And for all my poet friends who struggle with loving themselves in a world that sells us self-hatred under the guise of self-help, that prices us out of love, in a song we internalize as self-blame, in a guilt that is both useless and irrelevant.
We talk about how to love
the dead without killing them
again, and again in our
minds, with our mouths.
I swear we will love you
as you were, and not as we
made you in our wishes
for the average
american sitcom mom.
We will love you without
erasing the unpopular
hysteria of your embrace
or the final foaming
followed by silence—
and those sirens
we couldn’t hear
across an ocean.
did not spare us.
I stare at the day’s fresh
even your blonde curls
a dull gray
and grief does not
slow for traffic
or July’s desperate
the noise promises
to be over
when we draw blanks
when the ashes
my back burning
the kitchen wall
my moistened thumb
ready to turn the page
your silver urn
stealing what’s left
of ash cross
on my forehead
has marked me,
The forty days
before your spirit
longer than the Buddhist’s
I should be
you hung around
but my heart is
a vicious little fist,
a greedy organ.
like a blue note
the exit door.
“The Laws of Motion” by Nikki Giovanni in Poetry. “The problem with love is not what we feel but what we / wish we felt when we began to feel we should feel / something. Just as publicity is not production: seduction / is not seductive”
“Pathology of Violence” by TJ Sandella in The Rupture. “it's what makes us human / isn't it”
“Wipe That Smile Off Your Aphasia” by Harryette Mullen. “as fax machine as one can imagine”
“Width of a Witch” by CA Conrad in The Volta. “the kind of children we deserve who rob us in our sleep / we never need to believe in anything again / they take our car and money and head for the beach”
“I Do Have A Seam” by Jamaal May.
“Would You Come Back?” by Nadia Tueni. “like a throat seized by cattle who devour a sunray”
“Work Boots: Still Life” by Jim Daniels in Poetry. “laces droop / like the arms of a new-hire / waiting to punch out.”
“The Minnesota Goodbye” by Ralph Pennel in Elm Leaves Journal. “You know what you’d say about black holes, how you don’t believe in dark matter, how what we’re not seeing is God, how God is always a choice we’re close to making.”
“Highbury Park” by Liz Berry. “I envy them, these lovers, dark pines between their knees”
“Dream Duets” by Matt Reeck in Conjunctions. “All manners of disguise failed to conceal the badger at the costume ball.”
“Hair” by Emily Jungmin Yoon in Evening Will Come. “like I have a reason / for being a color at some place & at some time / and there is a straight line between bad and goodness / on which I lay my unbeautiful body precariously.”
“Elegy in Translation” by Meg Day in Poetry. “Forgive me my deafness now for your name on others’ lips: / each mouth gathers then opens & I search for the wave”
“Jonathan Franzen Freedom” by Mark Baumer.
“Then” by Stephanie Ford in They Will Sew the Blue Sail. “our borrowed / stars go by and why,”
“Poem About Alabama” by Kirby Johnson in Gone Lawn. “I was asked if I liked Alabama and I said, yes I've masturbated everyday. I've danced alone in the dark heat of my room.”
“Instructions for Banishment” by Jon Sibley Williams in Figure 1. “I know regret is just another form of lust.”
William A. Lowell, Esq.
Charles A. Cheever, Esq.
Choate, Hall & Stewart
Two International Place
Boston, Massachusetts 02110
October 10, 2019
Dear Mr. Lowell and Mr. Cheever,
One of the greatest things about America is the fact that, as citizens, we pledge our allegiance not just to a flag but to a hope of a better future, despite our country’s history of racism, slavery, and native erasure. Since recent years have demonstrated reactionary regress inspired by xenophobia and America-First mentalities, I am writing this letter in the hope that you will consider the legacy that the Amy Lowell Scholarship leaves by basing it's application criteria so intensely (and profusely) around defining "Americans" as those citizens who were "born here."
As a child of defectors who was born in Romania, my experience growing up in Alabama was that of being told no matter how much I learned, no matter how passionate my academic and intellectual engagement, I could not be President. Meanwhile, my neo-Confederate friends could lead the Chambers of Commerce and state governments with an eye to the Presidency. As a student of history, I know our Constitution is far from perfect but I've been inspired by the poetry community's dedication to human rights, equality, and justice. And yes, I was required to learn A LOT about the Constitution before I became a US citizen at the age of 13.
The "Amy Lowell Scholarship for American Poets Travelling Abroad" seems, on its surface, to be driven by considerations of merit. It asks for a poetry submission without focus on byline or academic background. It also states, clearly, "preference" will be "given to those of progressive literary tendencies".
At no point does it ask about financial disability or previous travel (which would be appropriate questions if the intent of the scholarship was to reward untraveled Americans citizens without means to go abroad).
The application process is free and simple. All that is required is:
Two copies of the completed application. You may also, but need not, submit a 2 to 3 page curriculum vitae (again, two copies).
A sample of your poetry, consisting of either up to 40 typed pages (two copies) or two copies of a printed volume of your poetry and two copies of no more than 20 additional typed pages.
When I downloaded the application, I discovered that it asked for a birth certificate and that the primary information culled on that one sheet of paper had to do with where a citizen was born. As stated in your FAQ:
"Any poet of American birth who is able and willing to spend one year outside the continent of North America. There is no age requirement, and there is no requirement that applicants be enrolled in a university or other education program. While many recent winners have been published poets, there is no requirement that applicants have previously published their work."
Past recipients of this fellowship include several of my favorite poets--writers whose work I cherish deeply. I believe that Amy Lowell would not be on the side of human beings who currently agitate to diminish the value and rights of naturalized US citizens and immigrants. I believe that she would be terrified by the birther scandal around President Obama and its resonance in our popular culture. If I am wrong in these beliefs, Amy Lowell's poetic excellence would not be enough to enable me to overlook a definition of "American citizen" that excludes naturalized citizens.
I considered suggesting a more appropriate title for this fellowship. For example, "The Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship for Native-Born Americans"--but that's the rub, isn't it? See, those who are actually native to America are not really represented in this Fellowship. It's not about First Peoples--it's about the people who replaced them. It's about the stories we tell about the country we can only honor through progress, restitution, and acknowledgement. Amy Lowell's efforts to portray the lives of First Americans in her posthumously-published Ballades for Sale reveals the way in which primitivist stereotypes can underlie even the most progressive intentions.
As a naturalized US citizen whose parents risked their lives (and me) to flee Ceausescu's dictatorship, I cannot accept the sort of nativism which makes my hard-won citizenship somehow inferior to that of those who did nothing to gain citizenship. Being born in the USA is enough of a privilege without institutionalizing this privilege in a poetry scholarship intended to preserve the legacy of a powerful female poet whose struggled to be accepted in a country that rejected her sexuality.
I don't believe that any law or wrong is immutable.
I don't believe that we are hostage to bad ideas from the past unless we deliberately choose to replicate and extend those ideas into the future.
I understand--and was reminded when protesting President's Bush's war in Iraq with a son incubating in my womb--that standing for the GOOD in one's country, as opposed to the bad, may render one "un-American" in the mouths of those whose institutions depend on historic preservation.
What I believe conspires with what I understand in hope.
I hope more for the legacy of the "Amy Lowell Scholarship for American Poets Travelling Abroad". I hope more for how America extends itself into the world. And I hope more--so much more--for this country.
