I found this poem really interesting, particularly because it was informed by mythology, and I have been really into seeing how mythologies could connect to the modern day stories, or even just simply how a myth can inform a modern day poem. I think a good writing exercise for all of us would be to think about an event or person or object in our life that we feel we “dont have the word for” and turn to mythology to find parallels and maybe ways to connect our reality in a more abstract way.
Anyways, here’s the poem: (my analysis is underneath)
One of my biggest role models and continued writing inspiration, Andrea Gibson, recently was interviewed about her poetry and asked about her lack of love poems. She said “If the world wasn’t such a mess, I’d spend my lifetime writing only love poems.” I’ve been thinking about this quote all week long. And it fits into our conversations in class here and there about ‘happy poetry’ and Lytton pushing us to write more about happy moments.
There is merit to this– the poet who crafts poems about their biggest (and smallest) tragedies, loss, grief, sadness, etc. Where is the poet who focuses on solely the small pleasures in life, whose main wellspring of inspiration is the emotions of joy, happiness, and youth? I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with Lytton, in which he was highlighting the importance & necessity of ‘writing away strife.’ He said “we need the energy of happiness to not just worry.” And so, here I am today, trying desperately to find and maintain a healthy balance of worrying & having the energy of happiness to fuel my writing.
However, int he vein of Andrea Gibson’s quote, the reason I haven’t been writing ‘happy’ poetry is that there is just too much going on around me that makes me angry, disappointed, sad, sick to my stomach, etc. I write mainly about the things that keep me up at night, or make me want to sleep for weeks. I write about what makes me sick to my stomach, what makes my head hurt, what makes my heart frown. I’ve been trying to apply this same energy to the ‘happy’ occurrences, like what makes my heart smile, what colors my cheekbones on gloomy days, etc. I think it’s just that we experience the bad and the negative as all the more heavy and weighing and pressing. The happy feelings are lighter. They are easier to shrug off.
I’m making it a goal to wed this energy of happy with the energy of despondency & try to compose more happy poems. That is not to say, I think it is more important to ‘write happy’–it depends on the person and what emotional sources you follow the most. But it is important to be mindful that what we are doing is not just “worrying” but taking something awful, stomach-quivering, and making it into a call for change, highlighting the ironies and injustices within them. We need the energy of happiness to sustain motions such as this.
I’ve been thinking about the deceased as a source for my poetry lately. Grace’s source showcase last week made me think about how we use living people as sources in very specific ways: their movements, behavioral quirks, noises, the way the walk or move their hands, etc; versus how lost ones would inspire poetry: more distilled, more in memories, etc.
Living sources are easy to write about because their behaviors and physical qualities are right in front of us. However, it’s obvious that we have all lost people in our lifetime, and I don’t think any agency is given to the way in which the dead can inspire a living poem; specifically, how the distance that death grants us from people (literally) is healthy for forging a new poetic space in which that person is reassessed.
Writing from the dead is important because it allows us to practice writing about people who aren’t physically present: which is especially useful when your ‘living’ sources are not in your immediate space or when you have been distanced from them long enough that their behavioral quirks aren’t fresh in your memory, your poetic mind’s eye. For me, personally, I’ve found that there are certain people I haven’t been able to ‘write in’ to my poetry until they were dead. Yes, I realize this sounds aggressive, or maybe that I was waiting for these people to die my whole life. Of course that isn’t the case. I’ve just never written them into my poetry while they were alive, because the feelings I had toward them were so complicated. I never wanted to dwell on it. Of course, death doesn’t just eradicate complicated feelings for people. But it does make you question the way you are going to store someone in your memory. And for me, the problematic figures in my life that have passed away are essential to my upbringing and roots, and so I am aware that as a poet I must fossilize them in my work in some way, so i can acknowledge more closely how I became the person i am today. This awareness of the other person grants me a higher awareness of myself.
The people that I haven’t been able to write about until after they died have been problematic people in my life. But of course, problematic people are also worth writing about, perhaps moreso than ones that aren’t.
