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 Luisa A. Igloria.
Writing poetry is always a little archaeological—we dig and sift not only through our fund of experiences and memories, but also through a variety of textual fragments. As a writer in the diaspora, I am always reminded that the past, history, is a hallucinatory presence right here with us; that our life in the contemporary moment is marked by the displacements that time is eternally enacting.
In the news, we encounter stories about all sorts of anniversaries and commemorations: recently, so many articles on Bin Laden’s capture and killing last year; but also, I read the reminder that my high school friend and classmate, James Balao (whose 51st birthday was April 19), has been missing for nearly four years now since his political abduction by state forces on September 17, 2008. And then, I learn that a former student and friend, and one of my daughter’s grade school teachers who has made a life in Japan these last ten years, walked out of her home and marriage a month ago, with three very small children in tow—and has not been seen or heard of since. How is it possible? I am disturbed. I am disturbed by these unexplained rifts in time, by the unforgivable absences of explanations. And because facts alone, even when they are available, cannot assuage the terrible depths of these displacements, I turn to poetry for some kind of response, if not relief.
Because we are all involved in the drift of time, displacement is a function of contemporary experience—it is not something reserved only for us in the diaspora or for those of us who live with the legacies of colonization. History is a field at once very large and very intimate. But I like to think of the past as not completely done, of history’s archives as not static; we can enter the archive, we can reconstruct and re-imagine events, we can insert ourselves as figures or characters into its landscapes.
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 Karen An-hwei Lee.
In Santa Ana, where I live, a curious wind rises only in autumn and winter. It is a hot, dry wind. Hair static. Restless dogs lie in the shade; quiet dogs are restless. In the “Los Angeles Notebook,” Joan Didion writes of the Santa Ana wind: “The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called ‘earthquake weather.'”
The wind is not named for any geographic origins here. Miles away, it starts with a downsweep of cool air that is slowly heated while crossing the high Mojave Desert into our valleys and coastal regions. Unsettling our routines, it sweeps across my city of gardeners and mission arches. Angelenos who spent their childhoods south of the Great Basin, who recall urban fires and great earthquakes, call it the “Santana.”
When the Santa Ana comes, the sun looms closer to the earth despite the winter solstice. Noon hangs, a sharp, angular hour, in the sky. Eucalyptuses toss dry leaves onto the asphalt, and no one sweeps them: no use. No one picks up broken pottery shards. Let the wind sweep everything clean, “for the wind blows wherever it pleases,” says Jesus to Nicodemus. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). After prayer, I close the shades, stay in the coolest room away from the lanai.
What is the tone of this wind?
I think of lines from “To the Tune of Wuling Spring” by the Song Dynasty woman poet Li Qingzhao. She was highly attuned to her surroundings, whether in days of plenty or of war and exile: “When flowers vanish / and wind ceases late in the day, / I am too tired to brush my hair.” Or these lines from her poem, “To the Tune of Sands of a Silk-Washing Stream”: “A far-off mountain range thins the falling dusk; / . . . as ineluctable pear blossoms, withering, wilt to fade.”
It is a desert wind, not a hurricane gale or a blizzard. As a girl, spending my childhood on an archipelago and two New England coasts, I experienced both of the latter. With the Santa Ana wind, tar paper tumbles in the road. I set out dishes to dry; a teaspoon of water vanishes. Night yields little relief as sea waves swell to the west. To the east, helicopters fly over spot fires in the hills and canyons where rough chaparral brush—yucca, black sage, manzanita—has weathered pre-blackened zones of controlled burning.
After moving to California, I learned two things.
With an earthquake, temblor-raised dust seeds the clouds, sending rain. After the Santa Ana calms, a fog always rolls in. I still do not know whether this is a sea fog or a land fog. On the coast, we have a phenomenon called a marine layer, so perhaps that is what this is. The temperature drops from the nineties to the seventies and even to the forties after sundown. I walk in the fog with my hair unbound and a fresh skirt, carrying mailed books in the welcome cool. Following a week of fire and smoke, I am grateful for the fog as a divine provision.
Prompt: Consider the rhythm of a wind you know well and write in this rhythm.
Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), which won the Norma Farber First Book Award. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she lives and teaches in southern California, where she is a novice harpist. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley.
