Since we’re approaching the end of our Issue 5 reading period, today’s prompt will be our final discussion on the critical notion of hybridity. Click here for previous posts, which discuss a number of ways we’ve seen contemporary practitioners experiment with hybrid forms, media and language. Today’s prompt focuses on subject matter derived from hybrid sources, which I’d like to approach through a consideration of Quan Barry‘s poetry.
I listen to a lot of NPR, mostly FRESH AIR, and quite a few of the poems [in Asylum] are from segments I’d heard either there or on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Because I’m the kind of person who’s really interested in making connections, in getting really into topics, for ASYLUM, I researched a lot of the poems (for example, the poems about syphilis).
One of these “poems about syphilis,” which appears in the sequence “Plague,” begins:
After three weeks a chancre forms–an ulceration
with a hard edge, springy center–the way a button
feels through a layer of cloth. Also, the lymph nodes
in the groin begin distorting, swell like vulcanized rubber,
painless though immunologically ineffectual.
In one chapter of her beloved book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg urges young writers to “Make Statements and Answer Questions.” I’ve taught her chapter on the importance of being specific before, but I decided to add this chapter to my syllabus for the first time this Fall, and as the semester has progressed, I’ve been finding myself returning to the raw courage of its advice again and again—both in my teaching, and in my own writing. In “Make Statements and Answer Questions,” Goldberg observes that many young writers (and indeed, experienced writers, too) feel timid about putting their ideas out into the world, and so, in their hesitancy, they often fill their writing with questions and indefinite statements (“Isn’t that terrible?” “Maybe she’s right”). There is indeed something quite vulnerable about the act of writing for an audience—of making a claim and expecting others to listen to it. To do so requires boldness, a kind of brash willingness to allow one’s own ideas to stand alone, at the risk that one’s audience might not agree. Goldberg encourages us to cut the apron strings, so to speak, by challenging ourselves to confidently answer each question we find ourselves asking: “Making statements,” she writes, “is practice in trusting your own mind, in learning to stand up with your thoughts” (93-4) And later:
“Don’t be afraid to answer the questions. You will find endless resources inside yourself. Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind. Don’t carry the fog out on paper. Even if you are not sure of something, express it as though you know yourself. With this practice, you eventually will” (94).
Call it the partner to the questions prompt that Mia posted in 2009, if you will: today’s prompt was inspired by Goldberg’s call to write with confidence.
Prompt: Write a poem consisting entirely of answers to questions. Try to mix answers to small, concrete questions (such as “May I have a second slice of cake?”) with answers to bigger, nearly unanswerable questions (like “What do trees do when they feel cold in winter?”).
Here’s a found poem exercise that’s inspired by a trip that my boyfriend and I took to the Tech Museum in San Jose, CA while on vacation a couple of weeks ago. As we made our way through the joyously kinetic (and occasionally frenetic) space of the museum’s galleries, I found myself intrigued by the surprisingly figurative language used on the signs in one of the exhibits: by the way in which it resisted the impulse to inform on a strictly literal level and instead chose to render the vision behind the very practical inventions that were being described in expansive and imagistically evocative ways. “Drinking the Sky,” for example, was the title of a station about fog nets—fine mesh screens which trap moisture from morning fog to make clean drinking water. What a lovely idea, I mused, thinking not just of the fog nets themselves (which are indeed a marvelously ingenious invention), but also of the image of harvesting the sky, of gathering its fabric to one’s mouth to drink. Then there was “Liquid Vision,” which was the title of a display about soft, water-filled glasses lenses whose strength could be adjusted by reducing or increasing the amount of liquid inside. I admired the invention itself, but enjoyed the synaesthetic nature of the title even more: I imagined vision that was truly liquid—as light so often seems to be—revealing the world to us fluidly, wetly, clearly, in currents and waves. If such a thing were our everyday experience, we’d be literally washed in sight; one might come away to sleep dripping with colors and shadows and shapes. Or indeed, perhaps that vision that could be liquidized or distilled–bottled, sold, distributed from place to place in a canister . . . like a film, but for oral consumption. Potion-like. Shimmery. Strange. At any rate, something that one could wrap a poem around.