Grief recharges our memory, brings to the foreground of our brains events or images we thought we had forgotten. It’s painful to relive the experiences you had with a person when they were alive. Having lost a very problematic figure in my life recently, I’m realizing that I am writing about him more. Or at least I am sparked to write about him, I feel like I have to, and I’ve been wrestling with this impulse for the past few weeks and trying to satiate it. But then I thought–My brain is telling me to write about this person. It might have the right idea. In a way, grief is a good way to break writer’s block. Ironically.
Any thoughts on living vs dead sources? Are any of you guys specifically motivated or inspired by grief or deceased persons in your life? Maybe a deceased celebrity?
So, as some of you may know by now, a lot of my poetry is heavily influenced by mental spaces and human consciousness. I’ve been exploring what I’ve been referring to as a “three-dimensional consciousness” which is, the closest holistic view of yours or another’s mind works. I’ve been unpacking this idea lately with a lot more fervor, as my desire to paint a holistic image of certain people has been at a great height. When I say ‘certain people’ I mean that, I’ve come to realize as a writer that the people or events that are hardest for me to write about are lacking substance or gaps of time due to my own mental illness, and memory’s general lapses and unreliability. I’ve been focusing more on SPECIFIC details about these people, which, for family members can be easy (when I am around them and can record specific body movements, engage in conversations with them). However, for me, I’ve been more focused on forging this three-dimensional consciousness for those that we don’t have the luxury of being in the presence of. My motivation in doing this is twofold. 1) I recognize the power of poetry to be a self-preserving act, that I have full control & agency over, and recognize the power of this in healing from traumatic events. Part of this may be painting a holistic image of someone no longer in my life, or deceased, in order to come to terms with losing them, and fossilize their presence in my art. and 2) my passion for psychology & gender issues has led me to be very angry over the years at the portrayal of mentally ill female writers. one of my favorite writers, Virginia Woolf, was victim of a false or not wholesome picture of her character, and more famous example of this would be Sylvia Plath. I want to achieve this three-dimensional consciousness for figures like these to prove the irony of how we used to view women, and to hopefully alter the way biographies are written and recorded in the future. & raise appreciation for writers such as Virginia.
That being said, the purpose of this post is to explore a specific person, Virginia Woolf, as a source for my poetic writing and also a key inspiration to developing consciousness as a source as well. As some of you may know, I’ve got quite the passion for Virginia Woolf & her life. She is, for lack of a more conventional phrase, my trans-generational soulmate.
Lately I’ve been really into biographies, and interviews, and other kind of secondary source material. There’s a more wholesome and raw quality to transcribed interviews, and biographies are very comforting because they give agency to the whole of someone’s life, rather than focusing on their big period of success at the end of the life, or, in the case of female writers, focusing on their mental illness & suicide.
I am not going to be using this post to list off reasons for my kinship with Woolf, and I will refrain from ranting and raving about her work. But I will try to sum up, to some degree, that Woolf represents to me the penultimate model of the benefits of creative expression as self-preservation, and the resiliency of someone trying to balance the light with the dark, and is only remembered for the dark thereafter.
Of course, simply because I admire her, and she is my favorite author, does not make Virginia Woolf a source to my poetic writing. And, as much as I may want her to be, she doesn’t have to be a source to my writing. But she is. In more ways than one.
I’ve found myself enamored with the fact that mentally ill female writers are written off for being hysterical and not capable enough to take in life in all its multitudes. What is most ridiculous about this, to me, is that the mentally ill definitely have a sixth sense, and I would argue that women have that too. The fact that these women lived as long as they did, while also producing an immense amount of work, is admirable. I think this frustration is what propelled me to dig deeper to uncover the characteristics or stories of these people that are not popularized. I’ve been obsessively reading biographies about her, reading her personal volumes of letters, diaries, and essays. I’ve begun coming across very minute details that offer an entirely new perspective on Virginia Woolf. For example, I just finished a book that is entirely recollections & interviews from Woolf’s closest friends, family members, and coworkers. It is divided into sections, such as Woolf at Hogarth Press, her with friends, Traveling with Woolf, and the letters of condolence that were passed between these people when they heard about her death. It gives you a feel for the kind of person she was in various settings.
