Not Taking for Granted: Notes on Why Poetry

Yesterday at the Philadelphia Stories LitLife poetry festival, held at Rosemont College, where I teach occasional workshops, I heard the keynote poet M. Nzadi Keita make two statements that helped me verbalize a few things that have always been on my mind, and probably on the minds of most poets—why write poetry?

First, she said (paraphrasing Lucille Clifton, Keita explained) that poets exist to not take the world for granted. I would stretch that a little to say that poets write so as to not take their life for granted. In my non-poetry life I’m also a writer. I’ve been an editor and writer for magazines and website for more than 20 years, mostly covering technology and electronics. Once at a tech conference a person who’d heard about my poetry asked why I did that since it makes so little money. I replied with something about how I didn’t want my writing legacy to be product reviews and articles on how to program a security system. That I wanted to investigate things of more importance. Of course that shut down the conversation and we went on to look at whatever new gadget the person was trying to talk me into writing about.

litlife_people

Three people who don’t take life for granted: poet M. Nzadi Keita, poet and publisher Larry Robin, poet and editor Courtney Bambrick at the Philadelphia Stories LitLife festival.

Everything is bigger than it is, everything is more important than you think it is, or can be, and poetry is the best way to investigate that. To take something for granted is to fail to fully appreciate a thing in its wholeness, to fail to look beyond its surface texture, its first layer of function. Poetry does the opposite of that. Poetry looks at the life beyond the life of a thing or a story or a moment. It finds the metaphor in the most mundane of things—think of Pablo Neruda’s odes or Gary Snyder’s meditations on nature, or basically any poet writing about anything.

Poets don’t assume a thing is just a thing—they look beyond the obvious truths for the truths that require more digging. And that comes to the second thing Keita said that I wrote down in my notebook: “the impulse to research changes everything.” I underlined that three times, because that is such a powerful truth about poetry, writing poetry, and the urge to create. Creating isn’t so much about making something new as it is finding new ways to experience the old (or the things that already exist). Keita went on to talk about the world as multiple words, and the need to acknowledge and sort through the many layers of it. This, she said, is a de-centering experience, and poets thrive on that de-centering.

Yes, the searching does change everything. Not just in poetry, but in everything in life, but especially poetry. Or perhaps, poets have found the research method which best suits them. Other artists have their own ways of course. Words, images, metaphors, especially metaphors, are ways poets research the world, find the layers, de-center, not take life for granted. Each time we search for a new way to say love, or a new way to describe a familiar scene, or a simile to expand an experience, we’re looking at another layer and appreciating its newness, its complexity.

And, to circle back—that’s a large part of why I write poetry, and why it matters to me. Poets aren’t satisfied with simple answers. They’re not satisfied with the surface or the first impression. They do the work of peeling back the layers, looking at the world from different angles, not taking for granted.

 

Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here, here or here.

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@uniambic

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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

Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here, here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

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.

Notes on Poetry Energy

archer

Harriet Case pulling back on a bow string (1907). From the Chicago History Museum. 

It’s January first, so a lot of people don’t have much energy right now, but poetry energy isn’t about getting up early after a night out, it’s about engagement and control—in your poems and over your reader. One of the elements that makes the best poems the best is their use and control of energy. I’ll try explaining what I mean and how it works below.