Yours in poetry and hope,
Alina Stefanescu, minor writer
Flash, depending on the definer, can set its upper word limit anywhere between 500 words and 1,750 words. Usually any ceiling below this is classified as microfiction. Regardless-- and given that I'm in position to debate genre with those who know better-- here are the flash fictions I've been looping lately.
"A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room" by George Saunders (Hunger Mountain)
"Break It Down" by Lydia Davis (The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, and Elevators)
"Cutting Edge" by James Purdy (The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, Liverwright, 2013)
"On the Edge of the Sidewalk" by Dumitru Tsepeneag (Waiting, Dalkey Archive, 2013)
"The Mariner: A Static Drama in One Scene" by Fernando Pessoa (The Brooklyn Rail)
"The School" by Donald Barthelme (Sixty Stories)
"This Person" by Miranda July (No one belongs here more than you: Stories)
"Tweet" by Sabrina Orah Mark (The Collagist)
"X unequals Y" by Susan Daitch (Storytown, Dalkey)
Also enchanted with Deb Olin Unferth's Minor Robberies published by McSweeney's. This book is my Mobius strip at the moment.
Now for the super shorties, some of which might be classified as "micros", others which exist as just really excellent compressed fiction:
"Crazy" by Ron Hansen (She Loves Me Not, Simon & Schuster)
"Death and Life in the City of N." by Ron Gibson, Jr. (Noble Gas Quarterly)
"Exercises" by Bruce Taylor (Vestal Review)
"Marriage" by Anna Lea Jancewicz (Matchbook Lit)
"Wants" by Grace Paley (Electric Literature)
"When I Lose Track of the Children, 5 & 7, Near the Magazine Section at Costco" by Christopher Mercer (Smokelong Quarterly)
It's difficult to convey my gratitude to every daring, innovative, lyrical, difficult, and fascinating writer I discover on Twitter or in literary magazines which span the globe. Gratitude is abstract and heavy as Hallmark card stock paper.
On the other hand, it's not difficult to say this: You are my MFA. You are my teachers, my guides, my prods, and (sometimes) my provocations. I am so grateful for you. I am also beholden to my sweet wi-fi connection. Imagine all the writers that might exist given a laptop and a little wi-fi.
Or what I learned about honoring the sentence from Gary Lutz.
I adore the The Paris Review. And I’ve never loved it more than I do now, under the keen eye editorial eyeof Emily Nemens. —So when it showed up on my doorstep the other day, of course I couldn’t not read Mona Simpson’s “Art of Fiction” interview with Alice McDermott.
Enter the trifling art of disclaimer required by the rise of literal Bible readings that allow people to strip a statement out of context and invent an evidence for whatever they’re claiming to know for fact. Enter, specifically, the disclaimer that says I admire Alice McDermott’s beautiful novels —and her treatment of sentence as a facet of each novel’s voice—but I’m not convinced by her disdain for “a sentence that seeks to dazzle,” a position that walks that like a stylistic preference but talks like a Sunday school ethics. To be fair and quote McDermott herself:
“As a writer, I also see sentence-making as the ultimate test of authorial ego. As soon as a sentence calls attention to itself, demonstrates how clever the author is, how astute, how talented, I know something’s gone wrong. The writer is no longer at the service of her words, the words are serving the writer. Each sentence needs to be entirely necessary to the work as a whole, and yet each sentence needs to be full of humility. A sentence that seeks to dazzle is merely annoying. A sentence that dazzles even as it deflects our amazement, graciously leading us to the next, is a sentence worth keeping.”
But it is really this easy? A good sentence is not always gracious. A good sentence may be a terrible house-guest. A good sentence may demand all the breath in one’s lungs to survive it. I’ve come to believe that a good sentence, like any invention, asks for mercy in surprising ways.
Good short stories demand sentences that exist outside the perpetuation of ambiance. I’m not sure if McDermott’s statement bothers me more as a female (who has learned the fine art of setting tables and whispering to be heard) or as a writer (who hopes that we risk the shitty falsetto high notes in an effort to deepen the stakes of the page). Given how Proust changed the frame as well as the syntax, I can’t even be sure “humility” describes sentence in a meaningful, continuous way.
More than any other living writer, it was Gary Lutz who showed me how to grab a sentence’s arm and twist it until the sentence said mercy.
Enter his canonical-for-me lecture, “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place.” Note how Lutz frames the writer’s responsibility at the sentence-level:
“The sentence, with its narrow typographical confines, is a lonely place, the loneliest place for a writer, and the temptation for the writer to get out of one sentence as soon as possible and get going on the next sentence is entirely understandable. In fact, the conditions in just about any sentence soon enough become (shall we admit it?) claustrophobic, inhospitable, even hellish. But too often our habitual and hasty breaking away from one sentence to another results in sentences that remain undeveloped parcels of literary real estate, sentences that do not feel fully inhabitated and settled in by language. So many of the sentences we confront in books and magazines look unfinished and provisional, and start to go to pieces as soon as we gawk at and stare into them. They don’t hold up. Their diction is often not just spare and stark but bare and miserly.”
And again, a few paragraphs of heaven later:
“…the words inside the sentence must behave as if they were destined to belong together—as if their separation from each other would deprive the parent story or novel, as well as the readerly world, of something life-bearing and essential. These writers recognize that there needs to be an intimacy between the words, a togetherness that has nothing to do with grammar or syntax but instead has to do with the very shapes and sounds, the forms and contours, of the gathered words. This intimacy is what we mean when we say of a piece of writing that it has a felicity—a fitness, an aptness, a rightness about the phrasing. The words in the sentence must bear some physical and sonic resemblance to each other—the way people and their dogs are said to come to resemble each other, the way children take after their parents, the way pairs and groups of friends evolve their own manner of dress and gesture and speech….The impression to be given is that the words in the sentence have lived with each other for quite some time, decisive time, and have deepened and grown and matured in each other’s company—and that they cannot live without each other.”
Every single sentence should earn its right to exist on the page.
And “humble” sentences can oversell plot, and bring as much of the author into the sentence as an extravagant sentence. Is someone revealing less of their own “style” when they invite us into a minimalist bedroom rather than a baroque one?
Is it really the case that an author reveals their vanity by writing in a way that resembles a red velvet bedspread? And where would McDermott’s position leave Diane Williams or Grace Paley or Silvina Ocampo?
Destabilized punctuation allows us to apply leverage at the micro-level, the half-breath, the precarious.
Lutz taught me to love the hyphen. Or, rather, he wrote a few sentences on this subject that made my embrace of the hyphen feel both natural and humanitarian in the baroquest way:
The hyphen, though, is the sweetest of punctuation marks, because it unites words into couples (and sometimes threesomes and foursomes). It’s an embracer. It does most of its most important business in front of nouns, and its business is to make things clearer. If somebody were teaching a workshop devoted to short fiction, for instance, too many people would describe it as a “short fiction workshop.” But that would mean it was a fiction workshop of brief duration. A hyphen between “short” and “fiction” would formalize the union of the two words, and they would together serve, in conjugal fashion, as a single adjective. But not all of the words in adjectival compounds preceding nouns should be hitched together with hyphens. You should never force a hyphen into the space between an adverb ending in “ly” and an adjective or a participle (“a nicely-turned phrase” is always wrong), but if the word ending in “ly” is an adjective, a hyphen is required (“a sickly-looking dog”). Things get very, very complicated when a noun is preceded by an adjectival compound whose first word is an adverb not ending in “ly.” Do you write “a once popular singer” or “a once-popular singer”? A few years ago, trying to recover from a traumatic breakup, I made a study of hyphenation patterns in the New Yorker magazine back when William Shawn was in charge. I made the hyphen my lifeline, and I put my trust in William Shawn and his grammar genius, Eleanor Gould Packard. I noticed that the New Yorker would publish a formation like “a not too pleasant afternoon” but also “a not-quite-pleasant afternoon.” A phrase like “a once-happy child” would sport a hyphen, but “a once promising student” would not, so I concluded that you put a hyphen after “once” if it’s followed by an adjective, but you leave the phrase unhyphenated if “once” is followed by a participle. I tried my best to suss out all of the underlying patterns (I was really, really grieving, and may have been missing all the obvious points), and I compiled a biggish list. But I started finding inconsistencies: something like “an ever so delicate girl” would show up in one issue and “an ever-so-prissy girl” in another; something like “a much recorded song” in one article and “a much-visited city” in another. A further source of big trouble for me was whether to hyphenate an adjectival compound that follows a linking verb. Do you write “She is well thought of” or “She is well-thought-of”? None of the manuals addressed this matter to my satisfaction, so I again turned to the New Yorker for guidance. I eventually fell in love with somebody else and slept deeply for a while.
