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A POEM CAN BE ABOUT ANYTHING

I came across a cat writing contest on the internet. At first I thought that the poems had to be written by cats and was sure that my Iris Belle had a stanza or two inside her just waiting to creep out on four velvety paws. But it turned out to be a human poet writing about his or her cat. I could imagine a plethora of “darting tails” and “whiskers that tickle.” But why was I being so cynical?

POETIC

Tell a classroom of wannabe writers to try their hands at a poem and the stilted, strangely wrought language that ensues can be alarming. It’s like they’re being told to write in some World War II secret code at gunpoint. How else to explain that something as simple as “This morning” can become “As dawn crept its blood-dyed fingers towards the undeniable throat of a new universe” or “Sunburst hollow toots of chimeras in love with themselves.” Yikes! Or else a sales conference of clichés, everything from “that golden orb” to “The sun smiles in my bedroom window.” Poetic in the worst sense: self-conscious, purple, words skinned of all common sense.

MORE REVISION

A friend confesses that he could spend the rest of his life revising a handful of the same poems. One change leads to another. It’s like a glassblower unsure whether to make a swan or a squirrel, the glass seething as if it were breathing in and out, the heat becoming unbearable, until he stops, lets it cave in, then starts all over again. I know what he means. My poems have multiple personality disorder. One minute I’m being seduced by the muse, the next I’m being slapped across the face. There’s the sweet voice, the monster, the forgotten self, and the one who talks with a foreign accent.

ENDURANCE

It was a minute-and-a-half since I finished toying with a poem that hadn’t been working for weeks; I had that submarine feeling that it was sinking out of sight. But I had no time to dither with the muse. I had a meeting with a young poet with whom I’d been dodging the question for weeks now of how to know when revision isn’t working and a poem should be tossed.

DEVOURED

Some days I want to tear chunks off the alphabet, chop up syllables, sink my teeth into the gristle of grammar. I discovered a ferruginous hawk up a tree in my backyard the other day with the peeled pink of a dead rabbit in its talons. It stayed there for hours, tugging shreds of flesh, dropping them down its beak. Am I the hawk in this image, or the rabbit? Is writing an act of being devoured, or devouring?

There are times when everything I write feels horribly generic. It feels like the muse has been tied up, gagged and thrown into the trunk of a black car. Together, the muse and I roll forward when the car brakes, then roll back again when the gas pedal is gunned.

Truth Is...

I’ve been thinking about the difference between facts and details, how so many of us cling to something that isn’t quite working in our poems because it’s real, the way it actually happened. Changing blue eyes to brown in order to score a little assonance or sound echo feels like a betrayal to some new writers.

BODY PARTS

Am I writing the same poem over and over again? My books are teeming with the invisible and a state of loneliness that could be a one-man cold war. I never set out to revisit these themes, but they almost always find a way to express themselves in poem after poem. It’s like I’m the insect inside the amber.

I do my best to challenge the language, to shift the music of my approach from a steep blues to a thunderous symphony. No more disappearing acts. But faced down by a particularly dramatic verb, I somehow evaporate. The great unseen. The frame shatters and I crumble into a thousand pieces.

POP

Kimmy Beach knows her way around pop culture. She’s written books about James Cagney, Paul McCartney and, most recently, “The Last Temptation of Bond” where she delves into the world’s favourite secret agent’s sexual magnetism. More fingers are slid inside more women than in a Henry Miller novel. But just in case you mistake this for some kind of girls’ circle jerk, Bond’s women ultimately have the last word. When I mention that this is one of my favourite poetry books from last year, some of the looks I’ve received have been a combination of confusion and condescension.

PUZZLE

At the suggestion of a friend, I gave my students a Seamus Heaney poem, “A Personal Helicon,” cut up into a puzzle of words, running the gamut from eight “a’s” to one “you” and “your” apiece. Put together as Heaney had it, the poem told the story of a dry well discovered in childhood, ending with a dark metaphor that came equipped with a shiver. It’s such a clear, masterfully detailed poem that I didn’t have a clue how my students could make something new of it.

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