Monthly Archives: February 2010

Writing Above Water

by Jeremy Enecio

There is nothing beautiful about a body struggling to keep from drowning: the panic that seizes the lungs, the hands striving to become oars, the legs kicking, kicking, and always – the head desperate for air, desperate to stay above water.

Similarly, few of us write well when panic, stress, and overwhelming pressure become a part of our writing process. When I’m writing under the gun or writing because “I feel like I should be writing” I quickly begin to feel like waves are lapping away at my words. And as Hart Crane said, “The bottom of the sea is cruel.”

With that in mind, I’ve been working on alleviating the stress and guilt I often carry with me from “the real world” into “the writer’s world.” If I am really having trouble writing a poem, I try to keep at it for 10 more minutes. If the words still feel like they’re lost in translation, I try writing an essay or a short story (or even a blog post). Sometimes a line in a poem won’t come together because the words don’t belong in a poem. So, switch gears but keep writing. If that doesn’t work, find a book and read with writing in mind.

Last night, I was a bit stumped about a poem I was working on so I took a break and read an essay by Margaret Atwood. It was a short piece about the experience of writing Oryx & Crake. While I read her essay, I tried to make a mental note of what Atwood was doing to keep me interested and how I can carry that into my own work.

The truth is that writing is a difficult challenge (make no mistake about it), but it can and should also be a pleasure. I didn’t decide to become a writer so that I could torture myself endlessly and then pass my torture on to readers.

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Reading With Intent

Toni Morrison has said that she started reading very different once she started writing for a living. Books she already loved revealed themselves in a different way when she read them with a writer’s eye. I think it’s important to share what I’m reading because the act of grappling with other people’s art is a crucial part of my writing process. To understand the books I read and return to is to understand (in part) what I seek to accomplish in my own work. So, here are some of the books I’ve been reading in the last few weeks.

Writing With Intent by Margaret Atwood

Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth & Death by Daisaku Ikeda

The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop

The Complete Poems of Hart Crane

Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing by Helene Cixous

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

A Hunger by Lucie Brock-Broido

I’m Reading Tonight

by James Nizam

I will be reading some of my poetry tonight at the GLBT Center in Chelsea (208 West 13th Street New York, NY 10011) along with Yvette Christiansë and David Eye. The reading will take place at 6pm and a $10 donation to the Center is your admission ticket. Come see this Southern Boy and two other great poets and support a cause.

Go here for more information.

MTV True Life: I’m Addicted to Couplets

by Brian Cooper

“To be unaware of one’s form is to live a death.”  – Ralph Ellison

* * *

A friend recently pointed out to me that I love to write in couplets. Flipping through the pages of my manuscript, I see that almost half of the poems are in fact written in couplets. Uh oh.

I think I like writing in couplets because it gives the poem a kind of neatness. Also, and this may be cheesy, but I like writing in couplets when the poem is about two people or two elements. One poem of mine in which the couplet form works well is about the first I went skinny dipping. The way I looked above and below water is an important part of the poem and couplets help draw attention to the water’s reflection.

On the other hand, I overuse couplets because I’ve gotten too comfortable.  So, here’s a bit of advice to myself: a manuscript full of poems written in couplets is like a wardrobe full of nothing but black cardigans. Sure, black cardigans are classy, but who would want to wear them everyday? With that in mind, I’m going through my poems and rethinking their form.

I’m trying to make better use of white space on the page, experiment with line breaks, and – at the very least – justify the form I’ve chosen. The point is not to eliminate couplets entirely. The point is realize that I’m making a choice when I write a poem in a certain form and I need to decide if that choice is in the poem’s best interest.

Said the Poet to the Parrot

by Emma Hack

A week ago, I met with my thesis advisor (and mentor) Rigoberto Gonzalez to talk about the manuscript I’m working on. He said that the work was solid and headed in the right direction, but urged me to keep writing “the kind of poems only Saeed can write.” That encouragement has been stuck in my head like a song ever since and I love it. Whenever I sit down to write, I ask myself “What is the poem that only I can write? What does that kind of poem look, sound, and feel like? How is that poem made?”

Rigoberto’s point, I think, is that sometimes we write great poems that for better or worse could have been written by someone else. I know that I often parrot writers I admire. Everyone does this. It helps us understand how more experienced writers do what they do so well. Now, though, I’m ready to recognize and act upon the fact that every once and a while, I bring a poem into this world that is the absolute accumulation of my thoughts and experiences.

That’s fierce. Again and again, that’s the goal.

After Life There Must Be Life.

by Ryan Browning

* Brian Turner, an excellent poet and Iraq War veteran, talks about the process of writing poems while in a combat zone. I find his thoughts on the integrity of lines in poems to be especially helpful.

* If you’re absolutely sick of Winter, feel free to commiserate with Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz by reading her poem “Choke”.

* As you might know, I’m really interested in discussions about class and poetry, Sina Queryas appears to be mulling this subject over as well.

*Designer Alexander McQueen has committed suicide and so I offer a poem “After the Grand Perhaps” by Lucie Brock Broido which concludes: “After life there must be life.”

I Didn’t Mean to Write About My Father

by Erwin Olaf

Yesterday I sat down to write a blog post about Black History Month. A few sentences in, I realized I was writing something entirely different: a personal essay about my father. I haven’t seen my father in ten years and though I have finally gotten to the point where I can talk about his absence with a relative (if forced) calm in my voice, writing about him is still very difficult.

The memory of his face is just as clear as the memory of his absence. If I sit down with the intention to write a poem or essay about him, I write in the abstract. I condemn him to allegory. I describe him with a fable about two blackbirds and a burning sun. I write about someone else’s father. Anyone but him. Any words but words I heard him say.

As such, I didn’t mean for this to happen. I didn’t want to spend several hours re-living what I’ve lost: the way he held the acoustic guitar, the shafts of sunlight cutting through the room, the venom in my voice when I said, “I hate when you do that. I hate when you play that guitar.” Writing about that afternoon upset the sediment I thought had long since settled. Before I wrote that essay yesterday, I couldn’t quite remember the tone of his voice. Now I can. I can hear notes in the song he was playing that I probably didn’t even notice at the time.

All of this is to say: I only have so much control over my words. When I sit down to write, I think I have a plan, a subject matter, a strategy and I usually do. Other times, the sentences take me somewhere I didn’t plan on going. But who am I to doubt what I have written? Who am I to say that’s not what I meant to write?