I think the hyphen is scary, heavy, unwieldily, prone to burlesque. I think Lutz offers us a way of learning to “handle” the tools that appear off-putting or dangerous. I think he deserves a hyphen-garland for that.
Verbal frottage gives rise to “acoustical daisy chains”.
I read Lutz's short fiction, “Nothing Clarion Came of Her Either”, again and again, trying to understand its strange subject-verb juxtapositions and rattling language. How do you make words rub together like that? And why do I re-read Lutz in a way I’ve never considered re-reading McDermott?
In an interview with Ross Simonini, Lutz described the process of verbal frottage that happens inside a sentence as “largely intuitive and probably unnatural”:
“….a lot of what I seem to be doing when I try to get from one end of a sentence to the other—a crossing that can take hours, days, weeks—is introducing words to each other that in ordinary circumstance would never meet. I might pair them off because they share a throbbing interior vowel or the same consonantal shell, or because I have some other hunch that they belong together, even though anyone else might write them off as entirely incompatible. I guess I work my way through a sentence by instigating these relationships—a perverse sort of matchmaking, apparently—and then to keep the words from getting too cozy, I might reach for an uncustomary preposition that plunges the sentence into some queasy depths.“
Part of this is rooted in the discovery of “acoustical daisy chains”, which Lutz attributes to Gordon Lish. Here’s how Lutz describes an acoustical daisy chain:
“..in the most favorable of circumstances, a sentence-starting word at long last presents itself, and the language at large gets wind of this little instigation, and then whichever word in particular is feeling itself to be the most acoustically sympathetic to the first word will eventually throw itself at it, and then a third word arrives on the scene and senses an affinity with what the first two are doing and figures itself into the emerging pattern. If you can keep this up, if every word has such deep attraction to its neighbors to the left and to the right, the prose coheres and takes on a distinct character or tonality.”
This jostles the syntax, so you might find an intransitive verb being given a direct object, as Fiona Maazel does here, where the s-sounds call out for each other in that final section, the addicts begging for a strong verb like “collides” to make noise at the molecular level:
“I’ll note the odds of these people finding each other in this group; our sundry pasts and principles; the entropy that collides addicts like so many molecules".”
Natural acoustical adhesives include alliteration, assonance, a predominance of stressed syllables within each sentence, and associative linkages that mine the subterranean level of connotation and sonic charge.
Sam Lipsyte’s does Lutzish things.
Justin Taylor’s “Craft Talk Nobody Asked For” which excavates Sam Lipsyte’s novels for Lutzian sentence-making, bowled right up my alley of preferences. It’s an attentive, detailed breakdown of Lipsyte’s fiction that deserves a close read by novelists.
And I’d like to include a Lipsyte-Lutz observation of my home, taken from Lipsyte’s novel, Homeland:
“Some nights,” I said, “I picture myself naked, covered in napalm, running down the street. But then it’s not napalm. It’s apple butter. And it’s not a street. It’s my mother.”
Breaking the lines in this short segment could easily create a poem. Notice that nothing quite follows—the motion is associative but held together tightly by syllabic rhythm and beat.
Plot isn’t the only way to tell a story.
Lutz challenges the role of plot by borrowing from the eye of the camera:
“I think that movies are the ideal medium for getting characters from one place to another without making a big deal out of routine movement, and at the same time you can get the colors of the rooms or the neighborhoods, the weather, and emotionally convenient music on the soundtrack. Nobody has to come out with dulling declarations of “Then she got into the car” or “There he goes to the bathroom again.” How-to books on the short story instruct writers to block out scenes as plays in miniature. Something in me wants to counter: Then why not just write a play or movie script instead? Why not try to do in a sentence or paragraph what can’t be done in a shot or filmic sequence? Anyway, I am not one for plots—I think I recall somebody having remarked that the word “plot” itself gives off a whiff of burial dirt—and I find the concept of “cause and effect” to be tediously overrated.”
I can’t imagine reading anything by Denis Johnson and failing to notice he brings the same wandering lens to the page.
Poetic prose isn’t always purple isn’t always poetry.
Lutz observes that the border erected between poetry and fiction “seems less secure than ever.”
“A lot of writing passes back and forth without anyone summoning the authorities. Some people have told me that what I write is poetry, that it could be laid out as such. But I am a sucker for the old notions of poetry and would never think of my paragraphic jitter in that light. Besides, regarding my stuff as prose is a much more cost-efficient use of paper. The reader gets a full page.”
Though Lutz refuses to grant a genre-switch, he acknowledges his sentences’ sonic relationship to poetry. And I think the incredible sonic spasm of sentences, including those of Lucia Berlin and Deb Olen Unferth and many others, often set apart the interesting from the fascinating.
Sven Bikerts compares Lutz to poet John Ashbery in an interesting way:
The overall effect of a Lutz piece is not unlike what we experience reading a John Ashbery poem, and for a similar reason. For Ashbery uses the heightened expectancy that attends the poetic event to intensify our awareness of his dreamy non-sequences, their language and their a-logical shifts. Looking for a poem, we give the words on the page extra weight, and in the resulting disequilibrium we encounter the peculiar and deeply familiar sensations of our ambient late-modernity. Lutz makes comparably cunning use of the expectations we bring to the story form and the movement of narrative to crisis and resolution. His is a similarly deflationary aesthetic.
A “deflationary aesthetic.” Though I see more similarity between Lutz and Albert Goldbarth than John Ashbery, Bikerts’ comparison identities the tonality of unmooredness that results from syntactical reversals of expectation doing the work of plot.
Hug Mark Yakich.
And I would be lying through my unbrushed teeth if I didn’t admit that I cried a little when Mark Yakich blurbed my fiction collection with a special eye to my sentence-making and a nod to Gary Lutz. I would be lying and crying.
Instead, I’m encouraging you to check out this new collection by an incredible poet and human being. Thanking the stars and seahorses for him.
There are paintings I don’t need to see after reading an ekphrastic poem. Even though the analogy to film versions of books will not allow me to touch it, I am certain that the poem is all I need of the painting, the picture in my head so rich that any image would ruin it.
See Dan Ferrara’s “Shack, Peaked Hill Bars, Edwin Dickinson, 1955” in Cream City Review:
“the sun shines through a half pint of beer
throwing an amber shadow on a back rug where
a couple fucks to the wash of the Prussian blue sea.”
Every half century, the “synchronous flowering of bamboo causes famine in parts of India.”
