by Kathryne Lim
When I stepped inside the Telepoem Booth in Santa Fe and picked up the receiver, I was excited to engage with poetry in a whole new way. Elizabeth Hellstern’s imaginative idea had been transformed into a brilliant reality. The use of the disappearing phone booth is not only whimsical, but offers a touch of nostalgia, a nod to the days of gritty connectivity.
I heard about the project shortly after moving back to Santa Fe and was very intrigued by it. In the booth, I listened to Joan Logghe, former Santa Fe poet laureate, read one of her poems. Listening to the poem in a public, but also private, intimate space caused me to think about the ways we encounter poetry, and how poetry can be incorporated into our everyday lives.
The Telepoem Booth is an interactive, multi-sensory, community-based art piece that connects an audience to poetry through active participation. The viewing public is invited to enter the Telepoem Booth, where they find a directory listing poets and their individual poems alongside an assigned telephone number. Once they choose a poem and dial the number on a rotary phone, an .mp3 recording of the poem recited by the poet plays through the receiver.
The Telepoem Booth debuted at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa, AZ, and was followed up with another booth in Flagstaff, AZ. A permanent Telepoem Booth, with 150 poems from writers in the area, is located in College State, PA. Recent Telepoem Booths debuted at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, NM and at Burris Hall on the campus of Highlands University in Las Vegas, NM. The City of Santa Fe has acquired a permanent Telepoem Kiosk, which will feature 155 poems by poets in the area. Another booth is forthcoming at the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation in Santa Barbara, CA.
Poems are curated, usually through an open call to poets living in the region. Poets of all levels and stages of their careers are encouraged to participate. The individual poets and booths will eventually form a network, connecting poets and audiences alike.
On what inspired the project’s origins, Hellstern shared, “I was in love with touching the art objects when I hung shows, and wished that everyone could feel the pieces as intimately as I got to when they visited the gallery. When I went back to school for my MFA, I wanted to create an interactive art piece that people could touch as much as they wanted. As a writer, I wanted to make words more multimedia.”
What is most appealing to me about this project is the way it makes poetry accessible and inviting to an audience that may not otherwise reach out for it. As Hellstern says, “The booths create a strong sense of community in the poets and users and have created positive interactions with poetry that might not otherwise be possible. Our hope is that poetry can make a difference in the world.”
Anyone interested in having a Telepoem Booth in their area should contact the Telepoem Booth Organization for more information.
And check out these additional sources:
by Tameca L Coleman
“Love is never better than the lover,” Toni Morrison writes in her book The Bluest Eye. It’s a line that has haunted me since the first time I read it. More than once I’ve found myself sitting in the silence of my apartment contemplating the results of my upbringing; the love that was there was often unskilled, wrought by the best intentions and hardship. The love that was there was shaped by economic strife and the damaging social constructions of race. I wondered, so many times if I could heal what I had inherited and love better despite it. But these predicaments seemed to say that earnest and well-intentioned love alone is never enough.
Shane McCrae’s first book of poetry Mule brought these ideas to mind again -- specifically, those moments in which the book begins, where McCrae narrates a marriage. “the twigs by the road were dry enough to burn/ It does not matter if we change,” he writes. Reading lines like these, I wondered: How can people join in union when so much of what cultivates and surrounds the possibility of that union promotes fracture?
An answer comes: As best as one can, even if a departure from that union looms, one tries. Two try. We build a life together, and go about it earnestly, despite whatever upbringing, despite whatever holes in our emotional toolkits, despite whatever social constructs lord themselves over us and shake the foundations we try to build for ourselves loose.
So much of this work hits home for me; I feel it deeply. Despite the sadness in these poems, the beauty and imagery in them make me feel hopeful because the kind of attention paid here only comes out of love.
Mules’ poems work best on me when I read them out loud. They are also visibly impressive. The poems’ fractured forms appear on the page as strange line breaks, repetitions or stutterings, spaces in the text, and slashes that cut through, interrupting memory and emotion. Expression is fraught with interruptions. An example of this is in the poem “A Dancer There.” McCrae writes about when “we divorced”:
These poetic devices create an anxious feeling, a feeling that at any moment everything can be irrevocably lost, and there is constant evidence that McCrae is speaking from a place that is backed by the kind of love that would fight to hold on. Why else would the couple try with so much stacked against them? They live in a world in which they are largely invisible, which does not support the foundation they would like to build and keep, and they also live in a world in which their feet cannot solidly land.
