Yesterday I drafted a poem titled “Why I Write Poems About My Body.” As an undergrad professor, I’ve been thinking a lot about what writing I was exposed to when I was an undergraduate, what that offered me, and how it limited me. One part ars poetica, one part invective, the poem needed me to write it, even if only for myself.
My students read a number of excerpts from the text Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine (Atticus Books, 2014) in preparation for today’s class, and one of those excerpts was of Jill Allyn Rosser’s “Reasons for Creating a New Literary Magazine.” In class, I’m asking students to come up with their own reasons for creating a literary magazine in the “Reasons for Creating a New Literary Magazine” in-class writing assignment, and I’m giving them the freedom of being sincere or tongue-in-cheek in their tone.
Instructor’s Course Description
As a means of exploring the craft of prose writing, we will read, analyze, and imitate two living writers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jesmyn Ward. By reading two, book-length works by each writer—a short story collection and book-length essay by Adichie and a novel and memoir by Ward—we will see how these writers develop their unique styles across genres and locate how their personal concerns inform their fictional narratives. Additionally, we will supplement these texts with short stories and essays by some of the most influential prose writers of the 20th century to understand the history and development of American prose over the last one hundred years. We will translate these immersive reading experiences into writing skills through discussion, exercises, and workshop. Several times throughout the semester, students will turn in original writing for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers, and later revise two of the pieces using the comments received in workshop. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2010. ISBN: 978-0307455918
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2015. ISBN: 978-1101911761.
- The Best American Essays of the Century, ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Mariner, 2001. ISBN: 978-0618155873.
- The Best American Short Stories of the Century, ed. John Updike. Mariner, 2000. ISBN: 978-0395843673.
- Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury USA, 2014. ISBN: 978-1608197651
- Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury USA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1608196265
- Class Participation (10%)
- Group Presentation (15%)
- Four Workshop Pieces (40%)
- Two Revisions (15%)
- Two Imitations (10%)
- Discussion Board Participation (5%)
- Final Reading (5%)
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:
“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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
there’s only so much air to go
- 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?
- Now, let’s look at the Hass poem formatted as the author intended it.
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.
- 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?
The plastic surgeon had thumbed three syringes of lidocaine into my cheek and made his first incision when he asked me what I teach. It was late spring 2013, and this was the first of several surgeries I’d have in the coming year and a half to remove melanoma, expand margins, and later reconstruct what another doctor called my architecture. “Oh-eh-ree,” I said, drooling-numb, but he didn’t—or pretended not to—understand. He squinted at his work, like a copyeditor examining a comma, and warbled, “Come again?”
My lips refused the consonants, especially that p, but after several gos, a few tugs on my cheek, and the doc’s distracted grafts of discernible words onto my guttural sounds (chemistry? herbology?), he gasped into a full belly laugh, the scalpel bobbing above my right eye.
I’m not sure how I would’ve made an expression then, or what it would’ve conveyed, but he caught it. “Ohh, you’re serious. Sorry, ” he switchbacked. “I just didn’t know that anyone reads that anymore, must less teaches it!”
That cosmetic surgeon, more anti-Muse than Jacob Marley, wraiths into my mind every time I encounter and attempt to answer the question Is poetry relevant?, a favorite wheelspinner among cosmopolitan op-eds. Although the doc’s latex-pinched fingers anviled my head against the exam table as he excised the mole, my shoulder devil still swaggered—Tell him, “Hey, buddy, I deal in real beauty”—but even that defense seemed to helium up the misconception that the work of poetry is delicate—lace doily stuff.
Prior to going back to clinical surgery, I’d spent thirty minutes or more with patients who were open—even loud—about their Botox and lipo treatments at the receptionist’s window. The waiting room had felt more like that of a salon or spa than a doctor’s office: all gossip, emery boards, beauty magazines, and cell phones. I’d passively protested by re-reading Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And the irony wasn’t lost on me.
Later that day, I wrote a poem that exemplifies the essential connections I’d like to make between my work as a poet and as a teacher, and, in its discussion, offers one of my student’s rebuttal to the doctor’s dismissal of poetry.
I’d like to share the poem for you now, and then I’ll illustrate some of the practical and conceptual ways teaching has nuanced my writing and clarified my feelings about poetry’s relevancy. The poem is called “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” and it begins with an epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”
Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
No one else with a book, the slick
weeklies gossip amongst
themselves on the side
tables as the ticker rolls the Dow
Jones down down down under
a profile of the marathon
bombers (the older, a boxer). Jove
argues for the removal of a race
of peoples that do not please
him: What is past
remedy calls for the surgeon’s
knife. He will take a hunk of my
cheek (cancer) and though I can’t
see mid-procedure, I imagine
the site as an apricot, bitten.
