The Last Class and the Final Project

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As I had an exam, I could not attend the last class. It was a pity, because I had the chance to read the poems they read in class and they were beautiful. Some of them included important elements of the city (not necessarily London), that could inspire us to write about the city. It is important to remember that not only is our poetry project about the city and London, but all our MA is called Writing the City. London must be an essential part of our own writing, and therefore, reading poetry that is set or about cities is really helpful. For example, I was amazed by the many images that I found in Praise House: The New Economy by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, with many characters, food, animals, plants, objects that form the great “choir” of the city. And I really enjoyed the Seven Views of Cork City, about a city where I have been but that I don’t know and remember very well, where the speaker describes very different moments and aspects of it.

Then we read a moving piece by Claudia Rankine, where she talks about the violent death of Mark Duggan. The issue of violent deaths of black men is one of the important issues that we may want to consider. It is not like we need to write about London: we need to write about something in London, something important, that responds to the city of London. I know what the issues I write about are, and I am not too unhappy with what I have come up. The last poems Ron wanted us to read were all by Ross Gay and were published in the same collection. They seem the same poem, but actually they are very different, with a complete different tone, atmosphere and ending. I really liked this idea, it was the sort of clever ideas that I never have in poetry.

Still, I want to say positive about this project. It will be fine. I am going to use some of the obstructions, but most of all I am going to use some sentences, some images, some lines, and I will build up completely new poems. I am satisfied with two or three obstructions, which anyway need to be edited and shaped. I will write about London and about being from another place, it will be about the sea, about my fears and my idols. It will be about David Bowie, who died last year. It will be about drugs, and coming back home, and going away. It will be about sex and about love. About the body and about water. All these themes were important parts of my obstructions. Without the obstructions, without this process of constantly trying to re-read everything, to consult my notes, to consider every single inspiration, I would have never tried to write poetry.

Now I have a final project before me. I have gathered a lot of material that I am scared and excited to re-read and to shape. I will do it. I need to be daring.

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Obstruction #13: The Oldest Fears are the Worst

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For session 7, Ron gave us to read three beautiful poems. The first one was I Do Have a Seam by Jamaal May, and he wanted to ask us how we would perform the poem. An interesting thing about the poem was the position of the word “here”, right at the centre, in the middle of two columns. We discussed it and some of my classmates gave different solution. One just pronounced it at the beginning of every sentence, repeating it; another uttered it twice, before the two sentences in the middle of the two columns… it was a great discussion because it showed that every writer and reader has their own way to interpret and read a poem. It is good to be prepared to share that view and to compare it with other people. Also, the poem is beautifully arranged on the page. Every line is very distant from the other, there is a lot of white space. That here has an important position. The speaker addresses a you, like in an ode, and there is an emotional and sexual element, tenderness and violence at the same time. Nothing in this poem seems accidental. It seems to work perfectly on the page and on stage.

Another poem we had to read was The Race by Sharon Olds. Ron asked us to notice things. I notice that there were no full stops at the end of the lines, and maybe that was done to show the rush of the poem. The reader is scared with the speakr. It represents a mystical moment for the speaker who reveals something incredible. It is about the speaker rushing to the hospital from the airport to see their dad who is probably not going to live the night. The line breaks cut the images. This made me wonder about what my line breaks too, if they have a role in the unfolding of the experience, of the story. If I consider them in the moment of revision. The last poem we had to read was The Colonel by Carolyn Forche, which was one of my favourites of all the poems we read. It is written in prose and it starts like a conversation, with the speaker addressing someone and saying What you have heard is true. The speaker has all the reader’s attention. The poem develops on three levels: it seems like a conversation between pals; sometimes it sounds more like a report of something that happened, and it also has poetic, beautiful metaphorical images, like the personification of the ears. When Ron asked us what we wanted to try that we saw in these poems, I said that I would like to try to use short sentences, to write poetry like I was giving a brief and precise account; to try to write poetry as a conversation between mates and to put scraps of poetic language, exactly like in this poem.