There’s a large tree right outside the window of the office where I now work. For the past three months, I’ve been settling into a new job, in a new town, in a new part of the country, experiencing new patterns of weather and rhythms of life for the first time, and in a way, the tree’s seasonal development seems to have kept pace with my own process of putting down new roots. Since January, I’ve watched the tree outside my office window turn from bare and covered with snow, to studded with red-tipped buds, to dripping with cascades of papery, yellow-brown flowers (which are no doubt a contributor to my allergy suffering, but are pretty nonetheless). Watching its seasonal transformations, the former would-be-biology-major in me can’t help but think of botany: the March rains that washed the inhibiting hormones from the tree’s growth tissues to signal that it was time for the eruption of flower buds, the pale, embryonic leaf shoots that now lie furled deep inside their own buds as they wait for their turn to emerge.
Spring, and thoughts like these, always remind me of one of my favorite poetry books of all time, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris. The arc of The Wild Iris follows a garden and its grieving gardener through the cycle of the seasons, and I find its persona poems in the voices of various plants to be especially haunting. Take, for example, this excerpt from the titular poem, which opens the book:
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
Glück’s choices in crafting a voice for her iris seem to have been heavily informed by her knowledge of the plant’s seasonal life cycle: as perennials, irises die back at the end of each season and sprout again in the spring. Death and resurrection, again and again. Like an aging Persephone, Glück’s iris speaks with the shadow of the underworld fixed upon its lips. Its voice is dark and brittle, weary with the knowledge of its experience: for it, the earth is not a womb, but a grave; to break out is not a frantic exercise in escape, but rather, to pass temporarily from one world to the other, in the knowledge that at the end of its time of ecstatic flowering, it must return again to the darkness of the winter ground.
While today’s prompt doesn’t necessarily ask you to write in the voice of a plant as Glück does, I hope it will challenge you to consider the ways in which the processes of growth we can observe in things around us (like plants) can serve as markers of seasonal rhythms in our own lives.
Prompt: Write a poem that documents the growth cycle of some form of vegetation (like a plant, a lichen, a mushroom) as a way to record, reflect upon, problematize, or otherwise engage with a seasonal change or development in the speaker’s life.
This week’s writing prompt asks you to think about the mashup, the remix, the “sample”–in short, the possibilities of the literary pastiche, a ground-up, reconstituted form of poetry that artfully (and sometimes not-so-artfully!) arranges found, borrowed and stolen language in innovative ways to make something wholly new. The idea for this prompt (not a new one, admittedly, as we’ve written many times about poems that use “found language” and their less bashful cousins, the full-0n centos) comes from Daniel Zalewski’s profile piece, entitled “The Hours,” about collage artist Christian Marclay. The article, which appeared last week in The New Yorker, discusses a broad array of Marclay’s work, the most famous of which is the twenty-four hour film “The Clock.” By stitching together hours upon hours of raw digital material sampled from all eras, genres and schools of film, Marclay collaged a full twenty-four hours of film matched to the real-time passage of the hours. In doing so, he
wondered if he could fashion from familiar clips a genuinely unfamiliar film, one with its own logic, rhythm, and aesthetics. In his view, the best collages combined the “memory aspect”–recognition of the source material–with the pleasurable violence of transformation.
The pleasures and pitfalls of Marclay’s efforts are not unfamiliar to artists in other realms of the creative arts. In literature, T.S. Eliot famously used pastiche in “The Waste Land” to issue a staggering modernist manifesto. So did Robert Hayden (whose voice you can hear on the Poetry Foundation Website), who took up similar tools to orchestrate the complicated voicings of “Middle Passage.” And today, postmodern poets, for whom sampling and “mixing” of high and low language (not to mention literary and non-literary influences) is so commonplace as to be a kind of convention, share this technique with a number of contemporary visual artists, filmmakers and musicians.
Today’s prompt asks you to write an erasure poem. The exercise itself is straightforward and accessible: take a piece of text (any text), and erase, cut, or obscure words from it in order to excavate new constellations of sound, image, and meaning. But the simplicity of this method belies both the complex political implications of the act of erasure and the aesthetically and critically evocative possibilities of its results.
On the level of craft and aesthetic practice, erasure is an exercise in creative disruption: it approaches a text not as an authoritative tome, but as a playground. It pulls apart syntax and meaning, joyfully discarding the scaffolding of the author’s original intent, in order to generate new and often delightfully spontaneous meanings from the chaos that results. It gets our brains to think outside of existing constructions of language and argument, and playfully diffuses the authority of the published (public) page, instead placing agency and ownership of a text into the hands of the reader / artist who rearranges and re-imagines it.
