Friday, December 20, 2019

stories and poem-making

In the past, I've occasionally mentioned one of the most (and perhaps one of the only truly useful) moments in my MFA workshop days.  We were heading toward the second half of the semester, and the instructor made us go around the room and talk about WHY we wrote the poems we'd brought--or perhaps why we wrote poems at all. The answers were various--self-expression, capturing a moment, making a point.  But I think I was the only one that said I wanted to tell a story--and several people seemed surprised by this. Not only surprised, but confused.  We quickly moved around the room and then ran out of time for more discussion before we had to turn to that week's slew of poems up for critique, but I found it to be a fascinating indicator of what we should expect from any given poem.  Not only what we value as writers of any given piece, but also what we value as readers (or even what we want our readers to value.)

Maybe it's my beginnings.  I was a fiction reader long before I read a lick of poetry.  My 11 year old self in love with horror novels no doubt very much informs my poet self.  The first thing I every tried to write creatively was a haunted house story for a district-wide creative writing book contest in junior high.  I distinctly remember fiddling in a notebook for it for weeks until I struggled and caved, turning in a simple counting book instead for the assignment.  When another girl in my class placed in the contest with some variety of teen story, I was insanely jealous and regretful that I hadn't seen it through. I discovered poems my freshman year of high school and subsequently filled my diary pages with them--poems about kittens, the moon, and unrequited love, . A poem was short--less pressure, less endurance, and according to my teacher, I was pretty good at writing them (this opinion based on a killer poem about flamingos I believe.) 

I was good at writing in general--five paragraph essays, papers on aliens and the u.s government, essays about the first amendment, articles about the environment for a Seventeen contest. .  Such things respectively won me good grades, an American Government class award, $300 from the Illinois Bar Association, and a big bag of free Noxema products. I would go on to write long winded editorials in my highschool paper about things like sea mammal rescues and animal testing (I was at that point, planning to go into marine biology upon graduation.). I didn't return to poems until my first year of college, and by then, they were slender and minimlist and more about societal ills than furry animals or love.   Amid lit and theatre classes, in  second spring in college, I enrolled in my first creative writing class--short fiction--and while I enjoyed writing the  stories, the teacher told me my sentences were too long--too lush and filled with commas, and that perhaps I'd be better suited as a poet. He talked about the Hemingways vs. the Faulkners of the writing world--and I was definitely one of the latter and this was trickier to wield well in the world of short fiction, where I mostly just ended up confusing and exasperating my reader.

In poetry, all bets were off. But the urge to tell stories did not go away. Some projects are obviously more narrative driven than others, but then you could probably say they all have this as a driving force behind them.   Even my first book, the fever almanac, hiding behind it's lyricism, propels itself on the story of women whose journeys mirror my own in many ways. Sometimes the stories are my stories, sometimes less so. But the point is the stories usually--especially in those projects that combine visual elements. Over the break, I'm hoping to start compiling and ordering the dark country manuscript, and this is especially true here--where certain more narrative projects --the taurus poems, the slenderman pieces, and beautiful sinister, are combined with the more lyric-essay-ish  exquisite damage. But even the latter is a story--a more personal story about growing up in the midwest amid kidnappings and horror movies and the darkness that hides under the surface of shopping malls and parking lots.

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