More on Formatting in Poetry

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Concrete poetry is the practice of making a poem look, on the page, like its topic. In the days of the typewriter, this took a lot of time, but when published, it has great appeal. On the interwebs, where everything has to be left justified, concrete poetry is pretty much just a silhouette. But there are ways to get around that, if all you are going for is the idea of the topic rather than an actual illustration. Here is one from a group of poems I am trying to put together about the dailiness of my life.

7:40 a.m.

BASE   BASE

color    color

liner    liner

lashes lashes

 

 

BOTH

LIPS

 

coffee coffee coffee

coffee

 

coffee

Pinterest Poem

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I am not sure whether this is a cento or a found poem. I saw something crazy about lasagna on Pinterest and decided that my writer’s block merited strong measures and immediately stole it. Astute readers will also recognize lines from Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, and Patrick McDonnell’s cartoon Mutts.

 

Writers are desperate people, just the way we want

Them to grace the cover of Life Magazine: somewhere

Between torture and fun and blasting it out

With charges that will rock your readers’ world.

Ten rules fit women use to stay fit. One: Exercise

Hypergraphia, an overwhelming urge to write,

To truly rest up, to stop in at my favorite place

For drinks and comfort food that leaves me

Impressed without fail, in gender reversals

We need in our stories, a great example of why

This is absolutely true, in a slightly more mystical light.

 

I think it’s fairly common for writers to be afflicted

With two simultaneous yet contradictory delusions:

I can always live by my pen, until not writing

Makes you anxious. It’s the one and only thing

You have to offer. Well, that and nineteen lasagna recipes

That will change your life: so flavorful, everyone’s bound

To have seconds. Now, I’ll be unstoppable. Yahoo!

Yippee! Woo! Woo! To keep a love story from being

Boring, you need, when asked about romantic chemistry

On the show, to write about the things you wish

You had the courage to say. Only death can stop it.

The Problems of the Epic Fantasy Fan Poet: Reportage, Character and Style

 

As I mentioned on Saturday, the big motivating questions behind so much fan fiction are when did the two characters finally get together and how. But for me as a poet, the question is more about who gets to “report” on these matters, and how do I do it with style, finesse, dignity and just a tiny bit of steam?

First, I set it after Gabrielle’s (brief) marriage to Perdicus. That gets the whole virginity thing out of the way, and it also gives me another chance to see Xena’s Hopeless Yearning (which is something that, as a writer, I have a whole lot more experience with anyway).

Alone on Her Wedding Night, I Think of the Past

 

Once upon a time, an innocent village girl

Left behind her village, parents, sister, even

Her betrothed, to seek adventure on the open

Road. Always ready to talk her way onto a farmer’s

Cart or out of a fight. Talking, stalling for time:

She has a real knack for using words. It’s as if

The words come to her, begging to be said

By her lips, molded to her uses by her tanned

Hands. If I could be a word, I’d come to her

To be said, over and over, like a litany

To Artemis the Huntress or Athena the Wise.

 

Why are all the best goddesses virgins? What is it

That men do to take a woman from her truest self?

Before I stood with her, I braided the garland

Of white flowers for her to wear. She should have

Had a laurel wreath, a crown to tell the world

Of her mastery of words, and the mystery of it:

How she reaches out her hand to touch

The stars, caress the waxing moon, and when

Dawn breaks, a scroll lies next to my pillow.

Perhaps she will write for him now. I promise you,

He won’t know enough to appreciate it any more

 

Than I did. If I had a heart to break, I would cut it

Out of my chest, leave it to beat its last on some

Flat rock, garlanded with a discarded wreath

Of small white flowers, fading as night falls hard.

It doesn’t take a blinded Cyclops to see where this

Night is headed. There is a storm on the horizon,

Purple clouds rolling in with the flash of lightning

Piercing the repeated booms of thunder. And I,

I stand in the pelting rain, oblivious, cold,

Alone again. Once upon a time, foolishly,

I had thought it would be me.