While reading these recollections, I kept coming across specific phrases that were used to describe Woolf, that struck me as entirely different from the phrases I was used to encountering while reading scholarly essays about her novels, and even in a majority of biographies about her. You can guess that the latter were phrases such as “madwoman,” “hysterical,” “loss of sanity” etc. The phrases that I collected from these recollections (ha pun unintended) were SO diverse and really calculated to what each individual thought of her. It made me realize that the way in which people are portrayed, across any medium of writing, can really lead to biases in the way we reflect on famous writers. I will copy down my list of phrases describing Adeline Virginia Woolf by her close friends, family, and contemporaries, and leave it here:
“Like a great bird”
“Like a frozen falcon”
“Beauty of bone”
“Very enchanting, faithful friend”
“A great storyteller”
“Tough, uncouth, out-of-Bellows Bohemian”
“A lunar remoteness”
“A beauty that increased with age”
“Possessed an ability to weave magic into life”
I will continue to give agency back to those who have inspired me in my writing pursuit, and in my living philosophies. I can definitely count Woolf as a source for my poetic writing, and hope to explore this more on these blog posts and in workshop. I’m curious if you guys have any specific people, dead/alive, famous/non-famous, whom you consider a source for your writing, or are not yet sure if they are a source?
I have a complicated relationship with performance poetry. I used to be a lot more of an active member of our slam team here in Geneseo, and I definitely think that learning more about performance poetry and the technique behind it has helped ground my writing process and also helped me to be experimental with the sonic qualities of my words. Performing poetry has connected me more to my voice. In every sense of that meaning.
My favorite thing about performance poetry is how important body language is to the piece just as much as tone and cadence and speed of speech. In some ways, there is a lot more that can be expressed through performance poetry and the visual & audible aspect of it definitely enhances the experience of the poem.
That being said, I have been missing performance poetry this semester. I have not been able to be as active with the slam team, and as I enter my final semesters here in Geneseo I am all the more enveloped in my page poetry. I’m upset with myself for making it so that I can only be engaged with one or the other. And so, recognizing the importance of both to me, I have decided that my blog post this week will explore a performance piece. I am also going to task myself with finishing a slam poetry piece while I am still working on page poems for this class, and maybe exploring a way to incorporate my physical voice into my source showcase.
Here is the video of Nguyen’s performance of the poem, and I have pasted a text version at the bottom of this post.
This is a great poem. It gives me goosebumps. The personification of memory in this piece is so eerie and real, and there is so much visceral imagery in this piece–from the little boy floating dead in a cement pool, to the heat that “dragged its endless skin across our bones.” What most floored me about this poem was how blatant some of the lines were– “The first memory I had of being molested did not come until 9 years later” what I love about this is that the language for speaking of trauma or sexual assault IS available, but it is nearly impossible to detail or talk about. Further, the shock in the aftermath leaves the victim more prone to discuss what happened in matter-of-fact language.
This poem does a fantastic job detailing the shortcomings of memory, especially in the wake of a traumatic event. “When I think of that year/ no one has a face” captures the difficulty of the memories of childhood sexual abuse not being recalled quickly, or at all–and the torturous process of piecing together these bits of painful memory. Between 1:29 and 1:42, Nguyen speeds up his voice and his tone becomes a lot more urgent, which instills a sense of panic in the audience that the speaker is himself also feeling, trying to understand where these painful memories are coming from: “at first I thought it was a dream/ thought it was a movie/ thought it was my mind filing empty spaces with noise” culminating in the very loud questions, “how how how could you not know, not remember” of other people ignorant to the experience of trauma wanting the victim to just heal and tell them what happened: “give us her name and we will give back your childhood” as if it were this simple. As if this person’s childhood is entirely different now.
The last few lines of this piece push forward an important message about trauma and the experience of healing from sexual trauma–this act of healing is a permanent journey. Trauma is a handprint that we cannot erase. It is a part of our body and our mind until we die. But we can come to understand what happened, and come to reconnect with ourselves and move past childhood experiences.
