By Melanie Merle
“All serious daring starts from within.” -- Eudora Welty, On Writing
I read an article recently about how the throat opens, how singers train the apparatus of voice -- how singing properly feels completely different in the body than one might imagine. Like certain smells or flavors — or sex or giving birth — the act of open-throated singing is pretty much impossible to describe. Even the label “open throat” is inaccurate. The throat only widens a few millimeters, though it feels cavernous. The sensation of the opening, of the voice freed from the body, is an illusion.
By contrast, in the recent glut of headlines, arguments on social media, I am choked. Through the constant influx of disturbing information, I am witness to pain, grief, chaos. I feel trapped between seeking quiet and screaming urgency. The fact I have a choice between using my voice, in relative safety, and choosing silent observation, speaks to privilege. At worst, I face ostracization by/from friends and family who don’t share my opinions. At best, my words might offer solace to those who are like-minded and feeling alone. Vocalizing on social media or walking together in marches has proven a source of strength and community for people who feel powerless and isolated, particularly those living in places where they find themselves in the minority.
I see the use of voice equivalent to having or using power -- as in, my voice is a powerful tool, and I may or may not choose to use it. When I am shouted down (say, on social media or at the Thanksgiving table), someone attempts to control my voice. My power (my ability) to speak is ever present, though I may stay quiet to conform to social niceties. We all face those moments. That's not the same as a true threat of violence, the loss of job, etc. -- real factors for many who fight inequities in our culture.
Rebecca Solnit makes an important distinction between our reasons for silence, stating “What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought and what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great are as different as swimming is from drowning.”
It’s easier to disappear into a book or the bubble of a yoga class than to pen this blog post. But I don’t want to drown.
So my mandate as a writer now becomes: how to give power to the voice, and perhaps, in doing so, embolden others who remain silent to speak? Because I don’t believe I’m alone. I believe there’s a slow gathering of voices and a stubborn refusal to drown. Or, in the words of Anais Nin, "The day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
Creative writing teachers, especially in workshops, like to ask “what is at stake” in a piece, suggesting our writing finds its power, its center, in what’s at stake. I have come to see that concept extend beyond our writing, however, to ourselves. The act of writing -- being an act of performance, of informing community -- makes the writer vulnerable. The real "what's at stake" is the writer. We are what's at stake.
The vulnerability is real. To press through the vulnerability -- to arrive in a place of full voice, of honesty, in the writing expresses power to the audience. So what is it to have sound caught in your throat? What is it to have words trapped in the body? And how do we train ourselves, as writers, to translate to paper the power of what we feel, but struggle to name? We practice.
When I feel sound caught in my throat, I come to this writing practice which has often helped bring the sound to paper.
Create a word cache by making a list of words, free-associating with the concepts “open” and “close,” as in “open is _____” and “close is _____,” or “opened is _____” and “closed is _____.”
Write out as much as you can remember about a time when you felt most free.
Write out as much as you can remember about a time when you felt constricted.
Write out as much as you can remember about a time you took a risk.
Write a few paragraphs or 10-12 lines as a set of rules, drawing from your word cache and your memories.
Then, just as we might take up singing or baking or knitting, or yoga, we practice. One of my favorite yoga teachers is fond of saying, “It’s called ‘yoga practice,’ not ‘yoga -- got it!’” He snaps his fingers for emphasis, and chuckles at us as we sweat and groan and fight for another millimeter in a forward fold, drawing us away from the illusion that that millimeter is what matters. In that way, we practice writing.
As writers, I believe we begin with audacity. We accept that we were not designed for everyone to like what we have to say. We dare to look inward and unhinge the thing locked in the throat, to then commit to outward expression and let ourselves become “what’s at stake”. We get good at saying what we want to say, open-throated and unafraid.
by Jesica Carson Davis
The urge to create is fundamentally human, whether we write poems, sing songs, or paint pictures. Creation is a form of record keeping, one way of saying I was here, this happened. In an attempt to capture some of the magic I got to experience as Editorial Assistant at Inverted Syntax’s first staff retreat, I present here a record of what it was like to be at the beginning stages of an exciting project, meeting the other editors, finding our own way together. Inverted is a journal about exploring hybrid forms, finding out what happens when we go outside the given lines.
Our Founder/Editor-In-Chief, Nawal Nader-French, had planned a full agenda in which the primary purpose was to work on Inverted’s first online and print editions. However, the retreat weekend up in Boulder County was balanced out by fun, creative events, such as a poetry workshop, meditation time, a painting session, video calls with other editors and writers, and of course, writing. There wasn’t anything on the agenda specifically about team-building and camaraderie, but those were some of the best outcomes of the weekend.
The other Inverted editors knew each other from Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program, but I’d never met any of them in person (though we’d had plenty of communication over email and Submittable--the digital platform we use to track submissions). This could have been nerve-wracking, but immediately upon arrival, Nawal made me feel beyond welcome in her gorgeous home with thoughtful gift-filled tote bags and conversations about poets we both admire. The other Editorial Assistants, Melanie and Allissa, greeted me with warm hugs, and soon enough we were all bonding over wine and a massive welcome dinner. Melanie, a nonfiction writer, drove in from Oklahoma, and Allissa, a poet, had driven in from south of Denver, so we all appreciated the decompression.
Friday evening we attended a local poetry workshop at the Firehouse Art Center in downtown Longmont. Getting there became an impromptu team-building adventure after we discovered someone’s notebook had been left on the car’s rooftop and we had to work together to retrace our path, joining forces to find it. Luckily, it was recovered and still intact; the tire treadmarks gave it extra character. The workshop itself was a quietly meditative experience in which attendees got a prompt (write 10 lines about “Home” and then edit them based on a series of suggestions), followed by everyone reading their work and giving each other feedback.
