Days 8 & 9: “Walking…,” “Weaving” & Notes on World-Building

I decided to reconfigure my detailing of the creative process behind several of my previous poems for the past week by publishing a series of posts. What follows are poems 8 & 9 and ” Notes on World-building,” a short essay, more or less, about the idea of building worlds in poetry to contextualize and translate experience, ideas, and emotions. I examine a few poets who have particularly inspired me in the creation of the 30/30 Poems.

“Walking the dog to the park”

Poem for Day 8, “Walking the dog to the park,” was written around the same instant as the poem for Day 9, “Weaving,” the latter which I revisited and adapted into its dynamic structure the following evening.

The idea of this poem can be represented in its static, odd structure, beginning with a contextualizing couplet (a continuation of the title), immediately followed by a block of prose, split by slashes. The slashes obviously refer to the slats in the fence. The perspective is as static as the frozen trees; the players on the court caught in a space, fixed in “mid-leap,” the ball becoming a “fountained / arc.”

“Weaving”

This poem owes a lot to my obsessive consumption of language poetry back in 2013-2014. I experimented heavily with how poems could be structured, encouraged by the poetry of Rukeyser, June Jordan, Jean Valentine, Juliana Spahr (the second reader of my MFA thesis), and Ted Berrigan. However, these poets don’t all fit necessarily into the school of language poetry; but let’s just assume they take a page each from William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.

“Weaving,” like “Walking…” constructs a world. These two poems happen to take pace in a similar world (my neighborhood in Kundulun District, Baotou, back in 2015-2017). In this poem, the structure mimics the task of stripping willow leaves, bending and threading the bare branches into shapes. The third stanza parallels the visual interlacing of those discarded leaves. We’re left with the final products (those forms that pre-existed in our heads): “One helmet // One bowl // One green skull.”

Notes on World-Building in Poetry: Orr, Bishop, Valentine

i.

In my poetics I’ve taken a line to heart from Gregory Orr in his books Poetry as Survival and Richer Entanglements. Allow me to bastardize his quote: Poems take the trauma of lived experience and frame it, creating worlds within the poem for the experienced to be contextualized and translated for the reader. I like that idea of each poem being its own world, contextualizing the initial impulse, experience, emotion–inherent raison d’etre.

Orr illustrates this contextualizing/world-building in his heartbreaking poem, “Gathering the Bones Together.” He creates this world using familiar childhood scenes replete with surrealist imagery and lyric motifs, populating that world with mourners in a house filling with smoke, a deer hanging from the rafters of a barn, snails gliding over black pools of rot as “little death-swans.” An example of this can be seen in how Orr develops an initial setting (not fixed throughout the poem):

The deer carcass hangs from a rafter.
Wrapped in blankets, a boy keeps watch
from a pile of loose hay. Then he sleeps

and dreams about a death that is coming (lines 1-4):

Setting is not necessarily indicative of world-building; what the setting does, however, is generate an ominous atmosphere, a tonal frame of sorts, as well as introducing the elements that weave in and out of the poem (a dead animal, a barn, the boy, death). All this contextualizing of tone, lyric cadence, and image is performed to express the utter horror of Orr killing his own brother in a shooting accident when they were children. The actual event is stripped of any artifice, simple incisive line-breaking and careful syntax:

A gun goes off
and the youngest brother
falls to the ground.
A boy with a rifle
stands beside him,
screaming.

The tragic event is unburdened of device, nearly artless. The long poem, “Gathering the Bones,” prepares the reader for this moment–unadorned of any figurative language, juxtaposing images, or authorial tone–through the previous contextualizing at work in the different sections of the poem, building the world that houses this pivotal event in the life of this poet.

ii.

Not all experiences I wish to capture are traumatic; I’m perfectly content creating spaces and scenes, imbuing them with abstract ideas and gestures. Elizabeth Bishop provides numerous examples of this world-building in action for the sake of contextualizing memory, place, emotion, people, and ideas. The poems I have in mind are more setting-specific, with explicit locations: “The Moose,” “Cape Breton,” “At the Fishhouses,” and “In the Waiting Room.” The last poem does present a traumatic–but not tragic–pivotal childhood event–a young girl becoming aware of the world and recognizing herself as an agent in that world.