  1. Energy, tension and suspense can often be used interchangeably is this discussion, and I will use them that way because I’m kind of lazy. Energy is the push and pull you feel as a reader when you’re progressing through a poem. It’s the pull the poem exerts on you to keep reading, and the push it enacts on your response. Energy makes you want to finish the poem. It’s transferred from the page into the reader and changes your temperature—it’s the gasp or sigh or “oh wow” you exhale at the end.
  2. The strongest energy in poetry is emotion. All emotions are energy—some stronger than others. Some are more efficient (work better, faster, longer) than others. Most successful poems work by managing their emotional energy.
  3. The easiest way to add emotional energy to a poem is to put a person in it. Poems without any people (dogs count as people, but cats don’t) are at an energy disadvantage. Readers seek things in a poem to identify with, to connect to. Without a person as a subject in the poem the reader scrounges around for something to clutch onto. Often the person is the author/speaker—that’s fine. That doesn’t mean that an unpopulated lyric can’t be successful—its just means that it needs to find another way to rev up its energy.
  4. Great poems are often downers. That’s not because all poets are depressed. It’s because negative energy emotions are easier to do than positive energy emotions. It’s easier to trigger someone’s emotions with negative things because that connects with our senses of alarm, sympathy, fear and loathing, than with positive things—unless you’re talking about cute dog videos.
  5. So, to continue from point #4, if you want to add emotional energy, put a person in the poem. If you want to increase the emotional energy then make the person suffer—poems with people happily sitting around at dinner have more trouble raising emotional energy than poems about someone hit by a milk truck. This doesn’t make you a bad person. It just shows you’re sensitive to the suffering of others.
  6. Energy can be increased with rhetorical techniques as well. Anaphora (repetition) is a great way to increase energy because the repetition of a word or phrase triggers our need for recognition and confirmation. Questions increase energy because they trigger the reader’s need for answers. Turns (such as the volta in sonnets) are great ways to manipulate energy because by shifting direction, they add tension, surprise and maybe, resolution.
  7. Line breaks and enjambment can help manipulate the energy in a poem by affecting the pace of the image. Like the use of short lines or long lines, breaks are way to add and build tension.
  8. Like a spring or a bow and arrow, energy in a poem can be built up and released.
  9. All poems are triangles. They either start narrow (at the point) and expand as they progress, or they start wide and compress or shed excess to a fine point at the end.
  10. A simile is a micro example of the energy process. The first part of the simile (the description of the original thing, also called the tenor) is the pulling back of the bow to build energy, then the new thing it’s being compared to (the vehicle) is release. That’s why similes feel so good—they’re these little micro energy moments in a poem.
  11. I might be wrong about all this.

 

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How to Organize or Arrange A Poetry Book, GPS Style

easton to pittsburgh

A friend who’s starting to put together a poetry collection asked me recently if I had any tips for how to organize a book. I suggested the standard practice of thinking about the book as having a story or arc, and organizing it around that. And while I still think that’s pretty decent advice, it’s also pretty vague. I also told her I personally like to end on a note of hope and look for the poem that will leave the reader with that feeling, and that’s when I realized what I actually was doing with my own organization strategy—I was creating a map toward hope.

So with that in mind, here are a few things I do or think about when organizing a collection of poems. I’m not much of an authority at this. I’ve only published four books, and I’m not a press editor, but here are principles that help guide me.

Focus on the destination

Think of the book as a trip. On a trip, unless you’re just aimlessly wandering, you usually pick the destination before you start driving. You punch the addresses into your phone, view the route, and then hit the road. Every so often you get a reminder to turn left at the next intersection or exit the highway via the off ramp. None of the individual steps along the route could happen if you hadn’t picked the destination first. When organizing a book, I’ll look for the final poem first (or at least early in the process). That poem is the destination. It’s where I want the reader to arrive at the end of the journey. As I stated earlier, I usually want to end on something hopeful, to leave the reader knowing that whatever happened earlier in the book, that all is not lost. If you want the reader to end on X feeling, you need to know what steps, turns or transformations will need to occur to bring them there.

Detours matter

Most poetry books today (including mine) are broken into smaller sections. Sometimes these sections are thematically linked to tell a particular story (the first parts of both The Trouble with Rivers and Reckless Constellations focus on specific people and narratives). Think of those sections as necessary detours on your trip—but they still need to function as steps toward your goal. If you’re driving across Pennsylvania, you may make detours to visit the Anthracite Museum or Gettysburg, but how will those stops contribute to the overall experience of the trip? How will they help bring you to the end of the book? Do they support a transformation that happens in the book? Do they expand or contribute to themes you’re working toward?

Plan for rest stops

You can’t get through a long trip without stopping to pee now and then. You’ll need breaks, deviations, places to stretch your back, get some coffee. This can be true with poetry collections as well. Too much of one thing gets tiring, even if those things are very good. A friend called one of my poems a “park bench poem,” a sort of poem that allows the reader to take a breath, release the tension. Rests are part of the trip and necessary to reach the goal. Without a break now and then a book, especially one with emotionally intense poems, can be a bit overwhelming. Use rest stops sparingly, and make them useful to the whole, but use them.

Turn by turn directions

No journey (well, few at least) are straight lines. Every turn is a moment for consideration. Every turn is a choice. Your individual poems are also choices, and those choices have consequence in how the book unfolds. The order of your poems, like turns on a trip, can either get you closer to your destination or lead you away from it. You can also end up going around in circles without advancing further toward the goal. I write a lot of fishing poems, but I’ve never grouped them all together just because they’re all about fishing. That would be like getting stuck in one of those terrible New Jersey loop intersections. Instead, I’ll think of what each of the fishing poems is doing, what experience it’s leading the reader in and how it helps us get to the destination.

