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I’ve never been a poetry person. I’ll write short stories, flash fiction, and the beginnings of novels, but never poetry on my own time. I do read it every once in a while, and I enjoy explicating poems in class, but whenever I’ve been asked to write it, I have always felt about as qualified as a fish specialist at Petco being asked to train the latest Shamu.
Fortunately, the poetry class I’m in this semester (with Professor Cody Walker) asks us to write capital “B” Bad Poetry just as often as it asks us to compose lines worthy of publication. We take perfectly wonderful poems and “de/compose” them, tweaking one or two of their best qualities and leaving laughably inadequate paraphrases behind. In the process, we are instructed to reflect upon why our changes make the poems so Bad. What is it about the originals that makes them so great?
I never would have guessed that writing Bad Poetry would make clearer the greater aspects of famous poets like Sylvia Plath or Emily Dickinson, but it has. And it has also made my attempts at good poetry, a lot better. It draws my attention to musicality, imagery, emotion, word choice, and voice, and in doing so has given me a better understanding of how to successfully manipulate the English language in all kinds writing. It forces me to look at what I’m doing wrong and what others are doing right.
So next time you feel stuck on your writing – whether it’s poetry or prose – try writing something really awful. Take a master author/poet’s writing and make it Bad. Take your own writing and make it worse. Figure out what it is that’s working for you, and what it is that’s working for them. Write a really Bad poem from scratch just to shake the writer’s block. And from there, turn the bad to good, the good to great. Make Bad Poetry work for you.
If I’m being honest, I never really know what to say when asked what my poetry is about. This is not because I don’t actually know what most of my poems are about or what compels me to write them. But when I am posed this question my palms begin to sweat and my mind reels through all the misguided conceptions that could possibly result if I answered with a “this poem is about breakfast/beaches/a bowl of fruit/the treacherous terrains of love.” Over the years, and even past months, I have tested out different answers, different ways of exploring the “aboutness” of my poems. A generalization like “coming of age” usually leaves me and, mostly likely, my questioner feeling empty-handed. The indirect “It’s still in progress but I am attempting to shatter form” has me feeling dishonest. So, the truth is, my poetry is about my obsessions – small ones and big ones. It is about the objects of my obsessions, the results and qualities of my obsessions and, the spaces my obsessions do and do not occupy. Because, so often, a poem is about both the thing its subject is and the thing that it’s subject is not.
On Thursday evening I attended a reading by Natalie Diaz through the Zell Visiting Writers Series. Diaz is the recipient of many honors and awards in poetry and is the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec. Her poetry offers accounts of her Mojave-American upbringing that are both unflinching and tender. It was at the reading that I was brought to examine my own relationship with poetic subjects. This was scary and hard. I was also comforted to hear Diaz, a poet I look up to greatly, speak on her own search for poetic subject. She told the story of how she would visit crane sanctuaries in hopes to discover a new subject. Perhaps she would become a “nature poet”, she thought. Then, as she told the audience, she would always arrive back at the subject of her brother, and to the body, and to basketball, and to violence and tenderness, and to how violence and tenderness are implicit in one another. And after she said all this about her recurring subject, about violence, and about tenderness, I listened to her last poem, “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips” and heard all the absences and all the presences of her dark and joyful obsessions.
When I write poetry, I am afraid. That’s not the only emotion I feel, of course. If it was, I wouldn’t write it. On the whole, writing poetry is a thrilling experience for me. that’s why I do it. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little afraid, too. For me, poetry is an attempt to express and convey ideas that often seem a little too odd or difficult to be expressed in normal conversation. I always hope that, in writing the poem, I’ll find a way to make those ideas understandable, conveyable. But I’m always afraid that nobody will understand, that my ideas will prove too strange.
I was thinking about this yesterday as I was reading the poetry of Patricia Lockwood. Her poetry seems, at least to me, to be fearless. She writes boldly and brilliantly about bizarre, unusual, or taboo topics. In her poems She isn’t afraid to say unconventional things (one look at her brilliant twitter account, @TricialLockwood, will confirm this). When I write, I come nowhere close to tackling the strangeness of the topics that she writes about, and yet I find myself afraid that nobody will understand my poetry, that my poetry will accomplish nothing other than proving that I am alone. I find myself wishing that I could write with the seeming fearlessness that Lockwood does. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not she actually writes fearlessly. It is entirely possible that her writing isn’t the product of fearlessness, but the product of overcoming fear. Maybe that’s what I should take away from this—that I can’t avoid fear, but I can fight through it (I am reminded of the Green Lantern comics I used to read, in which Lanterns-to-be are selected on their ability to “overcome great fear”.) Perhaps I shouldn’t fear that nobody will understand the thoughts I try to express in my poetry. After all, Patricia Lockwood has written poetry about Animorphs, and her poetry reached so many people that she was profiled in the New York Times magazine. If that’s not proof that one shouldn’t fear being a little unusual, I don’t know what is.