On another level, though, the practice of erasure is also deeply subversive in a political sense. To author a text, to be among the ranks of those whose voices are heard in the public sphere (through public oratory, through publication), necessarily invests a speaker with a measure of social and cultural power, and so to engage in creating new texts by erasing portions of another one can be to participate in a type of protest against formal systems of language and power. The practice of erasing, or silencing, marginal voices is a tool that has long been wielded by those who seek to propagate and maintain systems of injustice, and so to uproot and disrupt, to excavate and re-write texts that come from unjust powers by erasing and reclaiming them is to turn that tool against itself.
Early this year, I began reading Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, in which he uses the exercise of erasure to excavate and subvert the memoir of former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who in 1985 was revealed to have been a Nazi SS officer. Reddy’s (to quote Marjorie Perloff’s blurb) “using, abusing, recycling, and reformatting [of] Waldheim’s own words” in multiple, complex configurations destabilizes the authority of Waldheim’s text by deftly using the framework of its language to construct transient arrangements that are by turns at odds with, and at times, utterly irrelevant to, the presumed argument of the original memoir. By doing this, Reddy enacts the shifting identities and masks that Waldheim claimed in his lifetime, laying bare the multiplicitous/duplicitous nature of the public persona he constructed for himself. From the remains of Waldheim’s shredded sentences, Reddy carefully excavates and floats before us a man whose seems utterly alienated from—even coolly oblivious to—the import of his ostensible mission. The narrative of peacemaking betrays itself, and, having splintered, the voice Reddy produces hovers in the space of the page, transmuted, antique, foreboding, and at times, almost faceless.
Reddy’s book is not the only erasure project that has caught my attention recently. When I read LR Issue 2 contributor W. Todd Kaneko’s poem “Quarry” a couple of months ago, I was also deeply intrigued by its use of the technique. First published to the blog 99 Poems for the 99 Percent back in January, “Quarry” engages in the unusual act of erasing portions of itself. Kaneko cleverly uses HTML to apply black backgrounds to sections of the text, in order to make them appear to have been “blocked out” or “censored”—that is, until the reader highlights the missing text with his or her mouse, and the missing words are revealed. “Quarry” thus exists as two simultaneous poems—the first, a public poem, notable for what it is missing, and the second, a “hidden” poem, which is accessible to the reader only if he or she possesses the curiosity to engage in some investigative work during the act of reading.
Indeed, asking the reader “dig” appears to have been at the heart of the Kaneko’s intentions for this piece. In the description that follows the poem, he writes:
I was thinking about how a writer often has to dig around in a poem
to figure out what it’s doing and what it wants to do. I was thinking
about how we kinda have to dig around in the OWS movement to figure
out what precisely is happening there. I was thinking about how so
much of this decade’s unemployment rates and economic woes are tied to
decisions and practices that people have been overlooking for decades.
I was thinking about using HTML to make a reader dig around in a
poem—use your mouse to select the text and unearth the rest of the
“Quarry,” then, in inviting the reader to reverse the poet’s act of self-erasure, brings us closer to the process of excavation inherent in creation and challenges the notion that to read uncritically and without careful investigation is to understand a whole picture (of a poem, of a political movement). To generate meaning, the artist, the politician, the protester, must engage in a process of thoughtful culling and “digging”—but to responsibly interpret that meaning, the reader must also engage in excavation, too. Neither art, nor politics, then, exists exclusively on the surface. It is only by digging through what has been hidden or erased that we can approach a fuller understanding of what we see before us (whether dinosaur, poem, or protest).
Prompt: Create a poem from the words of another text by erasing portions of the source until something new and evocative is generated. OR, create a poem that engages in doubling back on, negating, or even physically erasing, portions of itself.
Today’s prompt is inspired by a series of ekphrastic studies I’ve been writing on images of “women at bath.” In compiling these sketches, I’ve observed, among others, paintings by Degas, Picasso and the woodblock artist Hashiguchi Goyo, searching for visual elements that might bring a fuller sense of description to my writing.
The traditional mode of ekphrasis—that is, the “making of poetry from art”—involves describing or imaginatively inhabiting a painting, sculpture or photograph; in this way, the poet more or less lends their descriptive craft to that of the visual artist. What I’ve been investigating, however, is how iconic images (such as Picasso’s “Blue Nude”) can be broken up into elements that recur in various, refracted ways across images, then worked into a poem’s narrative fabric in a way that doesn’t necessarily foreground itself as ekphrasis.