Going home

Sometimes, as in life and Lifetime movies, a book’s destination is the same place you started. But in order to realize that, the book has go through the motions of leaving home, process the experiences of being away, and eventually find its way back. The journey itself must still be important, otherwise you wouldn’t have written the poems. It may be a round trip, but it’s still a trip.

Of course there are other ways to organize a poetry book, or, as Hayden Carruth did in Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, don’t organize them at all. These are just ideas that help me. You can do your own thing.

 

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Poetry, Submissions, Journals and Workshops around Philadelphia

My most recent workshop group with the Rosemont Writer’s Studio asked for suggestions on where to submit, where to meet more writers and where they can find events, so I put together this list for them. I’m posting it here so anyone can find it. If I missed something, please let me know.

 

Local poetry resources (for the greater Philadelphia area)

Philadelphia Stories—a great local literary magazine and book publisher (ok, maybe I’m biased). It also hosts several literary events throughout the year, including LitLife (happening this year April 7 at Rosemont College). Website.

Apiary Magazine: a Philadelphia-based literary pub, both online and in print, host several events.

Schuylkill Valley Journal: local literary journal, print and online. The pub’s home base is in Manayunk, and they hold readings and sometimes workshops at the Manayunk-Roxborough Arts Center.

Moonstone: a Philadelphia-based arts organization that hosts readings (mostly at Fergie’s Pub), contests and other poetry things. Website.

Mad Poets Society: Chester and Montgomery county-based poetry group with loads of events including readings and workshops, even an annual bonfire—all free. The events listings on their site don’t seem to be up to date, so call or email them to confirm things are still happening.

Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio: Workshop based in Delaware county hosted by Allison Hicks. Info here.

Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program: It’s more than just an annual contest. MCPL hosts events throughout the year. Website.

Big Blue Marble: Small independent bookstore in Mt Airy Philadelphia, hosts book clubs, readings and other events. Website.

Philadelphia Writer’s Conference: Annual conference with workshops and lectures. There’s more of an emphasis on prose (non-fiction and genre fiction) but they always have a few poetry sessions as well. It’s good for networking and meeting people. Website.

Cleaver Magazine: Philadelphia based literary website that published local, national and international writers. Look especially at the craft essay section called Writer-to-Writer for essays about writing and the writing life. (disclosure–I’m the poetry craft essay editor). Website.

 

Submission resources

Entropy: publishes “Where to Submit” posts every few months, and breaks it down by book presses, contests and journals (online and off)

ReviewReview is a web site about journals and online literary sites and posts calls to submit.

NewPages is a site with contests listing, journal listings and reviews

Doutrope helps you track your submissions and find places to send work, but you have to pay an annual fee, and I find the quality of most of their listing to be poor or random and not worth the price. It’s also a lazy way to discover journals. Don’t be lazy by letting an algorithm pick your publications—do the work.

Facebook has several pages dedicated to calls for submission.

Here’s a post I wrote about how I find publications to submit to.

 

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Revising is sometimes knowing when to stop writing

trail sign2

About a month ago, maybe more, I was hiking some woods I didn’t know very well. I’d been there only once before and hadn’t gone far along the trail, so this day was for exploring further. These certainly were some gorgeous woods–huge boulders tinted with moss and lichen, mixed oak and hickory trees that left a thick cereal of leaves, twigs and nuts on the ground, and a light covering of snow that shifts normal perspectives.

So Emmett, my dog, and I tramped down into the hollow toward a creek, back up along a rocky ridge, cut into a wider path that led to a logger’s opening, then back into the protected part of the woods where the trail zigzagged and upped and downed, until after a few hours, my feet were getting pretty sore, the sun was no longer warming my back, and even Emmett looked ready to curl up in the back seat of the car. But we were probably 40 minutes from the pulloff where it was parked.

By now the much of the fascination with these new woods had faded, and was instead replaced with thoughts of my aching insoles and frequent glances at the trail map to decipher the shortest route out of there. Emmett had stopped peeing on every rock, so I knew he was thinking the same thing.

That feeling of having gone too far is also familiar to me in my writing, and usually it’s a moment that comes up during the initial draft of a poem, or shortly after when I’m building on an initial jumble of words. That first impulse to write a poem can often be sort of directionless. But that’s also what makes it exciting. One of the biggest thrills I get from writing is the discovery that happens on the way through a first draft, and that’s very similar to the feeling I get when I first set off on a hike along a trail or a kayak trip down a creek. The difference is that with a hike, once your realize you’ve gone too far, you generally know where you need to return to (and hopefully you know how to get there.). With poem, it’s harder to know just when things took a wrong turn.