Text of “Haunt Me” by Hieu Minh Nguyen
For the longest time, the only memories I had of that year
were of little bily from the eighth floor floating dead in the pool
and how angry the rest of the tenants were
when they drained and filled the pool with cement.
or how, that summer the heat dragged its endless skina cross our bones
memory is the funniest character in the story
when i think of that year, no one has a face.
memory is an asshole. it locked my keys in my car, it stole my wallet, its fluent in english and fucks up everyones name
it stoped watering the plants and took my grandmothers whole body
i wake up every morning grateful my apartment did not burn down
that the kettle whistling into the night was just my mind filling the silence
the first memory I had of being molested did not come until nine years later
at first I thought it a dram/ thought it a movie/ thought it was my mind filling empty spaces with noise
I was just sitting on a bus staring at a stranger’s hands
my memory has failed me
i look for her name and only see hands
i look for her face and only see hands
they say who
they say how
how how how
how could you not know?
how could you not remember?
how could you sleep with her hair in your throat?
how could you how could you how could you
give us her name and we will give you back your childhood
show us where and we will tell you how to heal
if it’s true what they say about memory being a series of rooms
then behind some locked door a wicked apothecary
her hands trapped in jars her hair growing like wild vines along the wall
somewhere in that story i am still a boy
i am 9 years old filing my body with cement to drown out the ghosts
One of my goals for this semester of workshop has been to unpack my connection to nature and to the Earth, (as a source for my writing) and try to be more mindful while doing so. Something I have been struggling recently is the issue of agency and responsibility, and being hyperaware of many instances in nature that we are scared by, annoyed by, or simply do not notice. My thoughts always come back to this: the world was here first, so what are we doing?
I’ve been writing a lot in my journal lately little reminders to myself for dealing with the sometimes crippling effects of trauma and grief. Among the ones that keep popping up are telling/owning your story, using the creative arts, and letting go of isolation. I thought I had boiled down 12 years of therapeutic interventions. But just yesterday I had to revisit this.
I was listening to the radio more to drown out the sound inside my own head than to take in anything new from NPR. But there it was. An opening line that reminded me of the integral piece of recovery I had forgotten. The report started something like this: “World War II veteran Earl Shaffer is believed to be the first American to walk the Appalachian Trail in one season, and his diary details the 124-day south-to-north trek. Back in 1948, Shaffer said he wanted to, ‘Walk the Army out of his system.'”
Walking off the war. I understood that. The report went on to talk about Warrior Expeditions, which, in recognizing the therapeutic effects of long distance outdoor expeditions, followed in Earl Shaffer’s footsteps, creating the Warrior Hike, Warrior Bike and Warrior Paddle programs, all designed to help combat veterans transition from their military service. As I listened, a flood of connections came rushing to the forefront of my mind. I remembered reading how when Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and mother died only hours apart, he found emotional healing from his intense and crippling depression in the only way he could: by heading for the Dakota territories and living and working as a rancher. Roosevelt’s experiences out west during this difficult time catalyzed his work as a conservationist, in large part because he believed nature was a healing modality that should be available to everyone.
(This is another one of my main frustrations–how we have entirely changed the meaning of ‘necessary’ and ‘available’) But, I digress…
I have often talked about childhood trauma, sexual abuse and/or incest as microcosms of war. Thus, it makes complete sense to me that soldiers who leave the battlefield fatigued and traumatized find comfort in communion with nature because no single thing has healed the deepest fissures in me, left by years and years of physical and sexual abuse, as well or as quickly as hiking a National Park trail up a mountain, standing at the foot of a vast ocean, or wandering the red rocks of a desert canyon.
Nature doesn’t just heal emotional and psychological wounds. It heals physical ones.
I know that whenever my “living inside my head” has simply become too much, when the work of living seems to hurt and my soul feels bruised to the touch, I can always find solace and peace at the foot of the ocean, my bare feet sinking into sand, the sound of the waves in my ears and the smell of saltwater leaking into the pores of my skin. Nature makes no demands on me but that I slow down, breathe and live, as I am supposed to, in the transience of now.