As you might’ve seen, we’ve been getting a few guest posts from fellow staff members of Fortnight. It’s a way to give me a bit of a break and get more voices in the mix. Hope you all enjoy their thoughtful ideas. We’ll be getting a string of guest posts for the next few weeks.
Also, be on the lookout for a new issue, which should be coming in the near future!
I’ve always loved to write. I remember telling people when I was in elementary school that one day, I was going to be a famous author. I was convinced that I would spend my life writing novels and poetry. That’s just the way it was. And in elementary school, I seemed to have an endless stream of ideas. I’d sit down with my notebook and start writing about the first thing that came into my head because to me, every idea was worth writing about. Every idea was the best of the best, and every idea was going to be the next great American novel.
Looking back on the past couple years, I realize that I haven’t been writing nearly as much as I used to. And I think I’ve figured out why. Aside from becoming busier and having multiple activities battle for my time, there’s this little voice I started listening to that whispers, “That idea’s not good enough. Who do you think wants to read about that?” And so I respond with, “Fine, I’ll just wait for a better idea to come along.”
And before I know it, all of 2014 has crept by and I still haven’t written a story because the perfect idea hasn’t arrived yet. Heck, I even procrastinated on writing this post because I couldn’t think of a good enough idea. But I’m thinking about my elementary school self right now, and I’m thinking hey! My stories might have been pretty dumb back then (I mean, I wrote about an alien farting his way around Earth), but my unwavering confidence in my writing was over the moon.
So what exactly am I trying to say? For someone who considers herself a writer, I’m having a really hard time putting this into words, but it’s something to the extent of this:
We can’t wait for inspiration. It’s true that sometimes, ideas will suddenly pop into our heads. These are the ideas we snatch out of the air and feverishly scribble down in fear of forgetting later on. But for the most part, good ideas don’t come; they’re made. And the best ideas might even start with something dumb.
What’s important is not to stop writing – no matter how dumb the seed of an idea might seem.
Last year my brother told me about a select group of writers he’d heard of who write almost exclusively while riding trains. They are paid to do this, he said, and they of course receive free travel, all financed by some benefactor—a company I suppose. (I am obviously hazy on the details. But isn’t writing about the ideas? Don’tcha find? Isn’t it building around the ideas and filling in detail with whatever warms us in the moment? Whatever makes the ideas spin faster and clearer in our heads?)
With my brother’s information in mind, I resolved to write this blog (my first one, as it happens) on the train back home last night. But, being too tired and cramped on that goddamn Amtrak, I was downright physically and mentally unable. Nevertheless, just a quick look out the window at the fields of snow, the gentle arcs of the power lines, the silent houses on hills, the cars in the city rolling by stop signs—all zipping past—and my mind was buzzing. It seemed I couldn’t help thinking of some idea, some place where that person is going, or some story behind the graffiti, or some life inside of the distant house with the light shining in the kitchen window.
It’s the variation and the quickness, I suppose. While on a train you receive many examples of the world. You get life, you get tundra, you get lone country roads. And what makes this all so great is that you see everything for just a moment, just long enough to catch an essence and lock it somewhere in the brain. Then you must move on to the next thing. There’s no staring for ten minutes at the same object, trying to squeeze out some inspiration. There is constant movement and change (so no getting stuck!).
Something I think I should listen to makes me say that writing is moving. Most stories I write that really mean something to me come from a past part of my life. It’s as if I’m saying goodbye to that time or that self—letting it go, you might say. And more generally, I feel that most anyone with an artist in them has hated projects they’ve completed. Many writers have stories they absolutely despise and want to burn ceremonially. We may even have a current project that we know we’ll be fucking sick of when it’s over, that we’re fucking sick of now, but we HAVE TO FINISH IT. It will be done and it will be good, or I will be DAMNED to HELL! And isn’t that just the writing process—from stuttering line by line, to making stories (or poems), to books, volumes, encyclopedias, on up the steps into the same middle of nowhere? Examine closely. Don’t lose your focus. Catch the essence. Let it go. What’s here now?