Dialogue on Disability Poetry
Wordgathering invited five poets to discuss their writing and the ways in which their writing impacts upon the concept of disability poetry. Participating in the discussion are Kara Dorris (Elective Infinities), Rebecca Foust (Dark Card ), Anne Kaier (In Fire ), Laurie Clements Lambeth (Veil and Burn), and Liz Whiteacre. Michael Northen, one of Wordgathering's editors, posed the questions.
Mike: All of you have are talented poets and have had success with your work. Several of you teach poetry courses as well. I'm sure that you have had plenty of opportunity to see disability-related poetry that is cliché – ridden, either deliberate attempts to invoke sympathy or trite narratives of overcoming. What do you do in your own poetry to counter or offset these images?
Anne: Oh Lord, I just don't ever go there. Usually that kind of so called poetry is lousy verse anyway. It makes me rant and rave. The whole point of writing poetry--or creative nonfiction--is to deal with real aspects of having a body that looks different.
That can sometimes mean showing myself in a less that splendid light. I've been working on a nonfiction piece about my birth and early weeks. I was born with an extra layer of skin, which cracked into deep fissures within hours of my birth. I was a pretty frightening sight. However, in the piece I've been writing, I honestly describe my aspect at birth and describe what it meant to me to see pictures of similarly-afflicted babies in medical journals when I was an adult. But I also am trying, in this piece, to speak for the child I then was -- to give her side of the story, voice her desire to stay alive and to thrive.
I also loathe trite narratives of overcoming. So well put, Mike. The tyranny of a happy ending. It's one of the joys of poetry, I think, that you can give the reader a satisfying ending which is not necessarily a happy one. You can leave the ending ragged, unresolved--thematically--so long as it hits the reader in the solar plexus. A particularly potent question or an image and perhaps a strongly rhythmic line can help in this. There's nothing like a disturbing question rendered with a few well-placed iambs at the end of a poem.
Laurie: I started writing poetry after my MS diagnosis at 17. Before, I had focused on visual art. While my first MS poem was maudlin and dreadful but praised by my high school teachers, my experiences with MS--especially with numbness, which in a way makes the skin permeable, no outline between it and the world--informed the way I approach metaphor, sort of congealing the tenor and the vehicle at times. I did not write again about MS until I had lived with the illness for 8 years, and I awoke in the night shaking. I was conscious, watching my legs and arms flail beyond my control, and then it stopped. I was taking a forms workshop in grad school at the time, and we were instructed to write a villanelle. What better opportunity to enclose and cage an illness that could, without the cage, spill its guts all over the page? The villanelle is an obsessive form with its repeated but slightly altered lines, and there's very little room to introduce new information, so the poet can reveal only so much, offer very few details, and they have to really count. I wrote about that night's seizure or moment of shaking. After that, I felt more comfortable expressing my physical experiences in various forms of free verse, knowing that the challenge is always to give voice to the inexpressible, while creating something beautiful about the body that can stand apart from the body.
The prose fragments and poems in Veil and Burn try to demonstrate what can and can't go into poems (for me). There's more room in prose to write about subjects that might seem melodramatic in poems, like the beginnings of blindness, and in prose I can manage that through tone. In the book I'm trying to figure out what can and can't be sung with regard to disability. There is only one poem in the book about my optic neuritis and vision loss from the MS, yet it is almost exclusively the focus of the prose fragments.
I think the poems you speak of, Mike, are often written by people who are, at the time, writing in a vacuum, trying to give voice to their disabilities, not moving past what is offered to them by our cultural moment. Reading good, contemporary poems is really important for poets who don't know what's possible and what's been done already. Because to someone who is just now confronting his or her body for the first time, they are speaking with an original voice. They don't know that they're not. It's original to their experience, but not to others. Poems need to be felt beyond the story of the poem and into the greater questions that arise like steam from the page.
Kara: When I first started writing poetry, I became obsessed with beauty. From my mother, I inherited a bone disorder that causes benign calcium tumors to grow, as I grew, on the joints of my bones—all in all, my right leg is an inch shorter than my left, my left arm is two inches shorter than my right, and I have random bone spurs inside my joints as well as outside playing peek-a-boo through my skin. I tell you this because I didn't always know my body was different; although carefully, afraid of breaking an already fragile bone structure, I dance and skip just like anyone.
It took several years, and advice from another poet, to realize that anytime I write about physical beauty, underneath I'm writing about disability. It has to do with absence. I find myself defining negative space—the blank and full areas between my body and the world, the barriers I create and perceive. Or defining in negatives—describing myself by the body I wish I had versus the body I do have. In this way, the reader fills in the Mad Lib blanks and meanings. When I do describe my body, this disorder, I'm careful what I show and use multilayered images that may or may not have to do with disability. Am I hiding or disguising? Yes and no. I always tell my students, make the poem your own through your personal experiences, and appeal to your audience by finding common ground.
After weeks of sifting through art, I finally decided on a cover for my forthcoming chapbook, Elective Affinities (Dancing Girl Press, 2011). The image, titled "Head in the Clouds," is the body of a slender woman wearing a white dress; however, where her feet should be are tentacles, tree roots snaking into the grass, and where her head should be is an egg-like balloon. Balloons also grow out of her upraised hands. When I showed my freshmen composition class, I heard opinions like "strange," "creative," "ugly" and "gross." I thought after reading and discussion so many essays on the human need to judge, we had opened our minds to seeing through different eyes. Perhaps, after that first knee-jerk reaction, we have.
I think Laurie's right—it's not that trite, cliché disability poetry is bad; rather, it's that those poets are trying to find their voice, express themselves the only way they can (without the formal training many of us have today), in a world where different is linked to shame. Sometimes we fail, but we still try. The honest truth is I approach disability poems the same way I approach love poems, funny poems, narrative poems, formal poems…carefully, with love, with the need to show my reader something new from a new perspective. When I'm writing, I forget I'm different, and I'm the most aware.
Becky: First, I am not entirely sure that I mind "narratives of overcoming" per se—for me, the operative pejoratives here are the same that would compromise the quality of any (not just disability related) poetry: "cliché" and "trite." And I think it important to remember that what makes a cliché a cliché—overuse—is often the consequence of what was in the first instance (or first few instances) a unique and powerful utterance. The first time someone said "pretty as a picture," it must have seemed just right; pictures were probably a more rare thing then, and the repetition of plosive "p's" and of the same short "I" sound made the phrase sing. Until we heard it, say, the thousandth time.
So, Laurie's point about trite and cliché–ridden poems often being written by new writers who have not read widely enough to realize that what they are saying has been said before, and how to them it truly feels original and fresh, is well-taken. This underscores what we already know about how important it is for any writer to read widely and continuously in their genre. And this was, in fact, the hugely motivating reason for my decision to go back and get my MFA in 2008. I'd been writing seriously for a couple of years by then and could tell that my ignorance of the canon (and especially of contemporary poetry) was holding me back. I knew that I was a "good student" and that a rigorous academic program was the best and quickest way for me to begin to catch up. Not that a program is necessary, of course. A more disciplined reader than I could undertake the reading list on their own. The point is that the more a writer reads, the more aware he or she is of what has already been written, and from this basis new ideas can be generated.
I also liked Laurie's story about writing her villanelle and its point about how form can used to restrain utterance to avoid gushing or melodrama. It's not that we don't want power and drama in our lines, of course. But power is concentrated by restraint and can dissipate without it. To me, the genii in the bottle are vastly more potent and interesting than the ones left out. When I first started writing about my son with autism, I was less concerned with issues of craft and even of quality than I was with the sheer need to express what I was feeling. But even as a new writer, I could see to that what I was writing, prose at the time, felt over-expressed: emotional but at the same time somehow flaccid and not compelling. It did not do justice to what I perceived as the gravity and uniqueness of the situation, and it did not do justice to my son.
Turning from prose to poetry was my first step toward restraint. Just breaking the lines in a disciplined way, even in a free verse poem, forced my attention to craft and to a place other than my pain and my son's pain. The condensation that is a part of any well written poetry is another form of early restraint that began to correct the excesses of my early prose. As I began to read more deeply and widely, I came to discover other elements of craft that helped me to shape my message—meter, rhyme, and form (or the deliberate, rather than haphazard, eschewal of these elements in a well crafted free verse line.)