Now, this semester, because I am taking an eco-criticism course with Professor Cooper, and exploring poetic sources in workshop, I have not been able to shake any of these sentiments from my head. I recognize the benefit and the connection that I feel with nature–I feel that I am re-cultivating that connection in a healthy, non-selfish way. But I want my relationship with the natural world to be symbiotic, and I do not think that simply using nature to unwind and then writing poetry about it is necessarily fair. I guess what I’m trying to get to is that I want to understand how my agency works here–how I can use the natural world to bring myself back into it naturally, and encourage others to bring themselves back as well–not simply because it is an easy way to clear your mind, but because I feel it is one of the only ways left to investigate our purpose in this life.
Does anyone else experience any similar frustrations? How do you guys use nature in your own work? Do you think it is selfish? What are the benefits from relating mental illness to the natural world?
In the poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” by Billy Collins, is this brilliant stanza:
“I say drop a mouse into a poem/ and watch him probe his way out,/ or walk inside the poem’s room/ and feel the walls for a light switch”
I came across these four lines written on a sidewalk at Governor’s Island, when I attended their annual poetry festival. I wanted to draw attention to this image of probing a way out of a poem–aren’t we all feeling around for a light switch? Isn’t it this that steers us closer to the source of our poetry? The source of poetry in general?
Ah, the source of poetry. The business of tracing sources, which is a theme of Catherine Halley’s “Detective Work” interview with Susan Howe. This interview is what brought me back to this poem by Billy Collins. Which brings me to my next point.
If I am to say that Halley’s interview with Susan Howe reminded me of four specific lines in a poem by Billy Collins, am I also saying that poem was a source for Halley?
This is the frustration I had, reading the interview with Howe. Aren’t we ultimately always informing our understanding of a poem by US, OURSELVES? I did that very thing while reading the interview.
Which brings me to my final point.
I want to be selfish with my sources. And I think all poets are selfish with their sources. This act of tracing sources is ultimately an act of probing a way inside ourselves.
Aren’t we all writing ourselves?
I hope we can find a balance between writing into ourselves and exploring the sources of other poets.
This was an unintended pun. But, as we’ve touched on how art can be a source for our poetry, I wanted to share some of the art that I continue to return to.
Htmlflowers is an artist whose colors can always pull some good out of me. They post their art on Instagram and also sell it on independent sites. The colors in their art can always pull good out of me. Here’s one of my current favorites, called “disapproving sun” along with another one that is untitled.
Another artist I return to is unnamed because I found a book of their art a while back at a yard sale, and the book was pretty tattered up. I have yet to discover their name but will continue to return to their images, such as:
I wanted to include both of these artists, because it’s important to note that our sources do not have to have concrete particulars about them. Maybe they aren’t named. Maybe we turn to sources that could be a feeling, something intangible. In this case, there’s a named and unnamed artist. Both inspire me.
Each time I sat down with this assignment in mind, I couldn’t get to writing about sources for poetry without using the word “inspiration.” I kept thinking about what inspires me, and the two concepts became muddled in my mind as one and the same. That’s when I turned to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines “inspiration” as :
a: a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation b: the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions c: the act of influencing or suggesting opinions
2: the act of drawing in; specifically: the drawing of air into the lungs
3a: the quality or state of being inspired b: something that is inspired <a scheme that was pure inspiration>
4: an electrode in a field-effect transistor that supplies the charge carriers for current flow — compare drain, gate
I found it interesting how many more “movement” words were involved in the definitions of “source.” I think it’s important to try and differentiate these two terms, because they are equally important to the creative writer, but in different ways. A source is often described as a point of origin, before energy shifts and something or someone is initiated to move; inspiration is defined moreso as abstract movement, the movement of thoughts and emotions. Obviously, sources in poetry do that for us too, otherwise they wouldn’t be deemed sources that we turn to. But I think it’s important to think about what each of these words means to us individually as poets this semester.
I could tell you myriad events, objects, phenomena that inspire me…but I feel there is a line drawn between what inspires someone and what propels someone to actually create. A source isn’t necessarily an inspiration, is it? The source can be viewed as a tangible object: an old journal article, your favorite writer’s latest short story, or a purple sock in the corner of your room that you just never picked up. We are responsible for ascribing meaning or significance to these objects.
