Does Poetry Take Itself Too Seriously?

In an interview in Willow Springs (Spring 2016), the interviewer asks if poetry takes itself too seriously. The interviewee D.A. Powell agreed. My first response was something along the lines of “Poetry is serious! Not too serious!” But then, I realized that I’ve had similar thoughts, but perhaps more as it pertains to critical essay.

If you go on to read the rest of the article, I think what Powell is really saying is that he’s interested in poetry that doesn’t take itself too seriously. He’s talking about personal preferences.

Poetry itself is neither too serious or too silly. Rather the poem takes on the attitude of its maker.

Perhaps to me what is a more interesting question is whether certain people writing about poetry put poetry on too high of a plane, as if all good poems were inherently imbued with some paranormal powers to transform consciousness.

Don’t misunderstand me, I sincerely believe poetry has the power, much like any art form, to move us, to inspire us and to bring us insight, often far beyond the original intent of the poet. Not only that, but I believe poetry to be the highest art form there is (a post for another day). But still, but still, I read critical writing that sometimes seems to infuse poetry with magical powers far beyond the capabilities of any art form. I guess anyone can become swept up in the excitement that art sometimes inspires within us and wax into grandiose language. And because there seems to be a culture of such exaggeration, such writing reinforces itself and paves the way for others. It’s no great sin, mind you, just inaccurate, I think. Or perhaps, I am shortsighted.

(Author’s note: I’d rather not cite the instances of grandiose language to which I refer here, as I quite like and respect the authors.)

Constrict to Expand: Tips for Young Poetry Writers

When writing poetry, ultimately we are strive to provide something of value, something of interest, something that causes the mind to work in new ways and open up the world (whether the internal one or its external counterpart). I’ve increasingly found that setting parameters on your prosody can bring about that new angle, that happy accident, that magic. So writers of poems, I encourage you to discover new ways to shape and constrict your poems.

I think the best thing first is to just get down the first draft, knowing that this is not where you will end up. It’s quite easy to self-censor yourself in the beginning so that you often cut off the ideas that have been percolating in your subconscious before they have a chance to form. But after the first draft, it’s time to dive in and mine what’s valuable. At this stage, I like to be rather vicious with my culling. Young writers can often treat everything they write as a sort of sacred cow. It’s here that you should not only be carving away but often adding anew. It can and often should be a messy process.

After we start to see the real flesh of the poem emerge though, consider giving yourself some kind of restriction. See where it leads you. Of course, more traditional ways of doing this are meter and rhyme. The meter you impose should follow the needs of the poem, whether that be syllabic , syllabic-accentual or merely accentual. You could experiment with any of a myriad of traditional forms. Sonnets and haikus seem to be the old standbys. But there’s a whole world of forms to experiment with – from rondeau to sestina, from ghazal to the skinny.

But the restrictions you try need not be so orthodox. Perhaps, you want to place your poem in the voice of a narrator who is somehow distinctly different from you, the author. Perhaps you want to create a particular aural effect by finding words with certain qualities that emphasize your meaning. Or you might experiment with a more visual effect by playing with your line breaks and seeking out meaningful and surprising enjambment or pacing. These are just a few examples. I’m certain that you will discover many more – hopefully some that are particular to you and the poems that only you were meant to write.

Three Writing Prompts

Writing Prompts for Idle Fiction Writers, Part 2

I had so much fun writing that first group of writing prompts, I had to do it again. If you end up using one, let me know how it goes.

  1. Rejecting Community: A young woman tires of civilization and retires to a remote house in the woods. Her only contact with the outside world are the sparse email communication she has with her company, for which she conducts research. She begins to find herself, as she struggles with and contemplates her solitude. But all that is about to be interrupted by an old friend who tries to find her. Do the two have bad blood between them? What is their connection?
  2. Zoom Call Love Affair: Married co-workers fall in love over a series of video conference calls for work. They develop a secret sign language they use to communicate during each call. But what happens when a co-worker figures it out and tries to blackmail them?
  3. Honeymoon Amidst the Ruins: While on their honeymoon in Chile, a young couple on a hike discovers some old ruins. But when they explore, they realize the ruins are less than a century old. Why would someone recreate antiquity in the jungle?
Three Writing Prompts

Writing Prompts for Idle Writers

If you’re stuck at home during this crisis with nothing to do but to contemplate the yawning void that lurks beyond the known universe, here are three writing prompts that might inspire you to put ink to page.

  1. When a woman loses the family farm to unmanageable debt, the new owner offers her a chance to win it back. What form does that offer take and is it worth it?
  2. In the spirit of sibling rivalry, three brothers compete for the attention of the town’s richest bachelorette. But unbeknownst to each other, only one of them truly cares for her. Who do the other two truly love? And how is the first brother thwarted?
  3. Her husband is dying. But before he dies, he asks her to perform a terrible act of vengeance for a wrong done to him twenty years before. The target of this vengeance has returned to town to visit the husband, not realizing that he harbors such bitterness against him.

On John Lee Clark’s Essay “Tactile Art”

In the October 2019 issue of Poetry Magazine, essayist John Lee Clark rights about the nature of tactile art from the blind perspective. It was an illuminating piece that had me thinking long after I’d put down the journal. Essentially, he writes about what’s important in a tactile art piece to a blind person and what elements are unnecessary (but often included because our culture thinks as sighted beings). For example, he talks about the importance of heft. Imagine a plastic toy tank. For sighted persons, the visual experience is enough to convey the ominous, dangerous menace a tank represents. But for a blind person, the weight of that light plastic toy is more important and conveys none of the same menace. If you get a chance to read Clark’s poignant essay, I recommend it.

