This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share writing exercises with us in lieu of our regular Friday Prompts. This week’s installment was contributed by Rick Barot.
Once, I mentored a graduate student who had been obsessively reading the stories of survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings in World War II. These stories were horrifying and moving by turns, and my student was consumed by them. Because she was a poet, it was inevitable that her engagement with the stories would manifest itself in her work. But here was the problem: she was a comfortably situated Caucasian woman who didn’t feel she had the right to write about this subject matter. Even more complicated: she wanted to write poems directly in the voices of these survivors, making her use of the material doubly problematic. Part of me, of course, wanted to advise the student to step away from the project, because it was simply too fraught with pitfalls that would make the project insurmountable at worst, and awful at the least. But a larger part of me wanted to advise the student to move forward, which is what I did.
We artists get on a tightrope when we tackle subjects that are beyond the merely personal. But far from ever trying to dissuade anyone from writing about these subjects, I urge them to head straight into those subjects. The risks that come with any writing project are in fact the opportunities of that project: they are what make the project worth doing in the first place. In poetry, there is no such thing as hands-off material. A poem never fails because of its subject matter—it fails because the poet has inadequately given depth and shape to that subject matter. Dramatic historical periods, natural disasters, grand personal wounds—writing about these subjects raises the stakes tremendously high when you have to write about them inventively, feelingly, thoughtfully. You have to be ingenious to avoid failure—or, at the least, ingenuity will allow you to fail well.
To my mind, when a poet deals with a subject that is apt to be simplified by polemic or sentiment, it’s contingent on form to prevent those reductions. By form I don’t necessarily mean traditional forms like sonnets and sestinas, though those forms are as viably powerful today as they ever were. I mean a shapeliness—whether it is the rapturous listing of Garrett Hongo’s “Nostalgic Catalogue” or the symphonic multiple sections of Adrienne Rich’s “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”—that asks the reader’s understanding to work at multiple levels.
Obviously, what I’m saying here is arguable: after all, for every poem that has to be as complicated as “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” there’s another poem that needs to be as formally restrained as Robert Hayden’s sonnet, “Those Winter Sundays.” The real point is this: there’s no limit to the work poetry can do—or that it should do. We live in a free verse world—which is to say that in poetry now, what we can do is thrillingly unfettered. On the other hand, given the painful state of things in the world, it seems also the case that the things poetry should do has grown larger. The poet has never had more freedom and more obligations.
In creative nonfiction, a genre that has been blossoming in recent years, there is a formal technique favored by lyric essayists that I’ve found fascinating: the hermit crab essay. A hermit crab is a species of crab that inhabits abandoned seashells, moving from shell to shell as it grows. In the hermit crab essay, the writer co-opts the shell of another textual genre—the restaurant menu, the instruction manual—and uses that form to organize his or her essay. It’s an exciting form in that the merging of incongruous elements—practical structure and lyrical utterance—leads to unexpected discoveries for both the writer and the reader. Of course, the hermit crab technique is wonderfully suited to poetry, as evidenced by this poem by Janice Mirikatini:
Ingredients: scissors, Scotch magic transparent tape,
Eyeliner—water based, black.
Optional: false eyelashes.
Cleanse face thoroughly.
For best results, powder entire face, including eyelids.
(lighter shades suited to total effect desired)
With scissors, cut magic tape 1/16” wide, 3/4”-1/2” long—
depending on length of eyelid.
Stick firmly onto mid-upper eyelid area
(looking down into handmirror facilitates finding
If using false eyelashes, affix first on lid, folding any
excess lid over the base of eyelash with glue.
Paint black eyeliner on tape and entire lid.
Do not cry.
* * *
The prompt is a simple one. Write a poem that utilizes the structure of another text: one page of a screenplay, a multiple-choice quiz, an entry from the Oxford English Dictionary, and so on.
Rick Barot was born in the Philippines and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He attended Wesleyan University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artist Trust of Washington, the Civitella Ranieri, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer. He has published two books of poetry with Sarabande Books: The Darker Fall (2002), and Want (2008), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Threepenny Review. He lives in Tacoma, Washington and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, and in the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.