 

I have some poems where I show Xena letting Callisto die in the sandpit, and then I made a bunch of poems set during the Athenian games, which shows all the characters (including Joxer, Salomoneus and Autolycus) dealing with Gabrielle’s grief and mourning. Xena gets (briefly) killed and comes back with her friends’ help and then the ladies get back on the road.

I chose to have Xena be the one to tell what happened, but in an indirect format. Since Gabrielle is usually the bard/poet, I though I would have Xena try a shy love poem. Because beginning poets almost inevitably lean on rhyme, I knew I had to use some rhyming elements, but because I wanted the poem to be dignified and not sing-songy or trite, I used a stanza form with endings ABCDEFGH, so the first line of every stanza would rhyme, etc. Also, in the first two stanzas I used end-stopped lines, which means that the line either ends with a comma or period, or it ends at a fairly sensible place in the sentence. I only start using enjammed lines in stanza three, where a sentence ends in the middle of a line and a new sentence begins right after. So, similar to the events the poem recalls, she starts out shy and awkward and gradually gains confidence and speed.

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Shyly, X. Tries Her Hand at Poetry the Morning After

 

Four hundred nights I must have watched you sleep,

The dying fire catching the gold in your hair.

Your sweet breath rose and fell and rose again

With the rhythm of your dreams I was not in.

I did not see you clearly, not at first.

Experience makes innocence seem weak.

Not until you fought beside me did I see

That you had steel in you and your own light.

 

You were a secret I felt I had to keep.

I could not ever let you catch me stare

When you, eager, scratched the parchment with your pen

Or dutifully cut our dinner, gill from fin.

But it was the long spring nights that were the worst,

As I lay by the fire, cold and bleak,

Knowing my desire could never be

More than a whispered dream of warm delight.

 

I could not know how time would make you weep.

The violence of my life you chose to share

Would take your light and heart and try to rend

Them apart, a battle you could not win.

Your pain, my fault; because of my past, cursed.

What changed it all was tragedy. We are Greeks.

We never take life easy. You and he

Married, deflowered, widowed: one day, one night.

 

The poets say that what we sow, we reap.

I had to make it right. I could not bear

To see you in such pain, my more than friend.

My vengeance had little glory, was messy, thin,

A deed I had to do, although perverse.

And after, it was hard for us to speak

Of any of it. The silence between you and me

Crashed through the trees behind us like a kite.

 

It took a few more months for you to steep

In your grief, to face the morning air

Without mourning his reaching of life’s end,

His power over you and its long romance.

You threw large stones into the watercourse.

You say you did not dream. Tears on your cheek

Kept my hand from touching your knee

To “comfort,” a self-deception I had to fight.

 

Then, one evening I heard you moaning in your sleep,

Crying out my name, demanding more!

You were tearing at your clothes and then

Reaching for me. I felt my whole world spin.

I touched your face. I thought my heart would burst

As your eyes flew open, blushing that I could see

All of you now seeing all of me

Finally! At last! And then, all night…

Elevating Experience avec Tous Les Mots Justes

I just had half a discussion about why we read poetry and I am thinking at the same time about why I write poetry. I think during the Teenage Angst Years, I wrote for the same reasons a lot of kids write: to Express My Inner Turmoil. This is not a bad reason for writing, and if you can also make money off it (which some novelists and pop singers do manage to do), that’s even better.

Sometimes I write to experiment with sound, as I did when I wrote a dozen poems about Jack of the Beanstalk with tons of internal rhyme to get a bit more of a constant rhythm going, or when I wrote twice that many about flamenco, using staccato short lines to try to convey the percussion’s feeling.

Sometimes I write to tell stories, as I do when I unpack what I think is going on in a Japanese woodblock. Sometimes I write to take a story that already is out there—Jack of the B, Xena Warrior Princess, the Wright brothers—and go deeper into it, looking at it from a few sides.

But sometimes it seems just a matter of elevating experience, giving dignity to our joys and sorrows as Marge Piercy might say, through finding all the exactly right words to make Truth happen.