McCrae’s couple married in a bug’s thorax, a place where seemingly they could not get their footing. They married in a battlefield, and in moments where they were separate from those around them, and each other. Their relationship moved as quickly as speeding trains, as did the world around them, as did time. But they married, even when emotions ran high, even while knowing their flaws, even when their son was diagnosed with autism. There is a sense of the narrator pushing forward despite the terrible odds stacked against him. There is also that sense that love alone is not enough. McCrae writes: “half of love is hope,” and “no animal outruns its past.” When I read these lines, I feel the defeat.
There is so much music and beauty in these poems. We see nature here: birds, the mountains, a bee, a pond. And there is shadow, too. In “The Cardinal is the Marriage Bird,” for example, the book’s introductory poem, we see a symbol of hope becoming a harbinger of what’s to come. The cardinal is the marriage bird, but it is also “a shadow on the snow but still/The sunlight on the snow”; it is “a flash of shadow and the cardinal is the shadow bird/A flash of wound...” The beautiful and the terrible cannot be extricated from each other because they are inextricable strands of life. Spring is a tree “raw with birds.” A beautiful woman walks, but is also bodiless according to her country; she is seen and also dissolved in that seeing: “she loses / Her body” if she ever really had one (of her own). And being mixed, half, mulatto means that you “Will recognize yourself in the singing you / Will not recognize yourself in the songs.”
These poems communicate a yearning for connection that I relate to, and they show that there are barriers that separate husband from wife, son from the father, man from other people, and also God. For all of the trying in marriage, in fatherhood, in life, and in spirit, that sense of separation persists. The textures of these poems create a feeling of trying, clutching, even when there can be no holding on.
The language in these poems feels simple but to think so would be a mistake. These poems are masterfully wrought. One of many of McCrae’s talents is in his power for relaying raw emotion to the reader. The reader is brought into the text and feels every word. For example, in the poem “The Boy Calls Twilight,” the narrator observes his son with love and also the kind of distance that comes with acceptance; love being an inherent emotion for a father, and the distance because there is nothing he or his wife can do to change the boy’s state:
Despite the heartbreak in these moments, they are beautiful. The reader in these moments can’t help but be in the narrator’s shoes, experiencing these dualities.
Mule reads as an artifact of living. It harbors no judgement over the life it reflects, nor does it wield anything over the reader. These poems are intimate, and as a reader of these poems, I felt the same heart pangs of loss via memory that the narrator portrays, and I was also prompted to remember my own. Further, as in McCrae’s book Blood, the poems ring like music, the lines echo and refrain, and the pauses and fragments serve as overlapping song lyrics (for example: “His ghost we didn’t know him in his bel-/ly no. We did not know him no the son/ We had we do not know the son we have”). These poems could be sung.
by Pj Holliday
When I began writing poetry, I had the tendency to fill the lines with abstractions that left my classmates with the difficult task of understanding the poem. We’ve all heard numerous times how an overuse of abstractions does not allow the reader to grasp your meaning. We’ve heard how concepts such as love, freedom, and hope have meanings that are too subjective and should be avoided when writing poetry. But for me, being able to use abstract concepts in my writing has allowed me to come closer to shaping the expression I want readers to experience. That is, an impression of the visceral through language. And yet I know there aren’t words that can ever deliver the true elements of my experiences. For years, I did not understand how to write from the perspective of the reader -- my poetry would consist solely of abstractions, and the responses were always the same: that I needed to anchor the feelings to something concrete. I was told that it wasn’t realistic to envision that any human would be able to understand terms like grief without an image of what grief looks like to me. Language is flawed when it comes to sharing experience, but for me, through the use of abstraction in poetry, I think it comes close as possible.
As an artist inspired by cubists, expressionists, and impressionists, I enjoy looking at ways I can let my imagination artistically capture the mood, the light, and the shape of a thing, a person, or a place. In abstract art, the concrete is broken and image is distorted. It’s as if you’ve peeled an apple, which has then lost the security of its coating. The core of the apple is vulnerable both to the way in which it was peeled and to the perspective of the person who took its skin.
As a poet, I feel similarly about letting my mind create a world from my subconscious. Ezra Pound famously said to “go in fear of abstractions,” arguing instead that the image should be described in its purest state. As in visual art, when I abstract lines in my poetry, my imagination feels free to create a world outside the expected frame. Abstracting lines means that I can come up with the wildest metaphors, then rework them into the thing I am creating.
