Poetry

Wilderness and the City

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We have said that staring helps to channel the mundane things into poetry passion. The poet needs to see what others don’t see. For the 3rd session, Ron wanted us to submit the picture that showed London’s contradictions (that is, the one of the tomb in Stoke Newington). For this class, he also wanted us to send him some work. He told us off for our defensiveness – I was one of the people who wrote shit like I know this is not good, I am sorry, but Ron told us to let it be shitty. Showing our work to someone else, even if it’s a tutor or a teacher, is not like submitting something to a publishing house. If you don’t send your work then you can’t discover what people and what you want. If we spend time excusing for what we think or produce, then our work is not going to be good, we’ll not go anywhere.

This is very linked to the catalyst we read at the beginning of session 3. In the piece, taken from The Art of Daring: Risk Restlessness, Imagination, the author Carl Phillips says that life and art are forever part of the same thing. It is hard to say what that thing is, not coin, not mirror. A tree is exactly the same tree, despite the foliage that can cover it in summer. Is distortion preferable to reality? Daring, says Phillips, the willingness to risk going forward when we hardly know where we are, can provide us the chance for both self-knowledge and for the making of art. This is very interesting. To the artist life is more than a journey, it must be an active question, it requires stamina, risk, a sense of daring in the face of risk, the risk of being many things. 

This last part is very important. It took me back to wonder why I started writing, why I decided I wanted to study creative writing more than anything in the world. What do I do that is daring, in life as in my writing? How do I surprise myself? I think that the reason why I write is that I want to understand the world that surrounds me and my filter is writing. If something worries me, I do write about it. I try to get to know it with research and writing. It is really helpful. And mixing up what we do know with themes that could make us or the readers uncomfortable is a good form of daring. Thinking about the poems we read in session 2, we read about a lot of aspects of Detroit, especially about very upsetting and important themes such as rape, murder, racism, violence and so on.

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During this session, we read four poems that were very different one from the other. The first was To the fig tree on 9th and christian, by Ross Gay. The structure of this poem seems quite weird to someone who was educated with sonnets or more traditional kinds of poetry – every line is only made of three, four, five words, and the line breaks are quite surprising, breaking up sentences. The poem is enriched with enjambment, which, according to Wikipedia, is the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet or stanza. It gives the poem a sense of choppiness, but it also gives it a great rhythm that suggests the poem would be great to perform. I found the imagery very fascinating, and the description of the people gathering around the fig tree is incredible, it speaks of a whole society and makes the tree “universal“, as an object that represents the whole society.

The structure of this poem is very different from Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, which seems more like a piece of prose – even if it’s shaped as a poem. I think this is my favourite of the whole syllabus. In fact, even if sometimes it sounds like a piece of prose, like a story told to express a message or a moral, it almost sounds as a chant, being made of repetitions and having a very well-crafted rhythm. Even so, the “plot” is quite dark: some boys cut a goat’s head. Later in the poem, we get to know that the owner of the goat is a small, innocent girl, and our heart is broken even more. The goat, though, will hunt the boys forever…

The third poem was called Fishmonger by Richard Scott. I loved the imagery and how the description of seafood and the nautical atmosphere has sexual connotations: He fed me prawns, wiped / the brine from my lips – / let me try my first razor clam / unzipped from its pale hard shell / the tip, soft and white and saline… or also: I took the whole ocean into my mouth…. It is amazing and very well-written, it made me realize how difficult it is to craft a great poem. Even if poems are “short” compared to, say, short stories, there is a lot of attention to every single element. Everything is deeply connected. In this poem, the enjambment is used very differently than in the first that we read. In fact, here it creates surprise, it has almost the function of innuendo. In Public Toilets in Regent’s Park, still by Richard Scott, is an amazingly funny poem. The poet makes a fantastic use of language: a whole verse is made by names of sexual diseases. It tells the story of an unknown detail of London: in Regent’s Park toilets, there are sexual activities between men. It was a good poem to read, because it showed how even names of sexual disease can be poetic. You can write a poem on whatever you want really – everything may be worth exploring.

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After this reading, Ron asked us what we think was striking us about these poems, the techniques that we found interesting and we wanted to try in our own work. In other words: what do they dare us to try? What do they bring to our work? What we did admire about them? I think I was quite intrigued by how Ross Gay does not divide his poem into stanzas – I may try it sooner or later. It is interesting that stanzas are not defining where and when to stop or pause. It made me wonder about what effect the appearance of a poem gives to a reader. Every poem is very specific to everyone, it’s a miracle of art, therefore it can affect people differently. Choices in poetry are calculated, nothing is casual, everything is intended. Therefore, we can choose what we put in our poems and how to put it. We can experiment and be daring. For example, comparisons are used in very different ways in different poem. How they explore relationships between things can make sense to me but not for someone else. This happens in the four poems we read – for example, one of my classmates didn’t like the jokes about sexual diseases in the poem Regent’s Park Toilets. To me, it was very good because even the title represented a prosaic place and the whole poem brought up the unexpected. This does not mean that someone couldn’t find id disturbing. These poems, though, dare us to play with comparisons. Every reading experience can help us realize what we want from our writing. The more you read, said Ron, the more you can find challenging aspects in writing.

Which of these is more like what I write? Which are unlike my work? What do they say of what I write? These are all important questions that I really need to ask myself when reading in general, not only poetry. I always try to look for something I really like in every book or piece I read – I guess this is how creative writing classes teach you to be: always looking for the negative and positive aspects of a piece of writing, what can be worked on.

At the end of the class, Ron asked us to find 3 or 4 authorial choices in these poems that we want to try. I said that the use of very colloquial speech in poetry is really worth trying: in Ross Gay’s poem, one part is: yes I am anthropomorphizing / goddammit I have twice / in the last thirty seconds / rubbed my sweaty / forearm into someone else’s / sweaty shoulder … this passage is incredible because the author uses the verb anthropomorphizing, which I was not sure existed ( I am still not) and it’s quite a complex verb, surrounded by very informal speech. This is something I really want to try because I guess it creates a good contrast. I also want to make use of irony, I don’t want to take the act of “writing” too seriously – I mean, of course I do, but big themes can be dealt with irony and fun as well. Irony is particularly interesting in Public Toilets in Regent’s Park. We all laughed at the line for information on venereal disease telephone 01... I also think I may use a feature of Song, that starts with Listen. The call to listen is very classical but at the same time it may be very colloquial, like trying to get the attention of a friend when telling them a nice story. It is used in Beowulf as well, in different versions (lo! and so on). With this question, Ron wanted to encourage us to try to write different poems, to make up words, to go on with unused descriptions and so on. Capturing a place and time is very important, trying to focus on something specific was the focus of our obstructions, especially #3. But bringing us into deep conversation with the universe of our poem is quite difficult.

How do we adapt what we encounter when reading, what scares us, what excites us into the body of our work? How do we make use of it? With the obstructions is the same: how do we turn them into pieces of our own writing, something that is completely and unquestionably our own? At the end of class 3, he asked us to make some of our pieces shine, to polish them, finish the drafts. He asked us to be daring.

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