***

After the reading and discussion, it was the moment of the obstruction. Ron wanted us to answer to some questions.

  1. Write a list of your oldest fears. He showed us a picture that said “Your oldest fears are the worst ones”.
  • Fear of forgetting.
  • Fear of not being able to see what’s under me when I am swimming in the sea.
  • Fear of not being a good friend.
  • Fear of not managing to do what I want in life.
  • Fear of someone cutting of my nipples and clitoris (this is a recurrent dream).

2. Choose two of these fears and write down words that you associate to them.

Fear of the Sea: splashing, waves, people laughing and having un, sounds under water, animals, rocks.

Fear of being cut: scissors, cutting, screams, blood, tears, pain.

3. List verbs, actions and movements that you associate with these fears.

Sea: swimming, plunging, going back on the shore, speeding, splashing, drowning

Cut: screaming, cutting, kicking, twisting, crying, trying to escape

4. List nouns and details that you associate to them, objects, textures, materials.

Sea: salty smell in the mouth, closed ears, makeup smeared on my face, swimsuit stuck on my breasts, nipples emerging, seaweed whirling between my toes.

Cut: Blood, skin, scars, tears, wrinkles, sweat.

5. Now talk about some forces that are opposite to those fears. Some forces, joys, miracles that “operate” against those fears. Ron told us that his joy was his son learning to walk after the disappointment of Trump becoming president.

Sea: I watch many documentaries about the sea and the animals that live there. I always wear a mask to see underwater. And I swim with my bf or friends, so I am not alone.

Cut: Taking pleasure from those parts of my body. Seeing my bf’s eyes getting bigger when he looks at them.

6. The last question was instead about reading the drafts and editing the work of our friends. What has been instructive about reading 10 drafts in progress?

  • Being able to see how people made a different use of the obstructions. Limits lead every writer to a different outcome, creativity and inspiration.
  • Being able to see the diversity and the beauty of other people’s writing, to identify mistakes that I do myself and to see how my own writing differs from theirs.

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At this point, we were ready to start the obstruction.

Form/shape
– 28 lines or more.
– Consider how form influences performance.
– End on an unexplained image
Content
– Tension: fear and what complicates, clarifies, or combats it
– Counterpoint
– Intimate details
Action
– Explore
– Reveal

 

This is my attempt.

 

Tequila Pools

First Draft Version

 

There was a shark in her head.

Spinning around a small island,

Ground crumbling under her feet.

I watched her dancing wildly

her toes buried in the dark sand.

I had seen her swimming

in pools of Tequila, looking around

with shimmery eyes, unable to see.

She smiles in the face of the danger.

She had always had.

I watched her from the corner.

She slapped her hands on the counter

after drinking the shot,

Shining and laughing

by herself.

I looked at her sparkling nails

under the light of the dancefloor

kissing the black roots of her hair

as she whirled and twisted.

Schools of jellyfish would chain around her.

She would move them away to drink something else.

She wouldn’t let the sharks bite her again,

but she knows they will. her forearm knows too.

A yellowy bruise badly concealed

with a low-branded powder.

She dances on her island alone.

Still the shark waits for her,

patient and silent, in the depht of the

water she can’t really see.

The sun kisses her fingertips

that wouldn’t hurt anybody.

But when whe ground crumbles

and the night is over

there’s no last dance, no one

for the road, no other ways.

25 to Ilford to take her back

1 hour of silence, the gound

slipping under her feet

pools of tequila go dry.

As she opens the door

the hallway’s as pitch black as the sea.

Clenched fists hit in surprise

like a shark hunting at night.

Writing this poem in this layout and arranging it on the page like this made me wonder if I do write in form or if in general I just blurt it out and then shape it later. For this, it came like on this page, but I know that for other poems it did not happen. I’ll see what the final project will be and how I will build everything up.

