“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.”
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Writing Poetry Final Reading Photos

My fifteen students in ENGL 305: Writing Poetry gave a final reading on my front porch yesterday morning. They each read one of their own poems and then a poem that they loved from our required texts. We all stood down on the sidewalk for each reading. Additional audience members included the mailman, pizza guy, and several passersby in cars and on foot. My hope is to continue to have my students do public poetry projects. The following students gave me written permission to share their photos here.

Kierra Collins reading poetry on December 12, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Kierra Collins reading poetry

Natalie Esch reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Natalie Esch reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Gagan Kaur  reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Gagan Kaur reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Colin McEligot  reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Colin McEligot reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Kelly-Jayne McGlynn  reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Kelly-Jayne McGlynn reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Mariah Monk reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Mariah Monk reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Auverin Morrow reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Auverin Morrow reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Tchakalla Romeo reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Tchakalla Romeo reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Alyssa Trop  reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Alyssa Trop reading poetry on December 11, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia

Readings Lists and Course Descriptions for Fall 2014 Semester

With the fall semester starting at Virginia Commonwealth University this week, I have started to think about some new writing and reading exercises for my students. As these exercises will relate with our course goals and readings, I thought I would share my course descriptions and reading lists for my two classes, English 215: Textual Analysis and English 305: Writing Poetry.

ENGL 215: Textual Analysis

Course Description
“The Captive Body, The Body Captivating”—In order to investigate the means by which writers have control over textual bodies, we will examine a century’s worth of narratives about individuals’ control, or lack thereof, over their physical bodies. Beginning with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) and working our way toward Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays (2014), we will explore through class discussion and written assignments the relationships between identity, form, and point of view. In doing so, students will hone their abilities as close readers and critical thinkers, analyzing the writers’ choices in presenting these narratives and their effects on the reader, as well as the historical significance of each text and its consequence in today’s debates about individuals’ rights over their own bodies. In addition to the following primary texts, we will also read criticism that reflects a diverse approach to these issues, including new criticism, feminist and queer theory.

Required Texts

  • Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Knopf Doubleday, 1998. ISBN: 978-0385490818.
  • Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. Vintage, 1999. ISBN: 978-0375701290.
  • Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN: 978-0060850524.
  • Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams: Exams. Graywolf, 2014. ISBN: 978-1555976712.
  • Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis, In The Penal Colony, and Other Stories. Touchstone, 2000. ISBN: 978-0684800707.
  • Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 2004. ISBN: 978-1400033416.
  • Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita: Revised and Updated. Vintage, 1991. ISBN: 978-0679727293.
  • Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2012. ISBN: 978-1608196265.

 

ENGL 305 Writing Poetry

Course Description

American poet C.D. Wright once wrote: “If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance . . . I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words.” In this course, we will hold poetry to this noble standard, as an amplifier for the voices in our culture and an invocatory rendering of our world. In doing so, I’ll ask you to not only read and write poetry but begin to look at your surroundings as a poet would. This requires close examination of images, scrutiny of your thoughts and feelings about subject matter, and consideration for other points of view. Additionally, you will be asked to think deeply about language, in terms of its meanings, its sounds, and its rhythms. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. As a means of introduction to the craft of poetry, students will submit original poems for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers. In addition to workshop, you will be asked to engage with the writing of contemporary poets, to read like a writer would. I’ve chosen seven contemporary poetry collections and Poetry magazine so that you will have a lens through which to examine the current landscape of American poetry and to see that even today poets are still trying to “redeem the world in words.”

Required Texts

  • Bendorf, Oliver. The Spectral Wilderness. Kent State University Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1606352113.
  • Diaz, Natalie. When My Brother Was an Aztec. Copper Canyon Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-1556593833.
  • Emerson, Claudia. Secure the Shadow. Louisiana State University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0807143032.
  • Faizullah, Tarfia. Seam. Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0809333257.
  • Reeves, Roger. King Me. Copper Canyon Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-1556594489.
  • Smith, Carmen Giménez. Milk and Filth. University of Arizona Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0816521166.
  • Trethewey, Natasha. Native Guard. Mariner Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-0618872657.

One Motivation, Five Poems Exercise

Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)

Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)

Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Genre: Poetry
Readings: A tailored poetry packet
Time: 50+ minutes

Think about a poem that you’ve been wanting to write for a long time but haven’t been able to successfully accomplish. It works best if this is a personal memory or other narrative.

Discuss each of the following approaches and the read their respective suggested poems:

  1. Anecdotal: A simple story in one setting, usually in plain speech. See “Black” by Alan Shapiro.
  2. Imperative: A second person address with instructions, based on an extended metaphor or literal. See “How to Live in a Trap” by Eleanor Ross Taylor.
  3. Meta: A response to an event that takes into account writing’s inability to fully capture the event. See “Photograph of September 11th” by Wislawa Szymborska and “The streetlamp above me darkens” by Tarfia Faizullah.
  4. Figurative: A characterization of an event or action through metaphor. See “Boy Breaking Glass” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
  5. Collage: A poem that uses multiple of these approaches and usually isn’t afraid to associate away from and back again to the original motivation. See “My Story In a Late Style of Fire” by Larry Levis of “Across the Sea” by Dana Levin.

After discussing each approach, take ten minutes to write your narrative using only that approach. Move on to the next one and repeat.

At the end, ask yourself: How did the poem change? Did the poem become more or less imaginative? Which one do I like the most? Why? Share.

Poetry Analysis Exercise

Détail de la carte de Montréal de 1859 faisant ressortir Pointe Saint-Charles.


Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Poetry
Readings: A poetry packet featuring the poems listed below
Time: 30 minutes

Group 1: “Wherever My Dead Go When I’m Not Remembering Them” (Shapiro) and “In the Waiting Room” (Bishop)
Group 2: “Perpetually Attempting to Soar” (Ruefle) and “The Lovers of the Poor” (Brooks)
Group 3: “Your Wild Domesticated Inner Life” (Banias) and “Dorothy’s Trash:” (Johnson)
Group 4: “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” (Levis) and “The Day Lady Died” (O’Hara)
Group 5: “The Mare of Money” (Reeves) and “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” (Corral)
Group 6: “Scrabble with Matthews” (Wojahn) and “Ode to Browsing the Web” (Wicker)
Group 7: “The streetlamp above me darkens” (Faizullah) and “A Pornography” (Rekdal)
Group 8: “To a Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” (Gay) and “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives” (Levine)

Read each poem assigned to your group. Answer these questions:

  1. What’s the dramatic situation of the poem? Meaning, what’s going on? What’s the scene or the conflict? (Ex. For Matthew Olzmann’s “Notes Regarding Happiness,” the speaker is attempting to post a happy birthday message on a friend’s Facebook wall.)
  2. How does each poem get from its beginning to its end? Is it narrative (a story) and therefore moves in a linear fashion? Are there associative connections between images? Examine the relationship between images in these poems.
  3. Describe the tone. Is the poet sincere?
  4. Describe the style of this poem. Is the language conversational or esoteric? What does the poem sound like?
  5. Describe the form of this poem. Is it in couplets? A single stanza? Etcetera? How long are the lines? Why do you think the poet chose this form?
  6. Do these two poets have anything in common in terms of their style, strategies, or motivation for writing?
  7. If you were going to write an imitation of one of these poets, who would you pick? How would you begin? Start drafting a few lines using the strategies you described above.