These exemplary poems are long in the tooth, patient, and highly detailed.
iii.

Someone on the short-form end of the spectrum of world building is Jean Valentine. Valentine uses white space (like the veteran L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poet that she is) to enhance the quiet dramas of her poems, or pry them open. She pushes the envelop of what a poem can look like through radical structuring. Her frequently short elliptic poems feel like miniature worlds; the poet-persona often exists in them, speaking directly to people, things, and readers in a characteristically meditative voice, ever contextualizing her dialogues and observations with familiar, personal objects. The inclusion of objects (recurring, recomposing, deconstructing), the sparseness of language, and deep intimacy of her speakers draw us into her miniature worlds.

Recurrence is tricky, especially because it references formulae. And no doubt about it, in each collection Valentine exhibits these formulae. One collection, however, Break the Glass, opens it up wide, dashing that notion of formulae. In Break the Glass, the near-eponymous poem, “If a Person Visits Someone in a Dream, in Some Cultures the Dreamer Thanks Them,” is an epistle to her deceased poet friend Reginald Shepherd (the poetry world has been incomplete without him). Here, Valentine builds a world through this letter, which is also a quilted bedspread, and a dream. The section breaking punctuation (in some print versions an asterisk–I use the same) resembles a needle pricking, stitching the diverse sections together–some halting, some spare and odd, some prosey. The contextualizing through meditative voice, image (“A pelican / out of her migratory path / […] absently pecks at her breast”), and shifting settings (“At a hotel in another star”) build a world that houses the climactic (in the online version, final) section:

Can you breathe all right?
Break the glass       shout
and break the glass       force the room
break the thread       Open
the music behind the glass

The dramatic section, which its imperatives and spaces, feels unprecedented in this otherwise quiet, elegiac poem. Valentine contextualizes this moment–the shouting, the breaking of glass, the forcing open of doors, the splitting of threads–through juxtaposition. She builds a stark, somber world (yet brimming with warmth) that somehow houses a dramatic moment. Tension and release expertly devliered.

*

The poems detailed above, annotated with an eye for world-building in poetry, have inspired and challenged me. I don’t follow a single style, but I vary it up. My poems follow, rather, an impulse. But impulses don’t stand alone. They are driven by something else. And external influence (in the form of reading and thinking), is just one of those driving forces.

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Days 5-7: “IED,” “Below the Bighorns” & “Acknowledgment”

This is coming late! I had meant to write a few blog posts on my progress throughout this past week; unfortunately, whenever I’m not teaching or performing teacherly duties outside of class, I’m reading/writing/planning for the next semester (and grading, sigh…). This is the same time management trap most of us face, struggling to find time to write, stay true to the path. Fortunately, I had planned many of the poems published on Tupelo’s 30/30 blog in advance. You can see the last five here. Poem 11 is coming up shortly so stay tuned. And as always, please consider donating to the press. Your donations keep it running, and keep me writing!

Now for a few lines on each of the poems mentioned above!

Improvised Explosive Device

The image of a dahlia sprung to mind when I pondered what an IED looks like. I’ve never witnessed or experienced an IED, but I have friends who have. One old friend of mine (we were two years apart in high school, in the same ROTC program) stepped on an IED when on his second deployment in Afghanistan shortly after the birth of his son. The explosion left him disabled; he lost his arm and leg. When I heard the news from some high school friends of mine, I was devastated. I haven’t seen him since he was just a skinny teen; but we reconnected on FB, and I follow his progress. He’s an unbelievably strong person, with a loving family.

The image of the dahlia, the Mexican star, comes whenever I visualize that IED that transformed my old friend; it’s an image one steeped in dark red, like a “burnt cosmos”. The poem flowed in a free-association exercise, and I’ve since modified it into its lyrically condensed form.