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Editing Process

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Together with the feedbacks we had to give to our classmates, I started going through what I wrote during the classes, the obstructions and the exercises I did. My editing process started, and it was good to read some essays about it. First of all, I decided what I wanted to include and what instead did not really work (I was not happy with many of my obstructions). Instead, I was proud of some of the poems I wrote by myself, and I thought they were relevant to what we studied. Even if I had a slight idea of what to include, I needed a guide to edit, to shape up my work. Phillip Glass said that in order to arrive at a personal style the writer needs a technique to begin with, and that is exactly what I needed to start working on the project as a whole. Also The Microlectures about Criticism written by Matthew Goulish were very helpful. At a certain point in the essay, he states that modernists believed that each work of art somehow outstretched interpretation and each criticism reduced the infinite possibilities of the work, and that no critique was exhaustive. It confused me but also made me feel better – there must be something good in what I wrote, right? Goulish says that there is always something good in a piece of art, and the good editor knows how to spot that before the “negatives”. Then he says that the act of critical thought finds its alue through fulgilling these purposes:

  • To cause a change
  • To understand how to understand.

These elements were very helpful both in my feedbacks for my classmates and in my way of looking at my own poems. The first catalyst of Session 7, besides, was about editing. James Thurber, in 1959, said that editing should be a counseling rather than a collaborating task, and that the editor should help the author do their best in their own style, not in the style that the editor likes. That means a lot, and it goes both for feedback for other people and for the editing process of my own work.

The other two catalysts, Lucille Clifton and Edwidge Danticat, were both some other inspirations to be brave and daring with writing, which is never enough now that the deadline is rapidly approaching. In their quotes, they say that it is not good to play safe when making art, that artists and writers should be ready to the unexpected, welcoming it. Create dangerously, Danticat says. I am going to remember this.

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Another text that really helped me in my editing process was the Eight Letters to a Young Writer by Teju Cole. He wrote these letters for a newspaper, pretending to address a Nigerian writer and giving them suggestions about writing. The first rule is: keep it simple. This is something I always try to do when writing fiction, but it does become a little tricky when I write poetry. I think that I have always to address those important, big themes like death and peace and war and I don’t know. Then he says not to use clichés, to avoid adverbs (Ron spotted some in my own poems); when reporting speech, use simple verbs like “say” or “tell” rather than the ones that specify how something is said – the reader should be able to guess it by the context.

Then he says to read as much as we write – and I really need to read more poetry. I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction, but not enough poetry. Then he said to rely on observation, to observe observe observe and be precise. He suggested to be daring, corageous, to write something we had never read before, and always to avoid writing narratives that have only a single meaning, to try to sink into the complexities of things. This was just the first letter about eight rules and suggestions the beginner writer could use – so much in just a single text. The second and third letters were about freedom and voice. Freedom meant to be completely daring and experimental with our work, to be free to accept, study, analyse our mistakes and to fail and fail and fail. The artist has the freedom to do what they want, to modify their work endless times. So we need to take advantage of it, and try to be free with our work, allowing it to take many shapes and forms until we find the best. As for voice, instead, Cole says that is useful to give us information about the speaker – he takes the example of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. His language and the style in which the book is written tells a lot about how funny and impetuous the character is, but also how sad he is. So the voice is not simply the way you tell the story, but it is where the story comes itself.

I need to consider all these things when writing poetry and when editing my own work. At the end of the day, they are not that far from what I consider when I do write fiction.

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Obstruction #12: Tweets as Prompts

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Since the end of the semester is rapidly approaching, Ron wanted to give us as much inspiration as we could and he suggested us to try at least one of the prompts tweeted by poet and activist Rachel McKibbens, who started the amazing Outlast Project – she wanders around the States gathering the stories of those who were, like her, sexually assaulted, in the releasing process of being finally able to talk about those dreadful experiences and being heard. She tweeted many prompts that could inspire poetry. I especially liked this:

Write your mother as a forest ad all that was lost in it.

