Interaction between text and reader

One of the things I’ve started thinking about for my work here is the structure of poems- not the placement of words on a page, but how the reader interacts with the poem itself and how the poem informs the reader. Kyle’s pieces on metacognition got me thinking of the poem as a one-sided communication- you read a poem- it speaks to you, but you cannot speak back. It elicits a response in you, it may change you, but the poem itself does not change. It is static, it is the same no matter the circumstance, context, interpretation or reaction. You cannot change the poem, like you could change someone’s mind in conversation.

Our in-class prompt asking who the audience of our poems are brought me back to that thought- I write poems for me, not for an audience, but as self-reflection, to process, to preserve fleeting snippets in text. But these poems are not for me, they’re for the workshop. So how do they need to change to speak to an audience? Poems can absolutely be for myself alone, but I want to try push the form to it’s maximum potential- to take the reader into account. Taking this kind of structure- the relationship between the text and the reader- how could the content of the text could reflect that structure? If my poems are static but inform the reader, what kind of form would best make use of that structure to amplify it’s meaning? Could a poem be something like an instruction manual, a map, a recipe?

I want to avoid nostalgia for this same reason- nostalgia itself is difficult to capture in any medium, and it’s specific only to the poet/narrator/individual. Even if I were able to convey the beauty of whatever I was nostalgic for, the elements of that nostalgia would be so specific to me that any reader wouldn’t be able to relate. I feel like I need to make my pieces universal at their core.

Contemplations on Submissions

I submitted pieces to The New Yorker and Catharsis, two VERY different publications, this evening. I was bored and decided to have a little fun. Here are some notes on that experience.

1: Writing a cover letter when you have NO experience and haven’t been published anywhere is difficult, but it’s also fun to try and brag about yourself and work to make yourself seem as publishable as possible. 

2: It’s hard to tell if my work will fit in there. It is very likely that it will not, considering all of my pieces have at least one gag-worth moment. I submitted two of my most tame poems from last semester. I honestly don’t know where my poetry will fit in the world if I’m completely honest. Not that I particularly care about fitting in, I just want to know where I would be able to publish my pieces that deal with dried cum on old jeans and maggots stuck in someone’s molars. 

3: It’s hard to decide what pieces I am comfortable with the whole world seeing. I submitted a poem I wrote about an ex-boyfriend. I am fine with people in my workshops hearing very personal details of my life, as we are poets and we are inherently understanding of each other, and workshop fosters a huge sense of community and safety, but do I want the whole world knowing the little details about my life? About his life? Luckily this piece didn’t have too many intense details, just the color of his glasses, but still, if he read it, would he know it was about him? And would he be angry? 

I love being a poet, and I love reading poetry. Just finding where to put my work is troublesome. I write niche. I hope to find my niche eventually, but for now I will work with what I can and tailor my work a bit for each place I try to submit to. 

Poetry & My Week

I’ve spent so long trying to capture and express my thoughts on poetry over the past week that my laptop charged completely before I wrote this sentence. Poetry flows in a constant undercurrent below my conscious thoughts, and it’s harder to shine my attention onto it than I thought it would be. I’ve been thinking about ‘found’ poetry a lot, I guess, in as much as one can think about something and only realize what they were thinking about in retrospect. This week I read “Day-Old Baby Rats” by Julie Hayden and I can’t stop quietly reflecting upon how she uses italics. It’s like she has a little poem-yolk enclosed within the short story. 

I’ve been taking note of the seemingly unintentionally poetic things I hear in my classes, but so far nothing’s really come from that. On Monday, (as a joke) my friend Grant asked me to write a poem about Han Solo. On Tuesday, I pushed through a morose hangover by writing a terrible poem about Han Solo and I will never show it to anyone. I miss my mom a lot this week, so she’s been haunting everything I write— even more so than usual. I feel like that makes it sound like she’s dead, but she isn’t. She’s just very ghost-like. 

The best poem I read this week was “Death and Tacos”, by Nathaniel Whittmore. I like poems with kids in them, and I like the casual and authentic conversation captured within it. I keep reading / learning / talking about cancer this week, so that might have been part of the poems’ appeal. On Saturday I caught fire. When the flames were climbing my bangs my first thought was “wow I think I’ll write a poem about this”, and then I didn’t. I think I will eventually, but I just don’t know how the fire connects to the rest of my life right now. I’ve been keeping books of poetry in my bag for some reason unknown to me. I guess it just feels right. In the event of a hostage situation, I’ll have something to do, at least. That’s all. 

On Poetry, In Time

Poetry’s ability to move through time, including the future, has always amazed me. I’ve noticed poets experimenting with tenses, form, and narratives in order to do so, and it’s inspired me to the same. I’m always conscious of my tenses when writing prose (as I feel one should be) but in my poetry, it usually comes naturally. Tenses are particularly important to me because it eliminates confusion for the reader (and I’ve caught myself messing them up sometimes). In terms of form, I’ve never branched out into innovative forms of verse but I would love to one day (if anyone has suggestions on how to approach poetic form that works with time, let a girl know!). But, of course, my favorite way in which writers play with time in poetry is with narratives. The voice of poem can range from a present day news reporter to a WWI doctor. The moment narrative voice is identified, the reader already has a sense of where on the fabric of time they have landed.

