Note: Last week, my Grad Poetry Workshop didn’t have time to do this exercise in class, so I sent them home with it. Later this week, I’ll find out how they liked this exercise inspired by some authors in We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics.
How far can we push language so that it still makes sense? What is “sense” anyway? And what happens when we remind ourselves that all written language is made up of symbols?
The title of this exercise come from the combination of liminality (that is, “occupying a position at, or on both sides, of a boundary or threshold”) and symbology (“the study or use of symbols”). As such, we will locate the liminalities of our language through the use of symbols, “ungrammatical” syntax, and unique typographical choices.
Poets Andrea Abi-Karam, Cody-Rose Clevidence, and Mai Schwartz all use some of these techniques in the excerpt from We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics assigned for today’s class by Samuel Cormac. Attached are poems by Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Jos Charles that also work with these strategies.
After discussing these poems, freewrite in your daily writing journal and incorporate one or more of these techniques, i.e. using a symbol to stand in for a noun, changing spellings, compressing words, and/or introducing symbols/punctuation where they typically don’t go.
After freewriting, reflect in your journal: What does this do to your poem? How does it change its pacing? Its tone? Its “meaning”? Its appearance? What associations does this choice bring into the poem that weren’t there previously?
Tomorrow, I’m teaching a one-day course called “Walk the Line: The Tension Between Line & Syntax” at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. We will consider the relationship between poetry’s vehicles of meaning: the line and the sentence. In doing so, we’ll investigate the ways in which these structures support, nuance, and deny one another to achieve resonance, depth, and subtext within a poem. This course will be generative, with exercises that rely on close reading and formal manipulation of texts, as well as the drafting of new pieces. Whether you want to learn more about what your favorite poets are doing with their poems or discover how to break lines in your own, this course will insist that poetry is a craft, honed by exercises and study.
When I finalize the course packet, I will share it here on Ears Roaring with Many Things. If you’re still interested in signing up, register through the HVWC website.
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.
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.”