What plants do together can kill us. I learned this from Karen An-Hwei Lee’s poem, “Prayer for a Bamboo-Flowering Famine.”
“The houses are haunted
By white nightgowns.”
Per Wallace Stevens. Forever.
After a cremation ceremony in Japan, ashes are removed from the incinerators so the family can take turns “feeding” ashes to the urn with chopsticks.
How can I abandon this image offered in Derek Sheffield’s poem, “The World’s Other Side,” which thickens my understanding of the chopstick as a life-sustaining implement?
Certain structures have stayed the same. See the first line of Anne Sexton’s poem, “Housewife”:
“Some women marry houses.”
Imagine Anne looking at the market for womanly home-making right now. I’ll be damned if there aren’t so many ways to become a house, to obsess over the details of organizing or tidiness, to poem the whole consumerist wreck.
The thickest fascinations need to be studied. But first, they need to be rolled across the floor and admired like a ball of yarn in a cat’s paw to see which way the thickness unfurls. To discover the start of the string.
Alan Feldman assigns poets to write a poem that is all one long sentence, an experiment in stretched-out syntax. That’s how he wrote “In November”, published in Best American Poetry 2011.
For the long string, see also “Greed and Aggression” by Sharon Olds and “Apology to the Muse” by Alan Dugan.
What looks like the start of a poem might actually be the end once the ball stops rolling.
“Crip poetics” opens an awareness to the body’s use and abuse in human space. By claiming the term “crip”—and defining it on her own terms—Barbara Hershey challenges ableism in poetic language and community. See Hershey’s poem, “etc.”, written after attending a lecture in which bell hooks listed an expansive, inclusive array of women intended to be representative, none of which was crippled. Hershey’s poem unfurls as a commentary on hooks’ lecture; the poet writes herself into the text.
“i am the etc. we are the etc.”
A lesson in the poetry of seeing one another whole.
Everything we can imagine has an afterlife. I realized this after reading Michelle Bonezek’s “The Afterlife of Pennies.”
Why not write a poem titled “The Afterlife of [whatever you want here]”? Pick something you loved as a child or a teenager. Give it back a life.
True love offers to hold the beloved’s scythe. See Erica Dawson’s “In Black and White”:
“A spade’s a spade. A plan
Can change. I love your pivot, covet
Your line, pin, point, arbor, and shaft:
And I can dig it. Feel that draft?
Come close. Now tell me how you love it.”
“Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.”
Monica Youn’s poem, “Study of Two Figures: Pasiphaë/Sudo”, layers these markers in a slow monotone that destabilizes the foreground and empties all solid containers constructed to hold identity.
Poetry taught me how to speak to a god. To say, as with Louise Gluck’s “Vespers”:
To imagine a god as "someone “who is immune to foreshadowing”.
The secret life of dolls resembles our own. See Denise Duhamel’s “Kinky”:
“The night had begun with Barbie getting angry
at finding Ken’s blow up doll, folded and stuffed
under the couch.”
I’ve watched my daughters work through daily problems in their doll play. I’ve admired how Duhamel sustains this energy and potential through the entire Kinky collection—and how she infuses the secret life of our toys with hope and aspiration. How she renders them in our image.
With an assertive statement or sweeping claim, a gauntlet you want to drop for the sake of circling it.
Tomaz Salamun begins “Totems On Back Roads” with the statement:
“There is no difference between a murderer
and a sip of wine.”
Then he proceeds to circle the gauntlet (and poke or enjamb) the next line:
“Delight in stopping
the flow of blood.”
And the reader circles it with the poet until finding one’s self encircled is the turn.
In the middle of an interesting action, all senses wired to it.
Like Alice Bolin begins “Why Not Me” with:
”When I close my ears with cotton balls
all I hear is my weird brain rustling.”
In an orgy of sonorous syntax that sets the beat and readies the breath.
Like Sasha West in “How To Abandon Ship”:
“Cows calve, horses foal, goats kid, but women do not child.”
West jimmies verb against adverb straight through the poem.
In an epistolary entreaty to a surprising object.
Dear bird, dear branch, dear ringworm that ruined my life in second grade…
See Carmen Giminez Smith’s opening to “First Coda”:
“Dear poem. do no justice”
Or Sarah Burke’s “Dear Desert”, addressed to an improper noun made intimate:
“I expected a wasteland of dead rock
whittled to dust. Instead I found you.”
With a strange memory that frames the poem and sets the stage.
Megan Peak’s poem “Sex Ed” starts straight puts the reader in the chair right away:
“I remember wondering whether hips were like cake.”
With a negative assertion, on the X-is-not foot.
Like Megan Peak’s “Suburban Requiem” launches into a litany of what is buried, or what must not be the case:
“No girl-tongue in the mouth. No street of magnolias.”
None of the props integral to the place.
In the middle of a memoir or diary you’ve been reading, in a space with no past and no future.
I can’t stop thinking about what Sylvia Plath journaled on July 17, 1955:
“I cannot live for life itself: but for the words which stay the flux. My life, I feel, will not be lived until there are books and stories which relive it perpetually in time. I forget too easily how it was, and shrink to the horror of the here and now, with no past and no future. Writing breaks open the vaults of the dead and the skies behind which the prophesying angels hide. The mind makes & makes, spinning its web.”
I feel like you could pinch any small fragment from this entry and wind up face-first in a poem.
As a completion or modification of the title.
Claire Wahmonholm begins her poem, “In the Land Where Everything Is Already Trying to Kill Me, I Enter A New Phase of My Life In Which It Would Be Very Bad If I Died”, with:
“because now there is a child and its mother is burning
with rapture and terror and has my eyes and teeth.”
Note that the poet doesn’t capitalize the first letter of the first line.
With an “if” statement or hypothetical that lays down the terms of the image debate.
As in “Beyond Love” by Emma Bolden, which begins so perfectly:
“If the saints are to be believed..”
In the middle of emotional sparseness, with only the bones, the rawness, the statement of facts.
See Jenny George’s exquisite “I Love You.”
In the accusatory tone, with finger pointed, drawing reader into complicity.
See how Rae Armantrout does this in “Distribution”:
“You think category
isn’t sexy, isn’t
sex. Seems you’re wrong.”
Notice how the lack of question sets the tone and prepares the reader.
By quoting lines from another poem.
Like Matthew Olzmann does in “Letter Beginning With Two Lines by Czeslaw Milosz”:
“You who I could not save,
Listen to me.”
With a sensory ambiance that will be rubbed to elicit a refrain or a restatement.
Kwame Dawes begins “On Blindness”:
“These may be the edges of a long gloom—”
And then spends the poem filling out this long gloom, using the word again in different places so that it feels both ordinary and extraordinary. Thickening this ambiance with repetitive use of a kinned word like “shadows”. Layering the surface with a sort of blending technique that reminds me of pastel painting.
Note how the title helps the reader “see” the coming darkness.
With an abstract statement that lifts the eye from the page.
Like Carl Phillips in his impeccable poem, “Civilization”:
“There’s an art
to everything. How
the rain means
April and ongoingness like
that of song until at last”
Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind— losing as an art form. Note how Phillips repeats the first line at the end of the poem only to turn it. Take note of how he does this.
With a bad pun.
Like Jeffrey McDaniel’s line in “Play It Again, Salmonella”:
“I’m a card-carrying member of a canceled party.”
McDaniels doesn’t start with the pun. But he could. And you can.
With a matter of fact that isn’t, quite.
Like Anne Carson in “Wildly Constant”:
“Sky before dawn is blackish green.”