More Refrigerator Poetry

See incredible sweat blowing from my winter

chimney to shine and sleep and illuminate

incohate zeal in the delirious frantic ocean.

Watch me make a picture with language,

ephemeral in the hold of angels.

My need is wild, brazen, cunning,

and yet the urge for blood moans through.

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I just put this together on my refrigerator. And now I have the voice of the little boy from The Sound of Music in my head saying, “But it doesn’t mean anything!”

Refrigerator Poetry, Stealth and Otherwise

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One of the great inventions of the 20th century is Refrigerator Poetry, little boxes of magnetized words with which anyone with a rudimentary understanding of grammar can make unfathomable stabs at Poetic Meaning or at least Colorful Descriptions of Nothing Much. For those of us with decades of practice and training, we can make (with enough words, including articles, prepositions and S’s) Art Sublime, or At Least Almost.

It is one thing to do this on one’s own refrigerator. In that case, you are the person responsible for all the lost articles and S’s, so if you can’t make it work, you have no one to blame but yourself (and possibly your roommates).

Much more fun is Stealth Refrigerator Poetry, which is when you go to a party and, when your Host is off Hosting, you steal into the kitchen and rearrange their words to be something sublime, humorous, useful, or at last resort, unfathomable. When it is someone else who is to blame for too much penury and not enough the, you can claim to be Tragically Limited by your Medium, with which You Did Your Best. It can help, if you know in advance that the party will have magnetized words, to wear a beret to the party. This is called Priming your Audience.

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The Hokey-Pokey of Writing

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So back in May I talked about the bit in a piece of writing, usually a long piece of nonfiction, which you always end up cutting. It served you as a writer to get from idea A to idea M, but it no longer serves your readers, so it must go. The problem is that it’s not always obvious which bit or how much of it is the bit you need to cut and which bits you need to keep. Sometimes you cut a section, then put it back in, then take it out again, or possibly take another bit out and then put it back in again. After a while you throw your hands up in despair and run away weeping, which is actually a really good idea.

But let’s face it folks, that really is what it’s all about. And if you don’t believe me, check out this video of bagpipers proving it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6vDtKlyET4

Often what you need after finishing a draft, particularly a frustrating draft, is distance. Walk away. Do something else. Eat something. Do your laundry. Read a book. Play with the cat. While you are gone, with luck, the writing will set like Jello, and your choices will be clearer.

How Point of View Changes Content

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A long time ago, while I was living in Japan after college, two of my best friends from school got married. In my absence, they invited my parents to serve as Pinch Guests. I got three letters describing the wedding and they could have all gone to three different weddings for all I could tell. My mother described what everyone wore (and what is tulle, anyway?). James, the best man and a musician, described the bachelor party and the music for the wedding and reception. The bride wrote about how Wonderful everything had been it was just so Wonderful it was Wonderful! I suspect she could not remember a thing that had happened. This is an example of the Rashomon Effect, which as Wikipedia tells us is “contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people…. It is named for Akira Kurosawa‘s film Rashomon, in which a crime involving four individuals is described in four mutually contradictory ways.”

We have seen this used in lots of films and TV shows, from Hero and Gone Girl to the X Files and Garfield and Friends, and often the use is to shift blame or take credit, but I think it is fun to show how two different characters see an event and choose what they focus their attention on. You walk into someone’s living room and you might notice the interior decoration, but I am going to notice the absence or presence of books and what genres the owner reads. So in theory, if I have written a scene from the point of view of an American interior decorator and I change the pov to that of a Japanese businessman, the whole scene should change.

“Rashomon Effect.” Wikipedia. 24 March 2015. Web. 19 April 2015.

