Monday, June 27, 2016

Is Order Important?

It seems to me poets are continually faced with the problem of order. Once the poems are done we keep having to cluster and recluster when we submit them. Should we send a range of work in those 3 to 5 poems? Should we send related poems, poems from a series, poems with the same voice, poems in the same format? Which poem should be placed on top?

If we're giving a reading we have to decide which poems to read and in what order. And there are further complications here. Some poems read aloud better than others. Some are surefire crowd pleasers--accessible enough, complicated enough, deep but with some self-deprecating humor.

When we're putting a book together, we have to consider the reader in a different way. We have to think about how people read. If it's a novel, mostly I'd say they begin at the beginning and continue through to the end, unless it's a bad mystery, and we skip all the middle and just read who-done-it. I know when I read The New Yorker, I almost always start in the back--those briefer pieces easing me into its intellectual waters. When reading the newspaper, people will habitually attack it in a certain way--comics first, horoscopes, sports, editorials. What about a volume of poems?

Some poets say they don't really think about the order of their poems as they're fitted into a book. They claim readers just dip into a book of poetry--gulp, gulp--so worrying about order is unnecessary. What would be important for those who approach the book as the insect does a flower--hover, land, buzz around some more, hover, land--is that the poem they land on is a good poem--something that will attract, maybe even entrance the gadabout reader, so they'll make another pass at the pages.

But I think the unconcerned poet is missing an opportunity. I doubt they'd be satisfied with a hodgepodge of work stuck together like a ball of used masking tape. Perhaps their manipulation of poems occurs in a more wordless, subconscious state--a kind of literary feng-shui. If a book of poems is looked at as a deliberate sequence, however, meant to be read in a particular order, then the effect on the reader can be cumulative.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Troublesome Poems (I've Had a Few)

Recently, I headed up a workshop about troublesome poems. It was called Vital Signs: First Aid for Poems. In gathering useful thoughts for the class, I wondered if all the categories of troublesome poems, all the queries/flaws/doubts could break down to:

The poem that is there but in disguise--uncover:
  • And here I do not necessarily mean to uncomplicate the poem because layers and braiding and teeter-tottering between different materials can be effective. One does not always speak directly in a poem.
  • Is there a lot of language clutter in the poem? Could the poem benefit from lopping off the beginning or the end which is where we tend to get explain-y? Could the poem be improved by deducting 10 percent of the words/20 percent of the words?
  • Have you read the poem out loud? Have you put your finger down on the place where it “sounds funny” which can be a rhythm problem or maybe a grammatical problem or a problem of clarity or the discovery that what you wrote does not really mean what you want to say?
  • What about using line breaks or white space to put more room in the poem, pauses where meaning can accrue? 
The poem that is not yet there--call forth: 
Discovering/calling forth is harder. (No reference to a muse intended or welcome here.)
  • First, I would say get rid of the idea that the poem can mean anything, that the images and language are just serviceable placeholders that the reader hangs his own experience on. If that was so, why bother? Therefore:
  • Readdress the images you use. If there are no images, this is worrisome. Be more specific which is the same as being in control of your poem. Create the landscape of the poem, so that the kitchen chair is the kitchen chair you remember, not the placeholder for the reader’s experience.
  • Make language choices that are unexpected, that keep the reader awake while reading. This has to do with their sound and their aptness and their specificity all at once.
  • Is the poem you’ve written from the wrong perspective? Or from a too usual perspective? Does it needs a new focus? Sometimes I recommend writing what I call companion poems--poems with a different speaker or addressed to the acorn under the speaker’s foot or in the voice of a series of waves on a winter day. How can I approach in a different way--sideways/upside-down/more thoroughly? Which is to say tell it slant.
  • Sometimes maybe you’re boring yourself? By which I mean you are writing in the way you have always written and maybe you want/need something else.