Haunted and weird poetry: a lesson plan

My visiting writer gig at Randolph College started yesterday. As the Pearl S. Buck Writer in Residence (virtually), I’m teaching a 4-session workshop each Thursday night in February, 7-9pm. There are only 4 members, all advanced poetry students, so it’s a pretty nice gig. The topic is “Haunted and Weird,” since the organizer told me these students were also jazzed about speculative fiction–but also because strangeness and surprise make for complicated, interesting, powerful poems.

Designing the syllabus, I gave each session a title/ theme. Yesterday’s was “Pleased to Meet You” and it worked like a charm. In case the topic appeals, here’s how it played out. I asked each poet to post a poem the Tuesday before our session, following this prompt (it’s keyed to a care package sent in advance):

If you dare, light the votive candle in your care package, without burning your house down, please. Prepare to tell a story of an encounter with something potentially supernatural in five sentences. It should be based on an incident you have experienced, OR you can ask a friend or a family member for a story and use your imagination to fill in the details. Instructions for each sentence:

  1. Write a sentence beginning, “The weirdest part was.” (You may revise that phrase out later, but start with the eeriest moment of your tale.)
  2. Describe what the setting or the apparition smelled like.
  3. Ask any question that you don’t know the answer to. It can be unrelated to the scene.
  4. Describe, with at least one sensory detail (involving sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch), how your body felt when the apparition left or you left it.
  5. Describe, with at least one sensory detail, how the apparition felt after the encounter.

Here are some poems they had to read for class, as well as each other’s drafts. I also asked them to be ready to explain which poem unsettled them most and why.

I started us off with “Monsters,” which triggers all my parent-fear. One student named Mariani’s “Ghost” as the most unsettling–that’s another poem full of guilt, and very crafty in how it sets up situations and then dissolves them. For everyone else it was “The Mango,” in which the speaker hears voices–and yet it’s more political than supernatural. One way all of these poems are shifty: what’s “real” is up for grabs, although there’s plenty of realistic detail within them.

I ran out of time to run a three-staged prompt I’d invented. At the end of class, they had to open a sealed envelope, also in the care package. I had put an antique postcard in each, having ordered a batch from Etsy (some of them are dated as early as 1906). Here’s one I didn’t send; I’m planning to use the extras in a fall workshop on the same theme.

The prompt to go with their postcard:

  • First study the picture side and write for 3 minutes about what messages the picture conveys all by itself
  • Then read the message—think about ink, the handwriting, writing style; also look at the postmark, stamp, and address; write for 3 minutes about what you see
  • Now imagine the sender is a ghost and write back to them.

They can build on that idea for next week’s poem, or research the meanings of the tarot card I also put in each envelope (I figured some students might not like to mess with them, so that’s just an option). Next week’s assignment:

  • Choosing a night when you’ll have 20 minutes to write the next morning, sleep with something unusual beneath your pillow (one of the cards from the care package, or anything else that feels like it has some mystery about it). Have pen and paper by your bed—real writing tools, not your phone. As soon as you wake up, write for a while about anything that’s on your mind. Put the paper away, forget about it, and later on come back and write a poem about possible relationships between the object and your free-write.
  • Write an epistolary poem (a letter poem) to someone or something that can’t answer.
  • Write any other poem based on a religious ritual or uncanny procedure. If tarot interests you, study the card I gave you and research its meanings, or you can do a free online reading here.

The energy in the class felt good, I think? Only teaching two hours a week, P/F so nobody’s worked up about grades–pretty sweet. In September I’ll be back to a full teaching load, a million advisees and meetings and committees, but now I get to just swoop in and be the Spirit of Poetry Fun, here to distract you.

Winterred

A friend told me to break a leg yesterday and I had to laugh–I’m literally home with a sprained ankle, unable to put weight on my left foot. I apparently did something bad during a beautiful Saturday hike on a bit of the Appalachian Trail, where water rushed by sedimentary rocks flipped almost vertical by some long-ago seismic catastrophe. Weekly walks on unfamiliar paths have been sanity-saving since March, but I guess I’m grounded now, or “winterred,” as Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria put it in their wonderfully playful new year’s poetry video “NEOLOG” (poetry prompt #1: write a poem using one of their neologisms as a title, crediting their brilliance, of course).

