Proposal for a New Form: the “Boulder”

Proposal for a new form, because I’m writing in it . . .

A “Boulder” is wedged somewhere between a prose poem and a micro-essay, as if between a rock and a hard place, but gestures toward fiction through its willingness to engage in absurd scenarios instigated by the true occasions or circumstances introduced in the title. At under 500 words, it is a rhetorical form that posits itself as another form (i.e. a disclaimer, parable, alternate history, etc.) and it must respond in some way to STUPID SHIT (i.e. sexist, discriminatory, or otherwise dumb-dumb things) said to the speaker. Figuratively, the “Boulder” can be seen as a roadblock, avalanche, or agent of Wile. E. Coyote-style injury.

I have written three so far and I’ve started several more. An example of one of the titles: “An Alternate History In Response to the Man Who Told Me Canned Biscuits Ruined America.”

Poems in the Voice of Emilia & a Request for Reading Suggestions

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Desdemona's Death Song (ca 1878-1881, print)

“Desdemona’s Death Song” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

On & off for several years, I tried to write a series of poems that addressed or took on the persona of the character Emilia in Othello, my namesake. A few poems were informed by her story, but none took on her voice head on. I was paralyzed by the fear that I couldn’t write in the voice of a character previously voiced by Shakespeare—how could I not be?

With a prompt given by Mary Szybist at The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, however, I was able to try out Emilia’s voice again, and now I’ve embarked on the series, tentatively titled “Alternate Endings,” which allows Emilia free range to consider other fates, to address her husband & killer Iago, to reveal more about her relationship with Desdemona, to reckon with her literal role in the play & the stage’s constraints, & to anachronistically comment upon contemporary events. I see this sequence as a foundational pillar in the third manuscript, which also deals with the reconstruction of the body & memory.

As I continue to work on these poems, I need some good persona & sequence lodestars to guide me. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Mary’s Incarnadine & Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination the last couple of weeks. But is there anything else I should pick up & read to guide me through this project? I’m particularly interested in those sequences that reckon with historical, mythic, or literary figures through persona or apostrophes. Thanks so much for your help, friends.

“Rivers Into Seas”: Line Into Meaning

Small outboard stranded on a sandbar in the Colorado River, ca.1900

Genre: Poetry
Purpose:
To push the boundaries of the line, sentence, and punctuation to add subtext and texture to poems
Readings:
Lynda Hull, Claudia Emerson, Ocean Vuong, Tarfia Faizullah, Jamaal May, Ross Gay

*This prompt was given to Mary Szybist’s workshop at the 2015 Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop

In this prompt, I’d like for you to explore the ways in which you can complicate your poems with subtext and refine them with dramatic, imagistic, and rhythmic textures through the relationship between the line/form and the sentence.

  1. Write a heavily enjambed poem about deceit, doublespeak, a fallible memory, or letting someone down easy. Each line of this poem must make its own kind of sense separate from the sentence(s) to which it belongs. Each line may support, nuance, or buck against its parent syntactical meaning(s). Take a look at Lynda Hull’s “Rivers Into Seas.” In order to examine this phenomenon, it might be helpful to read the poem for its sentences initially, and then reread it line-by-line with an exaggerated pause at each break. What lines assert themselves as a complete thought, sentence, or image? How does that relate to the syntax?
  2. Write a poem that takes the first prompt further by including little or no punctuation. Choose whether or not you’d like to introduce alternatives to traditional punctuation, through in-line white space (also called visual caesuras) as found in Claudia Emerson’s “Midwife”; line breaks, like those in Ocean Vuong’s “Ode to Masturbation”; capitalization at the start of sentences; or some combination. (Keep in mind that in-line white space also can be used as a means to emphasize certain images or phrases; to modulate the reader’s pace; or to imitate an action taking place in the poem.)
  3. Write a poem in two columns. The columns must make (a certain) sense if read together and apart. See “Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito” by Tarfia Faizullah and “I Do Have a Seam” by Jamaal May.
  4. Write a poem in one sentence or run-on sentence that uses the line as a break for breath that befits the action of the poem or the way in which the speaker might tell the story. See Ross Gay’s “For Some Slight I Can’t Quite Recall.”

