Note: In this in-class discussion exercise, my ENG 2030 students were able to interrogate the questions “what is poetry?” and “what is a poem?” by looking at different texts, some poetic and some religious and some musical, in order to answer the question. The links to the texts are below the directions.
Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.
I keep returning again & again to these underlined lines in “The Library of Babel” by Borges: “If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell.”
And they make me think of my namesake Emilia’s lines in Othello: “Let heaven and men and devils cry, let them all / All, all cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak,” which I have tattooed on my back. My ars poetica, my body magic.
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.