This, a survival mechanism—
romanticism. David says,
If you’re out
in public and you don’t want anyone
to talk to you, bring a book
of poetry. Even as I enter the confidence
of the room, I avoid my
reflection in the window, for there,
most of all, I see myself as only I can,
as only the eye will have me—
as light, as light alone.
I chose that Bishop quote not only because of its situational associations—she’s looking at a National Geographic while waiting on her Aunt Consuela at the dentist—but because of its implied self-assessment: if she scarcely dared to look to see what it was she was then, then we might assume she does look to see what she was, and therefore is, in the poem.
In my poem, I wind up on the notion that all we see of ourselves is really just light, something untenable and transcendent. In this way, all our memories of self and personal experience are memories of light. It makes what we witness—violence, racism, greed, the degradation of our own bodies—both less threatening (it’s just light) and more so: What are we dealing with if we’re not dealing with something that we can trap, contain?
Although “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” doesn’t take on teaching as its dramatic situation, the way that Philip Levine’s “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942” or Claudia Emerson’s “Student Conference” do, the poem outright invokes advice from one of my own teachers and teaching mentors—David Wojahn, whom I assisted in two classes and who served as my thesis adviser in grad school—as well as exemplifies both practical and conceptual effects on my writing of teaching, namely a shift toward musical plainspokenness and the realignment of empathy’s presence and function in my poems.
Shift in Diction
Back when I was in graduate school and my primary job was to write, David suggested that I read texts that were in, what he called, “English that isn’t English.” This meant Scots-language poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Kathleen Jamie; the Matthew’s 1537 Bible; and early translations of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century Germanic witch prosecution manual, and the Turba Philosophorum, an early alchemical text from the 10th century. The texts’ language and, in some cases, their content reinvigorated language’s inherent mystery, that alchemical reaction between sound and meaning, and re-formed the traditional bridge between poetry and incantations, spells, etc. The effect was not unlike that of repeating a word over and over again—banana, banana, banana, banana, or, for you Tennessee Williams fans out there, “Stella! Stella!” It gestures toward the effacement of meaning and the solidification of the word into thingness apart from what it signifies. I want my poems to retain mystery, and to be both about the words and what the words convey, but many of the poems I wrote in graduate school, that later landed in my first book Signaletics, absorbed archaic, obscure, and esoteric language from my reading. Here’s a short passage from another poem that takes reading as its subject matter, titled “Reading Joyce on U.S. Flight 2309.” And, as an aside, I can’t help but wonder how much of a co-conspirator Joyce was in this dictional antiquarianism . . .
Behind you, encorona, the sun,
& I in the grass, looking up, saw a plane
insectile (without my glasses)
fly through your head
in one ear & out the other.
An illusion. The first love poems I knew were
prayers. What then of free fall’s
rash grace, wings sheared & released
into other trajectories? (Daedalus winds
the alleys, gathered as wreckage
in the arms of a harlot.)
“Encorona”: in a crown of sunlight! that nearly scientific “insectile”! These dense linguistic renderings forfeited the attention of some readers, particularly casual ones who value the kind of poetry that penetrates the blood-brain barrier of emotion in seconds flat. (My book’s emotion has more of a extended release effect, and often manifests itself as anxiety about violence in the Middle East and, closer to home, against the body and identity.) In an ultimately positive review of Signaletics, one reviewer suggested the missteps in the book were those places when I used “five-dollar words.”
I still believe this dictional maneuvering was appropriate for the project, as many of the book’s poems situate forensics or, at the very least, the body as its subject matter. The use of such diction mimicked the effect of coming to an obscure piece of “evidence” and having to make sense of it from its context. Additionally, it insists on language’s sovereign thingness—a body itself with tandem mysteries.
Although I wouldn’t go back and change a thing about that first book, I don’t think I could ever write the same poems again. Perhaps it was the death of my half brother in April 2012 followed by my diagnosis of stage-4 melanoma—really misdiagnosis, at least of its severity—in May 2013. Around the same time, however, I also began teaching with regularity, first at VCU and later as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.
In the classroom, I found myself realigning my linguistic tendencies in order to make the theory and craft of writing accessible and relevant to my students. I began to value and the teachability of and to spend more time with poems my own post-gradschoolian tastes splashed the “dull as bathwater” judgment on. Suddenly plainspokenness, especially the way it subverted my students’ feelings of inferiority and gave them access to an art form that they’d previously thought archaic in and of itself, became as rich as the elaborate linguistic confections of poets like Hart Crane or H.D. I found that plainspokenness also, in its way, taught students how to read more labyrinthine sentences with totemic diction, at least in how it increased students confidence in their abilities to read poetry. One poem that I teach often—which was also taught to me—is by Belle Waring, who passed away earlier this year, that begins its first sentence in the title:
It Was My First Nursing Job
and I was stupid in it. I thought a doctor wouldn’t be unkind.