Form’s Relationship to Subject Matter + “Escape in Brilliant Highways: A Form Imitation Exercise”

The_Sirens_imploring_Ulysses_to_stay_(1886)

Genre: Poetry
Purpose:
To consider how form changes meaning, emphasis, and tone; to practice imitation
Readings:
“Envy of Other People’s Poems” by Robert Hass along with excerpts of poems by Larry Levis, Terrance Hayes, Natalie Diaz, Lynda Hull, George Oppen, and Linda Gregerson

Let’s look at “Envy of Other People’s Poems” by American poet Robert Hass. I’ve removed the lineation so that the poem appears as prose:

ROBERT HASS
“Envy of Other People’s Poems”

In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing. It was only a sailor’s story that they could. So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed by a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of the sea, wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—and the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch, seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever on their rocky waste of island by their imagination of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.

With this poem as our foundation, let’s consider the symbiotic relationship between a poem’s subject matter and language. For the purposes of this class, “form” will be used less to talk about received forms like sonnets or ghazals but more about the format of the poem on the page, including its line length, breaks (enjambments and end-stops), drop lines, stanzas, etc.

Escape in Brilliant Highways: A Form Imitation Exercise

  1. Read the following excerpts from poems by other poets and reformat the Hass poem using the formal principles apparent in each of the excerpts. Keep in mind you shouldn’t rewrite any language of the poem; only manipulate line and stanza breaks, indentions, and spacing. As you read each excerpt, make notes about unifying formal strategies that you must include in the formal imitation.

a.

LARRY LEVIS
Excerpt from “Anastasia & Sandman”

The brow of a horse in that moment when
The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough
It seems to inhale the water, is holy.
I refuse to explain.

When the horse had gone the water in the trough,
All through the empty summer,

Went on reflecting clouds & stars.

The horse cropping grass in a field,
And the fly buzzing around its eyes, are more real
Than the mist in one corner of the field.

Or the angel hidden in the mist, for that matter.

b.

TERRANCE HAYES
Excerpt from “At Pegasus”

They are like those crazy women
       who tore Orpheus
              when he refused to sing,

these men grinding
       in the strobe & black lights
              of Pegasus. All shadow & sound.

“I’m just here for the music,”
       I tell the man who asks me
              to the floor.

c.

NATALIE DIAZ
Excerpt from “Cloud Watching”

Betsy Ross needled hot stars to Mr. Washington’s bedspread—
       they weren’t hers to give. So, when the cavalry came,
              we ate their horses. Then, unfortunately, our bellies were filled
                     with bullet holes.

d.

LYNDA HULL
Excerpt from “Tide of Voices”

At the hour the streetlights come on, buildings
turn abstract. The Hudson, for a moment, formal.
We drink bourbon on the terrace and you speak
in the evening voice, weighted deep in the throat.

They plan to harvest oysters, you tell me,
from the harbor by Jersey City, how the waters
will be clean again in twenty years. I imagine nets
burdened with rough shells, the meat dun and sexual.

e.

GEORGE OPPEN
Excerpt from “Myth of the Blaze”

night – sky           bird’s           world
to know           to know           in my life to know
what I have said to myself

the dark to escape in brilliant highways
of the night sky, finally
why had they not

killed me why did they fire that warning
wounding cannon only the one round I hold a
superstition

because of this           lost to be lost           Wyatt’s
lyric and Rezi’s
running thru my mind
in the destroyed (and guilty) Theatre
of the War           I’d cried

f.

LINDA GREGERSON
Excerpt from “Sostenuto”

       Night. Or what

                     they have of it at altitude
like this, and filtered
              air, what was

in my lungs just an hour ago is now
              in yours,
                     there’s only so much air to go

       around.

  1. After creating your formal imitations of “Envy of Other People’s Poems,” reflect on each of these imitations and jot down your thoughts to these questions: How has the new form changed the poem? Has the meaning or tone changed? How so?
  1. Discuss.
  1. Now, let’s look at the Hass poem formatted as the author intended it.

ROBERT HASS
Envy of Other People’s Poems

In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.
It was only a sailor’s story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of the sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.

  1. Discuss. What are your reactions to the poem? Why did Hass format the poem the way that he did? What might subject matter have to do with the format? How did reformatting the poem reveal the author’s intentions about his form? How does the meaning of the poem change based on its form?