My friend made this too-timely comment because I was on the verge of two literary events. I gave a reading yesterday in the Poetrio series at Malaprops Bookstore, run generously and flawlessly by poet Mildred Barya and Malaprops Director of Author Events, Stephanie Jones-Byrne. I forgot to take a screenshot or watch the clock because my co-readers Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran were so amazing, but the recording is here, and you have the option of supporting a great indie bookstore by ordering any of the books (or others) here. (Speaking about clocks, I should say we each kept to our time of 12 minutes-ish, which is basically a holy miracle of restraint where poets are concerned.) Mildred introduces writers not by listing their accomplishments but by reflecting on their poems, setting a mood that was both thoughtful and celebratory. In this case, she noted how many ghosts populate all of our new books. Kathy spoke to that in a wonderful way by reading a poem about the period costumes ghosts are described as wearing, speculating that in twenty years we might be haunted by ghosts in tee-shirts and skinny jeans. Eric began by talking about building an altar to ancestors, noting that everyone wants to escape the ghosts of 2020 but maybe, instead, we could consider how to honor them. It’s a moving idea.

I was also impressed by the emotional range of Kathy’s and Eric’s poems–grief, hilarity, anger, love–and how they talked about that in the Q&A. Eric’s advice for infusing a serious poem with humor is to take your first draft and make it gayer. Add glitter. That can be prompt #2. Prompt #3 is something I try sometimes: after you put down a sentence or two of a potential poem, walk (or limp) away for a while. Each time you come back, put down another sentence or two. Try to do it renga-style, so you’re picking up an element but also moving into a different mood or scene. One of the signal qualities of a strong poem is surprise, and writing slowly can be a way of surprising yourself with unplanned associative leaps.

Today I hope to rest some, submit a story I’ve been working on, and maybe get an x-ray, sigh. I’ll also be prepping for my SECOND reading of 2021, hosted by Cafe Muse tonight. The order of events, in case you can drop in: it begins at 7 pm Eastern with live music, classical guitar I think, to finish your dinner by. At 7:30 Don Colburn reads for 18-20 minutes; then I read; then, if there’s time and interest, we’ll do a brief Q&A. You can register here. I’ll read different poems from The State She’s In (mostly) plus a couple of new ones I haven’t yet aired. It should be fun. Being a clumsy person, I’m also really glad I’m not ascending to a podium on crutches.

Sonnet prompts from #SonnetsfromtheAmerican

Octave and sestet: my ridiculously precarious Zoom setup for delivering a paper at the Sonnets from the American Symposium, and then my home symposium-delivery system. Presenting on short-lined sonnets in a piece called “Partial Visibility,” I edited my messy desk out of the virtual window, throwing the focus instead on the bookcases behind me–so much more professorial. I thought about our partial visibility to each other all weekend, especially when Diane Seuss, the second-lo-last reader in the final event, talked about using long lines to expand the parts of life that can be included in the sonnet’s “gilded frame.” (Her new book, frank: sonnets, promises to be amazing.)

I loved the symposium, which was thoughtfully and effectively curated, and I learned a lot. Among the highlights: we viewed a video tribute to Wanda Coleman and her American sonnets put together by Terrance Hayes. There were mesmerizing live readings by Rosebud Ben-Oni, Kazim Ali, Tacey Atsitty, Kiki Petrosino, Shane McRae, Patricia Smith, and many others. Carl Phillips gave a particularly good keynote about “disruption built into” the sonnet and its “tendency to sonic dispersion,” making the form especially hospitable to marginalized writers. Fruitful panel discussions swirled around work by Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jericho Brown, Brandi McDougall, Henri Cole, and many more. I heard from friends, put some names and faces together among scholars and poets I knew only by reputation, and even saw fellow bloggers whom I’d never before met (hello, Frank Hudson! I really appreciated your comments and want to hear more about singing sonnets sometime). What I liked best were the recurrent readings of the American sonnet as a dissident form, incorporating multiple voices through its characteristic turns and pivots, treated rebelliously and inventively by North American practitioners. When Phillips called the sonnet “wired for rebellion,” he echoed the symposium’s exhilarating theme–exhilarating for me, anyway, because my education emphasized the sonnet as an exercise in obedience.

This symposium also gave me a million ideas for writing. I gave you a prompt for short-lined sonnets last week as I was prepping my paper. Here are some more, with credit to the presenters who jogged these ideas.

Interpreting the parameters of the form however you like, write a sonnet that:

  • Is a mode of transport or place of collision (Marlo Starr, “Dissident Sonnets”; Yuki Tanaka, “Cross-Cultural Sonnets”)
  • Depends on a single repeated line, like “Nothing in That Drawer” by Ron Padgett, possibly breaking the pattern at the end (Rebecca Morgan Frank, “Standing In One Place to Move”)
  • Involves collaboration, maybe tossing couplets back and forth with a partner or using octave/sestet for the switch between voices (Simone Muench and Jackie K. White, “The Sonnet as Conversation”). (I’ve been involved, too, in a couple of collaborative crowns, handing off the baton poem by poem. Here’s one.)
  • Uses a meter other than iambic, as Courtney Lamar Charleston does in “Doppelgangbanger” (Anna Lena Phillips Bell, “This resonant, strange, vaulting roof'”)
  • Is a duplex, following Jericho Brown’s torque of the form (Michael Dumanis, “Subverting the Tradition in The Tradition”)
  • Is improvisatory, derived from jazz, a mode Brian Teare discussed in relation to Wanda Coleman (I think this was in post-panel chat–but if you want to read more Coleman than the “American Sonnet” I just linked to, I highly recommend the new Selected Poems edited by Hayes)
  • Is based on David Wojahn’s “rock n roll sonnets,” Molly Peacock’s “exploded sonnets,” Tyehimba Jess’ “syncopated sonnets,” Philip Metres’ “shrapnel sonnets,” Amit Majmudar’s “sonzal,” Lyn Hejinian’s “anti-sonnets”–research these variants and have at ’em! (Kevin McFadden, “The Resistant Strain,” plus additions from the chat after)
  • Dances through the volta in an unusual way. Many panels raised these questions: where can voltas go? Can they be outside poems, or between poems in a sequence?
  • Breaks other “rules.” A prompt for any form: what patterns can you warp to put your work in lively conversation with the myriad traditions snaking behind us? Or, how can you hybridize sonnets with other forms or texts, as poets do with blues sonnets and sonnet-ballads?

I hope one of those prompts clicks for you and you start drafting. We can’t doomscroll ALL the time (hey, what would a doomscrolling sonnet look like?). For still more alternatives to watching the political weather, check out this cool cluster of short essays, “#MeToo and Modernism,” just published by Modernism/ modernity; I have a piece in there about teaching Eliot recruited after the editor saw my blog post on that subject–an interesting development that has now happened to me a couple of times. And if you’d be up to listen in on an intimate multipoet reading from 6-7pm ET on Thursday 10/15, please contact me and I’ll send you the link. It’s part of a sweetly inclusive series run by Lucy Bucknell at Hopkins, not fully public, but I’m allowed to invite friends.

Poetry and the archives by the sea

pbts sea rose

A lot of poets write from research, and there are myriad ways to explain why. Just a few of the reasons, for me: because the past presses at me as a citizen and as a human being. Because my particular history–of my current region or my ancestors–needs puzzling through. Because I want to look outward and escape my own head already. Because I have a PhD and research is an ingrained habit. Because I’m distancing myself from some difficult subject (responsibility or identity, often) by analyzing material intellectually. Because those documents/ objects/ photographs are just sitting there being fascinating and no one’s telling their story.

All this is on my mind especially because research–including traditional archival work–is a big driver of the poetry book I’m currently refining, with the working title “L.” (I’m infatuated with the weirdness of a single-letter title–of which 50 is just one of the meanings–but I’d be interested to know if you think that’s a bad idea. My second choice so far would be “Chronic Locomotive.”) I’m also planning a senior capstone seminar on Documentary Poetics for winter 2018.

So, as I often do when worrying a problem, I assembled an all-star team to talk to me about it. The panel I ran at the recent Poetry by the Sea conference was called “Poetry and the Archives,” and included Nathalie Anderson, Cynthia Hogue, and Cheryl Savageau. I can’t recap the whole rich experience, but here are a few thoughts, as well as a prompt from one of my brilliant co-panelists.

First: there are many kinds of archives. The term most narrowly refers to public records kept by institutions, but this little four-day conference was full of poets (well beyond my panel) working with parallel but different document collections. Claire Rossini is inspired by calls of extinct birds available through the audio archives of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cheryl, Nat, Cynthia and I talked about drawing inspiration from inherited objects, old newspapers, interviews, photographs, site exploration, museum exhibits, maps, dreams, and more.

Second: the research itself is challenging in ways one expects (sifting through massive arrays takes time and luck–there can be an enormous amount of chance involved in what one finds and when), and in ways that can take a person off guard.  Nat told us of an assignment she uses with her undergraduates to research the day of their own birth, using two newspapers, and then, further on, to reconstruct family histories using census rolls and other public records. What if you hit a wall, an absence? Or what if you find more than you’re ready for in those papers–say, an ancestor’s bill of sale? Impersonal documents can become terribly personal, and at the same time, no matter how much research you do, the archive is always bigger and stranger and less coherent than one researcher can comprehend, as Deborah Miranda explores in her poem “When My Body Is the Archive.” It’s terrible when other investigators get things wrong and thereby distort our histories, and we have a responsibility to do better–but getting things wrong, or at least understanding difficult truths only partially, is upsettingly inevitable.

Related to this: how does one transform what one learns without betraying complicated, fragmented, multivoiced sources? Answers from last week included collage, notes sections (possible in books but rarely in journals!), and writing oneself into the poem as a flawed, uncertain quester. Clearly the panelists do a lot of thinking about the ethics of what and how one writes. There’s more to say on this subject than I can shoehorn into one blog post, but see this older post for starters. I was teaching the controversy over Raymond McDaniels’ appropriation of Katrina-related materials at the time–a controversy all about ethics, power, and race.

Yet invention–an activity that would appall many scholars–is part of what a poet does with archival materials. I would argue it’s part of what any writer does, whether or not she admits it, but invention is certainly more obvious in historical poetry and fiction than in scholarly writing. When authors invent/transform archival materials well, I’m enormously grateful for their help in reconstructing a vanished past (Natasha Trethewey’s work is a touchstone for many of us here, and I would love to hear Camille Dungy talk someday about Suck on the Marrow). When authors do it badly, however, I get much more angry than I do reading your average personal, meditative lyric. The stakes feel higher.

And on that note: the ability to even access an archive can involve a lot of privilege. I was reminded of this when a friend outside of the academy’s protocols was recently worried about the letters of introduction some archives require. It also takes money to travel to a historical site or park yourself in an excellent library for even just a few days. Freedom from caretaking responsibilities, too. Sometimes I’ve had that money and freedom, sometimes I haven’t, but I do know privilege must be part of this conversation. Hurrah to all the librarians and others who are increasing our digital access to rare materials–it really helps.

Our panel ran out of time to give out prompts we’d designed, just as I’m pushing length limits here. For what it’s worth, my prompt was to write a backwards poem–start with the present and end with the distant past speaking for itself. Keep track of your sources and give them credit.

I’ll leave you with another from Cheryl Savageau. Sleep on it!

  1. Choose a natural object.
  2. Spend a couple of hours researching everything you can find out about it: its physical characteristics, its chemistry, physics, biology, ecology.  What odd stories or facts can you find? Are there any correlations to folklore, mythology? Is there a history? Take it all in. Make notes.
  3. Then dream around it. Let the associations happen.
  4. Write a short poem that synthesizes your research through association. Work in images. Avoid abstract words.
  5. Write a longer poem with a narrative.