Below the Bighorns

I lived in Wyoming in 2013, Summer to Winter. Another friend of mine, to whom the poem is dedicated, once asked me over coffee what Wyoming looks like. I lived in the north, amid steep broad hills and flat grasslands and fields. There’s an overwhelming solitude, and a beauty so immense it breaks your heart. I remember feeling sensory overload, surrounded by such distance, so many hills, such sparseness of forms, vegetation, and animals. The mist in the early morning; the punishing afternoon. I wanted to capture how each thing “expands in thingness” growing in its singularity, “each / black leaf & riverstone, each wire strand / & larkspur’s blade is immensely distinct.” The problem with this poem is that it falls short, being too explicative and obtuse in the final line. Perhaps it should be rewritten as prose.

Acknowledgment

This one is something I’m a bit proud, if I do say so myself. My cousin once told me how she danced to Michael Jackson for 90 minutes, trying to get her fussy five-month old to sleep. The purpose is evident in the title, “Acknowledgment.” I wanted to express such an acknowledgment of her patience, all mothers’ patience, really. In a way, frame her domestic heroism, unwitnessed only by the world in the poem: babe (“ball of pink / mushroom fists & moon eyes”), the dogs, the kitchen


Days 3 & 4: “Water Drop Lake,” “The First Lupine”

Greetings readers:

I’m finally getting to blogging again! Although… I only took a 2-day hiatus during which time I got marginally caught up on grading while doing a bit of light shopping (new boots, running shoes, winter socks, etc.). Self-care aside (the stuff of another post, I’m sure), the weekend was only slightly productive for me. Bingeing Crunchyroll and lesson planning leave very little room for creative output. Fortunately, I managed to submit these two poems, which you can find here on the Tupelo 30/30 blog. Don’t be alarmed if a third one shows up by the time you see this post. The submitting to publishing process is a slightly delayed one. Fair warning, you will have to scroll down to find them. There’s no way to create a jump link to an individual poem. But hey, that gives you the excuse to check out some of the work of my fabulous cohort, Kenneth West, Christiana Baik, David Oates, Tish Lester, Janel Spencer, Garrett Bryant, and Arthur Kayzakian. And if you like what they write, please consider donating to Tupelo Press (my fundraiser page is here).

Now, onwards to these poems!

Day 3, “Water Drop Lake,” is adapted from an experimental prose sequence based on Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons.” The sequence, which I wrote this past summer using a prompt supplied by the lovely poet Dana Levin, presents concrete objects with a typically abstract and personally subjective interpretations (or definitions) of said objects. I revisited this “Button” for Day 3 and rewrote it into a lyric landscape, of sorts.

Water Drop Lake (in Chinese, Dishui Lake 滴水湖) is the largest manmade fresh water lake in China, said to resemble an enormous water drop that fell from the sky. I visited this lake back in June while traveling through Shanghai. One of the attractions on an island of the lake (a rural-like water park with windmills, pinwheel-trellised archways, and food and beer stalls) was a large aquarium housing numerous small black penguins. The freestanding outdoor aquarium resembled a green-glass prison at one corner of the park, overlooking the lake.

I wanted to transmit the experience of entering the park and arriving at the aquarium; thus, lines in the poem seem erratically long or short, but really to match the rhythm and a visual manifestation of the journey through this park:

There, black jade laps the long lotus lip a city bends
to meet
the bridge (pinwheels rasping plastic incantations) to the island–

I dare say the word and image choices reflect my memory of the park, which is more imaginative than accurate.

The Day 4 poem is based off a poem milling about my head for sometime. I once watched an interactive slideshow of the flora that grew in the wake of the Mt St Helens eruption in 1980. The first flower recorded to have returned was the prairie lupine (Lupinus lepidus) which was discovered on the Pumice Plain, in June 1982. Although other plant species had been recorded emerging from the ashes, the lupine was the first flower on the plain. I was struck by Nature’s resilience and the promise of inevitable regrowth (the lupine was observed to have a ring of seeds already wrapped round its base).