Writing and Community

For years, I’ve done all of my creative writing in isolation. None of my close friends have been writers. I’ve rarely bounced ideas off of other creative writers. I’ve certainly never collaborated with anyone. On a few occasions, I’ve found myself in a fiction writing critique group, but these have never lasted for some reason (and I haven’t always got the benefit out of them that I had expected to get). It has been like working in a vacuum.

But this year, I have made more of an effort to attend a poetry workshop group in the area. The poets in this group range in expertise, and there are certainly some good minds that challenge me and my writing. But I’ve also begun to reap the benefit of just being around fellow writers who are living many of the same challenges, struggles and joys as I do.

I’ve gained insight into the kinds of journals these poets are getting published in, how they are getting their books published, and which conferences they go to and the benefits they reap from those experiences. Although many of these elements seem small, they add up to a lot, in my estimation.

Whatever your passion might be, I’ve come to realize that being around others with your same passion is a healthy, important and possibly even a vital experience if you can get it.

creative writing and anxiety

Creative Writing and Anxiety

A few years ago, I was speaking with a friend about the intense anxieties I get at night over the safety of my family. He said, “Yeah, that’s the curse of the artist, your active imagination.”

And after making thousands of connections in my creative writing, I finally made this one with my own life. What do we do in creative writing if not make surprising and unlikely connections (especially writing science fiction and poetry)? And the more I exercise the connection-making beast, the more easily it goes to work on my own life, especially at night when all the other noises of the day die down.

To be fair, imagination can bring you positive vision as well as anxiety. Yes, I worry over the worst possible scenarios, and believe me, imagination can create some nearly ridiculous and impossible scenarios. I also have grand (sometimes impossible) dreams of the future. And after a few years, neither of these will please your spouse.

Anxiety can be difficult to live with, but I’ve come to believe that someone has to be the worrier. Someone has to stay up at night thinking through these possibilities, so you’re not blind to the evil of the world. But it’s also good to have a partner or friend who can help you balance these fears with reality.

And as much as I believe in the capacity for evil among us, I believe in the possibility that our better natures will prevail too.

Let’s Grow Our Poetry Culture

I’m interested in helping poetry to become popular again. I’m not referring to slam-style poetry (which I value), nor am I including the Instagram poets (which I consider trite; sorry guys). I want to see a renewal of non-academicians attending poetry readings. I want to see people discussing poetry in everyday conversation, without someone flinching or grimacing. On the flip side, I’m not naive enough to think we’ll be rivaling film and television. People are still going to flock to the latest Avenger movie (the market power of the Marvel franchise is an entirely different discussion, in fact). But I do think it’s reasonable to expect a poetry revival of sorts.

People need to be taught how to read and experience poetry again. Is something going wrong in the schools in this regard? (I’m not sure.) While I don’t want to see a dumbing down of poetry, I do think the art form can be made more accessible by better educating potential readers. There is so much to be gained by a renaissance in poetry’s popularity. Poetry is not only fuel for the soul, but it quietens the mind and heightens one’s sense of observation and critical thinking. Couldn’t we use a little more of that?

Talking Books at North Texas Book Festival

This past weekend, I attended the North Texas Book Festival and had the pleasure of interacting with new readers and fellow authors. These are always some of the best conversations.

The North Texas Book Festival is held annually in Denton, Texas. Home to the University of North Texas, Denton supports a vibrant cultural life of arts, music and literature. The morning of the festival, a big thunderstorm rolled through. Authors like myself dashed from our cars with our carts of books, signs and giveaways, hoping to get  it all safe and dry to the venue. The rain kept many away in the morning. But as the sky cleared, festival traffic picked up, and I had the chance to meet with some of the local book nerds.

All in all, it was a great experience, and I hope to be back in Denton next year.

A Return to My First Love, Poetry

Although I am proceeding steadily with preparing the next two chapter books for publication, in the last few months, I have begun again to pursue my first passion – poetry.

I have been writing and reading in this area a great deal. I’ve read anthologies and journals, as well as books by Mary Oliver, Michelle Mathees and Galway Kinnell. I read through Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook twice, which is full of inspiration, and I am halfway through Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, which is more comprehensive. Both are marvelous books for opening up the nuances of what it means to read and write poetry, although the authors come at it from decidedly different perspectives. Fry, an English actor and accomplished author, is much more of a traditionalist when it comes to meter. And his arguments for form in poetry, though perhaps not altogether in current “fashion,” are hard to ignore. That’s not to say that Oliver advocates against form, but it’s clear that she is much more accepting of free verse.

Although I’ve experimented recently with syllabic verse, Fry has now introduced me to the idea of accentual verse, originating from Old English poetry, that focuses on the number of accents only (and does not concern itself with the number of unaccented syllables).

I’m also a big fan of slant rhyme in poems, especially when both words do not come at the end of lines and when not overdone. For me, it imparts just that right level of musicality without being downright chant-like. Fry encourages poets to “not draw attention” to the rhyme.

I fear that some modern poets are losing the rhythm that is so much a part of good poetry. In some ways, we have become better image crafters, but that cannot be all a poem is. This point, perhaps, bears an entire blog post by itself.

For my own poetry work, I have been rather productive, creating and revising almost every day. All of which brings me immense pleasure. I have said often that writing creatively is one of my greatest joys. I marvel that I don’t always find the time for it.

Mary Oliver wrote in A Poetry Handbook that she routinely revises her poems 41 times each! I have found this illuminating and encouraging, although I’m still probably only revising around five times a piece. Like most art, the complexity that makes a piece so interesting comes through in its layers. It is through revision that we create these layers, these levels, of meaning, nuance and imagery.