This week’s prompt is, in large part, inspired by NYC-based Poetic Theater Productions’ call for re-magined versions of classical love sonnets , which I have been mulling over and trying to write into for the last week. Thinking about the challenge of modernizing the themes of a well-known sonnet for a contemporary audience has also gotten me thinking about form, at large, and the ways in which the sonnet itself has been re-shaped and re-envisioned in the contemporary era. While poets writing sonnets still continue to seek out the spirit of traditional form variations (such as the use of iambic pentameter, schemes of rhymes or off-rhymes that imitate the traditional Elizabethan, Italian, or Spencerian sonnets’ patterns, or even the inclusion of a turn, or the limiting of a poem’s length to 14 lines), many endeavor to push the form in new directions. There are many examples of “nontraditional sonnets” that buck the rule, but one of my favorites is Jill McDonough’s Habeas Corpus, where she uses the metered structure of iambs, and rhymes that often fall slant, in order to record, and examine, the narratives of victims of the death penalty in the United States. McDonough’s sonnets are, by design, rubbly, and at times brutal in their pacing. They are woven through with found language drawn from historical documents, and her masterful crafting of the poems that enfold these quotations allows the skeleton of the sonnet form to serve almost like prison bars–the poems and the people whose stories they tell are, at once, made visible by means of the formal “cages” which contain them, and are yet simultaneously engaged in a continual struggle against them.
Mông-Lan also employs the sonnet in her collection Song of the Cicadas, whose eponymous sequence is a crown of sonnets, identifiable as such partly because of the length of each section (which falls around 14 lines, on average), but primarily because of its use of the formal convention in which the sonnets are linked by a series of repeated lines (the end line of the previous sonnet becomes the first of the one that follows, and the end line of the final sonnet is the first line of the first). “Song of the Cicadas” breaks from the notion of the sonnet as a formally-regulated structure by disregarding meter and rhyme scheme; its individual sections do not even quite look like sonnets (which we expect to be blockish and dense in shape, and quite short), as the poet’s use of unconventional breaks and spacing causes the poems to float, lattice-like, on the page. And yet, because it operates by calling upon the notion of the sonnet (however much it simultaneously resists it), we, as the reader, can read it as such: songlike, concise, clean and tightly polished, colored by the signature turn or tonal shift that we expect–even assume–drives the argument of each section forward.
Mông-Lan, Jill McDonough, and the many other contemporary poets who play with this well-loved form challenge us to re-think the sonnet, not just in order to “revive” it from the realm of stodgy antiquity or cliché, but in order to re-imagine it as was originally intended–not just as a pretty poetic form, but as a form of confident, and often surprising, poetic argument.
Prompt: Write a sonnet that re-imagines traditional formal constraints while still retaining enough of traditional conventions to make it identifiable as a “sonnet.”
I’ve seen two fascinating films recently, both of whose images and underlying attitudes have seeped (mysteriously, inexplicably) into my work. The first is The Tree of Life, whose cosmic interludes (and I mean this literally: one minute you’re observing a family at a dinner table and the next you’re panning across sunspots and galaxies… or maybe a child’s conception?) and drifting trajectories through time make you feel like you’re living inside a Jorie Graham poem. The second is Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a lush, sometimes perplexing film whose primary effect was to draw me back into the sounds and mythologies of my childhood in Southeast Asia.
What I found after watching these films, Uncle Boonmee in particular, was that certain scenes began to haunt me, such that while drafting entirely unrelated poems I would start stitching lines together from the perspective of a character in a movie, or with an emotional pitch keyed to a particularly memorable scene. Weirdly enough, I found this productive; elements of the poems derived, however indirectly, from these films turned out to be not at all foreign to the impulses of the overall piece. Continue reading “Friday Prompt: Writing from Film”→
We start 2012 with a prompt that was suggested to us by one of our former staff writers, Supriya Misra.
After reading Richard Meier’s poem “[Untitled] The child thought it strange” in Poets.org‘s Poem-a-Day newsletter, Surpriya was so struck by the opening line that she emailed us to share it. “I think the first line of this poem would make an amazing poetry prompt!” she wrote.
We couldn’t agree more. Hence, today’s Friday Prompt.
Prompt: Write a poem that begins with some part or variation of the line: “The child thought it strange to define words with other words.”
In the past, we’ve talked about writing postcard poems in our Weekly Prompts, solicited them from readers as part of the LR Postcard Project, even published them in issues of the Lantern Review (see Tamiko Beyer’s “Dear Disappearing” in Issue 1, Rachelle Cruz’s “Postcard Poem #067” in Issue 3). So it should come as no surprise that — with the holidays fast approaching — this Friday’s prompt is about writing the holiday postcard.
It’s not what you think… if this is what you’re thinking: