When Is Stealing Not Stealing? Heather Sellers, Betsy Sholl, and The Art of Imitation

This review is going to be two, count them, TWO reviews in one!  I know you care about poetry value.  I know you’ve written six poems in a row, and it’s getting exhausting.  I have an exercise that can help.

I discovered the work of Betsy Sholl in Heather Sellers’s great textbook, The Practice of Creative Writing.  Sellers does what many creative writing instructors, and I include myself, have trouble with—articulating exactly what makes great writing great:  the “strategies,” to use Sellers’s term, of images, energy, tension, pattern, insight, and revision.  She lists principles of each, so those of us who have intuited these concepts from our reading can unpack them, using Sellers’s language, and explain them to others.  I think we worry that breaking down creative writing this way might feel formulaic, but the way each writer uses these strategies is so dynamic and idiosyncratic that it’s like complaining everyone is the same person because everyone has a skeleton. We hang different meat on those bones.

Sellers also includes an introductory chapter on “Reading to Write,” which not only helps students approach close reading but also gives particular writing exercises arising from dynamic and responsive reading.  One of my favorites of these is her imitation of Betsy Sholl’s poem “Genealogy,” first published in FIELD magazine.  I was so taken with the poem that I bought Sholl’s newest collection, Otherwise Unseeable, which contains “Genealogy.”

I must admit I was disappointed.  I love her language, I love her imagery, and I love her swagger.  I love the danger behind each poem.  But those great qualities are muted somewhat by a pronoun change in the first poem of the book—you guessed it, “Genealogy.”  In the FIELD magazine edition, and in the Sellers textbook, “Genealogy” begins, “One of my parents was a flame, the other a rope.”  In Otherwise Unseeable, she revises the line into the third person:  “One of her parents was a flame, the other a rope.”  The images are still great, but the third person distances us from the narration.  There’s something more immediate at stake when the speaker herself has such dangerous objects for parents.  If we’re being told a story in the third person, we sense the speaker isn’t herself in danger—she’s speaking.  If a first-person narrator is speaking, I always worry that she isn’t going to make it to the end of the poem.  I know she must be, if she’s speaking in the past tense, but still it feels like a whispered confession we’re frightened might be overheard.  I loved the first person in this poem; I missed it in Otherwise Unseeable.

Your assignment is cribbed from Sellers—she assigns an imitation of “Genealogy,” one in which students keep the rhetorical structure of the poem and change the nouns.   I started there, and then ended up cutting out a lot of what I’d written.  Thus, your assignment from me is to begin a poem, “One of my parents was a ___________________________, the other a ________________________,” and then go from there.  If you have access to the poem “Genealogy,” you can follow her structure as much or as little as you need, but make sure you change all the important words—all the nouns and verbs.  It should be clearly recognizable as a new work.  Make sure you pay homage to Sholl in your title, or in a note on your poem, too.

Here’s mine:

Genealogy

after Betsy Sholl

One of my parents was a blue flip-flop flapping

on the Thrifty drug store floor, the other

a cappuccino on a wrought-iron table.

The line of Latin tattooed

on my lower back

says, “I hate and I love.”

One of my parents was a pair of large red eyeglasses,

the other a puppy I carried by the collar,

convinced it was drowning.

One of my parents I sang, the other I elbowed.

In the sidewalk of my becoming,

one stuck a foot out, and one trailed behind me,

catching my heel.

One was an anemone, the other a wave.

How they stood next to each other in photographs.

I was a girl calling across the liquor store parking lot to a boyfriend

she didn’t have.

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