Carson veers back and forth between what she experiences/perceives and what something means while querying the act of signing or signaling at its root.
With a title that involves a list or lays out the list a poem will attempt to provide.
Dick Allen’s “What You Have To Get Over” starts:
“Stumps. Railroad tracks. Early sicknesses,
the blue one, especially.”
The reader knows what Allen will do even as he switches into providing context and then going back to listing, back and forth, the movement.
With an off scientific fact or statistic.
I can’t think of the title off the top of my head, but Brandon D’Amico does this in his recent collection from Gold Wake Press. …And there’s always a plentiful array of random data on the last page of Harper’s magazine.
sources & additional re/sources
Random notebook entries + this amazing list by Mike Young + Elisa Gabbert’s blog (and anything you can find by her on poetry) + Six awesome poets on how they begin a poem + “Best opening lines in poetry” +
I’m fascinated, haunted, and provoked by the fugue form, and how it enables us to work around (and through) a poem’s texture.
Simply, a fugue is a piece of music that uses interwoven melodies based on a single musical idea. To compose a fugue is to involve a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (a musical theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and which recurs frequently in the course of the composition.
There’s some wicked, beautiful friction that develops between a traditional form like the fugue when used to carry nontraditional subject matter—a capacity to stir and jar the reader by overlaying sounds, musical effects, and impressions. There is the shadow of a whispered chorus, the power of subtle moves, the undertow of implications.
Music and lyric develop in tandem if you bring the breath of them into the same space, if you encourage them to converse with each other. I have a few ideas that only begin to scratch the surface of all possible poemings in this marvel…
1. Work the background baroque.
Fugues rose to prominence during the Baroque Period, ca. 1600-1750. They were based on an earlier idea from the Renaissance Period called imitative polyphony, where multiple singers would sing the same melody at different times. The melody of the first voice is replicated by subsequent voices.
The most strict form of this type of imitation is the canon. In a canon, the original melody is emulated precisely and without variant in every voice. "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" is a simple and well-known canon. I love thinking of nursery rhymes with all the bravado and established dignity of canonical forms.
The fugue is a more complicated version version of the imitative polyphonic form. It is less rigid and strict than the canon: different voices begin by imitating each other, but gradually diverge and become unique.
Another word for polyphony is counterpoint, meaning a style and method of writing polyphony that was used during the Baroque. When someone talks about counterpoint, they are talking about a specific type of polyphony. Often counterpoint and polyphony are used like synonyms (i.e. contrapuntal texture = polyphonic texture).
In a fugue, this idea that is passed around is called a subject.
Experiment with a baroque texture and language that juggles temporal spacing of a subject through repetition and homonymy. Don’t be afraid to occupy the margins or alter the white space by playing with diptych or triptych to amplify or juxtapose voices.
2. Develop episodic movements.
An alternate type of polyphony is non-imitative or free polyphony, which features distinct melodic lines overlapping. In a fugue, this is called an episode, and is used to transition to a new section and modulate keys. Free polyphony is common in traditional New Orleans jazz and in the early polyphony of the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods.
In the non-imitative polyphonic texture, independent voices are each unique and do not copy each other. "Hotter Than That" performed by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, is an example of New Orleans jazz that begins with a section of free polyphony followed by improvised solos (trumpet, clarinet, voice, then trombone).
Listen to this organ version of Bach’s Fugue in G Minor. Note the short episode that pops up around 1:10. Note how the sense of polyphony is also created through the usage of a countermelody laid over subject—you can hear this at almost any point in the piece where there are two overlapping parts.
3. Excavate the etymology.
There are so many layers to a word, beginning in origins and thickening into contemporary connotation. Fugue, for example, is borrowed from French fugue, from Italian fuga (“flight, ardor”), from Latin fuga (“ act of fleeing”), from fugere (“to flee”); compare Ancient Greek φυγή (phugḗ).
I used this juxtapositioning to build pressure into “Proper Fugue”, which flirted with the Romanian meaning of fugue, proximate to the Latin and Italian one. Consider the connotations of words like flying, running, wing in a fugue—and spend time in that word space to see what emerges.
4. Listen to a Bach piano fugue obsessively.
Listen to a piano fugue by Bach (preferable performed by Glenn Gould). Now listen to it again. Listen to this fugue on repeat while writing a poem about a room that three people just left. Create a sense of those persons still in the room—the relationships, the energy between them, their dissonances. Let the music alter your tonal range.
Alternately, edit a limp poem while listening to your Bach fugue on repeat. The repetitive listening is critical—it brings things up from the surface somehow, and expands the musical progression of the poem.
5. Study Paul Celan’s “Todesfugue”.
"Todesfuge" (translated into English as Death Fugue) is a German language poem written by the Romanian-born poet Paul Celan around 1945 and first published in 1948. It is "among [Celan's] most well-known and often-anthologized poems". When Celan published it, he was criticized for its cadence and lyrical finesse by some who believed its beauty undercut the cruelty of the Shoah.
Read Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” and study how he works with the form. Write a Todesfugue on a topic that bears witness to contemporary horrors.
6. Explore the cognitive science of fugue states.
Dissociative fugue usually involves unplanned travel or wandering and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity. It can be a facet of disassociative amnesia.
Borrowing from the psychiatric condition of fugue state, free-write a poem in which loss of memory tangles with loss of selfhood and identity to produce multi-tonal dynamics and unmoored voices in a poem. Aim to make it one long stanza (to challenge yourself to focus on your use of language rather than white space) or go the prose poem route.
7. Fugue through the fabulous.
Lewis Lapham: “To describe a woman as fabulous is to say she is nowhere to be seen.”
In this sense, fabulousness functions as an eraser—like black or white, it gives us little to imagine apart from personal connotation. It builds no tactics tension into description. Touch is notable for the difference it reveals—the surprise of wind lipping your nape. One could argue that someone who doesn’t feel the touch wasn’t touched in a meaningful or poetic sense.
A fugue about the fabulous—a “Fabulous X Fugue”—would use the polyphony of the fugue form and its flexibility to render something fabulous (and complex) without once whispering the F word.
8. Score the poem.
The line between a melody and a lyric depends on the presence of certain symbols, or musical notation. Familiarize yourself with the musical notations below. Learn how to hear them, see them, say them. Imagine how they take up space in a poem. Work them into slant rhymes.
Write a poem that uses the musical notations as a key. For example, a line could read:
I left him in > streetlights, the dim fold of dusk.
where “>” reads “diminuendo”. The challenge is to use these notations in a way that allows the poem to be read in two voices, where one reading corresponds with a blank for each symbol (assuming the reader lacks musical knowledge) and the other reading inserts the symbolized word.
If you’ve never wasted a weekend poring through Italian musical terms and matching them to pieces you love, make time. Sempre staccato, for example, means “always detached”. Isn’t that incredible? Can’t you feel its solemnity in the stanza, in the repetitions of a word or a syllable, in the frisklessness of it?
On September 4th, writers throughout the country will host readings to raise money for Immigrant Families Together.
We want to make sure that Birmingham shows up and makes an impact in this devastation and dehumanization launched against immigrant bodies whose crime is derived from the fact of their foreignness. And from the xenophobia and racism that makes such criminalization possible.
How This Works: Donate Online or At the Reading
We're asking readers to sign up and either ask sponsors to make donations or make a donation to sponsor themselves. A sponsor who donates $50 or more can choose a poem to be read at the reading.