That being said, I will attempt to discuss where my head’s at right now in thinking about my poetic sources, and moving into this semester of workshop.
I recently attended a poetry reading in Holland, Michigan where one specific poet, unnamed, said
“If you want to write for yourself, you’ll reach all the people you want to write for.”
This quote has stuck with me since that reading. I’ve always struggled with knowing who my audience was, or even acknowledging if anyone was listening. Creative writing always felt like a very selfish act, and there didn’t seem a way for MY writing to not seem self-centered. In the past year, I have come to view this selfishness as an integral part of my creative process. If I am to think about the sources for my creative writing, it would be myself: everything that makes me unable to sleep, makes me sleep for a week, makes me think clearly, or that muddles my thoughts so much they are thick mud that cannot be sifted through. I am ok with these ‘selfish’ sources. As a painfully aware and sensitive writer and human being who has collected anxieties and vulnerabilities across a timeline of trauma and mental illness, I’ve found that my search for the exact sources of my poetry mirrors my own personal journey with validating my existence on several fronts: as a mentally ill individual, as a woman, and as part of a stereotyped ‘naïve’ generation. So, in sum, the source of my poetry will always go back to my own consciousness, and efforts I have made to smooth the course of it or exorcise certain demons from it. This source is most often projected through a cultural lens, as my poetry discusses important social issues by pulling out the inherent ironies of severe issues and turning them into rightful causes to be scared, angry, or feel unsafe.
Thus, my creative energy derives from:
1. Consciousness; emotional capacity and hyper-awareness, progression of time, viewing things as timelines with everything affecting everything else, describing things in terms of psychological/biological occurrences within the mind.
I write as a way to sift through this progression, to make sense of what I haven’t already made sense of, and I write as a practice of listening. I find I don’t listen to myself as much as I do when I have the urge to write, or am in the process of writing. This is also when I feel most connected to humankind. I write to dissipate the silence, because one of my biggest fears is being silent, and most of my anxiety is felt during times when I have been silenced by others, made myself silenced, or just didn’t have the words to say. I want to always have the words to say—and if not the ‘exact’ way I wish to say something, then at least have those words to fall back on as the only way I’m sure to arrive at truth. Again, this stems back to following my sources back to my own mind and existence.
2. Movement. I am mesmerized with movement and what we can learn from following it, from seeing where it comes from, and from viewing how some movements are more particular than others. This movement is often abstract: time passing on, small changes in the wetness of leaves on the ground from Monday to Thursday, or the way people move their hands.
At the end of the day, the original source for my writing is myself, and I find myself confident in my writing process enough to know that when I am inspired by other people, or by other people’s movements, it is always with my voice that I speak these truths. I believe that the things that interest us, that move us, and even horrify or disgust us, do so for a reason that is intricately embedded in our consciousness. I have always been prodding my consciousness, attempting to exorcise traumas and negative space by representing these in my poetry. It’s very much my strongest form of self-preservation.
3. Art. Another place where I draw inspiration is in art that I love, and art that I hate. Reading other creative writing, looking at other types of art, will always be a way for me to get inspired and get writing. I’ve found that being aware of why you use certain techniques in writing, why you like certain writers and why you hate certain writers, has really led me to finding my own creative voice.
I’m excited to explore in depth sources of poetry, because it seems to me that one always has myriad sources. And we aren’t always thinking of them consciously, or are aware of the reasons WHY we turn to specific sources. For me, the kinds of sources a writer is drawn to or fixates on says a lot about their creative process and also the kind of person they are. I look forward to learning more about source material this semester, and growing with all of you as writers 🙂
I’ve been meaning to write a poem where the title functions also as the beginning line. Personally, titles are tricky for me to come up with. Other times, they smack you in the face in a burst of brilliant clarity. When I set out to do this as a writing exercise, I found that it was a lot more natural to just start writing and see where the poem ends up, then going back and figuring out what could function as the title. Here’s my attempt:
The Worst Part
will be the mornings stretched
thin like skin
over hollow bones
cotton wool inside the brain, white
despite the blood that drips
down the interior
of the esophagus
old habits die hard
they are so alive
If anyone tries this out, I’d love to read what you come up with!