Prompt: Write a poem whose central image is inspired by language “borrowed” from a sign, billboard, or poster.
Speaking of summer reading, my summer reads (and flicks too, apparently!) have demonstrated the uncanny trend of featuring the work and life of a single character: Gertrude Stein. Without knowing anything about the book except that it was recommended to me by multiple people, I started reading Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. I’m about four chapters into the novel, and have just begun to realize that the mysterious “Mesdames” referenced obliquely throughout the introductory chapter are none other than Alice B. Toklas and, as she is called in the book, “GertrudeStein.”
I had also planned to read Juliana Spahr’s Everybody’s Autonomy: Collective Reading and Collective Identity(University of Alabama Press, 2001) later this month, and when I flipped through it a few days ago — lo and behold, the title of chapter one? “There Is No Way of Speaking English: The Polylingual Grammars of Gertrude Stein.” Spahr goes on to consider such figures as Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, but, as far as I can tell, grounds most of her inquiry in the groundwork Stein laid for future generations of poets in Tender Buttons and other influential writings.
But last night’s movie is what really convinced me that something the universe has been orchestrating a grand conspiracy to get Stein on my mind. Friends had warned us to walk into Midnight in Paris without any expectations or previous knowledge about the film, so we had no clue what the movie was about — or into whose home the main character would stumble after wandering into 1920s Paris. I won’t spoil the (admittedly very thin) plot, but suffice it to say, I got the message.
Today’s exercise is less of a prompt and more of a practice, but having just returned from the 2011 Kundiman retreat—at which Oliver de la Paz announced on the first day that he fully intended to “steal” from each of us, and where Kimiko Hahn shared a lovely collaborative variation of a “stealing” exercise during my final workshop of the weekend—I wanted to continue the chain and extend the same thought to you.
Perhaps the term “stealing” is a bit harsh-sounding—”recycling,” “quoting,” or “riffing” might be more a more genteel way to put it, since what it involves is not outright plagiarism, so much as a process of exploring new avenues through “sampling” and strategic mimicry—but somehow it still feels apropos, as the delightful discovery and surprise that occurs when one takes something that one admires and puts it into a different context, tinkers with it, uses it as a launching pad or a frame, embeds it, or layers it with one’s own work, does in part come from the feeling that one is doing something utterly subversive. Socially and culturally, we tend to envision the artist as a lonely figure who operates entirely self-sufficiently—the work, and its every element, must come out of her head and her head alone. But in fact, in our daily lives as artists, we are engaged in a perpetual process of “stealing”: we observe things in the world around us—the quality of light on a bedspread, the deep crease in a parent’s forehead, the conversation between a pair of girls at a nearby table, the color of a house, what the host is saying on TV, the sound a cash register makes when it opens, the texture of a wall at the train station, the funny taste of food when one is sick, a joke that fell flat at a party—we process them, we file them away, and these things which we file away filter themselves, eventually, into our creative work.
I’ve been thinking a lot about force lately (in the Newtonian sense) as I’ve been working on revising a poem that had become too static for its own good. How, I’ve been asking myself, might one use a directional force (a push or a pull) as a central device by which to drive a poem’s internal motion (imagistically, rhythmically, and otherwise)? It’s an interesting challenge, to allow the arc of one’s language (which is, ultimately, abstract) to be driven by the idea of a physical (concrete) force. Cornelius Eady’s poem “Crows in a Strong Wind” provides some insight into how this may be done:
Off go the crows from the roof.
The crows can’t hold on.
They might as well
Be perched on an oil slick.
Such an awkward dance,
In their spottled-black coats.
Such a tipsy dance,
The thrust of his lyric takes off (or is blown off) its perch as suddenly as the crows are blown from the roof, only to return again as both the speaker’s thoughts and the crows themselves attempt to recreate the scene that served as the poem’s genesis. This pattern—of being blown off course, and then returning, only to be blown off, and to return again—creates a sense of disorientation that makes the poem feel dizzily, and wonderfully, surprising. The force of the wind drives the poem forward and back, forward and back, just as it disturbs the crows from their perch, resulting in a kind of sampling that causes the original image to be made new again and again.
Prompt: write a poem whose arc, and imagery, is driven by a single, physical motion (a push, a pull, a twist, a parabolic descent).