Sponsors can donate online using the Writers for Migrant Justice page. Please ask your sponsor to write "Birmingham" in the comments section so that we can track donations.
We will also collect donations at the reading in the form of cash or checks made out to "Immigrant Families Together." You'll also be able to donate electronically via Venmo and the Writers for Migrant Justice GoFundMe page.
Until then, here’s the Facebook page which remains far more interesting and important than any cute kitten meme currently doing the rounds. (Peace kittens, I love you—but migrant lives matter more to me than the multiple feel-good vessels we use to ignore them.)
Any word spoken is inauthentic, dishonest, incredible when compared to what I have given the page.
And yet, I didn’t start writing for publication until the age of 35, when the barriers I’d put between myself and the fascination seemed tiny next to the mountain of poems, stories, and fragments lodged in my throat.
I came to marriage, motherhood, and writing on a “nontraditional path”. My experiences and thoughts should be considered in light of that MFA-lacking path. I am the black sheep on the boulevard and I am so lucky. I am lucky to write and read and publish and edit; lucky to find an audience in a literary community where publication is one smidgen of talent, another smidgen of hard work + discipline, but mostly a shit-ton of inexplicable good fortune.
Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference is a unique community that exists to support, encourage, and build bridges between writers.
I learned so much in those ten days, and so much of this learning came from reading, hearing, studying, and absorbing the work of my brilliant peers.
The food is delicious. The coffee is constant. The showers are clean. The staff is generous. The grounds are tended like the body of a beloved.
There are morning yoga sessions and AA meetings to support the challenges of life as we know it. There is a newspaper, The Daily Crumb, produced with all the diligence and hard work of editors who prepare it regardless and always.
There are countless generosities—from the kindness of the Innkeeper to the sudden dragonfly that preens overhead long enough for you to write her and thank her and kiss the cosmos that made her.
There is a sense of magic in the tiniest details—from the selection of room-mates (can you tell how I adore Alicia?) to the surprise thunderstorms and the readings that relocate quietly when electricity dies, the way writing demands this lip-biting perseverance from us, this galling, obscene persistence, this relentless motion forward despite what the world erects to slow (or even undo) us.
Stephen Dunn: “The secret life begins early and is kept alive by all that is unpopular in you.”
Introverts need not fear—there is space for those of us who insist on nourishing the unpopular parts of ourselves.
There is a secret blackberry bush behind the library where you can disappear and indulge stained fingers. There is a hidden creek near the horse barn with a small wooden bridge, and a fire circle two leaps away. There is a lush green glen where you can sink your face in the grass and no one can find you. There is a cordon of undemanding silence that rims the outer lips of the meadow. There is a library filled with books and couches, a refuge that stays open all night and all day. And there are others (countless others) for whom such a library feels like heaven.
There are moments when you cultivate the courage to approach a writer you admire, to launch yourself like a bathos-carrying missile in order to say something awkward, something irrelevant, something like: “I covet your words, your mind, your wonder, your daring…”
There is an ambiance of safe awkwardness in which that is acceptable, or not the end of anyone’s world.
Since the world we want to live in does not exist yet, there are human beings.
There are hierarchies.
There is a space you make for yourself in the space created by others.
I can’t speak to the experience of waiters or work-study scholars or writing fellows—that experience is best explained and described by those to whom it applies. I know people who could not attend without a work study or waiter scholarship. I know people who did not attend when financial aid was not forthcoming. I know people who could not attend for lack of assistance with caregiving (and yes all those people were women). I know people (like myself) who maxed out a credit card and relied on an overtaxed partner in order to attend.
In a capitalist system where value rises in relation to scarcity (both actual and perceived), competition, exclusivity, and prestige are part of the game we play in order to do what we love. Which is, always, above all, absolutely: to write.
To suggest there are no “winners” and “losers” is to deny the game itself, or to erase the institutions that both sustain, nurture, and develop us. I won’t diminish the experience of writers who applied to Bread Loaf and didn’t get in by trivializing their disappointment or offering dull platitudes. It makes sense to be sad or frustrated by a system that anoints winners. And maybe we should talk about that.
Maybe it’s better to address than deny the challenge of navigating a literary world that aspires to meritocracy and justice in a country where no one agrees on what those words mean.
In an industry where rising to the top makes it easier to rationalize why we deserve it.
Now I’ll say the thing no one wants to hear—the unfortunate truth, namely, that there is no such thing as a meritocratic literary conference or MFA program in the United States of America.
There is only the fluctuating, market-drive meaning of “merit” in subjective assessment protocols used to evaluate applications and to predict what a writer may or may not contribute to the literary community. There are so many generous writers and program directors trying to make this world more just, deserving, and genuine bt we are still operating in a system ruled by profit. We need money to live, survive, and thrive. It amuses me when these facts are treated as controversial or open to debate.
I know too many talented writers have never attended Bread Loaf. Or Tin House. Or Sewanee. Or Barrelhouse. Or any conference that acknowledges and develops their gifts and unique voices. You know these writers too. Hell, we all know the writers that are missing. And saying otherwise reveals a talent for self-hypnosis or an uncanny ability to make dicta of personal myth.
Each one of us benefits from privilege when we attend a writing conference or residency when we attend a writing conference that doesn’t include everyone who should be there. “Should” is a large word that includes people we don’t know about, mammals who lack exposure or access in ways we can’t EVEN IMAGINE.
Acknowledging this should not be construed as an indictment of Bread Loaf or writing conferences and/or residencies. It should not be construed as an indictment of scholarships or work-study or financial assistance based on something other than financial need. It should be construed in the spirit of self-interrogation and complicity that writing demands of us as humans who live in country that excels in global destruction.
A clear-eyed gaze helps us realize we don’t “deserve” something just because we benefit from the good fortune of having it. The un-American in me feels that humility is the appropriate mental and emotional response. The un-American continues to be unpopular on every topic from football to war. But the un-American in me won’t make our lives easier by shutting up.
Jericho Brown: “Writing the poem is how we face the terror.”
I want to share some things you can from Bread Loaf without attending the conference, and this mesmerizing audio collection of lectures and readings is a start.
Jericho Brown’s “Faith In the Now: Some Notes on Poetry and Immortality” changed something in me, and I can’t imagine a writer watching this video and not feeling the ground quiver beneath their feet.
Jericho juxtaposes happiness, which is cheaper, quicker, immediate, and consumable, with the longer arm of joy which lacks a “logical root”. Joy, whose value is wonder, whose origin escapes us, whose power shakes everything it touches. The poet describes the experience of leaving organized religion and church because “there was shame in sadness” and the joy he discovered there was a defiant response to slavery.
But does joy have to be experienced as a response to white supremacy? To quote Jericho, “In literature, black people don’t need white people to enjoy the scent of the earth.” And we all know “American ideals never existed in practice”—if they had, Trumpists wouldn’t be trying to turn back the clock.
“I do not romanticize the struggle,” Jericho says. Nor does he want to live for a life (or an afterlife) he can’t experience. Etched in my mind, this ars poetica: “I am more interested in learning about why we’d be interested in immortality than I am in immortality itself.”
Hasn’t poetry also resided in this liminal space between litany, song, and prayer? I love his analogy between writing poetry and the process of prayer wherein a line-break delineates doubt, waiting for the next line, an unbidden faith that it will come, that something has yet to be spoken, that something in the revelation will save us.
But I’m not saying what I mean, exactly.