In the course of writing the early poems that eventually became my first chapbook, Dark Card, something else emerged that surprised me, something you could call a species of Yeats's "terrible beauty." That is, I found that sometimes the darkest utterances could be best expressed through an image that ended up being beautiful. Or, as both Anne and Kara seemed to be saying, perhaps there is something beautiful and fierce about the willingness to say things that are ugly and impolitic. I agree that endings (of poems) need not be happy in order to be satisfying and in fact would go further and say that some of the best endings are not "happy," in the conventional sense. The goal is to move the reader in some way, and to do it powerfully or, as Anne put it, to hit him in the solar plexus.
In any event, it was through my writing that I discovered and came to appreciate the paradox in my son's "disability," and my own growing realization that perhaps it was less a disability than a difference, and one that might actually be valued in a culture that did not, as Kara put it, link difference with shame. The craft point here is that a sense of paradox, and the resulting tension, can be another device useful for avoiding cliché and trite narrative.
Liz: With any topic or theme, we risk slipping into cliché, stereotype, or sentimentality because these techniques sometimes seem safe or comfortable when we draft, especially if we're writing outside the realm of personal experience or aren't quite sure what we think yet about our budding idea. Revision helps me move beyond these moments. My narrative poems grow and shrink as I work to explore ways to capture unique details aimed toward producing authentic moments and work to explore the complex emotions associated with these moments.
The poem's frame can also influence its success. Maybe, the poem should really be about why sympathy needs to be elicited or about the day after the overcoming moment when momentum has waned. If I hope readers will engage with a poem, then I feel I need to offer them something beyond a snapshot of how I want them to respond to my topic. If I'm not engaged with the idea I present in a poem and wrestling with it, then likely my readers won't be either. Sometimes if I'm stuck, in order to dig further than the surface, past generalities, I need to change my point of view, leap to another moment that's harder to write about, or do some research.
And, it takes courage to put ideas on pages that risk undesirable judgement from readers (or perhaps worse, the people we love). A critique I've received is, "I can't believe you just laid it all out there," and I consider it complimentary. When we treat writing about disability as just writing about our lives, when we're honest with ourselves and readers on the page, when we work to be specific and detailed, then we're just striving to produce good writing.
Laurie: I'd like to build upon some of the ideas you've all expressed, in one way or another. Specifically, how a poem might expand perception in ways that people never expect. Liz mentioned comments she receives, such as "I can't believe you just laid it all out there." I get that, too, especially at readings. As though it takes courage to address the strange goings-on of the body. And like Liz, I do take it as a compliment. Another kind of comment I've received, in workshop, long ago, has zeroed in on the way I think. People (certainly not everyone) have asked why I would praise the disease process in my body, because that is not praise-worthy. Normal people don't think of disease as something to be praised. Precisely. I do not think like normal people. None of us in this discussion do, I imagine. It's that skewed perception, that curiosity, that brings me to the poem. It's the blessing of being weird.
I also really liked Becky's point about restraint. It's often what you don't say that fuels a poem's strength. Restraint is teachable in some ways, and has been the anchor of some of my classes. Weirdness, I imagine, is not. And by weirdness, I mean originality, of course. Authors of what we may consider cliche poems may never rise to the occasion of bypassing conventional thinking. But that doesn't mean they should stop trying.
Mike: Laurie raised the issue of form and how she made use of the limitations of villanelle in writing about MS. I think that this is a crucial topic for writing about embodiment. Jim Ferris, whose work I think most of you know, has emphasized how writing about non-traditional bodies is an opportunity to experiment with form and to really make a contribution to poetry generally. Laurie's Veil and Burn does a lot of this and I'm wondering what kinds of experimentation each of you has done to find the forms, rhythms, patterns that helps you convey what you hope the reader takes from you poem.
Becky: I was completely ignorant about form. The more I studied form, though, the more I fo-und myself drawn to it. My first encounters were with the sonnets and rhyming, metered poetry of Herbert and Donne. When I read Hopkins I was quite excited by the liberties he took with meter and even with the form itself, inventing the 11-line "curtal sonnet."I made a deep study of the sonnet for the graduate class I taught for the last semester of my MFA and have since re-taught that material a number of times, my emphasis being the elasticity of the form being its secret to longevity. I'm fascinated by the capacity of that form to endlessly re-invent itself and also by the paradoxical freedom (something Wordsworth wrote about in "Nun's Fret Not") working in fixed form can bestow. I'm as drawn to the way poets deviate from traditional forms as I am to the forms themselves. ee cummings and John Ashbery writing sonnets—who'd have thought it!
Anyway, I did not set out consciously to use form, or my variations of it, to write about my son's disability, but rather began working though and bending forms in all my poetry. But then, it seems I am always writing about my son, or about other kids I know with autism, so these subjects have been receiving the same treatment. None of the poems in Dark Card are in form, but most are organized into stanzas—my way of imposing a bit of order on the chaos of events beyond my control that I was writing about—and a handful look as if they are inclining towards being sonnets. I doubt I really knew what a sonnet was at the time I was writing this book, but by the time I revisited some of those poems for my first full length book two years later (All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song) I did, and some of them—"Underneath," and "No Longer Medusa" for example, got consciously re-written as sonnets. As I encountered new forms in my reading I tried them out in my writing, and that is how the ghazal called "The Well" was made, a poem about what happens to disabled kids after their parents die and about the parents carrying the burden of that during their lives. I followed the form pretty closely and enjoyed the implicit irony in the fact that ghazals were traditionally love poems, written to the pursued but absent "beloved."
I wrote my first successful villanelle about autism after studying that form at the Westchester Formal Poetry Conference (wonderful experience BTW!) this summer. That poem utilizes the kind of juxtaposition I was talking about in the last email, b/c it takes a hard look at some really painful, ugly issues about autism and institutionalization and traps the reader into looking at the issues again and again for as long as it takes them to read the poem. In a sense, the form places a hand on the side of the reader's face and prevents him from averting his gaze.
I've also written many new sonnets about my son and autism—I'm growing very comfortable with the form and value it for the way it puts my lines through what Loraine Neidecker called "the condensary—" so that only the most crucial images and ideas get to remain in a poem so small.
Yes, I have thought in terms of using form to convey, perhaps even to enact or be mimetic of an aspect of my son's disability. In fact, an obsessively repetitive form like the villanelle seems perfect in some ways for capturing some of the obsessive and repetitive characteristics of ASD—echolalia, perseveration, rocking, hand flapping.
I have been thinking about for some time about how to use poetry to communicate the autistic experience to readers who are not themselves autistic. Other writers have attempted this, of course, but more commonly through fiction or memoir. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (New York: Doubleday, 2003) and John Robison Elder's Look Me in the Eye (New York: Random House, 2007) are bestselling examples. Rain Man was the first in a series of films to take autism as their subjects. My first book, Dark Card, was written from the outside point of view of a mother watching her child struggle with autism.
To my mind, poetry is uniquely suited to the project of finding a way to communicate autistic perspectives and thought patterns to others. Communicating the autistic point of view within the constraints of "ordinary" language is a bit like trying to describe Japanese culture in Anglo-Saxon English; one lacks the basic vocabulary, let alone the nuances, to do justice to the complexities of describing a tea ceremony. I'd like to go deeper than just repeating some of the things I've heard my son say, or even imaginatively re-creating them. I'd like to find a kind of speech that sheds light on what and how an autist is thinking when saying the things that we "neuro-typicals" sometimes do not understand and often find strange.
Over the years, I have noticed in my son's speech a shadow architecture or pattern that orders his thought and speech, one with its own kind of mandarin logic. My task lies in finding a way to express this so that others can at least sense if not fully understand the presence of a subtle but powerful ordering principle, so that things that otherwise sound random can understood . When I recently read James Cummins' book of sestinas The Whole Truth (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon Press, 2003), it occurred to me that obsessive forms like the sestina, with its complex, imbedded patterns of logic that mimic autistic thought and communication, might serve as the vehicle. I believe that there is much to be learned and gained from reading poetry written from the autistic point of view. Perhaps the vehicle will be the persona poem, perhaps the sestina. Or, perhaps I will be led back to free verse or beyond to more experimental poetry in order to find a new way of using language that communicates this unique perspective.
Kara: First of all, I've enjoyed hearing the different views of everyone. I agree restraint is key—in formal poetry every line, word, image, syllable must be accounted for and planned; however, I feel this way with most poetic forms as well, which is why I find something appealing about prose poems, about the seemingly endless line–I guess, in a way, I can bury the ideas, images and feelings I want somewhere in the middle and highlight others with dashes, periods and parenthesis. In this manner, I feel the tumors I have inside, the little bits no one sees, are not forgotten or underestimated. Then again, when I'm feeling particularly "courageous" and writing about my body, I tend to use short bursts of lines along an otherwise seamless column, which mimics the tumors on my own body. The funny part is the hidden tumors achieve more damage than the visible ones physically, while, with no surprise, the visible ones eviscerate me emotionally.
All in all, we're defined by our physical bodies, the perceptions of our bodies and how we internalize both (and how we've been taught to internalize). So, I've found I often write about my differences through modern fairytales where the preconceived ideas are already tuned to the distorted, the grotesque, the magical, the suppressed/repressed, the outcasts. Perhaps through this medium we are more susceptible to change and oddities because it starts with a common framework we all relate to. In other words, we have been given permission from childhood to enjoy and learn from fairytale through transmogrification, self-mutilation, poisoning, abandonment, and other physical and emotional traumas. Why not expand what fairytales can teach us to include elements of disability?
Liz: I appreciate what the other poets are saying about restraint and control and why fixed forms carry such appeal. Within disability-themed poetry, tensions between form and content can produce interesting metaphors. There's pleasure when the poet makes something unconventional work within a traditional framework.
Injury and disease seize control in a heartbeat, and deliberately guiding readers with literary elements through their poems shifts the power back writers. Every decision--be it conventional or not--should work to help readers understand the theme. So, when trying to express what a unique pain feels like or what it means the first time you have to ask someone to help shave your legs, the decision for a run-on, enjambment, fragment, or couplet should work thematically to help readers understand the content more precisely.
Anne: I've very much enjoyed the thoughtful responses. It's been great to hear how other poets work. I do love Kara's idea of writing contemporary fairy tales--with their room for oddities.
I must confess that I have never been able to make traditional forms work for me --no matter how much I admire the way other poets can. When I try to deal with any subject matter in, say, a sonnet, I wind up sounding anachronistic.
My physical difference is so rare, that I can't assume any readers have ever heard of it, let alone seen anyone who has ichthyosis. So, when writing about my physical differences in poetry, I need to show the reader what I look like. I tend to use natural metaphors such as desert landscapes, because they are understandable and, generally, fairly kind. A lot of traditional poetry equates diseases of the skin with moral evil. Dante comes to mind. Several of the nastiest folk in the deepest circles of hell have skin problems. So when I choose metaphorical language to characterize my body, I want to use natural metaphors which can be seen as beneficent. Honestly, I feel a moral imperative to do so.
Laurie: I appreciate all of your responses, and most immediately (right now, because it's the most recent one I've read), I like where Anne is going with regard to metaphor. How do the rest of you feel about metaphor, given the way Susan Sontag characterizes metaphor in her landmark Illness and Metaphor? It's something that made me aware, early on, of metaphor's limits, and still the need we have for it to convey physical experience.
As for form, yes, I have turned to traditional forms for some of my poems about illness, especially when I first confronted MS in my poetry, but it's rare that I can turn out a sonnet I find worthy. I am blown away by Denis Johnson's sonnets, and if you haven't read them, I recommend them highly. Not antiquated in the least, but very fresh and immediate. He reclaims the form and makes it new, with amazing rhyme schemes.
I do try to craft each poem into a shape that reflects the poem's tone and voice, and sometimes, its subject. I am quite taken by May Swenson's experiments with form. In particular I've found that the gutter down the middle of the poem (which I first read in her work) has added energy and a kind of speed to my poems, while still highlighting rupture, between the ill speaker and her beloved, or between the speaker and her disembodying sensations. I also like going off margin, if the sense of the poem is right for it. But shapeliness in any form is important for me as a poet, whether a poem is in long line couplets, blank verse, regular stanzas, or in a sort of limping quatrain-tercet-quatrain form, or in short lines. If pressed, I would say that the shape or form of the poem is initially related to my desire to bring the poem closest to its ideal form (as close as I can get it), and secondly related to disability.
That said, my contentious relationship to metaphor also applies to form, and certain subjects are more easily digestible in prose, in fragments, in a different kind of voice than what I might consider beautiful.
Mike: Clearly, any poem that you begin to put down on a page (or for that matter, sign or produce orally) is seeking some form, so in the previous question, I did not mean to restrict the discussion to traditional forms. Quite the contrary, Becky's examples of using her son's speech patterns as a way of structuring a poem or Kara's description of using short and long bursts of words to mimic the tumors in her body, are exactly the kind of thing that I was thinking about when I was asking what the non-traditional body might have to contribute to the development of poetry.? But right now, I'd like now to jump back on a question that rises from Anne's and Laurie's comments about metaphor, and this goes back to the original question about trite or cliché-ridden poetry. It is certainly true, that all of us are limited to our experiences in the sense that what may seem original to us may proved hackneyed to other readers and, it may be equally true that trite metaphors in poems generally do no harm except to the poem, but I think that with respect to disability, the case is somewhat different. We've inherited a number of metaphors about disabilities that are harmful simply because they do perpetuate stereotypes. Becky's poem "Dark Card" certainly grapples with this issue, I think, and it seems to me that we have some obligation to try to counter these stereotypes. And, of course, positive stereotypes are still stereotypes. Many people involved in disabilities studies consider the "heroic overcomer" to be detrimental as well. I'm wondering what each of you could talk a bit about what you have done in your writing to try to provide alternative images or metaphors.
Laurie: Hmmm. There are so many ways to go in answering your question, Mike. First, I'll say that in my nonfiction the urge to not sound like a narrative of overcoming is my primary reason for disrupting chronology. I take issue with narratives that begin with the originary moment of illness or disability and then go on until the person is either cured or dead. And in a way, the structure of Veil and Burn owes a lot to this disruption, too. That said, even in putting together my memoir, I find myself cutting references to my issues with the term "good attitude," a term that to me speaks of overcoming while also starting from a term that is widely pejorative (she has an attitude), and labeling it good, which to my mind makes it only sort of good. The term annoys me, but to write about it would be less strong than crafting something more lyrical and unique. Complaint vs. Beauty.
With regard to poems, there are poems of mine that go unwritten because I fear they will be too sentimental. Sometimes I give them a go and then realize they're not working. Many drafts, or episodes of image recycling go into some poems. It can take months or years to gain the perspective that can turn something that was once a little sappy into something that's tough and lean. This goes for my animal poems, too, and love poems. I am aware that sentiment abounds in those subjects. My task is to present the images in a way that might elicit a pure, rather than pitying response.
Metaphor itself is incredibly dangerous, I think, when it comes to illness and disability. Not only are there cliches and dead metaphors, but the act of saying a disease is something it is not opens up the gates to inaccuracy. Still, we need metaphors to explain what is going on within the body, or what it might feel like. Sontag writes about the war metaphor with regard to AIDS, which sadly abounds in so much disability literature. To say that a person fights cancer or fights MS or anything else renders the disease into something adversarial, and by extension, a person's body that houses the disease is adversarial. Sadly, this is what brings in donations for foundations meant to help people living with illnesses, and so this it the kind of language people are introduced to when they are diagnosed. Trying to be aware of the possible extended implications, or of the inaccuracies of figurative language is one way I approach metaphors. In my poem "Dressage, or the Attempt at Training the Course of Illness," I give up at the end, sick of the way the disease "invites me to make metaphors" and I pull the reins on it all. But how can a poet do that? She can't. The urge is there, but metaphor is a necessity, even in words that have already been created (watch face, table leg) so I proceed with awareness and caution.
