On Sadness, Poetry as Activism, and Where We Go From Here

I think we can all agree that this has been a rough semester.

No matter what side you’re looking from, no matter who you supported in the election, no matter what your core beliefs are telling you to do at this very moment in time, we’re at a turning point in our country’s history, and that of world politics.

This whole semester I’ve felt powerless. This country would rather see a man who hates me (and millions of others) lead them, than see a competent woman take that same job.  It’s insulting, it’s demoralizing, and overall it made me incredibly sad. People I’ve known for years have been arguing on Facebook about my rights to reproductive health, marriage, disability services, even my own religion.

If it hadn’t been for the writing community I’ve found here, I think I might have crawled into bed and stayed in a blanket cocoon for the next four years. One of the ways I found support was with my friends in Guerrilla. I’m sure you’ve all heard me talk about Guerrilla enough this semester, but after the election we got together and talked about where we go next, as well as some other questions we have as writers.

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Writing Exercise: Word-bank a poem

For this exercise, you take a poem from your follow a book, or an old poem of your own, and make a word bank with all of the words in the poem. (This part takes a little bit of time, but is worth it!) Once you have that, you write an entirely new poem using only those words, trying to construct a different or new image than the one in the original poem.  This is helpful to look at the original image in a new way, and create something that says more of what you intended.  It’s also helpful if you, like me, tend to be overly wordy in your poems–with this word-bank, you’ll see all the the‘s and and’s that you use, and cutting those out can help clarify the image of the poem even more. It’s also a great way of radically revising a poem if you feel stuck with revisions!

You can be as careful as you want with staying close to the original, but you can always leave out words, add a few new ones, or change tenses of verbs to fit the poem as you go.

Geneseo School of Writing?

We talked a bit about “Geneseo Poetry” in class yesterday, and I’d like to push back against this.

I don’t think there is one type of poem that we, at Geneseo, consider good. I do, however, think that the workshops we participate in are fundamental to our development as writers, and that we do influence each other in workshop. I’ve seen a lot of this in my writing, specifically with the double colon (that we talked about in my poem last night) and creating compound words in our poems.

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Social Exchange Theory

After Pam and Lily spoke last night about how philosophy related to poetry, it made me think about how the sociology class I’m in now, and how it relates to our class/poetry in general.

Recently, in  Sociology of the Individual and Society with Professor Eisenberg, we’ve been learning about Social Exchange Theory. This theory states that we interact with others when we’re looking to fulfill some sort of personal need, because, “Much of what we value and need in life (e.g., food, companionship, approval, status, and information) can only be obtained from others” (taken from page 210 in Sociological Perspectives on Social Psychology). 

So what is it that we get from interacting through poetry,  through crafting images like we’ve been trying to do?

One of the reasons I write poetry is to capture a feeling that I don’t otherwise know how to express, and to share that feeling with someone. The first thing I want to do after writing a poem I’m proud of is read it to someone.  For me, this is because I have a lot to gain from an interaction like this: knowing that I’m not the only one who’s had that feeling, the pride from gaining praise on my work, etc. But what else do we gain from sharing our poems?

I always ask so many questions in my blog posts (so of course this one is no different) and most of them are for myself–things I’m trying to work out on or that I’ve been mulling over, but I am curious what all of you are thinking, too: it’s often discussed why we write, but not why do we share that writing?  Do you agree with the social exchange theory’s view of it?

Poetry Experience vs. Environment

Like Isabel mentioned in her post a few weeks back about Guerrilla’s display at the Fringe Festival, I’ve also been thinking about poetry in different ways; specifically, I’ve been thinking on the interaction words have with their environment.

One of the things Guerrilla tries to do is put poems in unconventional places -bathroom stalls, trees, chalked on the ground, etc., – to make poetry more a part of everyone’s daily lives, and surprise poetry* is a side effect of that. When we’re not expecting to encounter poetry, does it mean something different to us? And how is the environment altered?

In my experience, I’ve found myself having a stronger connection to poems when I’ve stumbled on them accidentally. There’s something about surprise poetry that really strikes me in a way I’m not sure the poem would have been able to accomplish on its own.  It’s like how words graffitied on a wall sometimes seem more profound than if you were to be reading them in a book.

But the environment is altered too.  Poetry becomes an agent of change, in how its presence can take something ordinary – a wall of a building, a sidewalk, a public restroom – and give it meaning past its intended purpose. A bathroom stall becomes more than just a bathroom stall when there’s a poem in it. (I also just really love reading poetry while I pee, but that’s me)


*This makes me think of poetry ninjas. Which would be awesome.


Scattering the Pieces of an Image

One thing I struggle with in my poems is to have a sense of urgency to one image – or have an image that tells a story and gets across one very specific feeling. In a lot of the things I write, one specific image isn’t central even when I want it to be, or the wordiness of the rest of the poem overshadows the images themselves.