In the barn one night, Jennifer Grotz read a poem that uses Simone Weil’s “attention is a form of prayer” as scaffold. Her poem was a prayer with an eye to the mosquitos and tendrils of corn on the night when rain “attended” her, when rain was made complicit in this relationship of rapt attention. Bread Loaf cultivates this rapture. And so we wait in the tangles of each Other, in this complex attention ecology.
Ultimately, finally, always—there is the fascination.
And the Kim Addonizio quote in my notebooks: “This is your genius: your own profound desire to write…If you are meant to be a writer, you will serve your genius as well as you can.” With humility, trepidation, terror, and maybe something kin to reverence.
It’s not a question of how good you are but how far you’re willing to go in fascination.
How much intensity and self-discipline you can bear.
How much rejection you can bracket.
How you honor creation in a product-driven economy.
How much loneliness turns to fear on your tongue.
—And there is the knowledge that you do not deserve this.
That no one really deserves this because everyone deserves this.
That Bread Loaf and writing conferences and publication are things we can’t earn, dreams to which we can’t secure a right.
There is privilege. And what you do with it. What you make, share, give back, and build into the future. Perhaps the poem you offer the page.
There is a moth that feeds on the tears of small birds. The moth visits the birds as they sleep. The moth lands on the sleeping bird’s head ever so gently before unfurling its proboscis and laying the tip just beneath the bird’s eyelid. But “to drink without waking the birds” is not yet a common expression or cliche. Is it a figure of speech?
And what do they dream, these birds whose tears are stolen?
In September 2018, a biologist actually spotted the Gorgone macarea moth sitting on the neck of a black-chinned antbird in Brazil poised to drink the bird's tears. It was “the first time this behavior was reported in the country and only the third known case worldwide.”
Something we’ve never seen may be a miracle.
“What do poets do? Slip
a wobbly syllable under
so close to the lens
- Martha Silano, “It was how a sentence” (AGNI)
The difference between writing and willing isn’t always clear to me. Right now, for instance, I’m laying these thoughts down in my notebook for one reason, namely, to provide context for an event I want to see in the world. This event involves drawing attention to the first stanza of a poem by Rosmarie Waldrop:
“If, close to morning, you see the physical fact of language you may take a prophylactic
attitude. A figure of skating or speech. The scale is heavy flesh.”
The heart cannot break. No matter how often we compare the heart to a breakable object, the human heart remains a quivering fist of pink jelly, a mass of pulsing tissue that is not quite machine.
Believe me when I tell you my heart busted wide as a cactus piñata after my mom’s sudden death. My heart was bat-broke open.
The poem’s job is to make you believe it. If the heart can’t be broken, the poem’s job is to break the heart anyway.
There is nothing less forgivable than the poem who assumes it can speak of heartbreak without hurting anyone.
Or breaking things.
I don’t know why hearts lie about breaking, but I read that moths and butterflies have also been observed feeding on the tears of crocodiles and turtles. They do this to obtain the salt which isn’t naturally available in nectar.
A moth drinking crocodile tears is a marvelous event in my head.
In the poem that is an event, Rosmarie Waldrop lassos the dedication into the title: “The Material World (for Johanna Drucker)”. The poet is continuing a conversation with her friend and she wants to be sure we understand Johanna is not an afterthought but a part of the poem’s flesh.
Here’s what I can’t forget: the final phrase of the third stanza.
Which also happens to be the exact middle of the poem, something like it’s centerfold:
“Pressure just below the phrase level.”
The bird dreamt of her single, unbreakable nest.
An unexpected acorn.
The movements of a mother’s face as she repudiates longsuffering.
A long-suffering velvet recliner.
An unexpected metaphor or description of joy. I’m thinking of when Ross Gay wrote that something “truly filled my heart with flamingos.”
A subversion of the word “rapacious”.
A historic earthquake or volcanic eruption that family members have mentioned.
A Xerox copy of something.
An explicit reference to another poem in which you are referring to a poem by someone else. In the poem about colored pencils.
A furry mammal you haven’t anthropomorphized for the purpose of the poem or pleasure.
A tired O. The opposite of an ecstatic O. An O that generates suspense.
A line from a poem by Mary Jo Bang.
The word “syntax” in scare quotes. Possibly with reference to a body part.
A sin tax dressed up like a poll tax.
An I-statement that suffers from non-sequitur.
What Ross Gay calls “an event illegible except for its unfathomable beauty”. Which may involve fireflies.
An invented business establishment or office. Like the “Bureau of Sad Endings” that appears midway through a poem by David Berman.
The word “busted”.
A melting glacier. Or any effect of climate change that appears quietly, desperately, ominously in the background.
A risk management heat map.
A word from R. A. Villanueva’s “Sonnet 146”.
Something he said to you and never took back.
“So the lies that my mama wants me to create a narrative about our family that ends with everything being great. And everybody valuing where we been, but not too much just looking forward. And I want to write that shit too. I just think that’s bullshit though. I don’t know what truth actually is, but I know what honest attempts at reckoning are. I’m not saying I’m writing honesty, I think I’m attempting to honestly reckon, which is the difference. At the end of that honest reckoning, maybe some people might call it truth. I wouldn’t call it truth but I would call it an attempt. I think sometimes we know when we’re honestly attempting to reckon, honestly attempting to remember, honestly attempting to render. As opposed to when we’re attempting to manipulate. And even in those honest attempts it can be full of lies.”
- Kiese Laymon on writing truthful memoir
Carmen Maria Machado is currently working on “an experimental memoir told through a sequence of rotating narrative tropes.” The tropes provide a framework to explore specific aspects of memory. Questioning, revising, and complicating truth is an important movement in nonfiction. See Brian Blanchfield’s Proxiesis, Kevin Brockmeier’s A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, Sofia Samatar’s essays in Monster Portraits, and Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls. See also:
Lia Purpura, “Autopsy Report” (The Iowa Review)
Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter”
Andrea Long Chu, “On Liking Women” (n+1)
Sarah Marshall, “Remote Control” (Believer)
Sofia Samatar, “Meet Me in Iran”
Mary Roach loves memoir as a form. In The Memoir Project, Roach says "the beauty is that you can write about penises without completely under-stating them, making the penis another of the greater things to write about."
Good revision can reveal the form the memoir needs to breathe. The way we think nonfiction is supposed to look may be irrelevant to what the material needs. Lucas Mann describes how Lord Fear ‘s form developed entirely from the revision process. “… the last time I got really frustrated with the manuscript, I just started stripping away the connecting scenes, extra exposition, anything that felt safe and palatable but also slow and flabby. After the purge, all that was left of the narrative was impressionistic little fragments.”
Jill Talbot: “How long do we live in the fictions of our past? And how do we convince anyone that who we write is not necessarily who we are?”
The list essay form is especially useful when you have a close chronology to track, or a sense of externalized momentum.
We want the thickness of shameless subtext. Or, if there must be shame, we want to see every cringe and be allowed to ask questions. I think of Virginia Satir's "nominalization," a communication strategy in which someone who fears emotion replaces a process of being (a verb) with a static event (a noun). Rather than saying I'm angry, the person claims to "experience anger."
It’s taboo to expose or interrogate unspoken boundaries (see patriarchy). In many cases, setting a boundary does not leave us feeling empowered but guilty. We are socialized to defer ethics to Sunday school classrooms and Bible study groups rather than wrestle with the meat ourselves.
Sometimes it isn't the anger or strong emotions that destroy your life--it's the fear of feeling them. Viriginia Satir, again, compares two types of relationships, namely, the "closed system"--relation dominated by neurotic dependency, obedience, conformity, and guilt— to the "open system"--both can honestly express full range of hopes, fears, loves, angers, mistakes and appreciate each other for them. How does this look in text form? How are these contrasting systems sometimes mixed in the air like muggy weather?