One wouldn’t wait for a laboring woman to dilate ten cm.
He’d brace one hand up his patient’s vagina,
clamp the other on her pregnant belly, and force the fetus
through an eight-centimer cervix.
She tore, of course. Bled.
Of course, I worried that content here would dispel the immersive attentions of students who find the words “vagina” and “cervix” still funny, but, on the other hand, when I include this poem in a packet, my students always say its among their favorite poems they’ve ever read. They gravitate toward its candid exposition of narrative and the speaker’s fear, not to mention the conversational asides like “of course” that make the speaking feel authentic and, arguably, intimate, as if she’s telling the story to them herself. The poem later notes with some irony that the doctor was an elder in his church and that, upon delivering a stillborn baby, he “flipped open” the blanket . . .
to let the mother view the body, according to custom.
The baby lay beside her.
He lay stretched out and still.
What a pity, the doctor said.
He seized the baby’s penis between his own forefinger and thumb.
. . .
Look, said the doctor. A little boy. Just what we wanted.
His hand, huge on the child, held the penis as if he’d found
a lovecharm hidden in his grandmother’s linen.
And then he dropped it.
The doctor leaves without telling the baby’s father, forcing the speaker, inexperienced and in shock, to deliver the news. With mostly long, end-stopped lines in couplets, the poem doesn’t look like the whittled poetic miniatures my students read in high school, and while it does use literary devices like simile, nothing feels ornamental.
This exposure to and engagement with uncoded diction and plainspokenness—that means what it says and says what it means—particularly influenced my poems about my half-brother’s death and my cancer, including “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s.” Too much poeticizing didn’t seem appropriate for the subject matter, and I found myself—appropriately, as my students had pushed me in this direction—wanting to tell these poems to an audience not unlike my students, who desired vulnerability in both emotion and language. Because of teaching, my relationship to language has pangeacally realigned, away from the interior and intuitive to the conversational and exploratory.
If I had written “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” prior to this shift, I would’ve likely landed on a revelation of an image delivered so that the image felt estranged from the reader through a dictional obscurity, as a means to mimic the speaker’s own feelings of estrangement from her own image. Now, however, I can produce this effect without obscure diction, so that the reader doesn’t have to extrapolate what the speaker is thinking from the image but receives this information from the speaker herself: “I see myself as only I can, // as only the eye will have me— / as light, as light alone.” This, of course, means that the reader doesn’t only have to connect to the speaker intellectually but is actively acting upon an empathetic response.
Empathy and Relevancy
Teaching hasn’t only engineered technical shifts in my writing, it’s also influenced my the function of empathy in my poems.
I once had a student who balked at a short story called “Section 8” by Jaquira Díaz, a fierce rendering of a Latina girl’s struggle with juvie and her sexuality. “This isn’t relatable,” my student scoffed, “I don’t know why we’re reading it.”
At that moment, I banned the word “relatable” from my classroom, as it presupposes that all literature must appeal to all readers’ personal experiences and rejects the possibility that it’s the reader’s job to do that relating. (And it is the reader’s job!) I likewise vowed that all of my class texts would expose students to a variety of voices and backgrounds, as a means to honor Mark Doty’s notion that “Literature makes other people more real to us.”
As I’ve read more diverse texts with my students, our conversations include both craft issues and social concerns. In my fall Writing Poetry class, my students and I looked at poems that were in conversation with the events in Ferguson, poems like Jake Adam York’s “Postscript,” Lucille Clifton’s “Jasper Texas, 1998,” and Danez Smith’s “Alternate Names for Black Boys.” When one student, whose primary class persona was charismatic Devil’s Advocate, then said that he felt that poetry wasn’t relevant and couldn’t enact any change, several other students, all young women, jumped in before I could propose a counter-argument. “If poetry can help one person understand someone else a little bit better, it matters. It’s relevant,” my student N. insisted.
It’s with this in mind that I take to the classroom and the page, with the hope that I demonstrate empathy and generosity in my own work, bridging the gap with my poems rather than delineating the distance, just as my students have done so in our classroom discussions. I believe that my newest poems, those in my forthcoming second collection Groundspeed and my in-progress hybrid book Bluff, make the personal political, after my student’s idea and with the hope that, like one poem teaching us how to read another, knowing me through my poems will help readers know one another.