Ultimately, and going back to a comment I wrote a while back, I believe that thinking differently, observing the body in unexpected ways, is the main tool in my approach to writing about MS. It's not a tool I consciously use, but I recognize when I'm not using it, and I grasp around for that invisible instrument to please help me.
Becky: Laurie, about your statement "given the way Susan Sontag characterizes metaphor in her landmark Illness and Metaphor . . ." I haven't seen this work and wonder if you could give a précis?
Laurie: Becky, Sorry. It's an old book (1978 and 1988, I think), but easily available to purchase /read. Sontag's focus is cultural assumptions that arise from metaphors used for illness. There are 2 long essays in it. One, "Illness and Metaphor," discusses illness and how metaphors damage our understanding of illness. Sontag wrote this when she had cancer, frustrated as she was with the ways cancer was used as a metaphor for social conditions (gang violence is a cancer in our cities, for instance) and the ways metaphor altered the way the disease was conveyed to people. She compares cancer in the 20th century to tuberculosis in the 19th century, and the various mythologies that arise from the metaphors and associations around each illness.
The second essay is "AIDS and Its Metaphors," and she confronts the ways that metaphors alter our perceptions of AIDS, and how metaphors are related to a number of damaging assumptions about people with AIDS, and the disease itself. She discusses the plague (because that was the comparison so often used), and the danger of this image in relation to a contemporary disease. She also compares AIDS in the 80s to WWII propaganda about syphilis. She also focuses quite a lot on war imagery and its dangers with regard to AIDS. In this second essay she acknowledges that metaphor cannot be abandoned.
Becky: Thanks, Laurie. I want to add that I agree with what you said about form: "If pressed, I would say that the shape or form of the poem is initially related to my desire to bring the poem closest to its ideal form (as close as I can get it), and secondly related to disability."
Now, to address the last questions Mike raised. First, Overcoming Stereotypes. Even a so-called "Heroic-overcomer" is, to my mind, a negative stereotype since it takes as a given that differences are bad and inferior in some way to the norm. If something is to be "overcome," that means it is undesirable, unruly, a limitation. My point here is similar to points others have made about having a "good attitude" or talking about disability in terms of it being an adversary that must be fought and conquered. Sometimes my poetry about autism tries simply to acknowledge "what is," without judging it in any way. Just the "difference that makes turquoise not like blue" mentioned in my poem "Unreachable Child."
Or perhaps even that line confers a sort of positive judgment since it is desirable, is it not, to have more than one shade of blue? In any event, my poems like "Dark Card," do continually question whether autism is a "disability," so much so that I can barely type the word without putting quotation marks around it. Just as I strive in life to see autism as a difference that need not give rise to a value judgment or sense of loss.
In other poems I go further and outright express my belief that autism sometimes confers gifts—the inability to lie, for example—on my son and the people with whom he interacts. Poems like "The Visitation," and "He Never Lies," make the point that such gifts are not sought and are sometimes received with great suffering. But this does not necessarily diminish their value.
So I guess my effort is just to be honest about what I see and feel with respect to my son's "disability," including my feeling that autism would not only be neutral in a different culture but might also be an "extra," rather than a "dis" ability. I try to avoid ways of talking about it that feel too familiar and especially too PollyAnna-ish. But also try to avoid expression that goes too far the other way into darkness, melodrama, self-pity.
As I am saying this I am thinking about my years of volunteer work with parent s of kids with autism and other "learning disabilities." In this work, there was always a more unfortunate case, always. No matter how rough you had it, there was always someone whose suffering was infinitely worse. Awareness of and compassion for others also suffering in various ways can, I think, help to avoid one of the excesses of expression I am talking about. When I begin to complain about how my son was bullied in middle school, I remember my friend's son, who is completely nonverbal, and other kids who harm themselves or for other reasons are doomed to be stuck in institutions, and this restrains me from at least casual over-expression about pain. But then again, renunciation of the right to express all pain about these issues goes too far in the other direction, falling into the stiff-upper-lip and heroic-overcomer sorts of excesses. What lies between those two poles is a fairly narrow place, but it is where I try to mine my images and metaphors. Not so much that I have to see beauty where others don't, but that at least I can see it, and perhaps can use strength of expression to teach another way of seeing to others who read my poems. And not that I can't ever acknowledge my or my son's suffering, but that I have to take such expressions seriously, have to earn them aesthetically.
Next, To whom do we have an obligation when we write? To whom or what I have an obligation in my writing is an intriguing question. No, I don't feel an obligation to the disability community to write a certain way about disability, just as I don't feel an obligation to women to write a certain way about "women's issues." In fact, I resist such obligations as imposing a priori restraints on freedom of expression. (I am talking here about writing at the very first draft stage, when we are choosing what to write and still figuring out how best to express that. Restraint at a later stage in the creative process, such as the decision to work within a form or to eschew the use of adjectives, is a different matter.) So I guess I part ways with Anne on this issue since she said that she feels a moral imperative to use natural and beneficent language when she choosing metaphors to characterize her body.
My primary obligation, especially in the early stages of creativity, is to the writing itself. What makes the writing strong, relevant and true? What makes it "good" in the sense that when I read it I feel an affirmation of "yes, that is it; just so," a resonance that I hope will sound in my readers?
Fortunately, I believe that what makes any poetry better will make any poetry—including that about disability—better, so the interests are often aligned. But what if they are not? What if I write a really terrific poem that undermines the agenda of empowering people with disabilities by, say, finding a way to re-invigorate (and so glorify) the heroic-overcoming trope? There is no way I would say I should not be writing that poem. And I'd rather write that poem than a weak one that advances a particular social or political agenda.
But maybe I would decide not to share such a poem. For me, the sense of obligation inheres in what to try to publish. (And here I mean publish in the broadest sense of any way in which we disseminate our work.) To take an example outside of disability poetry, I might write a poem that could be harmfully read as an incitement to or endorsement of suicide. Perhaps it is a really strong poem. Would I choose to share that at a reading attended by high school students? Probably not. I was affronted by Eric Steele's documentary film ("The Bridge") chronicling a year of suicide jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge, but I would still defend his right to make and screen that powerful and disturbing film.
A related and more personal version of this issue is this: what if I write something that feels powerful and true, but that would hurt my son to read it, or to have others read it about him? This issue actually confronts me pretty often. There are times, in fact, when my maternal and artistic goals seem directly opposed. What is greater—my obligation to the autism community at large to tell the truth about autism, or not to do something that would hurt my son? I try to balance those, but in the end I am not going to do something that would hugely hurt my own kid, even if it would be for a greater good. Perhaps an even harder question is what weighs more heavily between my obligation to the poem and to my son?
Again, I try to be brave and fierce when I write and to say what feels true, feels important and right. Restraint may come into the shaping of the poem, as a way to sharpen its expression, but I allow myself free reign in the early drafts to say anything, even things that might hurt or anger others, even things that might open me to censure. In the next stages, restraint may come as a function of craft, as a way to sharpen the poem's expression. But my decision not to employ a stereotype is less likely to be because it might perpetuate a negative stereotype than because stereotypes are boring and ineffective.
I'm writing as if this were an all or none proposition when, of course it is not. I have, in fact, published poems that have made my son (and the rest of my family) uncomfortable. But I hope I never have published a poem that I thought was not my best work but was redeemed by a "good message." Each decision to share a poem is a weighing of all these factors: how important is it to me and to others that this message be shared versus who might be hurt by it? But there are moral and aesthetic lines I won't cross, and those poems stay in the drawer.
Anne: So many thoughtful answers to important questions. Although I always resist the heroic overcomer trope, I've been wondering lately what lies behind it. Why do so many people, including editors, desperately want to hear that a person with physical differences has overcome them? I'm sure there are many valid answers to this question, but in my nastier moods, I put down fear as the main reason. Fear and a deep seated desire, on the part of the reader or viewer, to make sure that in the end, everything is really alright with the disabled person.