The approach of the holiday season always makes my thoughts turn towards home—regardless of whether or not (and where) I’ll be traveling—and makes me revisit my relationship to the process of returning to its streets and idiosyncratic landmarks. The buses and shuttles and planes and cars I’d take to get there. The things I’d see and do when I did. Home is, to some degree, Philadelphia, where Mayor Nutter’s face greets me as I descend the airport escalator, and where I can lope off to Chinatown for the world’s best bao (K.C.’s) or a steaming bowl of broth swimming with fishballs and silky ho fun (Ting Wong). But it is, more quintessentially, my parents’ quiet hometown in New Jersey, where suburbia swells out over the fences, becoming more pale and alien each time I blink, but where, in my family’s house, there’s always a kitchen light on and a steaming hot bowl of fresh chicken soup waiting for me whenever I return, suitcase in hand.
Today’s prompt is based on an exercise that Bruce Snider, one of my undergraduate mentors, used to use in his workshop classes.
Prompt: Think of a city, town, or other geographical location that you know intimately, and write its portrait, in the form of a poem that details a specific return to that place.
I’ve always found that one of the occasions on which I am best able to write is when I’m traveling. I don’t drive, and so whenever I need to go somewhere that is too far away to be reached by bike, I ride all sorts of buses, trains, planes, shuttles, trams, taxis, and other forms of mass transit in order to reach my destination. There is something uniquely meditative about these trips: despite the fact that I am usually surrounded by—even crushed in against—other passengers, the motion and sound of the vehicle and the relative anonymity of being amidst a crowd of strangers provide me with excellent opportunities to listen, observe, and record.
A man told me that he had wasted his life. I did not know him.
We were on a train moving from one trespass to the next,
the fields in the windows shifting utterly into daybreak.
As the poem progresses, we find that the train itself and the experience of traveling on it have become the primary device by which this portrait is rendered:
The rails below us were making comparisons
as if they were saying look at the thorn tree gone wild,
look at the gravel kicked on the ties.
I wondered about the hollow of the guitar and of the voice of the man.
It’s always like this on trains‹the burn of your ear
when a stranger speaks over the sun cutting through windows.
The speaker, who knows nothing about this man besides what he has heard and seen of him within the context of the train ride, finds that the sound of the train and the slant of the light through its windows merge into his vision of this stranger, until, by the end of the poem, the man is absorbed into the greater network of train trips and other journeys that form the speaker’s experience: he is, the speaker states, just one of many strangers “who’s asked me for an ear.” Like so many piece of luggage, some of those people’s stories have been remembered by the speaker, while others’ have been “left at the station.” Most, we imagine, have suffered the latter fate. But the speaker remembers this particular man’s story because of the way that his memory of it is mediated by his own experience of the train ride. What he recalls most vividly is not the content of the story itself, but the scene outside the window of the train as it was being told: the three birds that “blur by,” and the way that their flight fixed this particular stranger into the speaker’s memory, as if sticking his name “to a thistle.”
Prompt: Write a poem that uses the sensory experience of riding a particular form of transportation as a device by which to relate the story of a journey or trip that you’ve taken.
I’ve adapted today’s prompt from Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s handbook The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, which I use in my introductory poetry class to teach important craft concepts such as image, metaphor, and description. It’s a fairly simple exercise–more of a starting point, really, from which to begin exploring deeper notions of presence, absence, and the manner in which memory “ghosts” poetic vision. Feel free to respond to the prompt as is, or elaborate upon/disregard its restrictions as you see fit.
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Think of a pair of old shoes. Describe them in a way that will make the reader think of death, but do not refer to death explicitly in the poem. If you wish, you may think of a specific pair of shoes that belongs to a specific person, but do not mention the person by name or indicate your relationship with them.
I have been discussing some of Susan Sontag’s thoughts on photography with the students in my First Year Composition classes lately, and her comments about the way that photographic images fragment our modern sense of reality have made me think about how the same ideas might apply to poetry. Though our sense of the “real” in reading a poem is more diffused than the expectation of strict verisimilitude that we have in looking at photographs, a poem can, in some way, still be thought of as a lens or a frame through which we are given a curated glimpse into an event, thought, or world.