Becoming Realer: Origins

Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.

My coat of arms as I envisioned my own crest in 2000

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion began “The White Album.” Her words have been on repeat in my head during the months that I have been neglecting this column while putting the finishing touches on my thesis for Saint Mary’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. As I prepared to walk for graduation, I found myself returning to the beginning and wondering: Is that why I decided to tell stories? What exactly is the nature of telling stories?

This past January, I took a class that explored fairy tales from a comparative and cross-cultural perspective. I thought it would help me learn how to write stories since folk tales have both expository and narrative elements and follow set structural patterns. There is a hero or heroine who goes on a journey. There is a donor who helps the hero or heroine. There is a conflict, separation and ultimately a reunion. Things tend to happen in threes. In order to find the narrative arc in my own story, I decided to go back to the very beginning.

Some folklorists believe that the first stories told were tales of giant-slayers. In a Norwegian tale, seven brothers go off in search of seven brides, and the oldest six are turned to stone by a giant’s hand. Only the youngest prince and princess are able to trick the giant and destroy his heart. Or in the Portuguese version, three sisters go out into a field to pick flowers, then disappear. When the youngest brother comes of age, he goes off in search of his lost sisters and finds the first two married to the King of the Birds and the King of the Fishes respectively. But his youngest sister is being held prisoner by an evil giant that wants to force her hand in marriage, and the brother must destroy the giant’s heart. Then there’s the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey or David and Goliath. Were these stories told in order for ancient people to live or were they just stories the peasants liked to tell to pass the time?

Continue reading “Becoming Realer: Origins”

Weekly Prompt: Dramatic Monologues (remembering Ai)

Ai in 1972

In honor of the poet Ai, who recently passed away, this week’s prompt focuses on the dramatic monologue — a technique for which she was famous.

Born Florence Anthony, she adopted the name “Ai” after discovering that she had been conceived through an affair between her mother and a Japanese man that she (Ai) had never met.  The Poetry Foundation’s bio on her describes her particular sensibilities well:

Ai is a poet noted for her uncompromising poetic vision and bleak dramatic monologues which give voice to marginalized, often poor and abused speakers . . . She has said that her given name reflects a “scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop” and has no wish to be identified “for all eternity” with a man she never knew. Ai’s awareness of her own mixed race heritage—she self-identifies as Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche—as well as her strong feminist bent shape her poetry, which is often brutal and direct in its subject matter.

Ai’s poetry practically vibrates with the force of its imagery.  Her lyrics leap from the page and inhabit the personas she takes on without apology.  One of the things for which she was noted was her ability to enter the voices of those at the margins of society and infuse them with dignity and magnetic strength.

To illustrate, here is the opening to her poem Salomé:

I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
But what if I tore you apart
for those afternoons
when I was fifteen
and so like a bird of paradise
slaughtered for its feathers.
Even my name suggested wings,
wicker cages, flight.
Come, sit on my lap, you said.
I felt as if I had flown there;
I was weightless.
You were forty and married.
That she was my mother never mattered.
She was a door that opened onto me.
The three of us blended into a kind of somnolence
and musk, the musk of Sundays. Sweat and sweetness.
That dried plum and licorice taste
always back of my tongue
and your tongue against my teeth,
then touching mine. How many times?—
I counted, but could never remember.
What stands out for me in these opening lines is the unforgettable boldness and clarity of its images: the scissored red carnation becomes a severed head, her description  of dried plum and licorice give a sickening viscerality to the complexity of the speaker’s relationship to the “you” — he is at once abuser and lover, taker of innocence, and seductor, the wielder of an invisible tyranny in which the mother is also implicated: at the end of the poem, when a ghostly sword slices through the speaker’s throat, the mother’s dress is like that “of a grenadier,” and we are made to see how her kiss becomes an act of terrible violence disguised as tenderness.

In honor of Ai’s life, work, and legacy, here’s this week’s prompt.

Prompt: Write a poem in the form of a dramatic monologue in the voice of a single speaker who is not yourself.  Optionally, if you do not wish to write a traditional persona poem, you may imagine the speaker’s voice as a loose projection of your own.