In June I did a workshop with the poet/memoirist Gregory Orr. who is not physically disabled in any way, but who has written about the effects of a childhood hunting accident in which he, as a 12 year old, killed his younger brother. I've found his work very powerful. In the workshop, he talked a lot about disorder and order, about the power of poetry to contain disorder. I've recently thought about how editors and readers who insist that my creative work somehow have a happy ending, or who want to see me as a sane, well adjusted person, are deeply afraid of differences, particularly obvious physical differences, such as mine. Perhaps it is a need to find order out of disorder that drives them. If this is so (and why not allow it as a theory?), giving them some kind of order, in a piece or a poem ought to suffice.
But it doesn't. On Friday, I met with an editor in New York who was very uneasy with what she called "bitterness' in a piece of memoir writing in which I note that my twin brother doesn't have the same skin condition I have and that I sometimes wonder what his life would have been like if he got the genes I did. My brother is very dear to me and we are close. In my memoir, my speculations about his life were couched in overt statements about how close we are. Nevertheless, this editor couldn't abide even a hint of "bitterness." She needed to feel that everything was purely ok between my brother and me. In future, I'll steer clear of this particular editor.
I honestly don't know how to allay this sort of fear. I can ignore it, of course, but I don't want to. I can only think that the more textured and complicated and thus truthful, I make my self-presentation in poems and memoir writing, the more readers will come to understand the complexities behind my overt physical difference. Anyway, that's what I come up with. Believe me, all advice is welcome.
Liz: When we read poems, we read them in context, connecting them to other literary and life experiences. Consider the spectrum of poems about unrequited love; its breadth is enormous, ranging from the clichéd and sentimental to profound. The cannon of disability literature is growing rapidly, and producing and supporting disability-themed poetry that provides alternative metaphors will add depth to readers' contexts and inspire new understandings.
How to provide alternatives? This is something with which I wrestle. The first step I've taken is reading disability literature. Having an idea of the conversations happening helps me know how to join in. I understand the stereotyping and cliché once I've been exposed to it and can challenge myself to find alternatives in my own writing. As we've already discussed, working to create tension between content and form can inspire me to compose poems that move beyond the superficial. And, equally as important, grounding my metaphors in personal experience helps me not only leave stereotypes behind, but also explore new comparisons. For example, when I initially started writing about my spinal injury, many water-associated metaphors crept into my poems because a boat dock was home to my life-changing event. Years later and a home owner now, I find I'm exploring parallels between my reconstructed body and the home I'm helping reconstruct. Motherhood has had many influences too. As we craft metaphors that relate not only to our disability experiences but to other life experiences that our audiences may find more personally accessible, then we're creating meaningful metaphors that offer alternatives.
Mike: I'm going to switch gears here for a moment and ask a different kind of question. It is no secret that its tough to make one's living as a poet . A novelist may be able to sell enough copies of a book to work at it full time, but generally speaking poetry does not sell. There may be a lot of reasons for this but it seems to me that one reason is that there is generally a disconnect between poetry and the American people at large, and (here I'm showing my age) I often think of the lines from the pop song "American Pie", Don McClean's parable about the history of modern music:
when the players tried to take the field
and wonder if modern poetry hasn't become inaccessible to most people. You've all taught writing or lit courses/workshops and given readings as well, so I'm interested to know from your experience if you feel that poetry has become elitist and, conversely, what you have seen or done that works to connect people with poetry. What kinds of things have you seen that resonates with people who are not poets themselves?
Anne: I live in Philadelphia, where there's a really diverse poetry scene. On any summer night, you have a choice of readings in book stores, art galleries, bars, coffee shops. Many venues offer mics after a featured reader. Some poetry is written for the eye, mainly. Some is performance art. Some is good, some less crafted, some not crafted at all. I have to admit that this whole scene really inspires me. Poetry spreads -- and more people write it and perform it and enjoy it.
It's also true that I have a hard time persuading even the poets in the MFA program where I teach, to grapple with meter and sound effects. I feel like an old time school marm when I insist that they learn the difference between a dactyl and a spondee. They resist. I drop the Greek names and make them clap to the rhythm with me. They still resist. I ask if any of them are artists and would they try to paint without knowing the differences between red and yellow. They still resist. I tell them that English (in which they are all writing, even if it isn't their first language) is a stressed language. As a wood worker needs to know the differences between hard woods and soft woods, they need to know what inheres in their material. They still resist. But as the workshop/semester goes on, I point out how differences meter or sound affect their own lines. Sometimes this works.
Poetry absolutely isn't and should never be for some kind of elite. It's invigorated by every poet who is serious.
Becky: I agree with most of Anne's points and love that she persists even when "they resist!" But I don't always find the (ever expanding) open mic scene so invigorating. Especially when it is the same 30 poets making the rounds to all the venues, and most especially when what is being read is slapdash, off the cuff, not the product of any work, study, or reflection. Too much "performance" and not enough "poetry," is what I am sometimes disappointed to find.
And yet, for beginning poets, open mics are a great way to get experience with reading aloud. And well-run open mics (time/page limits, no rants, readers who are serious about their craft) can be exciting and inspiring.
I don't mind that the readership and audience for poetry tends to consist mostly of wannabe poets. In fact, it is the nature of the beast. Poetry is magic, and so why wouldn't a reader want to make some of that magic too? Good poetry does that, converts readers into aspiring poets. What I object to is lack of respect for the craft. Along the lines of what Anne says, if you want to paint, it pays to learn about pigment and how to stretch a canvas. There is this sense that if you can read and write, you've mastered all the tools you need to write well. It's like baseball (isn't everything?). Most of us can play the game. But if you want to look like Buster Posey, you have to give your life to the game. And to get past bush league you have to at least master the skills and practice, practice, practice.
Kara: At the beginning of each English course I teach, I generally ask everyone to describe their reading habits, and those who admit to enjoying poetry are a minority. I don't know if poetry is elitist—I want to lean towards no. I easily admit that reading poetry requires time, patience and practice. You must read multiple times, sometimes slowly and aloud; you must go over and over specific lines and stanzas, using a combination of common sense, knowledge and imagination.
Personally, I don't believe poetry is elitist because I am, sometimes, the average person/reader (yes, I've earned an MA in English and MFA in poetry, which gives me an edge but sometimes even I'm not in the mood to make the effort to read slightly difficult texts)—I've read all the Harry Potter books, seen all the movies, and I've struggled reading and writing poetry. Poetry is simply not easy. Obviously, some poetry is easier to read than others, but I believe with the right tools and desire anyone can understand poetry.
However, I find it difficult to believe (in our culture of instant gratification regarding television, movies, gaming systems, the internet, and other easier or more interactive options) that many people want to make the time to read and understand poetry.
Poetry often doesn't give readers clearly defined signposts and directions; therefore, the purpose is hidden and more difficult to find. As human beings, we need specific reasons behind our actions. We need to know exactly how reading this poem will benefit us, like vacuuming or grocery shopping. Without a clear purpose, without immediate results and consequences, who will make the time to read poetry? We're selfish, stuck in our "default settings" (David Foster Wallace) and we're rushed. I tell my students, we read (poetry and fiction) to delve into human hearts and to feel less alone. Who wouldn't want to make time for that?
So, how I approach teaching poetry? If I start with poems that are humorous or that challenge traditions, such as Phillip Larkin's "This Be the Verse," my students seem less intimidated. Any poem that starts "They fuck you up, your mum and dad" usually makes students want to keep reading (either with glee or disgust). Plus, poems with cursing erase idea that poetry is just pretty or soft. Dorothy Parker poems work well too.
I've also found that reading and rereading poems aloud in class makes a huge impact and helps draw students in. Over and over I've heard, "when you read it, it made more sense." Lastly, I seem to focus on how the poems makes the students feel or think—focusing on to these personal interpretations places the emphasis on the self, which is usually infinitely more immediate and important than the poet or the poet's experience. The idea that there are several potential meanings can both be intimidating and freeing.
