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:


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.

How to Make a Poem Using Scissors and Tape: David Lespiau’s Four Cut-Ups

The cut-up is a Dadaist poetry composition technique that asks you to take a poem (or poems), cut it up, and rearrange it to form a new text.  Some practitioners also do the fold-in, which requires two texts–you fold each in half vertically, and then line up the lines and read across.  While William S. Burroughs was a proponent of the cut-up in the middle of the 20th century, poets are still composing under the banner of the cut-up, as in David Lespiau’s 2011 collection Four Cut-Ups.  You can read my review of it on Drunken Boat:  http://www.drunkenboat.com/db15/four-cut-ups-or-the-case-of-the-restored-volume

Your Assignment:  Write a cut-up or fold-in poem.  Print out a poem, or re-write its words singly on another sheet of paper,  Then, rearrange them into your own poem.  Or, you could write a fold-in.  Print out two poems with similar spacing.  Fold each in half vertically.  Read across the new lines (which will be one-half one poem, one-half the other).  Your poem will be the result.  If you want more detailed instructions:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cut-up_technique

Find the Poetry Hidden in Your Dictionary: Laura Walker’s Follow-Haswed

The book, somehow free of coffee stains, under consideration.  From Apogee Press, 2012.

The book, somehow free of coffee stains, under consideration. From Apogee Press, 2012.

A year and a half ago, I wrote this about Laura Walker’s book Follow-Haswed:  “The poems themselves feel like volunteers, offering lyrical ‘ports in the storm’ available in our most seemingly prosaic reference works, if only we had a consciousness to liberate them onto a new page.”  You can read my full review here:  http://www.quarterlywest.utah.edu/iss_80/iss_80_talestory.html

Today, for your assignment, you will be “liberating” one such poem.  You have two options–one if you have access to the Online Oxford English Dictionary, and one if you don’t.

1–You have access to the Online OED:  Go to the welcome page.  Select “Advanced search.”  In each of the two search boxes, type a word you’ve been thinking about.  These two words will be the title of your poem-in-progress.  When you hit “Search,” you’ll get a word list containing all the words that have both of your search terms in their definitions.  You’re shooting for a manageable list, somewhere between 100-200 words, in my experience.  Add or subtract search terms until you get a list in the hundreds, or a list that you can keep in your mind at once.  Then, write a poem using as many of the words on the list as possible, and as few other words as you can get away with (preferably none).

2–You do not have access to the Online OED:  Go find a print dictionary.  Choose a spread.  You can choose it on purpose or just open the book to whichever page it lands on.  The first word on the page, plus the last word on the page, will be the title.  Then, do an erasure–pick interesting snippets from the spread to make your poem.

“You are as feral as I”: Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion

“You look so straight-laced,” the Aberdeen, SD, poet Pen Pearson once said to me.  HA! I thought.  In my back pocket, I had an e-mail from Lucie Brock-Broido, who wrote to me after I reviewed her latest book Stay, Illusion, for Drunken Boat.  In the e-mail, Brock-Broido said, “You are as feral as I,” which, if I were the kind of person who got a tattoo, I might put somewhere on my body where I could remember it forever.  I am straight-laced enough that I don’t have any tattoos.  Or, I want to go incognito among the straight-laced.

For today’s review and assignment, I’ll link to my review of Stay, Illusion:  http://issues.drunkenboat.com/db20/reviews/mistaken-churl-lucie-brock-broidos-stay-illusion-barbara-duffey

Your assignment:  Write a poem with the word “inarguably” in it.  Of course, you will probably find yourself writing about something that IS arguable, which will add contrast and texture to your poem.  Think of being boastful, of infusing your poem with false confidence.

How Do We Determine What’s Profane?: Valerie Wetlaufer’s Mysterious Acts by My People

photo (18)

Most of my favorite books bear coffee stains. I once returned the Selected Levis, on inter-library loan from a big fancy library, to my home-library librarian-friend who conspiratorially whispered, “We won’t tell them and see if they complain.”  As far as I know, they have never complained.  While I stained just one page of the Levis, the whole bottom edge of my (ugh, signed!  First edition!) copy of Valerie Wetlaufer’s debut collection, Mysterious Acts by My People, is water-crinkled in an umber smudge.  What do I so love about it?

Wetlaufer unites the lowbrow and highbrow, the profane and the fancy, in beautiful poems that make us question exactly what standards we’ve been using to determine something is “lowbrow” or “profane,” anyway.   It’s an academic cliché to discuss “liminality” and to question the “liminal spaces” between categories, but Wetlaufer really does it, and does it with such uniquely beautiful language that you start to feel like maybe you’re a jerk for thinking something is so out of the scope of poetry.