I am talking to the persons in the memoir, and the writer that avoids a messy page. You should both be able to ask for what you want without asking for permission to want it. You should be able emote without being rejected for emoting.
The Secretary Bird of Africa hunts lizards, snakes, and other small reptiles by stomping about in the grass. Foot stomping serves as a means of self-preservation for bird species. What rituals do we practice in self-defense? Why not write the baroque of them?
“The structure of the miracle has a similar form: out of another time, from a time that is alien, arises a ‘god’ who has the characteristics of memory, that silent encyclopedia of singular acts, and who, in religious stories, represents with such fidelity the ‘popular’ memory of those who have no place but who have time—‘Patience!’… But all these variants could very well be no more than the shadows—enlarged into symbolic and narrative projections—thrown by the journalistic practice that consists in seizing the opportunity and making memory the means of transforming places. … In short, what constitutes the implantation of memory in a place that already forms an ensemble? That implantation is the moment which calls for a tightrope-walker’s talent and a sense of tactics; it is the instant of art. Now it is clear that this implantation is neither localized nor determined by memory-knowledge. The occasion is taken advantage of, not created. … Like those birds they lay in other species’ nests, memory produces in a place that does not belong to it. … Memory derives its interventionary force from its very capacity to be altered—unmoored, mobile, lacing any fixed position…” (From Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life)
Sandra Doller begins her collection of mini-memoir, Memory of the Prose Machine (Dusie Press) with the long quote above. She does this thing with budding phrases that she drops and brings back as refrains, and sets up a sort of mini-memoir about family life in the Reagan years (and the demonization of Amy Carter) by jumping but not saying. So it feels silenced. Yet said. An undercurrent. And I love it.
It just sort of happened as I was doing small, mindless tasks in the house while listening to old playlists my hubcap made when we in some wild dalliance that wasn’t legit.
The thing is: this taught me to love Bruce Springsteen…. he sort of rug-burned Bruce into my skin and I never got over it. So here’s what I did.
I made a list of all Bruce’s songs and then wrote a poem that incorporated the titles on our old playlists. And then fiddled like a fresh-rain-licked fern with all the tiny pieces…
The Playlist Poetry Challenge is so easy and fun—a perfect excuse to sit around and listen to nostalgia-inducing music on a muggy Saturday.
Pick an old playlist (or just pick a favorite music artist) and make a list of song titles.
Tell the song titles that you plan to use them as a word bank for a poem you will write. Don’t be sorry or apologetic. The songs want to be felt. You are doing those titles a favor.
Write a poem that makes use of those titles. You can capitalize the titles (see above) to make it clear when you’re referencing the song. Alternately, you can putz around in italics. You can even use white space to draw lines in the sand between your words and what music makes of them.
Title it with a name that hints at the artist or the playlist conceit.
If the final result is HORRENDOUS, email it to family members who think you’re a terrible poet that is wasting their time in profit-less vocation. Make sure to preface the poem with a note saying something like: “OMG tonight I wrote this poem that was just SO INTENSE. I had to share it with you because I’m really proud of it and I hope it wins a prize. Maybe someone will read it on their talk show. Family, I think this is IT.”
When the dishwasher breaks, I tear a few vines from the side of the house and re-read Mary Ruefle's "Short Lecture on the Brain" (collected in Madness, Rack, and Honey).
There is no connection between the act of tearing and the act of reading except chronology, which is both the most artificial and actual connection that can exist.
Let me begin by adding that I am neither a practical nor a “well-rounded” person. The kindest thing that can be said of me has not changed since my second grade teacher told my parents: “Alina is creative and she may have potential.”
Let me unbegin by subtracting the things people say from the fascination that leads me to poetry. See, I don’t just appreciate the sunset—I marvel at the way it burns down the day, curdling cloud-breaths into colors of exhaust.
I don’t just admire the moon—I have a relationship with the moon that outlasts all the mammals I’ve laid in her pale light.
I don’t just worry about melting glaciers—I hear them cracking, groaning, shifting before finally giving up on sleep and running upstairs to google “glacier noises”, “density of Arctic ice”, “cold-hearted human snakes”.
To quote from Mary Ruefle's "Short Lecture on the Brain”:
"I don't think there is anything balanced about artistic creation at all, I think it's a lopsided way of being, an obsessive and off-balance way of perceiving and being in the world; I mean most people when they see a baby fox playing with butterflies don't have to write a poem about it, especially a poem where the baby fox winds up dead on the side of the road with butterflies gamboling around its splayed intestines."
The un-cuteness of a dead fox does not prevent it from holding the poetic imagination.
What could be more asymmetric than a carcass on the side of the road? What is less orderly and well-arranged than wild animal death?
I think about symmetry whenever I see an American teen with a mouthful of metal or the billboard that promises to “even out lopsided breasts.” I think symmetry makes it easier to know where you are going in a shopping mall, or what to expect in an operating room. And heaven forbid a day go by that we aren’t reminded of the relationship between perfect symmetry and beauty.
What is poem-worthy about perfection?
Perfection is like unconditional love in that it is static, unchanging, unaltered by events. I’m not interested in unconditional love.
A poem about perfection would have to focus on subverting the perfection in order to be interesting.
Maybe the difference between advertisement and poem parallels the difference between the promise of perfection vs. interesting asymmetry.
Poets break promises. We spend hours chasing a shadow around the room just to watch it break our hearts up close. Then, between terrors, we force ourselves to bring that shadow to the page so others can see how it feels to be haunted by the way a patch of darkness moves across the hardwood.
Fascination is more interesting than beauty. I believe this as surely as I believe a gap between front teeth is the most disarming dental position in the world.
Fascination asks more from us than a relationship of admiration, which is, at best, a spectating relationship that affirms a platitude.
Give me the hooked nose, the chipped tooth, the Mona Lisa smile anyway. Give me a style icon that destabilizes the platform with her natural, unremarkable breasts.
Asymmetry is where poetry wanders... into the lopsided, the near-miss, the mysterious tenors of imbalance.
I'm thinking of complex, numinous way in Kayleb Rae Candrilli ends "You've Heard This Before, The Only Way Out Is Through" (American Poetry Review):
there is a razor in the apple
and the apple is the earth. Listen,
my nightmares are dreams in which
everyone walks in the same direction--
that rhythmic lockstep. Both of my
grandmothers considered abortion.
And can you imagine?
Being so close to nothing?
I’m thinking splayed intestines can be used to make ice cream.
I don’t know if someone has made ice cream from roadkill.
I don’t know what part of this has actually happened but I know everything is happening now and I want to taste it.
10 poems I keep needing to read again. To mine the sinews. To feel the way motion moves through the flesh. In no particular order.
“Wittgenstein in the Palisades” by Maya C. Popa in No Tokens Journal
“Work Boots: Still Life” by Jim Daniels in Poetry
“Then” by Stephanie Ford in The Volta
“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” by Morgan Parker in Paperbag
“Diorama of the Uninhabited Yes” by Ann Lauterbach from If In Time
“All The White Boys On The Eastside Loved Larry Bird” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib in Evening Will Come
“The Butter Festival” by Mary Ruefle in Poetry Review
“Genesis” by John Sibley Williams in River Heron Review
“Full Moon” by Kim Addonizio shared by Caroline Bird
“Dead Stars” by Ada Limon in Poets.org