This came to me this morning, when I was reading Raymond Carver’s poem, conveniently tilted This Morning. In the poem he’s going for a walk and eventually reaches a point where he starts to take in the world and reflect… ie, gets poetic about it. It’s a good moment, and he carries it off for a few lines until the perfect moment of insight ends with the line “I know I did.” I would love if the poem just ended there with that sudden self awareness. 

Unfortunately, as good a poet as Carver was, he was also known to not be great at self editing (thank you Gordon Lish). The poems goes on for four more lines, which really just drags out and diminishes the wonderful moment that happened with “I know I did.”

So how do you know? Ah, well, that’s the hard part. Sometimes it’s just recognizing that you’ve made your point, hit your mark and now you’re just saying it again with different words or new images.

Writing beyond the ending is something I see pretty frequently in poems, usually by younger poets who can’t resist the impulse to just keep walking on down that trail. It’s also something I’m prone to myself, a lot. After I’ve put my first efforts on the page I go back and carefully feel out whether the poem went too far. Usually this requires some time or distance. I need to put it down for a few days, or read someone else in between, so I’m not hung up on my own endorphin rush from writing. Walking is different. You know when you’ve gone too far, but sometimes by the time you know there are already blisters on your feet and you just have to suffer through them until you get home.

 

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Reckless Constellations is available here.

Is Truth in Poetry Important?

poet_sake (2)

A very good bottle of sake I recently enjoyed with some friends. It has nothing to do with this post.

About a week ago the website Change Seven published an interview with me, conducted by writer Curtis Smith. The interview mostly focused on my book of poems, The Magician’s Handbook, that was released by PS Book in October. One question, however, asked about my writing process, and one part of my answer concerns a topic that’s important to me, so I’m going to elaborate here.

I stated in the interview that I often make up or exaggerate situations or events in my poems. I don’t think that’s a revolutionary concept, but sometimes it still leads to raised questions and sometimes raised eyebrows.

Truth, in poetry, is a complicated issue. I cringe when I hear poets talk about how they’re writing the truth or getting at the truth or whatever truthiness idea they go on about. Maybe that’s because I equate truth with facts, and in world where anything a person doesn’t agree with is branded as fake news, truth can be difficult.

Rather than aiming for truth in my poems, I aim for real or authentic (again, a vague and unhelpful word, sorry). Do the situations in the poem feel real, does it move or affect the way real feels move or affect. There’s a sort of truth, I suppose, in all my poems, and many of them do include autobiographical references, but rarely are they completely loyal to the events or people referenced. Because a poem is written in the first person doesn’t mean that it’s naturally about my experience or that the experience happened the way it’s depicted in the poem. It’s always bothered me that a short story is assumed to be fiction (in part because that’s how we’ve come to compartmentalize the genres) while poems are not. The fact that “creative non-fiction” is its own genre kind of baffles me.

Rather than sticking to the facts, my loyalty in writing is to the language—the way it sounds, the response it makes in my gut, the pictures it draws in the head and the places it steers me.

I raise this point because I think it’s important that poets feel free to create, not report. I’ve had students resist following the language out of fear of not properly reporting the facts.

I’ve had people ask me, usually after readings, about specific things in poems, and sometimes they’re disappointed if I tell them part of it was made up. I’ve burned down buildings, broken up with girlfriends, lived in towns, and killed off family members, all that didn’t exist. Every time I publish a book I’ve had to explain to my parents (who are still alive, despite what one of my poems says) not to take it too seriously.

Of course I’m guilty of the fallacy of autobiography too. In being moved by every Philip Levine poem about a factory, I have to remind myself that he didn’t, in fact, work for 40 years in every auto plant in Detroit, however it might seem that way.

Anyway, this is at the top of my mind now because my next book (which is due out this month) includes a section drawn on a group of people who are incredibly close to my heart, yet, out of necessity, are semi-fictional. It’s a series of poems set in the 1980s and describes my sort-of reckless teenage years. Names are changed, events are changed, though there’s a realness to it all that’s important. The three or four recurring characters in those poems are mash ups of about ten different people, as are the stories they act in. It’s easier for me to write that way, and allows me to be loyal to the language, which is what’s really more important for the poetry.

 

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