Word Vomit

I took a class on British literature during my senior year of high school. I never expected to like it because literature doesn’t get any stuffier than that, but it turns out, I’m exactly the stuffy person who loves British literature. I should have known because I’ve been in love with period pieces for a long time. I did one of my presentations in that class on the sexual innuendos in Jane Eyre, and let me tell you, there are millions. I mean, Jane Eyre literally puts out a fire in Edward Rochester’s room. There’s so much sexual tension in that book, and I loved it. (Not to brag but my poster used an unnecessary amount of red glitter paper to really drive home all those steamy details.) 

I think I idealized living in the countryside, and that was one of the main reasons for going to school here. That and teenage rebellion. However, as it turns out, the Geneseo countryside is nothing like the English countryside of the 1800s. Frat parties on the weekends are not exactly extravagant balls, but Geneseo does smell like cows, so there is that similarity. As much as I have idealized the small-town living, I can’t wait to move back to California where I get to sit in traffic for two hours and grass comes in yellow or dead. 

Those two very different ideas are often at odds in my poems. Most of my poems are set in California, and while the setting is often very fast-paced, the actions are normally not. The characters have nowhere to be except for that poem, so things don’t really move. If you haven’t noticed, most of my poems are very set in one time frame and in one action. It reminds me of the scene of The Illustrated Man where the children have a room full of screens. I feel as though my characters are on that screen, except they are on a constant loop, while I watch them and move them how I want.

I’m realizing that this blog post is all over the place in terms of theme, but sometimes you just have to word-vomit your thoughts.

Slam Poetry

When thinking about what got me into poetry, I had said it was because my parents introduced literature at a really early age, which is completely true; however, when thinking again about what actually got me into poetry, it was poetry in response to a tragedy that got me writing, specifically, slam poetry. Whether it was a rape survivor’s story, or survivors of a shooting, or a political statement, the readings piqued my interest. What took me by surprise was the emotion from the poets when they read their poetry. It was a performance, not just a recitation.

In class, when Lidabel mentioned Button Poetry, I was immediately brought back to my 15-year-old self staying up late on youtube, under the covers, headphones turned all the way up to “Somewhere in America” by Los Angeles Team on Youth Speaks. After watching some of their videos, I found Button Poetry, and a bunch of other channels with young poets writing and reciting poetry I could relate to. I would play the videos over and over, eventually being able to mimic the exact way the words were spoken by the poet. Like a song, I recited them in my head, sometimes writing them in my science notebook when I got bored in class (something I still do). I was attracted to the rhythm of their speech and the progression of their poem, revealing one thing after the next.

It’s really interesting to think back on it now. Those videos inspired me so much that instead of copying their poetry over and over, I started writing my own poetry in the spines of all my notebooks. My parents get upset with me now because I refuse to get rid of any book or notepad from high school, but every single one obtains pages upon pages of poems and scribbles of ideas I had that day. I have now developed an appreciation for poetry that doesn’t necessarily have to be read out loud; however, I think it will always have a special place in my heart, as cheesy as it is. Slam poetry got me writing on my own. It was a creative outlet for me at first, but now it’s something that I want to improve every single day.

Schools Should Include More Modern and Diverse Poets in English Classes

In all things I do, I’m and educator. It’s impossible for me to do anything without bringing education into it, so while I thought about what I could write this week, education came to my mind as it often does. I can (and probably will) write so many posts on poetry and education, but this week I want to air out a grievance I’ve had since student teaching last semester.

Being the “cool English teacher” that I am, I assigned poetry as a final project for my 10th graders who had just finished The House on Mango Street. I tasked them with taking one vignette from the novel and creating a found poem in the shape of an important symbol from the novel. I thought this was a pretty awesome final project. It was certainly one I would have loved to do in high school. However, my students hated it! My rowdy class actually started yelling at me when I assigned this. I want to know why so many students (and people in general) hate poetry.

I think that it has a lot to do with teachers. English teachers either don’t teach poetry or they teach it in such a way that makes students resent it. So many English teachers refuse to introduce new poetry into the classroom. I truly believe that if it weren’t for teachers beating “The Road Not Taken” to death and then not touching any other poetry, students might enjoy poetry more. That’s not to say Robert Frost isn’t great, I just don’t think he’s the best introduction to poetry. First of all, students like to see themselves represented, and teacher’s who only teach white, male poets are doing a disservice to their students. I remember having to research a poet in tenth grade. I had to pick from a long list of white, male poets who were all long dead. There were only three women on that list, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, and there was only one poet of color, Langston Hughes. I picked Sexton purely because she was a woman I had never heard of. So many students were not able to see themselves in the poets on that list. Nevertheless, that list is the standard for English teachers if they want to teach poetry at all.

