This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us. This week’s installment was contributed by Jon Pineda.
Once, for training purposes at my job, I had to practice setting up an extension ladder mid-span, into that near empty space between telephone poles. This space is usually connected by a cable lashed to a thin, metal strand. At the top of the extension ladder are swiveled hooks for resting on the strand itself, so that there will at least be some resistance when it comes time to ascend the rungs, and then—once at the top, roughly twenty feet up—to attach the leather harness belt. Then you simply lean back. Ahead, there is nothing but the sky in front of you.
Though in that particular moment, suspended high above the ground, I was, of course, thinking about my physical safety, I couldn’t help thinking about other things as well. That sky in front of me, for one. It felt as though I could have fallen easily into that space. Later, as I was working on a poem, I found myself thinking a lot about the caesura: the pause that usually occurs within a line of a poem. I have always been interested in how this visual and aural delay aids in securing and distancing sections of imagery, so that the presence of a caesura is immediately felt by the absence it evokes.
Consider the first section from Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem “Practice”: “To weep unbidden, to wake / at night in order to weep, to wait / for the whisker on the face of the clock / to twitch again, moving / the dumb day forward— // is this merely practice?” Voigt begins with a list of infinitives, each separated by a comma. The reader is carried along by the undulant churning of each subsequent infinitive pushing into the next. Then, the arrival of the dash halts the momentum just prior to the speaker’s question, “is this merely practice?” The caesuras become a place that simultaneously allow the reader to rest within the pause and yet momentarily resist the unfolding tension of the poem.
I am grateful to Eileen Tabios for her contribution in resurrecting the work of the Filipino poet José Garcia Villa. In The Anchored Angel, a book thoughtfully edited by Tabios, I first encountered Villa’s elaborate use of the comma, and I remember feeling confused and yet oddly at ease by this rush of punctuation. In my mind, I kept hitting against the commas, until the words that preceded them became buffers for the next. At that point, I settled into each word, pausing before and after: “The, red-thighed, distancer, swift, saint, / Who, made, the, flower, principle, / The, sun, the, hermit’s, seizures, / And, all, the, saults, zigzags . . .” (from Villa’s poem “The Anchored Angel”).
In both examples I feel a presence at work. Each point of pause tests the strength of the line. It lets me, the reader, live in the suspension for just a little while longer.
Prompt: Write a poem that prominently features a caesura (or a number of caesuras). Make the absence essential.
Jon Pineda is the author of the memoir Sleep in Me, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and a Library Journal “Best Books of 2010” selection. His poetry collections include The Translator’s Diary, winner of the Green Rose Prize, and Birthmark, selected by Ralph Burns as winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry Open Competition. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and this summer, he will join the faculty for the Kundiman Asian American Poets Retreat held at Fordham University. His poem “[we left the camera]” appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.