Something my friend and fellow poet Evan suggested during a workshop was to read David Roderick’s collection The Americans—and he specifically pointed out this short poem in the collection:

Dear Suburb,

Just once I’d like to come home
to find that you’ve scattered the pieces
of a saxophone all over my bed.

Looking at the pieces of the poem, it’s a bunch of different things – a letter to a suburb, a claim of frustration, the want for destruction, something about music, etc. But all together, in the one short stanza, it becomes something else entirely. I’ve been trying to emulate this kind of thing in my own poetry, but can never quite get it—I’m historically terrible at writing very short poems and being able to make them meaningful, but referencing Roderick’s writing has helped me start to assess the necessary pieces needed to make the images pop. What is it about those individual parts that, when read as one, make them transcend into a very specific emotion? Why the saxophone specifically? How would the image have changed if it had been a violin scattered on the bed? Did he stress about the kind of instrument for as long as I’ve thought about certain words in my poems?

This poem, like the ones I’ve been struggling through in my writing, exists in a series of poems titled Dear Suburb, as well as in the collection itself, which has made me start to wonder if images change when presented alongside other poems. If we had read Pound’s Metro Station immediately after reading Whitman’s Song of Myself, would Pound’s image have become something different, or is the image such a perfect objective correlative that the feeling it represents remains the same regardless of the environment? Is that something we should strive for our images to be, something that can remain the same regardless of what happens around it?

I’ve been muddling through all of these questions in the past couple weeks (and months, even) as I’ve examined the central images in my poem, or the lack thereof. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on whether it’s helpful to break the image down into pieces, or if our interpretations of image based poems change depending on their surroundings!

The Painter and the Landscape

Pound writes, “…remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a deal more about it.” This line stood out to me because I know that it’s something I have to work on in my writing – my poems tend to be ‘tell’ heavy, with less  ‘show,’ which is something I’ve been more and more aware of recently. (Having to find an image heavy poem I had for class today was pretty challenging).

However, I did disagree with part of what he had to say here.  Does the painter really know more about the landscape than a poet? Aren’t we also describing landscapes with our images? Granted, we’re not painting the whole landscape, we’re crafting an image that describes the landscape. But that seems to have the same end goal that Pound intended.

I’m grappling with the very specific wording in the example Pound supplied that probably doesn’t matter too much, but like an image in a poem, the details tend to be important. I suppose this is something I’ll be working with in our class this semester – which, and how many, details to give to create rest of the landscape in the images of the readers.

In Response to Katie’s Poetry Reading Post

I had a lot to say about this so decided to make it its own post instead of a response. I love hearing poets read their own work, as you can get so much more of their personality that you may have missed while reading it on your own.  My tenth grade English teacher had a really great poetry unit for us, where we did things like listening to different types of music while writing and seeing how the tone of the music influenced the tone of our work, and reading a poem in our heads, and then hearing them read by the poet. For the second exercise, she chose the poem Litany, by Billy Collins. When I first read it, it didn’t stand out too much, but when I heard the poet read it I was able to catch all the subtle dry humor in the piece.  (The audience’s reactions helped with that too, which brings up an entirely different thought that maybe it’s less of the poet reading as much as it’s the audience’s laughter or snaps or ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs,’ much in the way that the cast of a show will be more energetic if the audience is more engaged.)  Continue reading “In Response to Katie’s Poetry Reading Post”

History facts as poetry prompts!

I’ve always been fascinated by random  and useless history facts; it’s one of those weird obsessions that I just can’t shake. I tend to frequent tumblrs like http://historyfactaday.tumblr.com/, especially when in need of inspiration for poetry (though the sources aren’t listed so be warned that they might not all be true). Some facts are silly and pointless and then others that seem equally pointless at first glance become something inside of you. For instance, on the tumblr I linked to, I read about the tallest living thing in the world being a tree in California, but that the location of it is not revealed to the public because of the fear that humans will travel to it and ruin its ecosystem. Which is such a haunting thought that speaks both to humanity’s entitlement and even the strangeness of it – why would we feel the desire to visit (take pictures of, pose with, etc.) the tallest living thing?

And maybe these things aren’t inspiring to anyone else, but that’s interesting in itself; what do the things that stick with us and become our obsessions say about us?

Inspiration in Unlikely Places, or The Relative Merits of Eavesdropping in the Library

I was in the library earlier today, a few hours before class, sitting at one of the awkwardly triangular tables. I was alone until a girl and her friend sat there as well. I couldn’t complain, seeing as I had chosen to sit there, but they were – in my opinion – being louder than necessary. I ended up hearing snippets of what they were saying, and although I was struggling to follow along with their conversation, things they were saying taken out of context were surprisingly poetic.

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