I’ve been spending my whole day at the Academy of American Poets’ Chancellors Talks; three Saturdays in a row of poetry events! Panels included Gary Snyder(!), Mark Doty(!), Jane Hirshfield(!), Naomi Shihab Nye(!), and others including Sharon Olds and Carl Phillips; Marie Ponsot was supposed to be there (she was the other poet I really wanted to see), but I think that because of health reasons, she was not in attendance. (She’s 91, so we’ll cut her a break.) Anyway, it was really great to hear so many disparate voices give their opinions on so many different aspects of poetry, some of which I wanted to try to distill into a prompt. We’re due for a world-poetry-prompt, but I hope you’ll forgive me if that is pushed until next week… must exorcise some of these thoughts while they’re still fresh!
This week: “the shoulders of giants”
This is very much a catch-all prompt, without any unifying theme except that the Chancellors were talking about these things. So, what I recommend is that you write from one to four poems, folding from one to four of these suggestions. You could do one poem with all four, four poems with just one, two poems with two each, or whatever. Think of them as a little chocolate box that you can eat at your leisure.
One of the panels was on writing rituals. Naomi Shihab Nye made the suggestion that when you find your niche in terms of a place, time, mode of dress, whatever, you do it. But Juan Felipe Herrera (who was fantastic) spoke of writing workshops he conducted, and little rituals he had, which were totally outside the expected norm. (This included everything from writing on paper bags with leaky pens, to leaving one-word poems out in a field to see what would happen to them.) Sometimes the comfort zone is a good thing to have for when a poem arrives unbidden: we have to trap it with notes and scraps until we can get to our particular space for crafting. But for this exercise, I want you to try moving outside the comfort zone. Think of the time of day you’ve written your last several poems (or hell, the time of day you always write them), the place you wrote them, what you were wearing, and what kind of implements you were using. Then invert them. If you wrote on a Saturday morning in your pajamas at the kitchen table on the laptop, try lying in a field on a Sunday afternoon in your Sunday best (watch out for grass stains!) with charcoal. Surprise yourself, and see how it affects what themes, tones, and ideas arrive in you.
Related to this, there was a panel talking about the poet as hermit and/or social being. Gary Snyder is perhaps the quintessential poet-hermit; he talked about getting a telephone for the first time at this farm 12 or 13 years ago. Mark Doty, on the other hand, spoke about going to a cafe in the West Village where everyone is doing their own work, not interacting, but constantly surrounded by each other’s noise and presence. (Sidebar: this is exactly what I do, so I’m going to have to re-double my Mark Doty celebrity-watch efforts. If only he’d named the cafe!) So, how do you normally involve, or not involve, other people in your writing process? Do you keep everything to yourself; do you consult a friend or loved one; do you do workshops and open-mics? Let me offer you two options: first, you could (as with the inversion process above) do the opposite of what you normally would. If you’re a very private writer, try a workshop or open mic, if you can find one; at the very least, try to share your work with someone or do collaboration. (It can be a bit frightening, I know.) If you’re a very sociable one, try to remove yourself from all human interaction. The other option is, keep doing what you normally do, but draw it into the open. Make the other people an element in the process (snippets of conversation can be wonderful in a piece), or characters/scenery in the text. Alternatively, if you’re the introspective type who reacts to a non-humanized world to display your thoughts, try to keep those thoughts to a minimum. Let your surroundings do the talking for you.
Now for content. The first panel of the day was on the origins of the “New York School” and the Beats. (So having Snyder there, along with Ron Padgett and Ann Waldman, was pretty cool.) My favorite comment during the panel was Gary Snyder talking about his left-wing upbringing, with a grandfather who told him at age 7, “Boy! Read Marx!” This is the one content motif I want to incorporate into this: think about literature that touched you in your youth, perhaps which got you started on poetry to begin with. (There was another panel where Sharon Olds and Marilyn Hacker reminisced at length about Adrienne Rich and her impact, both on them and on other poets.) It could be an individual book, one author, or one genre of work. But then, you need to decide how that work will appear in your piece. Will it be symbolic of something greater, or a MacGuffin that just gives verisimilitude to the larger point/setting of your poem? Maybe what matters isn’t the literature at all, but the person who passed it along; or maybe you have something you want to pass along. In light of all these poetry things I’ve been attending, I keep thinking about the idea of text moving and being passed along from person to person, like a favorite sweater. If the process set-up pieces of the prompt don’t do it for you, try that.
Finally, for those of you craving some experimentation with form, there were some wonderful thoughts about short poetry at the mid-day panel. Each of the three poets had wonderful metaphors. Toi Derricotte talked about deciding whether short poems were “bowling balls or pastries”: that is, is it a short poem that is far heavier than it looks, or is it one that slowly evaporates on the tongue? Carl Phillips spoke about “camerawork” and collecting a series of snapshots to create the same layered effect, while Jane Hirshfield’s was probably my favorite. I’m paraphrasing: short poems are the pebbles, and we are the lakes they are thrown in; they can only create ripples as large as we are, but those ripples can be as large as the rings of Saturn. (She said it better.) She also spoke about a short poem’s “detonative power”. How you want to go about doing that is your own affair, but if you have the courage to try a short form, remember the lessons from haiku and similar traditions that have made an art out of brevity: try to hold two things in your mind together that seem to repel each other, and from that tension, create space. You may wish to do the traditional poetic exercise of trimming the fat: Jane said she once had a 36-line poem she was proud of, that when she went back to revise it, she ended up cutting out 35. Tighten up your piece(s) as much as you can without losing the particular feeling.
So there are the four pieces. You are welcome to use as many of them as you wish in as many poems as you wish, but I say try to go four for four in the coming days, weeks, etc. And as always, do come back and drop your offerings in the bucket!