Of course, the prompt turned into a bit of an inspiration for my poem rather than some rigid guidelines. This is my attempt.

Sulden

 First Draft Version

Her fingers in the dust.

Ripening apples from fragile branches.

She smells their leaves through the fog.

She took a plane from London,

then lied on the shore, shook hands.

Everyone in black. Then a train to Sulden.

An in-between town, like her.

Between the mountains.

 Italy and Austria.

She took the urn, placed it beside her.

Then the passenger’s seatbelt.

She drove for miles.

Then started talking.

I’m taking you home. I’m taking you

where you would have loved to buy a house

if only you did not spend so much money.

She hopes he will

appreciate it, as she

scatters his dust

in the mountain wind.

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Obstruction #11: Bibliomancy

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Based on our experience at the Poetry Library and our wandering between books while flip them open and notice the best sentences and lines, Ron gave us an obstruction that was based on Tweets by poet and fiction writer Alexander Chee, who introduced the concept of teaching “Bibliomancy“: he tweeted prompts to write poetry by getting inspired by books in a library. Among these prompts, there is the idea that Ron gave us to reach out for the books, flip them open, notice and write down the best sentences. Then, maybe, write a poem that is inspired by those quotes.

As I said before, I was deeply fascinated by the first line from Allen Ginsberg’s poem America: America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothingI do not know if it inspired a poem or not – the piece I wrote is written in prose and sounds like a monologue addressed to someone. But, still, it inspired something that I liked and that I may shape into a poem for the final project. It is about the way I feel towards my home country, how Italy is so beautiful, how me and my peers all studied and worked hard and many went abroad to find more opportunity because, in terms of jobs and economy, Italy for students and young people is a very bad place to be at the moment.

This “piece” is called Cosimo, just like the name of the guy I imagine performing it. Cosimo is an important name for the place where I come from. Cosimo de Medici is an important figure in Tuscany and Livorno’s history.

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So I am back. If I was a superhot girl or an evil killer, that would be such a badass thing to say. Look, the hottie is back in town, watch out, wives, I am going to steal your husbands before you can even know it. Or if I was fucking Machete, that’d be supercool as well, speaking with that low voice and all. But, to get to my point, I am only a regular guy who smokes too much pot and has grey hair at 29, is back in his hometown and doesn’t know that to do about it.

To be honest with you, I know I wasn’t really thinking about it when I moved to London and decided to start working as a freelancer from a fucking shack. And I also know I couldn’t have afforded it if my parents weren’t rich as hell – but there’s no need to tell you that the main reason why I did it was that I was tired of living in a city were everyone was putting so much pressure on me. Find a job. Make your relationship work. Get a grip on your life. All the cliché things that you say to a guy who’s just graduated and spends his time vegetating in his room, piling pizza boxes and stubbing out joints in his mother favourite good china glasses when she’s at work. And of course there was you. Let me talk and don’t interrupt me because I feel like I am speaking my mind for the first time since I have run away from that total wreck otherwise known as our relationship. There was you, always saying what I needed to do and who I needed to be. And it was fine. I’m sure in your mind you meant to help me, but you didn’t. I am sure one of the reasons why I got grey hair at 29 is you, and how badly it ended up for the both of us. I am sorry I run away. It wasn’t a nice thing to do. But I had to. We couldn’t make it together.

And now I am here. I am back because our best friends are going to marry tomorrow, and since I got off the plane I have felt alternatively like I shouldn’t be here at all and like this is the only fucking place in the world I should be. And you know why? Because if I just look at the sea, if I just stop ranting and try to hear its sound and to sense its smell, I just curse myself and my decision to move to a fucking wood in the middle of nowhere. And the same goes for you. If I just look at you, I see how you decided to keep your hair long and wild as when you were 22, but I also see that you have some new wrinkles I had never seen before. And when I just notice all these things, I just can’t stop thinking that I was a fucking fool and I should have stayed here with you to watch those wrinkles come out everyday and to tell you that even if we are almost 30 now, you’re sexier than all those 18 year old girls around.