For example, her “Love Poem in Three Parts” tells its addressee, “I want your fist inside me.”  By the end of the poem, the speaker tells her lover, “Through thin walls we hear / my parents talk & fuck.”  The hard k’s reflect our discomfort at hearing our parents copulate, and the profane nature of this sound is emphasized not only by the status of “fuck” as an obscenity (sometimes even in the legal sense).

Often, we code Latinate words as highbrow and Anglo-Saxon words as lowbrow (see Joseph M. William’s iconic Style:  Lessons in Clarity and Grace for a discussion of why—after the Norman Conquest, the ruling class spoke French, through which English inherits its Latin influences.  I am oversimplifying; if you’re interested, check out the Williams).  It is not just a coincidence, then, that neither “talk” nor “fuck” has its roots in Latin.  “Talk” is from the Middle English, and while “fuck” has an unclear etymology, the OED lists the most likely progenitor to be the Dutch verb “fokken,” which meant “to strike” in the 15th century and then evolved to “to beget children” in 1637 and “to have sexual intercourse with” in 1659.  Part of our sense that something is cultured or profane, lowbrow or highbrow, comes from power differentials; those in power define what they do as highbrow, and those who are subjugated do things that are, by definition of who does them, lowbrow.

I realize that this is not necessarily a new insight.  However, I think it sheds light on why Wetlaufer’s “I want your fist inside me” feels profane—is it because this book begins, “I loved a girl / when I was a girl”?  Mysterious Acts by My People questions the marginalization of lesbian experience, and asks us to look for our own prejudices and discomfort at “non-normative” sexual behaviors, by dramatizing them using blunt language.  Set next to the parents’ “fuck[ing],” it becomes normative—we can feel discomfort even at the normative behavior of two long-married people having sex in their own bed in their own home at night.  So why should we marginalize lesbians for performing behaviors that might make some readers feel discomfort?  I want to make sure that emphasis is on “some”–plenty of people will read that description as being as normal as it is.  What’s important is that Wetlaufer splits discomfort from moral judgment—we shouldn’t use our personal discomfort to determine what is “normal” or appropriate or acceptable behavior. Or the stuff of poetry.  Something shouldn’t have to seem beautiful to be poetic.

Or, perhaps it represents our discomfort at any sexual behavior being spoken of openly in poetry, our Puritanical history influencing our reading.  In that case, it feels particularly subversive to describe specific sex acts in beautiful ways.

I also want to point out that the contrast between the fancy and the profane, the lowbrow and the highbrow, that marks much of this collection is not only thematic but is also coded in the DNA of the book’s language.  It’s in the etymology of Wetlaufer’s diction, and it’s in the title of “Love Poem in Three Parts”—“love” is also not Latinate, but Saxon, and we don’t consider it to be lowbrow, particularly.  Or do we?  It is, at worst, considered a “universal” experience, felt by the upper and lower castes alike.  Again, an oversimplification, but it does highlight that etymology alone can’t account for our sense of profanity.

But this is just the lowbrow, the profane.  We haven’t discussed the highbrow and the fancy.  The speaker of “Love Poem in Three Parts” calls the lover’s clothing her “vestments” (you guessed it—Latinate) in the first section of the poem.  In the third section, the speaker and her lover are “wearing / white & clasping hands.”  By the end of the poem, the frank discussion of sexual acts, and the lyric beauty of the English language, combine in the closing image:  “You dip your face / into me like a kitten drinking milk, your whole face / disappearing into the shallow bowl.”  In “like a kitten drinking milk,” the assonance of the repeated short i’s, and the consonance of the repeated k’s, texturize the image and contrast it with the soft sense of the kitten’s action and tongue.  The assonance of repeated “ow” sounds in “shallow” and “bowl” ends the poem on a moment of sonic beauty and on a sound that can be both a common orgasm or a specialized, lyric invocation.

Thus, Mysterious Acts by My People invites us to widen our concept of what is beautiful and poetic by examining why we find things to be profane—saying something in Latinate vocabulary does not mean it’s inherently better than something with an Anglo-Saxon moniker, and sex is sex is sex—we’re uncomfortable about it, and we love it.  That frisson is perfect for poetry—lyric beauty emerges from that contrast.

And the word “coffee” comes to us from the Arabic qahwah, in case you were wondering.

Here are your assignments!  And yes, that’s plural.  I’ve asked Wetlaufer to write an assignment for us, and I’m going to provide one, too.  Here’s mine:

Write a poem that includes a word or action (preferably both) that makes you uncomfortable, or that you find “profane” or “lowbrow.”  “Elevate” that word/action into the lyric with the most beautiful language you can muster.

Wetlaufer’s assignment:  Wetlaufer told me that she wrote many of the poems in Mysterious Acts during a year-long poem-a-day stint.  We’re going to do a starter version of that, so your assignment is to write a poem a day for the month of April, starting now!