves with their own company, but remain focused. While tuning a guitar is not playing, it must be done before one begins to play if they want to sound any good. But without instruments to tune, how do poets prepare themselves to write?
They tune their instruments: vocabulary, ear, environment, mind, image, line. And most importantly, they remain patient and write one word at a time. This final point is often overlooked as cliché advice, but if a poet sits and writes one word, and waits, and one word, and waits, they will probably have a much better idea of what they are trying to say, and they will do a much better job of saying it.
Although slightly different when it comes to poetry, form exists across all artistic disciplines. Form is structure, history, and ultimately, foundation for artistic expression.
While form works more obviously in the aforementioned ways, form is also (and perhaps most importantly) freedom for both the writer and the reader.
If a poet recognizes that the content of their poem will consider some cyclic aspect of nature or life, perhaps they will opt for a villanelle as form. In the same way, a sculptor may use ice if they want their piece to reflect on the temporality of their subject. In this way, form informs content and has an inseparable bond with the latter.
Imagine an artist throws their material of choice on a table. That’s a first draft of form, a preliminary decision, now there are limitations as to what they can do, but also options. Wood cannot become clay, much like a sonnet cannot become a sestina (or can it?). This wood can be a chair, a table, or a frame, and the poem works fairly similarly, but with even more flexibility. For the reader’s sake, form offers familiarity and accessibility.
In my poetry, I start by drawing sketches. Gathering words, forming a shape, looking for form with lines, shadow, texture (comparable to line breaks, metaphor, repetition). Then I do it again and again, slowly painting over the phrases that continue to stick out and nurturing the words that hold the core of my poem’s purpose. When the poem starts to take shape, I decide on form and refine my poem within the parameters of the form and if everything goes right, I get out my best pen and high quality paper and I write towards my poem’s final form.