But when I stop smelling, looking, hearing, and I start thinking, then I know there’s not much left for me here, and those things that I miss wouldn’t be enough, or simply wouldn’t work out. There’s not much in London for me as well, but I feel like I am doing something there. Even if it’s just smoking pot, drinking and trying to write some shit while my parents keep on paying for everything. Even if it will never be home.

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Feedbacks for Dummies

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For session #6, Ron asked us to submit a poem that we wanted our classmates to read and gives us feedbacks on. Our session at Southbank Centre was quite packed: the wandering, the Poetry Library and even the individual feedbacks – it was a great class. Before everything, anyway, we started with reading the catalysts. The first was Jericho Brown, author of the essay “The Possibility of God”. In the excerpt, he talks about line breaks and states that they have everything to do with doubt and that’s what makes poetry so different from prose: poetry is “infused with doubt”. The moment of the line break is the one when you are thrown into a place of uncertainty, where you are not sure about what happened or what is going to happen. Only faith that the next line will land us on solid ground, says the author, is what keeps us breathing.

This is a very romantic way to look at things. I am not sure if I completely agree on what the author thinks about the difference between prose and poetry – I think prose is infused with doubt just like poetry, only, in a very different way. It reminded me of Octavia Butler saying that she wrote about things she did not understand or she was worried of. But the concept of line break as a moment of uncertainty, like a pirouette into the void, is something that I can totally see in my own poetry as well – the line break is a moment where you want yourself and your reader to pause, to have a very short halt before plunging back again into the narrative. Concerning Octavia Butler, she was also the second catalyst, and I related very much with what she said: the writer should forget talent and inspiration and rely on habit, on commitment, on continued learning. Imagination and talent are important and must be used, but persisting is even more important. This quote, from “Furor Scribendi”, made me feel a bit better about my poetry. I am not a poetry writer and I always feel like my poetry is shit, but this is a very negative attitude and I really need to get out of it. Even if I am so convinced not to be talented in poetry, I know that I can rely on my commitment, curiosity and passion, which are all important parts of a writer’s life.

The last catalyst was Marianne Moore, on The Paris Review, where she compared the work of the poet with the one of the scientist, stating that they both experiment and waste effort in order to obtain the best result. “Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision…”. The process of writing poetry is constantly on the move, is a continuous research and discovery. To me, this meant a lot because my own writing (whether it be fiction or poetry) is constantly changing to the point that what I wrote just a while ago is not satistying to me anymore. This is not a positive attitude either, so I need to work on this again. It’s not like my past writing is shit, it’s just constantly evolving. It does become different. It does get better, sometimes. This is another way to look at it. I love how catalysts are like personal motivators.

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However, even with the most positive attitude I would still be scared of feedbacks, both from Ron and my classmates. Well, it is not really that I am scared of feedbacks – I know that even the worst ones are important for my own development as a writer and person. But it is scary to make other people read our stuff. On the other hand, feedbacks offer new perspectives. If they are given with kindness and honesty, they are the most valuable thing a writer can have. Since everyone had submitted a piece, Ron wanted us to pick one (we did not know who wrote what) and to give feedbacks on it in class, and then repeat the whole process at home with the other pieces. He told us to notice how the work is different from anything we had read, what could be helpful, what could be worked on, what we could suggest development about (here’s what you could try…), what worked. He told us not to use formulas like I don’t like, I love, I like, I don’t get, and not to simply notice what was not working but also suggesting ways and proposing new ideas.

