Thursday, February 21, 2013

Should There Be a Cannibal in Your Poem?

I went to a reading with my class last night. We heard Alissa Nutting read her short story about a girl who trips out on her dying grandmother's prescriptions while pursuing a relationship with a cannibal she met on the subway. (She's a vegetarian.) It was quite fabulous in its accumulations of bizarrities and weirdnesses, and as they mounted I began to wonder how will she end it, how can it have a good end, but it did.

In a weird preview, we had just looked at Kay Ryan's poem "The Pass" which features members of the Donner Party. It is a much more wry view of their dilemma never actually mentioning human meat. (Although to be fair in Nutting's story we never do see inside of the freezers.)

There was so much pleasure in these two experiences, I begin to think my students should all put a cannibal in their poems. But what does that really mean?

I have already written my cannibal poem--no Donner Party, but a series of historical references beginning with lifeboat survivors put on trial for consuming one of their number, blood and liver first. What did this do for my poem? Enter extremity? Enter distance from the self (sometimes a difficult thing)? Enter the need for a convincing narrative of strange parts?

But maybe the cannibal in the poem doesn't have to be a real cannibal. Maybe it means what makes me sit up and take notice. Maybe it's the same thing as the "so what" question--I have read your poem/so what? Maybe it's the same thing that Ryan means when she says that she wants her poems to have "teeth." She explains that as a sense of wildness in the words, a sense that anything could happen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fortress of the Self

In a Stephen King movie--the one with the dream catcher?-- there are several scenes that imagine the character's brain or consciousness as a library of shelves and file cabinets and stairs.

And so many things are stored upstairs, every head like a hoarder's paradise with data stacked like twine-tied newsprint. This enormous data of everything experienced, read, thought, studied, forgotten is behind every poem a person writes, infusing it with considerable unspoken meaning.

As new writers, we sometimes find it difficult to clue the other in. Isn't it obvious? Why can't the other get it? We've just lobbed a poem from the fortress of the self, sent a flame-tipped arrow from the turret, spilled the boiling oil of our life on the below, written on the great stone walls in blood.

But that's not the same thing as being inside privy to the plant life, home movies, and notes from third grade.

Maybe a fortress is too medieval although it does have the sense of the protected, beleaguered self--battlements, torture chamber, great hall, portcullis. And aren't we our own city-state?

How to compose a poem that doesn't just reflect the reader like the glassy surface of the moat. How to compose a poem with tonal music, with images like cunning levers, with words that turn the handle of meaning to at least crack open the door?