Found Any Poetry Lately?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

When I was a junior in college, I took my first and only poetry workshop as part of my creative writing major requirements. It didn't go so well. I resisted the process and the highly structured format of the class, even though in the end it taught me more about form, meter, and scansion than any literature class I've ever had. I did the assignments well enough to justify an "A" at the end of the semester, but my heart wasn't in what I wrote. Worse, it wasn't honest. I wrote one poem that semester that was published (just last year, in fact, on its first submission), so the work I produced wasn't total garbage, but it also wasn't my best effort.

Poetry has always been the genre I struggle with the most, as both a reader and a writer. Although I dedicated about a year of my life when I was fourteen to writing angsty, lovesick poems about dangling from jagged cliffs and drowning in dark abysses (I'm not even kidding), and I collected dark, sad poems by Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale, Emily Bronte, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe and copied them on all the liner sheets in my journals, once I moved past that dark, angry moment in my life, I never turned to poetry again.

Recently (as in the last two weeks), I've been thinking about poetry a lot, wondering why it is that every time I attempt to write a poem I hate every word and quit after five lines, why I can't seem to find the right place to begin, the right words, the right images, the right emotions. And today I decided to try something new.

Back in that poetry workshop eight years ago, my professor gave us a "found poem" assignment. We were to comb through magazine articles, journalistic essays, ad copy, etc., looking for prose that had the ring of poetry, something we could take and sculpt into a poem, complete with line breaks and a title. I thought of it as a sort of translation project, breathing new life into someone else's words by translating them into a different language for a different audience. And the found poem I produced was my proudest achievement of the semester. I hadn't written a word of it, but I was so proud of having discovered it, that beautiful description in the 9/29/03 issue of The New Yorker.

The paragraph was part of a "Letter from Mexico" by Alma Guillermoprieto, and to this day I love her description of Juarez so much that I'm going to include "my" poem here:

A graceless, sprawling city
more than two hundred miles
north of Chihuahua City,
Juarez is as garish as the capital
is straitlaced. There are highways,
fast-food stops, drab shopping malls,
a couple of parks,and, everywhere,
the yonkes--junk yards--
where mountains of battered cars
are piled so high on either side
of the road that one seems
to be driving through a canyon.
In winter, the plywood
and corrugated plastic shacks
on the outskirts provides no shelter
from the frost.
In summer, the heat melts
the asphalt. The cheesy nightclubs
and topless bars along the main
highways are where Stateside boys go
when they come over from El Paso
to get wasted.
The rootless nature of Juarez
is like a mold in the atmosphere.

Obviously, if I were to do it all over again, I might break some lines differently, but I still love this "poem," love the way it begins and ends, the images it conjures, the unique descriptions it uses to bring Juarez to life.

For nearly a year, I've been struggling with a travel essay I've been trying to write about my trip to Panama. I say for nearly a year, but of course that year has included long periods where I haven't looked at the essay at all. For whatever reason, the other day I was inspired to open that long-abandoned file and reread what I'd written. There were lovely descriptions, some of the best I think I've ever written, but the narrative still seemed uncertain. So I decided to try something new.

I cut and pasted my two favorite descriptions into a new document, and then I started hitting enter, breaking up my long prose sentences into lines and stanzas. I started chopping away unnecessary prepositions and conjunctions that were stringing the sentences together, instead inserting more poetry-appropriate punctuation--commas, semicolons, dashes. Lots and lots of dashes. Essentially, I found a poem in my prose, a couple of them in fact, or at least, a couple of parts of a longer, sectioned poem. So now I'm thinking of continuing this project, writing a long poem on Panama with linked vignettes of my different experiences and observations, hoping to create a whole out of the pieces. It's an experiment that I intend to try again, maybe even deliberately in the future. When I'm struggling to write a poem, perhaps I'll just write what I want to say in prose first, then start translating that prose into poetry. It's a nontraditional method of poetry writing for sure, but I'm hoping for a fiction writer like me, it just might do the trick.


Post a Comment

  © Blogger template On The Road by 2009

Back to TOP