The editor, he said, does not tell you this is how you should write, but explores and analyses what’s on the page and what is possible to do to improve it. This was an introductory feedback session to the next classes, that would be dedicated to a lot of peer feedback. He told us that the editorial experience needs to be honest and genuine. He told us to come with noticing, commenting on what feels different and unique about the drafts that we are reading, what’s remarkable and extraordinary, and also suggesting that the authors try something new, asking questions, showing them how their piece could be different and maybe improved. We picked the poem Obstruction #9 by Sophie, a beautiful poem about Ireland. I did a lot of underlining, circling, noticing. This is my feedback attempt:

  1. What is unique, different. Dark, gloomy colours; alternation between idylliac seaside and the city. It is a sharp poem, full of violent and strong images. Forces of nature are beautifully described.
  2. A question. You mention two places that I want to see more in detail: how do they affect the speaker’s feelings, attitude, emotions?
  3. Propose a new version. I think the best thing of this poem is the presence of very dark colours which are important details of the place, they embody the atmosphere of this poem. Some very vague and broad terms like dream, heart, soul, give me peace could be transformed into more concrete and real details.

After this introduction, Ron told us to select other pieces that we may want to send him and to bring in class to receive feedbacks on. He told us to work on all the other poems we had received by our classmates with the same structure: what is unique about a poem, a question, a suggestion.

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Obstruction #10: Architecture and Body

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Obstruction #10 was the response to us wondering around the Southbank Centre. Ron told us to spend 40 – 45 minutes in and out of the space. He told us to go outside, to visit at least three floors of the building and to ride at least 2 or 3 of the amazing lifts. He told us not to talk among us or at the phone, and to pay attention to what surrounded us, for example the building materials, the textures that we saw, the architecture. He told us to consider the bodies that we move in and out, to overhear conversations, to take pictures and wonder what everything we saw reminded us of, to constantly wonder what was coming up to mind by watching the place.

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Then we had to come back into the building, choose a place around the floor where we were gathered and try to write a poem, keeping writing until Ron would stop us. These were the guidelines:

Form/Shape

  1. Include overheard language, something you encountered in the last 45 minutes.
  2. The first line needs to be interesting, immediate.
  3. Try to begin in the middle of things, a shocking “in medias res” (for example “in the fog”, where we are already into something, or using “you know”, to address someone directly).

Content

  1. Include a monument, a memorial, a bridge, a building from the past and one from the present.
  2. Compare the sound of the Thames and the outside to the sound of the movement of the body.

Action

  1. How may the piece move? Give a “wandering” rhythm.
  2. Include a rise in your writing.

Here is my attempt.

 

10th of November

First Draft Version

*

You know when you spend

a whole day worrying

and wondering what’ll come next

And then you see something

And laugh until it hurts, until

small, wet wrinkles form around your eyes?

A sore, sick laugh from the back of

your throat. That’s this morning.

There’s a new exhibition

at the Southbank Centre.

About students’ idea on how to

Enlight the Thames after dark.

Neon purple lightbulbs popping out on black.

*

*

There is a photojournalism exhibition

At the 2nd floor. Big themes,

no doubt, emotions flow.

Racial issues, cancer, sexual assault.

Syrian refugees and civil rights.

But today there’s another urgency

Read what people think today.

Thoughts about lights on the Thames.

How does light make you feel?

Peaceful. Just safe.

Do you think London bridges are

an important public space?

Of course I do. Make them beautiful.

What’s your favourite bridge in London?

No Trump.

*

*

People’s faces on the tube are concealed

by Hillary Clinton’s high cheekbones on

greysh newspaper pages.

A guy shouted to an American

friend, he’s going to rule the world.

No Trump, scribbled on a piece

of paper pasted on a wall, among

students’ ideas about enlightening

the river that churns and whirls

as my stomach did on Wednesday morning

when the sad news was announced.

*

*

Still, The White House is solid.

The Thames and Hudson and Nile

keep flowing despite the dangerous currents.

There’s a stillness in marble and

water. The world needs that stillness.

A deep breath. Try not to move for

a second. We’ll see you in January,

when another shitty year begins.

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I wanted to write a poem about the American elections because, even if I am not an American citizen, I know what happened will influence the next years big time. I am speechless and I really do not know what to expect. I am curious but also hopeless. We will see what happens.