All in all, it seems less about teaching anyone how to read poetry, and more about showing what can be learned through and enjoyable about poetry. So I'm not sure this makes sense, or if I don't truly believe poetry is elitist, and that I am blinded by an education I've taken for granted. The only thing I know is poetry is hard work and beautiful, and we need it among the easy, rushed and mindless routine of daily life.
Liz: Like Kara, I too find when I survey twenty-five students in Poetry Writing that maybe one has purchased a collection of poetry published by a writer born after 1970. These are budding poets—why aren't they reading poetry produced by their contemporaries?
Early exposure to poetry in formal education often ends at the early 20th century, if not the 19th century for some students. Many are haunted by the first twenty five lines of Beowulf they had to memorize for junior year literature. And, some poems are just hard to understand at the first read. It's not a wonder the majority of American readers don't look to poetry to help them understand their lives (especially given all the nonfiction titles on the shelves). Kara speaks to the challenges of reading poetry and how she address this in her classes, and I wholeheartedly agree. Usually, when I bring in a collection by a poet who's published a book in the past year, students say, "you can do that in a poem?" Reading what poets are publishing right now catapults their own growth during the term, and most end up leaving the course with a very different view of how they want to write and engage with poetry.
It seems more people are writing poetry than reading it, so there's definitely something out of sync between how the form helps people process their experiences and how they absorb information from poems. I guess I don't believe all modern poetry has become inaccessible to readers, I just don't think the majority of modern readers are accessing it.
Becky: My sense is that poetry has become both too inaccessible and too accessible. Inaccessible in the sense that there is a lot of poetry being written that people genuinely cannot relate to at any level—musical, intellectual, emotional, aesthetic. I mean here the kind of poetry has no resonance with a reader, sometimes because its "meaning" is obscure and sometimes because its syntax and grammar has been so exploded that the poem is incomprehensible. I am not talking about poetry that challenges you to do some thinking and interacting with the poem, or for which it helps to have done some prior reading, but rather poetry that presents a blank face, a concrete wall without a single toe or foothold. Poetry that reads like, say, a matrix of numbers—comprehensible, even beautiful to a mathematician perhaps, but boring and frustrating for other readers. Now, if those numbers are arranged in such a way that they sound pleasing when read aloud, then my hypothetical numbers matrix moves a step closer to being something more people might want to hear. If the numbers repeat in some meaningful way that eventually reveals itself as a code embodying meaning, another step is taken . And, if the numbers suggest a shape on the page, perhaps another step. But readers have an awful lot of information competing for their attention these days, so if you are going to ask them to work this hard to have an interaction with your text , there had better be some kind of payoff. I like poems that challenge readers but also reward them by allowing something to emerge from having grappled with the poem. Perhaps it is narrative, a story, Perhaps an epiphany. Perhaps a lyrical moment that takes the reader briefly somewhere else. Perhaps a fresh thought or insight.
Some of the modern "language" poetry leaves me cold, but not all of it. When it's just a matter of having to work harder, to engage more with the poem, I enjoy it. Michelle Taransky's book, Barn Burned Then, homage to the Objectivist Movement, was full of such poetry. But not all readers or listeners are willing to work this hard in their engagement with the written or spoken word. Some just want to be moved, or to experience beauty or a moment of insight or wisdom. Such readers feel excluded and diminished by poems that seem deliberately designed to thwart their efforts to interact with them, and such poems can feel elitist and exclusionary. Sometimes it seems to me that the readership of inaccessible poetry is increasingly comprised of the writers of those poems. On the other hand, let's not forget that when TS Eliot came out with "Prufrock" in 1915, the poem was considered shockingly experimental and received a great deal of negative criticism. Sometimes anything new and original can seem inaccessible at first.
On the other side of things, I would also say that much contemporary poetry has become "too accessible." That is, the avalanche of free verse over the last few decades has, in my opinion, spawned a lazy poetics that thinks it is enough to feel strongly about something, then express it, and perhaps break the lines a bit so that they do not look like prose. Poetry is an art. It is not the same as a rant, a complaint, a lament, or even a song. Not all strongly felt expression achieves the status of art, nor does all expression about important subjects. A poorly written poem is not redeemed by the fact that it addresses an important issue or that its writer was expressing authentic and strong feeling. It is the shaping of the material that makes it a poem or not. Even free verse poetry is not "anything goes," and its best examples, in my opinion, are written by poets like Donald Justice who have mastered form and who understand that free verse is its own kind of form. Poetry takes more than talent and passion—it takes study and practice. There is too much casual, just-dashed-off work being read and published. How can we expect to build an audience of people who care about poetry when, at readings, we treat them to a page of "I wrote this on the bus on the way over here tonight?" The advent of internet and self publication has opened the floodgates but lowered the quality standards so that there is a lot of artless writing out there calling itself poetry. If that is the kind of thing a potential reader of poetry comes across first, why would he or she want to investigate further?
What is the solution? For one thing, writers should be reading other poetry more (classical as well as contemporary) and spending less time worrying about publishing our own work. This may be a "note to self," because I am increasingly thinking along these lines with respect to how I allocate my own time. Second, I believe that good poetry can be written by anyone who cares enough about it to read and write and work on revising their own poems, but it is an enterprise that deserves to be taken seriously. Finally, if having an audience or readership is a goal, then the poems we write must have the ability to evoke a response. Not in every reader, of course, but in some readers, the ones we are trying to reach.
Laurie: Here's what I'll offer: I blame Eliot. As Becky noted, he encouraged an exclusionary, distanced, and coded aspect of poetry. I love much of his work and understand it as a response to his fraught time, but I also think his brand of modernism really made poetry inaccessible to a broader reading public. To me, poems are far easier to read and understand than novels. But there is a lingering mystique that makes people think they're difficult and not worth reading.
And, to again agree with Becky, I think there are a lot of people who don't read poetry (because it's hard?) but write it because they can spill their feelings onto the page with no regard for musicality or syntax or image. Or punctuation, for that matter. In many instances, though, these beginning poets can be guided, through reading and disciplined practice, to great work.
Becky: I think my point was not so much that Eliot encouraged or spawned an exclusionary poetics but that even his great poem, "Prufrock", now read and loved by many readers (me included) was rejected initially as being too radically experimental and inaccessible. So, I am trying to keep an open mind about the "inaccessible" poetry coming out today, even though my first reaction may be to call it gibberish. My contract with such poetry is that I am willing to grapple with it so long, in the end, it yields something in return--a shred of meaning, an image that resonates, music that moves my ear or muscle memory even if my mind cannot grasp any meaning. But if, after a reasonable amount of engagement, I still cannot relate on any level, I just give up. I once read an article by Reginald Shepherd in AWP Chronicle that (if I remember correctly) made the distinction between "difficult" and "inaccessible" poetry, saying that the former requires work and engagement on behalf of the reader but then rewards him or her with a deeper experience of (in a sense with helping to create) the poem. For this to work, Shepherd said, the poem must contain its own Rosetta stone. Any reader willing to take the time should be able to find, within the four corners of the poem all that is needed to find, if not its "meaning," then at least something of value.
The problem is that an entire book of such poems, even when the hard nut is cracked and yields the sweet meat of some reward, is very, very hard work. And that costs readers, particularly in today's twitter and sound-byte attention-challenged audiences. In the case of new readers of poetry, first encounters with this kind of work runs the risk of turning them off to the whole genre.
Laurie: My apologies, Becky. I shouldn't have attributed my notions to you, simply because you mentioned Eliot. But I do think that--despite my affection for "The Wasteland" or "Prufrock"--he did contribute quite willingly to the aura of intimidation that the general readership feels towards poetry. By general readership I am including people who have doctorates in Literature but who for some reason remain convinced that poetry is not a genre open to them.
Anne: I guess Eliot is a good guy to blame--though I too love his work.
Mike: Laurie and Becky. Thanks for the foray into discussing Eliot. It's one that I would love to pursue at another time. I will just toss out just as an aside (since, as Anne said, Eliot is easy to blame) that I have heard Eliot supporters say that he did far less damage to American poetry The W.C. Williams.