My feelings about this promise are best exempflied by the second stanza of “The First Lupine”: “Little Abraham, promised an offspring / purples the pumice plains.” The first lines “Desire bends a leaf to light– / from the starved surface of the moon” came to me over a year ago. I’m pleased the poem found its way into being.

The origins of poems have always intrigued me. Do they intrigue you?

On Self-Doubt

At 2AM it’s that little green monster that clutches your neck with its spider legs, banging its tiny blue mallet against your temple. You’re a sensitive writer, full of ambition, yet short on marketing ability (or marketability, for that matter), and you think it’s your shortcomings that stand in the way between you and Wallace Stevens-level greatness. No, it’s the cosmic slime, descended from that distant Plutonic moon, needy for attention (and brains) like a zombie 2-year-old. It’s that lead sinker you’ve tied around your neck with used fishing line–for remembrance, for self-punishment, perhaps? It’s just as you’ve hit send and reread that previous messy poem for the world, when you decide to take a scalpel to that second draft and whittle it down to a stitch. It’s the reading of past Narrative prize winners, who seem both grossly overrated and yet unobtainably better than you (no offense, prize winners). It’s you wondering whether or not you’ll wake up to the dream, even as you worry over your dwindling bank account while loathing the possibility of another year of adjuncting.

I’ve often wondered if self-doubt is a short-lived malaise, or a social phenomenon. I’ve often wondered what Hemingway might have remarked about self-doubt had I had the chance to ask (perhaps it makes you a better drinker in the long-run, he’d say). But anyways, what I really want to get at is: does it ever end?

I’ve queried writers from time to time about it. Most would say that when it comes to publishing, just keep seeding the plots, ignoring the results. Most would say that when it comes to process, start leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Most would say that when it comes to endings, why would you want the doubt to end? Unless it cripples you, as it has me, doubt has its uses. It keeps you grounded. It a common point of reference between writers, no matter the amount of public exposure or private neglect. For many reasons, doubt can be invigorating, being just one of the many challenges you’re meant to overcome. It keeps you honest, I feel. But is it manageable even? Maybe. Can these possible benefits of self-doubt be utilized in a practical way? Well, that’s the thing about doubt, it creeps vinelike and without warning up your legs and into your heart. You can trim it back with happy thoughts and external, public validation, you can even organize it through journaling and discourse, and shape how it shapes you, if that notion even makes sense. But ultimately it’s its own beast, just as your writings are their own animals (that is, if you’ve breathed enough of your life into them).

Doubt needn’t be dreaded (especially that of the self-). But at the very least we should maintain a healthy perspective whenever our minds wander at 2AM into tumultuous waters. We are (barring most narcissists) better than selves we’ve resigned ourselves to be.

Day 2: “All Saints”

The poem for Day 2 of the 30-day challenge is now online, entitled “All Saints.”

Allow me to give a bit of background on this poem. This is an occasional poem, taking place on All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church. The specific church is my own, which features a gorgeous rose window over the choir loft (facing north) and a life-sized(-like) crucifix above the tabernacle and altar, opposite the window/loft.
I composed some parts of the poem in my head as I gazed up at Christ during the Eucharist, specifically the description of Christ and of the rose window. Often when I write, I begin with an image, observation, line, or memory. In this case, the dual images. What slips in between these two in the poem are my own impressions. Despite the reverence and joyful atmosphere during this celebration of the Saints, I recognize in the back of my head there is a lot of shame and self-denial occupying people’s hearts in the Church. Sometimes this lowering of oneself leads to negative consequences (which I declare in the speaker’s confession). The conclusion is a prayer, tying together the symbol of ice (sin and denial in Dante’s Inferno) and an ultimate plea for us to be saved from our own self-destruction. One of the notions I think we should maintain is that all people have the potential to be living saints, to live and act and do as the saints, even in moments where we feel the least saintlike.