Though we knew that Saturday would be starting early and packed with activities, we all stayed up past midnight talking about life, getting to know each other better, playing with Nawal’s adorable beagles, and sometimes even discussing writing.
Saturday morning began with a guided meditation led by Melanie, who teaches yoga and has a perfect voice for leading such an exercise. I’d thought the meditation lasted about 15 minutes, and was stunned when she told us that it was closer to 50. A focus on the creative chakras and Melanie’s guidance put us in an open mindframe and made us more receptive to creativity, ready to read, organize, and assemble upcoming issues.
Nawal opened up the day’s editorial duties by proclaiming that “We are rewriting the rules,” setting a tone of freedom without expectations, which we ran with. Since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there isn’t an inherited, existing framework to adhere to; we can make new decisions as we go.
The next 30 hours passed in a blur of reading, conversation, and good times: When we began assembling the online and print magazines, Nawal encouraged us to look for themes, such as boundaries, disruption, and relationships.
A video call with Andrea Rexilius, a poet and Program Coordinator for Regis’s Mile-High MFA, confirmed this approach: consider the journal’s layout like you would organize a manuscript. Stay open to a narrative arc, or consider folios (chapters within the journal), which will be subconsciously informed by our aesthetic and the pieces we’d already selected for publication.
Thus, we spent Saturday morning reading each accepted piece and writing down three or four keywords (like tags or metatdata) for each piece, simple descriptions of themes. Later, when reading the pieces aloud, we compiled a list of the most common keywords that would be used for grouping. It became clear that many of the pieces we’d selected were linked, through tone and imagery, sometimes even subject matter. These links weren’t consciously intended, so it was cool to see them appear as we read.
One of my favorite parts of the weekend was sitting in a circle, reading accepted work out loud to each other. We savored favorite lines, sometimes gasping, getting goosebumps and tears from being moved by pieces we’d read before. It was a gorgeous reminder of how art can break against you again and again, like a wave, how delicious it can be to get drenched.
Throughout the weekend, we kept up a lively discussion about the differences between publishing online or in print. We talked about how a piece posted on the internet has a better chance of reaching many more people than one that’s perfect-bound and physically distributed. How some pieces feel more urgent, like witnessing refugee experience, and thus should be published in a way that gives them a chance at the greatest possible audience. How online issues have a spatial advantage over ink: a 25 page piece would take up a quarter of the print version but can unfold at length on a website, without restrictions. How lucky we are to have both routes available to us now.
We skimmed dozens of print and online journals, charting what we liked and didn’t like, to stimulate discussion. We covered everything from the table of contents organization and serif vs. sans-serif fonts to letters from the editors and placement of contributor bios. The exercise made my tech writer brain begin to assemble a style guide to capture the editors’ decisions on pressing issues, like whether to use indentations or line breaks for paragraphs and how capitals would appear in the titles of pieces. Writing our own rules as we go.
It is exciting and a little intimidating to realize that since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there’s no formula for how to run it; we can collectively decide the best way to do things, find ways to make the form best fit and reflect the content. For example, while some Editors-in-Chief wait until their readers finish going through the slush pile to narrow pieces under consideration, Nawal was in Submittable for hours every day looking for new work. Instead of sticking to one genre, readers were encouraged to provide feedback on submissions in every category. After all, Inverted’s mission centers around hybridity.
As the day grew long, we decided to skip a yoga session in favor of tea time, and to keep working, though a dance party broke out because we needed to reinvigorate. A sense of urgency began to set in: the retreat will end soon and we will disband in the morning, so let’s make the most of our time together.
Soon it was getting dark, and it was time time for a video call with David Hicks, the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Regis Mile-High MFA. After some discussion of the retreat life and what we’d been up to, he generously invited all of us to attend one of his writers’ retreats next spring! As part of the support that Inverted Syntax receives as a journal partly supported through The Mile-High MFA, the retreat invitation included a personal manuscript consultation, for those of us working on our own books. It felt like winning a small fellowship.
Once we hung up, it hit us that we’d been at it for almost 12 hours, and that we were approaching the end of our productivity. It was time to pour wine and take a break. Canvases and paints appeared, Nawal’s Ghanaian-influenced curry released its enticing aroma from the stove, and we finally put our work aside. I’m still thinking about that curry, topped with tomatoes, onion, peanuts, banana.
As we unwound from Saturday by collaging and painting with acrylics, we took turns reading from our own work, pieces that not many others had yet heard. Reading poems-in-progress felt like making proclamations: I am here, I made this. Creating and sharing art as a way of raging against, or embracing, the void.
Sunday morning rolled around, and once again we collectively decided to forgo physical activity (a planned hike) in favor of focusing on the journal. There was still so much to do! By then we were fresh enough to want to keep working but brain-drained enough from the previous day to take a break from the creative side, which meant focusing on marketing and logistics.
We discussed our wish list, dreams for the future: possibilities of a local reading series, the AWP conference, poetry contests, maybe even another retreat someday for other writers. Then we pivoted towards administrative duties and deadlines, playing with design for the online issue and entering pieces onto the draft site in advance of October’s online publication.
Too soon, it was time to go home.
Being at the start of something, being part of an endeavor’s nascent phase, feels exhilarating. There is no rulebook, and we are not writing one so much as recording our choices, creating documentation.
Most writers and artists are compelled to some kind of record-keeping, including sculpture, comics, poems, and songs. To create something is to cheat death a little: this thing you make may outlive you, if only on a bookshelf, or in someone’s memory.
As a record of the retreat weekend, I offer this account. For the future, we will create Inverted Syntax.