How Line Lengths and Breaks Might Convey Voice

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So the other day, I went back to a poem I had started about Callisto, Xena’s arch-nemesis. This one is about episode 2.7 Intimate Stranger, where Xena and Callisto get their bodies switched by one of the gods, primarily because Lucy Lawless had broken her pelvic bones in a fall from a horse she was practicing stunts on for the Tonight Show. It was a great choice, not only because it is always fun to see characters we know switch (Enver Gjokaj is a genius at this; check out the Joss Whedon series Dollhouse), but because it pointed out how similar these two women are. With the right (or wrong, really) set of circumstances, they actually could have been each other: Callisto the warlord who set a village afire that would turn the orphan Xena into a psychopath. We like them better as they are, because let’s face it, Callisto is the BDVE (Best Damn Villain Ever), with her creepy line delivery and spidery physicality.

So anyway, I wrote version 1.0 below and did not think much about it. But then I was looking at the previous poem I wrote about Callisto, with the first two lines:

“As children we come to experiences bone to bone,

with no kind skin to muffle the uproar. Imagine:”

I realized that the new poem was at least a full inch thinner, 2 1/2 inches, than the old one, which has line lengths of 3 1/2 inches. Well, the thing is, at 5’ 8” and 120 pounds, one of the first things you notice about Hudson Leick is how thin she is, an impression fostered by her costume being even more revealing than Xena’s, especially at her midsection.

Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself: X. Reflects on C., v.1.0

In the night season, I dream memories

Misremembered, death in the form of

My perfect nemesis, a woman born

In the fire that killed her family. She is

Me. And I did create her as she claims,

Though it was not my hand that lit

The spark that tore her world away.

She revels in her pain. I did that

Once, as she does, and spread it

Far and wide: if I suffer, so too must

Everyone. I will wring out the world

Like a map weeping blood. I am

Her now, our minds and bodies

Switched by the gods in their infinite

Unfairness. My enemy is me. I look

In the river and the body that I know

Does not look back. She promised

Once to take away everything

I loved, my friends, family, horse,

Reputation, everything it took me

So many years to win back.

Now in her body I must race

Against time, again, to stop her.

Both of us suffer from my monumental

Guilt. Like a crashing wave, once

It starts, there is no stopping it.

So then I thought about a poem I wrote many years ago titled Cancer Barbie, using the image of a Barbie whose hair as been loved off, a là The Velveteen Rabbit, to talk about cancer as I have seen friends experience it. Given that the image is Barbie, the shape of the poem really matters, so I tried to make a poem about Barbie look like Barbie, to wit:

Cancer Barbie

for Jackie, Anita, Judy

Some

little girl

has loved

this doll

completely, loved her

long blonde hair

right off

just the

way these

chemicals

coursing

through

your body

love you down

to the very follicle

love you right

all

the

way

down

to

your

roots.

 …

At first, I thought I could do a similar thing by centering what I have here as version 2.0, but it ended up looking like, depending on how generous you want to be, a stubby gingerbread man or something my cat coughed up. So forget the centering. What the erratic breaks and short line lengths do is to make the voice of the speaker, in this case Xena inside Callisto’s body, sound more erratic. I can’t decide if the body you are in should decide your voice or if it is only the mind. In that case, I should go with Version 1.0 for this, but if I find a way to write a poem using Callisto’s voice, regardless of which body she is in, I will totally use this style. So let me know: which do you prefer, version 1.0 or 2.0 and why?

Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself: X. Reflects on C., v.2.0

In the night season, I dream

memories misremembered,

death in the form of

my perfect nemesis, a woman

born in the fire

that killed her family. She is

me. And I did create her

as she claims, though it was not

my hand that lit the spark

that tore her world away.

She revels in her pain. I did that

once, as she does,

and spread it far

and wide: if I suffer, so too

must everyone.

I will wring out the world

like a map weeping blood.

I am her now, our minds

and bodies switched by the gods

in their infinite

unfairness. My enemy is me.

I look in the river and the body

that I know does not look back.

She promised once to take away

everything I loved,

my friends, family, horse,

reputation, everything it took me

so many years to win back.

Now in her body I must race

against time, again,

to stop her. Both of us suffer

from my monumental

guilt. Like a crashing wave,

once it starts, there

is no stopping it.

 …

Spilecki, Susan.   “Cancer Barbie,” Midwest Poetry Review. Summer 2002.