Mike: As Becky pointed out and several of you concurred, even many people who write poetry do not really read much of it, and, of course, that is critical for being a good writer. I'm interested in pursuing a bit more what can be done to get people engaged in reading a poem. Kara pointed out that she has found Larkin's "This Be the Verse," to be useful for engaging a new group, and it is easy to see how, on a number of levels, that poem would appeal to beginning college students without a lot of experience in poetry. I'd like to ask each of you to talk about a poem that you have had a great deal of success with either in teaching poetry (or in a poetry reading, workshop) and why you think it worked well. It can even be one of your own poems, if you like.
Kara: So other than Phillip Larkin, John Brehm's "At the Poetry Reading" often grabs attention. Mainly, I believe, because on the surface, it doesn't take itself or poetry too seriously. In the poem the speaker is sitting at a poetry reading but instead of strictly listening to the poet, the speaker is staring at the poet's wife's legs. Or in other words, the speaker is guilty of the wandering mind students are often guilty of as well. Of course, underneath is the idea that poetry sometimes forgets the most immediate realities, the everyday beauty that's taken for granted in the face of lofty and abstract idea.
"Conte" by Marilyn Hacker and "Cinderella" by Anne Sexton build on the basis of fairytales, which places students on common ground, but quickly shifts into reality. "A Stone is Nobody's" by Russell Edson is just strange enough and prose-like while when discussing imagery I turn to "Responsibility in Metaphor" by Tony Hoagland.
I don't expect every student to enjoy or get every poem; instead, I give a wide range of choices just hoping something sinks in.
Becky: One poem I love to teach is Brian Turner's "Here, Bullet."
If a body is what you want,
The poem has some of the conventional elements of poetry; it looks like a sonnet (but is not, having 16 lines) and it employs some rhyme (even some end rhyme) and a fairly consistent tetrameter meter. But its imagery is vivid, even shocking (which high school kids seem to like), and its message about war (and the war in Iraq) is contemporary and important to students.
Turner talks this site about the writing of "Here Bullet" and traces it back to "They Feed They Lion," the poem that taught him that poetry is not just about flowering cherry trees. Here are the first few lines of Philip Levine's wonderful poem, so full of muscle, magic, and music:
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
I try to find poems like these that will draw students in—any way is fine with me as long as it sparks a response. Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Read Cool" is always popular, of course. When I teach my class on the sonnet, I open with a video of a rapper performing one of Shakespeare's sonnets. I have spent a lot of time searching out examples that surprise students by defying their expectations about that form—like Kim Bridgford's hilarious sonnets about world records (eg, "The Chicken That Lived the Longest Without a Head") and Ed Allen's inventive and extremely irreverent sonnets in 67 Mixed Messages. Humor is a great way to draw readers in, and I often teach R.S. Gwynn's very funny metrical poems. One thing that has gotten a great response is to present Hopkin's curtal sonnet called "Pied Beauty" next to Gwynn's parody of it, "Fried Beauty" (or Kim Addonizio's "Lucifer at the Starlite" which parodies George Meredith's "Lucifer in Starlight"). Jim Cummins' book of sestinas based on the Perry Mason series, The Whole Truth, made me laugh out loud as did the book of sestinas he wrote with David Lehman, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man. I've bought extra copies of those books and I press them on people who tell me that (formal) poetry is boring or irrelevant. I love the way those books combine a traditional fixed form with very modern and often wacky elements drawn from contemporary popular culture-TV, music, comic books, and the like.
Besides finding work that shatter student's negative stereotypes about poetry, another other way to get students to read is to teach them how to use other poems as prompts or better yet, as models to imitate in order to improve and enlarge their own writing. Or, I adopt a method one teacher used on me, that is to assign to a student poems that do particularly well something that I think needs improving in their own writing.
Finally, I give students the advice that Heather McHugh gave me in my MFA program. I am not sure she used these words, but the gist was "read your gut." The idea is, find the poets you love and read and read them; don't waste time forcing yourself to slog through writing that does not move you. Yes, it is worth giving a poet a fair read, yes good poetry is often challenging, but if you do not respond, move on! Read what you love.
Anne: Becky, What wonderful ideas! I'll definitely steal them for my classes. One of the strategies I've used-- both for undergraduates and for grad students-- is to ask them to bring in poems they like. They bring copies for the entire class a week ahead and then are responsible for giving background and for leading a discussion on the poems they choose. So, of course, they need to think about what their peers will respond to well. On the whole, this has been successful. They often bring in poems I don't know, no surprise there and so I learn a lot. Sometimes, they also bring in very traditional poems--even Kipling and Poe-- which does amaze me. However their own enthusiasm spreads to their classmates. And we all recognize that different people have different tastes.
Liz: One of the first exercises I ask creative writing students to do is write a persona poem. Students have to think closely about language choices, if they are writing in the voice of someone/something else. They usually draft in a form that they don't normally work in (this can be a great way for students to write without a rhyme scheme for the first time, if that is their preference). And, they seem more likely to share their first poem with classmates. I'm not sure why, but maybe because it seems less personal to them than poems that "bare their souls."
We begin with the "rules." They must 1) use first person; 2) write from the point of view of someone (like a family member, character in a favorite book, historical figure, movie star, Martian, etc.) or something else (like a pet, couch, pen, vacation destination, etc.); and 3) make language choices that the person/thing would make--the poem should "sound" like the speaker, not the poet.
Some examples we discuss are "Midnight: The Coyote, Down in the Mouth" and "Commercial Break--Road Runner, Uneasy" by Tim Siebles (he has many wonderful persona poems from which to choose), "Skinhead" by Patricia Smith, Thomas James'"Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh," "Monologue for an Onion," by Suji Kwock Kim, and "Hawk Roosting" by Ted Hughes. Each can be found online. (Sometimes, I share one of Denise Duhamel's poems from Kinky as an example of a third-person point of view poem--where Barbie is the subject of the poem.)
Writing from a new point of view encourages students to step away from the type of poetry they usually write. It's a fun way to start conversations of poetic elements and jump start experimentation in poetry writing, which, I feel, encourages students to grow as poets during the term.
Mike: I'd add Barbara Baldwin's "The German Version" in this issue of Wordgathering to that list as well.
Laurie: I really like Anne's idea here. I have, in the past, given an anthology assignment to my undergrad students. I can't take credit for this on my own, though. It was a friend's idea that she uses in her classes. Students must peruse contemporary literary journals (which requires bookstores and good libraries), find poems they like, analyze them, and place them in some kind of order that makes sense. It helps students find what moves them in poems, but it's definitely something that needs to happen well into the semester.
When I teach poetry in the community, there aren't such opportunities for definite assignments because people have jobs and families and they don't get a grade. People are there because they want to be, and sometimes a workshop table can have 3 people with MFAs, two people who have never written or read poetry before, and a few others who have taken a number of workshops. Such a vast range. So I like to select, early on, poems that might be accessible but also offer a kind of beauty or image-making that the more experienced students (who have probably read the poems) can celebrate. James Wright's "A Blessing" is one that never fails to disappoint. We can discuss image, emotion, lineation . . . I bring that one in alongside William Stafford's poem "Traveling Through the Dark," which allows us to talk about restraint, economy of words, bringing vernacular into the poem, and so on. Those who don't get these poems right off, usually because the students think of poems as puzzles with single answers, can end up understanding and celebrating the imagery in a poem about a small yet immense moment.
Last week I taught at Gemini Ink in San Antonio. I brought in Coleridge's dejection ode, which needed some discussion and biographical context, and some other poems either addressing writing with an ailment or ailments themselves. I think the highlight, at least for me, was when we got to Lucille Clifton's "poem to my uterus" and "lumpectomy eve." Clifton is great to turn to at any time with students who might be writing poems that could be toned down, or who feel poems need to be effusive. Her images are so clear and her language so spare.
In my San Antonio workshop, one student, who is not an experienced poet but a teacher and library science grad student, noticed the way Clifton moves from the uterus as sock to slipper to stocking, and then returns to that strain at the end of the poem with the barefoot image. Brilliant. This student, who had not read the poem before, noticed the pattern of orchestration, while the rest of us talked about spareness and choice of image, turning syntax, spacing, etc. Clifton is a poet who can challenge all of us, no matter what level, with her visceral and deceptively simple lines.
