The Poem is the Question

thinker_skeleton

Could you please repeat the question?

I’ve got a lot of weird theories about poems, and mostly they’re just ways to help me think about poetry or help me work through poetry problems (such as my theory that all poems are triangles). One of these theories is that a question is an essential element in every poem. That doesn’t mean that every poem needs a sentence that ends in a question mark, or that the question or answer is even clear–it’s just there, doing it’s thing in the same way we don’t really notice our circulatory system unless something’s gone wrong.

As many teaches have repeated in many classrooms, there are no wrong questions, just wrong answers. (Maybe it was there are no wrong sandwiches, just wrong condiments.) When we’re talking about poetry, or about the making of it in particular, again there are no wrong questions, but there may also be no wrong answers. The question, however, is crucial the poem’s very existence. It’s the heart of each poem.

Here’s how it works. After I’ve gotten the bones of a poem down, maybe established the situation or narrative, the shape and the rhythm, but I’m failing to find a way to bring it all together, I go back to the idea of the question. I’ll scrounge around in the poem to try to find what it’s asking. If I figure out the question or the motivation in the poem, then I’m better equipped to solve its problems. My attempt to answer the question can sometimes help me through the poem’s speed bumps or can help me navigate safely through the poem’s turn. Sometimes it helps to actually put a question in the poem–either as a crutch that you’ll eventually remove–or as a permanent part of the poem. A question is a pretty interesting part of speech in that it’s one of the few that almost always demands a response from the reader. If you ask the reader a question, they feel compelled to answer–or look for the answer.

If you’re the type of writer who likes prompts, question can be great for jump-starting a poem. You can questions anywhere, about anything, and use them as starting points. I’ve recently been reading Ace Boggess wonderful book  I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So, which is an entire collection of question poems. Some are questions he’s been asked by other people. Some he heard in songs, overheard in public or found in other ways.

Thinking in terms of questions can also help with organizing a manuscript of poems. When putting together a collection I’ve asked myself what question the poems, as a whole, are attempting to answer. They could be big questions: what’s the meaning of my existence? how do I live this way? why are dogs better than cats?  Or they could be more specific or personal questions: how do I deal with this loss? how do I reconcile my past mistakes? why is my dog better than your dog? The poems in the collection may then be organized so that they raise the issue, present the evidence and then seek to answer. Of course, since we’re talking about poetry, the way they answer the question may not exactly seem like an answer, and may raise more questions… but that allows you to write more poems. (I have more thoughts on organizing a book here.)

Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind this afternoon. Feel free to post any questions below.

 

Here are some great question poems I like:

Three by Ace Boggess

Some Questions You Might Ask by Mary Oliver 

How You Know by Joe Mills

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Contact me through Twitter @uniambic if you want to buy signed copies directly from me. I have a few copies of Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers too.

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Writing Process Blog Tour

I need to thank Christine Brandel for inviting me to this writing process blog tour. Please check out her excellent site CLBwrites and see what she’s up to.

Now, onto the questions

What are you working on?

I recently finished up a new poetry manuscript and am starting to send that out to book contests and trying not to think about all the $25 reading fees. A few weeks ago I started a sort-of series of poems that’s sort of a metaphysical bestiary. I also hope to spend time on a long-term project with fishing illustrator Jason Borger. When it’s done, Lucia Press will produce a fine art book of Borger’s prints and my poems. His beautiful fish pictures are done, but I’m not even halfway through writing the poems to compliment the images. I’ve also been collecting and studying odes, classic and new, for a 2-day class I’m teaching in November at Musehouse (you can still sign up here). Some of my own odes will be appearing soon in Gargoyle and Superstition Review.

Also, I’m pretty excited about a trip coming up soon to the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. I’ll be on a poetry panel or two, do some readings and browse around meeting writers from all over the world.

How does your work differ from others in the genre?

On the genre level, it probably doesn’t differ a whole lot. I write poems that look like poems and can’t really get confused with clay pots or oriental rugs. However, I hope my poems distinguish themselves in voice and attitude. A reviewer not too long ago called my poetry “old fashioned and audacious,” and I like that.

Why do you write what you do?

I was initially attracted to poetry in 6th or 7th grade when I memorized The Raven. I like the rhythms, images and mystery of it. Those are characteristics I’m still drawn to, and features that I think poetry does best. Also, I have a very short attention span and can’t write long-form creatively.

How does your writing process work?

Usually I start with an image, word or phrase I like. Sometimes that phrase is in the form of a title. I keep a file of lines and titles that occur to me, and a couple of times a week I’ll go to that file and pick out something to work with. Then I just let each line tell me what to put in the next one, so hopefully the poem has a natural, self-generative feel to it. I also tinker with my new poems a lot in the first few days, and if it doesn’t keep my attention longer than that, I’ll probably forget about it. I never save separate drafts; I just save over the prior one, not really caring if I lose something in the process.

For the past year and a half I’ve been doing a lot of what you might call project poetry—poems who’s themes or situations were all planned out in advance. That’s not something I’d ever done before, but I like the results so far. We’ll see if the book gets published.

While I don’t like to use prompts (I assign them in workshops though), I do get a lot of ideas from reading other poems. I especially like response poems in which I write a response to some other poem. I also just plain steal small ideas (and credit the original of course). In fact, once I wrote a poem about finding some other poet’s line in my poem. I’m sure it was an accident.

Check out Christine Brandel’s Writing Process post, click here.

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A Bill Knott Poetry Exercise

In an interview on the site Memorious Bill Knott (who passed away this week) describes a poetry exercise he’d given to students. I don’t know for for a fact if he actually did this, or what the results were, but I find the exercise fascinating. If you reading this were ever a student of Knott’s and did this exercise, please comment on what it was like and how effective it was. I offer it here:

“I often recommend to my students that they take their two favorite poets and try to combine them as an exercise. To do a quantitative line-by-line analysis of a template poem by poet X, and the same with poet Y. (All successful poets have a template poem.) How many verbs per line? Adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, concrete nouns, abstract nouns, etc. Count them up. Take the number-totals from the two models and add them together, and then divide those in half. And then use that final amount to write your own poem. Split the difference. Combine the quantitative habits of your two faves to create your own constant. (What the successful poet knows that you don’t, I tell the students, is how to quantitatively distribute the elements of language (verbs, nouns, etc.) down the page in an effective and commensurate ratio.)”

I wonder how many poets are as conscious of their “template?” Do we even recognize our own styles? Sometimes I think so, and sometimes not. One of my favorite poets, Richard Hugo, clearly had a template and in fact wrote a whole book about it. A practice a friend and I used to do on our own in graduate school was to take poems we admired and rewrite them but using different words–replace each noun with a new noun, each verb with a new verb, etc. (a poplar tree might be replaced with a blueberry bush, for instance). We’d mimic the line and stanza forms, maybe even the metaphor styles. The idea was to study by imitation the craft of another poet. Afterword, if we liked the new poems we created, we’d feel free to write them further away from the original to ensure it was our own. I haven’t done that in a long time, but it was a useful exercise in understanding how a particular poem worked, seeing the inside workings, the machinery of the thing, rather than just the emotional jolt you get from the experience of reading a poem.

By the way, I have recognized a sort-of template in some of my poems (the nature/woodsy poems seem to follow a bit of a construction pattern). I even wrote the template out as a prompt and offered it to a class. It was surprisingly successful for the group.

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