Returning to the poem, I don’t mean to give all my secrets away! Suffice it to say, the dramatic structuring of the poem is not haphazard. I’m a perfectionist; thus any poetic construction goes through a methodical process. Even now, when I reread this poem, I cringe a little. It can be cut down, cut back, a bit. It’s messy despite my meticulousness. But that’s besides the point. The point is to raise money! I’m holding out for my first donor! If you’re reading this, please consider donating to Tupelo Press, which is hosting this challenge on their website. They’re an amazing press and they need your support!

Day 1: “Curse”

Finally, it’s November, and so begins this arduous and amazing journey. The first poem, entitled “Curse,” is now online. You can also find my contributor’s bio along with the bios of my 30/30 cohort here.

Curious about the poem and how it came to be? Read it first! Then come back…

Ok. Freaky, huh? And a bit sinister, especially lines like “fur & bone disclose // their hiding place: wet, / foul as infection,” and “You too / will learn how to haunt.” To be honest, I revel in lines like those, which exude more than a touch of the sinister and grotesque. I guess some of Poe must have rubbed off on me.

Yesterday was Halloween, and I so wanted to write an occasional poem. Thus, as I traipsed through long swathes of yellow leaves pooling on the sidewalks on those frigid North Tacoma hills (miniature dachshund bundled up in my down jacket) I began ruminating on a theme familiar to me: ghosts. I thought, “What are ghosts?” I remember that question being posed at the beginning of del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. One leading half-response was “an insect trapped in amber.” Hence, the phrase from my poem, “amber eyes,” is my idiosyncratic nod to that film. Indeed, “Curse” was originally written as “Ghost Story,” and I had really set myself on writing such a one. However, I felt the concept of “ghost” would be better represented through allusion than outright naming, since it is such a freely applicable and ambiguous (debatable) concept anyways. And despite the poem’s definitive final tone, I like to think it embraces its ambiguity just as much.

The setting comes from real life. I first moved to Baotou, Inner Mongolia, in early spring, nearly three years ago. Snow persisted in the places where the unremitting sun couldn’t touch. Thus, walking through Aerding Botanical Gardens (2 kilometers from my apartment community), I would notice large shadow-shaped banks of snow, ever so slowly receding over the cobbled foot-paths and fresh green lawns. I marveled at the snow’s resilience (or hesitation) and delighted in watching this slow transition of winter to spring happening in the middle of a place that was, let’s face it, pretty unremarkable for its identical rows of apartments and overarching monotone. And in this manicured oasis of young, taut birches and dried concrete ponds, resided countless stray dogs. One of these days I shall write book about the dogs of Baotou, who were fiercely loved and unjustly abused all around me. I suppose, then, I wanted to give those abandoned dogs a little bit of justice with this poem. These dogs lived like ghosts, haunting alleys and restaurant doorways, copulating and dying in droves in the parks, fighting for a scrap of affection or food.

Anyways, let me know in the comments below what you think. Any suggestions or thoughts? What does this poem remind you of?

And as ever, please consider donating to Tupelo Press! You can find my fundraiser page here. Help me reach my goal of $350! And consider contributing your poetry to the blog next month!

–TB

(Feature Photo Credit: Shutterstock)

My 30/30 Fundraiser Page!

My fundraiser page for Tupelo Press is up! You can check it out here.

For more information on what this project entails, you can check out the 30/30 blog on Tupelo Press. And to find out more details about my involvement in this project, click here.

Please consider donating to Tupelo Press through my fundraiser page. My goal is to raise $350 by the end of November, but I’d like to smash that goal out of the water!

Small literary presses like Tupelo depend on the generosity of their readers to survive. Tupelo publishes a wide range of writers of all different backgrounds, whether emerging or established in the literary community. And I also encourage to take a look at their catalog of titles.

Lastly, if you too are a poet looking for a challenge, then I recommend contributing to the 30/30 Project. It’s for a good cause!

–TB