Becky: Thanks for reminding me of Clifton's wonderful poem. I love the anthology idea and have met students who have compiled such anthologies and carry them around with them--brilliant! I think I might start one for myself. I forgot to mention in my last email a poem that really impressed my early into my study of poetry: Tom Andrews' "The Hemophiliac's Mototcycle;" it remains one of my favorite long poems and would be a great one for inciting students to read more poetry.
Mike: I agree that Andrew's "Hemophiliac's Motorcycle" is one that sparks an interest in reading poetry and Clifton's work is both accessible and relevant to beginning readers. I've had particular success with Clifton's "The Lost Baby" poem for generating discussion. You've all given some great ideas both for specific poems and for teaching techniques. It has to be rewarding to see students get involved and even excited about material you have introduced and I am wondering – and I know this is a bit of jump - what you feel you are trying to accomplish when you write a poem yourself…and how you know when you've been successful?
Becky: In my case, writing a poem is not goal-oriented so much as it is intrinsically driven; that is, poems form at a subconscious level and then accrue enough mass to exert pressure and generate the to need to emerge. This is the point at which I feel what some would call "inspiration." So I am rarely trying to accomplish anything when I am first writing a poem. It is more a response to a felt need to express or release something that is building internally. A thought or idea or just a phrase will begin to assert itself in my consciousness and then to begin to do so loudly and often enough that I must write it down.
At the revision stage, though, I do have more specific goals in mind. In the early stages, I hope to discover the shape the poem wants to take. Sometimes this search precedes knowing what the poem is about, or else the meaning and message of the poem changes and emerges during the revision process. I may decide that the poem is about sound and begin reading it aloud right away, trying different sonic combinations. I may use a free verse line or move into couplets or quatrains. If two especially resonant lines emerge, I may play around with sonnet or villanelle forms. Once I have the basic idea and shape of the poem, my goal is to realize the poem in the most precise, concise, and vivid language possible.
In the end, what I hope to accomplish with any poem is for it to have achieved its most potent possible realization in terms of its combination of content and form. Ted Hughes once said of Sylvia Plath that she threw nothing away; if she could not make a piece of art she made the perfect chair, and if that was beyond the potential of a particular piece, she made the Socratic ideal of a footstool or even just a child's toy. Something like that governs what I do. I am loath to give up on any poem that has demanded to be written, and I return to drafts again and again, sometimes after a period of years, to try to make it into the best piece of writing it can be. I know the poem is done when I lose interest in revising it, or (as happens more rarely) when I feel a click of satisfaction (was it Yeats who called that feeling the sound of a well-made box closing?) upon reading it. At this point, I am willing to consider showing it to others, but even poems that get published or otherwise at one time felt "finished" often call out later to be revised, especially when I am doing readings. Only a very few of my poems—"Wild Swan" is one— do not exert any pressure on me to change them when I read them.
Beyond that, I hope that my poems, if read, will have some kind of impact on the reader. Not necessarily positive—just will have made an impact. I guess it is a kind of connection or communication that I am seeking, and that is why it is not enough for me to polish a poem to its highest possible sheen and then leave it in my computer.
Kara: Like Becky, when I write a poem, I'm thinking through some internal emotion or idea that I can't express directly, that I need to sit down to tea with. Is this "inspiration"? Yes, if by inspiration you mean the unavoidable need to share and explore intimate moments and thoughts. Beyond the relief and pleasure that results from this expression, I too am not actively trying to accomplish anything. Once the idea is realized, I try to make each poem "effective" through a combination of form and content. By effective I mean my only goal is to create a connection with my reader, to make them think, to express something that is both unique to me and shared by many others. If I accomplish this, then I know I've been successful; yet, I'm not completely dependent on my readers because when I write I experience the same sensation—I become more aware of myself and others, and the world around us. You see, I need to write poems to understand this life. Even if no one ever reads my poems, they're successful because they've kept me sane and motivated. It's a bonus, a gift if my poems accomplish the same in someone else.
Liz: I am tempted to say "ditto" to Becky's response and leave it at that. She articulates a process that reflects my own in such a lovely way. In my experience, a poem stems from an image, action, spoken words, or metaphor that suddenly illuminates something about life I've been wrestling to understand, and the act of writing a poem becomes a process to record this moment of understanding so that another person may be able to connect to it.
Success of a poem is hard to quantify. Once it's written and seems to communicate my intentions, success could be measured with peer-reviewed publication, book sales, downloads from the Internet, etc., but, while important, access to a poem isn't my only criterion. Becky points to a moment of communication or connection between a reader and a poem as a measure of success, and this is a great motivator to get a poem into a reader's hands. Since I started writing poetry (and likely before that), my mother has said, "I don't understand poems," and it is a great moment when I share a poem I've written with her and she says with surprise, "I get this one. I like this one." (This doesn't happen every time.) It's a Litmus Test for me--I've created something that connects with a reader suspicious of poetry and have succeeded in soliciting a positive connection.
Laurie: It's so different for each poem or essay, and I can keep an unsuccessful poem or paragraph for years and then recycle it entirely, or just an image, which I'll put into another poem. I shift from being under the illusion of the poem being finished to finding something more that needs to happen in the poem, or something less. I often write poems very quickly, anywhere between a half hour to an afternoon, and then tinker with it for days, and then leave it alone for a while, maybe get some input from other poets (my neighbors, fantastic poets themselves who have since moved away, and I used to get together and "workshop" our poems with coffee and some kind of baked yumminess. That was great. Nowadays I meet with other great poets sometimes or email a former neighbor, although I also just enjoy trusting myself when new moods or tones enter my poems.
After time's distance the necessary edits seem so much more obvious. Didn't Picasso say "art is never finished, only abandoned?" I abandon my poem babies and send them out into the world, then maybe work on them later, dress them up in different clothes, put glasses on them. Maybe a hat. As Becky noticed with her own work, I have noticed revisions that need to be made after a poem has been published. My villanelle that I mentioned earlier in our talk was one I worked on so many times, and even after Richard Howard accepted it for publication in The Paris Review, it still wasn't right. I thought it was fine, done, ready to set down, but then when it came to placing it in Veil and Burn, I noticed two things. The particular romantic relationship in the poem had ended, and my trust in that person had deteriorated, so I could question his desire or ability--or anyone's--to live with my illness as a witness to it. And then in a master workshop it was suggested that I cut the villanelle entirely. Ack! My teacher encouraged me to push the concept further, to make the villanelle not only repeat but go somewhere else at the end. I hope I was able to do that.
Anne: I, too, feel like I should just say, "ditto Becky." For me, a poem often starts out with a surfeit of feeling, feeling that I don't want to have to analyze or be mature about or think through. I want to simply get around my conscious mind, write what ever comes into my head, in big handwriting on sheets of legal pad. Of course when I go back to shape it, I work hard to revise. But the joys of poetry for me are that I feel I can be irrational, can simply lay one image or emotion or dream shard against another. I guess I write poetry as if I'm making montage. I also love the sense that I don't have to resolve the argument or emotions in a poem; the ending can be ragged. I'm implicitly contrasting these techniques with the imperatives of creative non-fiction-- longer pieces in which I feel I need a powerful, coherent structure, fully realized characters, an effective ending. In prose, I'm often trying to explore an idea. In poetry I feel a much greater freedom.
Honestly, I never feel that I'm fully satisfied or successful. I'm sure many poets feel as I do in that I keep revising and rewriting. But the best kind of success comes when readers, listeners (at a reading) or other poets tell me that like or are moved by my work.
Thanks for all the wonderful replies. I've learned and enjoyed.
Mike: I want to thank all of you for taking part in this discussion. Like Anne, I've learned a lot and I'm sure that Wordgathering readers have too. I think a lot of quotable quotes can be pulled from what you've said. In addition to the work that each of you has mentioned in the course of the dialogue, I also wanted to let readers know that three of you, Anne, Kara and Laurie will have your work represented by poetry and essays in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability that will be coming out this month. It is a good starting place for those who would like to see a bit of your work.