Schools and teachers need to be more open to teaching modern poetry. I hate to hear “but that won’t be on the Regents.” Not everything students need to learn will be on the Regents! Teachers should include more modern and diverse poets (this is not to say we shouldn’t still teach Robert Frost, there just needs to be a better mix of poets) when teaching poetry. That way more students might even enjoy their poetry assignments. This is a side note, but teaching creative writing is a whole separate post.

There is a happy ending to my students who hated their assignment at first. They ended up writing some fantastic poetry! A lot of the students actually liked the assignment way more than they thought they would. In fact, the student who protested the assignment the most, wrote one of the best poems, and enjoyed the assignment the most. He actually gave me an extra copy of his poem because he wanted me to be able to read it and “remember my favorite student” as he put it. If anyone wants to read it, I still have it!

Universality in Poetry

It’s an inevitability that you encounter poet Phillip Larkin’s piece “This Be the Verse” at some point within your poetry career. Sometimes it’s an embittered eleventh English teacher who shows it to you partly because its use of the word “fuck” will catch your class’ attention long enough that they stop texting under the desks, partly because they have their own shit going on. It’s a short enough poem that it makes the rounds on platforms like Facebook, lends itself to Pinterest typography, can be photographed from poetry collections using Snapchat filters and sepia for Tumblr. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. /They may not mean to, but they do.” Well-constructed as the rest of the poem might be, there’s little need to read the rest of it. Those two lines bleed universality. It doesn’t matter how idyllic your childhood was; no parent/guardian is perfect, and they dropped the ball at some point. If they were even holding one to begin with.

How, then, do you integrate universality into poetry? If a poem is interpreted to be a snapshot stuck somewhere between the author and the outside world – depending on where you believe the source is – how do you write a line that can be so applicable to most of the population without being so vague as to devalue the poem as a whole? There are very few universal experiences to begin with – being raised by something or some entity, no matter how removed or of what quality, is one of them – and what does that leave us with?

Looking Towards Prose for Inspiration

While the recommended blog post this week was supposed to explore our beginnings in writing poetry, I believe that I covered that sufficiently in my last post. Instead I would like to deviate from the path a bit and talk about a novel whose imagery I try to model the imagery in my poetry after. The novel which I refer to is “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. The novel’s author writes interactions between characters in a minimalistic style, choosing to forgo quotation marks and keeping the dialogue brief. Instead, McCarthy focuses more on the imagery of the novel. Emphasis is put on the environment in the novel and how the Hell wrought apocalyptic scenery  United States is one of the main driving forces for the story. 

For those that haven’t read “The Road,” here is a quick summary I put together: The Road takes place in the barren United States in the near future after an unknown apocalyptic event ravages the world. The reader follows an unnamed father and son as they make their way across the US. They are trying to reach the coast, where they believe they can find some semblance of safety.Their journey is filled with a bleak and dark landscape; woven together with grotesque scenes of other survivors that depict the descent of the rest of humanity into madness. Along the way the father questions his own humanity and whether or not he wants to raise his son in this new cruel and decrepit world.

The Road is a truly fascinating read and it draws readers into the pages. Mainly due to the imagery that it establishes. One of my favorite passages in this novel is:

“She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of  obsidian. He’d taught her himself. Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick. And she was right. There was no argument. The hundred nights they’d sat up debating the pros and cons of self destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall.”

It’s passages like these that make me excited to write. The way McCarthy is able to show the events of a suicide is crude,but is masterfully done in the “show, don’t tell” art. Language such as “The edge an atom thick” or “the coldness of it was her final gift” just jolts my metaphoric phrase library in my head awake. If anyone is looking for a good, but heart wrenching read, I implore you to give this novel a read. 

Trigger warning: This novel does contain grotesque violence between human and human, Human and animal and Implications of slavery, suicide and rape. 

The Line Between Logical and Literary.

What does it mean to straddle the line between the logical and the literary? Our vernacular use of the word “literal” has the connotation of “intended” or “most obvious and easily deciphered,” yet that which is heralded as the most literary is typically the most cryptic and confusing blend of metaphor, allegory, intertextuality, and imagined exploration into realms that are not “obvious” nor “intended.”

Think of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. At once absurd it is also methodically organized, showcasing Wallace’s expansive philosophic and technical vocabulary through pharmacological language and his pioneering use of footnotes. These become integral to a canonical “literary” text of the late 20th century. So where does this then leave the dichotomy between inspiration and rationalism? In reading of the Duende, the writer’s vehement assertion of the inspired and literary as of more value to the poet than the logical is clear. Yet, an irony remains as poetry ascribes body to sentiment in the form of words and letters, compressing inarticulable thoughts into tiny lines and swoops on paper. Our words are technically syllogisms combining to form sums of sentences necessary to create any literary sentiment or symbolism. In other words, the literary is dependent on the logical.

Could this be just another expression of the primeval dichotomy between order and chaos? Writers use both revision and inspiration. Syllogisms and sentiment. Perhaps it is not that logic is the issue, but an illogical emphasis on its utility. Engineers build bridges between lands, while artists build bridges between minds. As much as we encourage our engineers to have some sense of aesthetic, we should not discourage our writers to have some sense of rationality.