Still, abstraction without imagery, I am told, is not enough -- especially when it presents a unique challenge for the reader to interpret meaning. I often find myself being pulled back to address meaning and from where the meaning is derived. When that happens, I ask myself: Am I allowed to create something that makes the reader work for the so-called meaning? How do we define what is undefinable? It’s as though there must be a reward at the end of writing an abstract piece of work. Are abstractions then most powerful when they are earned? That is, when the poet has reached deep enough to connect it to something concrete, allowing the reader to better experience the visceral through language?
This experience of the concrete through the abstract -- this “taste of earned fruit,” as I like to call it -- is what I now strive to work toward in my poems. It is a term derived from a moment in my favorite professor’s office. She said, “PJ, what you wrote here is not concrete enough, but because of the line above it, you’ve earned the use of this abstraction.” It is delivering my interpretation of an open-ended concept. If the reader can experience that hard-to-define abstraction from my perspective as a writer, then I have earned the satisfaction that comes with using abstraction to allow the reader to come close to connecting to my experience.
Typically, when the meaning of a line is elusive to the reader, it tends to be described as abstract. But meaning is a subjective and wandering thing that appears at different times in different minds and changes all the time. Why then should it matter how abstraction is used, when not everyone will receive the meaning in the same way? But it is possible, I have discovered, to bring a sense of satisfaction to the reader with an elusive abstracted line by anchoring the abstraction to something specific.
While what I wish to express cannot always be captured in words, words are how I convey my deepest pains and joys. And I have learned that if I want to bring my pains and joys to the world, then I have to create them in a way which allows others to access them. I have often heard that if I am the only one able to experience my work, then I have not dug deep enough to create a good poem. “The English language would be without some of its most memorable poets,” writes Rabi Shankar, if abstractions were written off completely (In Praise of Abstraction). Using Wallace Stevens’s poem, “On This Beautiful World,” Shankar helps us explore abstraction. In this poem, we witness Stevens’ effective use of the abstract because he associates it with the concrete:
On This Beautiful World Of Ours composes himself
and hems the planet rose
The poem attempts to promote the sensation of abstraction of beauty. While the language choices initially create abstraction through what feels like syntactic confusion, the specificity of the color, rose, the character of the lecturer, and the verb to hem all work together for a full visceral experience for the reader. We often think when an abstraction occurs in a thing of beauty, or is associated with a thing of beauty, the beauty of the thing is lost. Beauty as an abstract concept is one which does not hold finite meaning. The poem that attempts to define “A beautiful world” through concrete image is one where poet and reader discover this beautiful world through abstraction. And the poet has earned the fruit of his effort. “Because at the middle, if only in sense and in that enormous sense, merely enjoy.”
Because the thing that makes a beautiful world is subjective. It’s just as subjective as identifying the thing that makes a beautiful poem. Without abstraction, we would never be able to discover those to-be-avoided cliché truths about beauty, love, and freedom for ourselves. With abstractions we can instead be conduits, completely disappearing as the subconscious takes over to bring the writer's world to light. Within those spaces, where the abstraction and concrete meet to create the metaphysical, the reader can finally know how to experience my interpretation of grief, love or beauty. Without definite or fixed meaning, the reader can still experience the blood-pumping sensation that comes when allowed access to the taste of the poem; that is, the taste of earned fruits.
Ravi Shankar’s In Praise of Abstraction: Moving Beyond Concrete Imagery“
The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract” by Wallace Stevens
So, I have a deep, dark secret, one that I have never shared publicly before. I’m just going to say it: I’ve been watching soap operas (General Hospital and One Life to Live) on and off since arriving in the U.S. in 1994. It’s not just the element of melodrama that I find engaging or the exaggerated issues and bizarre solutions. It’s about the way in which reality is never accurately reflected and never what it seems.
Actors who play one role, return years later to play another with pleasurable Shakespeare-esque, metatextual results. But mostly, the dead are always able to be revived--nothing ever dies. Nothing is ever final, and there is rarely a neat solution to a conflict. Soap operas have taught me that when reality is challenged, the possibility for creativity opens up and that can make you a better writer. (Check out Lit Hub’s "I LOVE SOAP OPERAS (AND THEY MADE ME A BETTER WRITER" by Deborah Shapiro).
Indeed, reality is shaped by language, so if we subvert language, storytelling, imagery, isn’t it possible we initiate the potential to alter reality by altering those constructs? If in reality, we must encounter death, why not subvert language, redefine its constructs, and perhaps, like in the soaps, live forever? Is it because life isn’t ever presented so neatly that we seek to control it? Is it because that challenging tradition implies experimentation? That we avoid it because it requires stepping into an unknown, embracing the unusual, the unorthodox approaches to form and aesthetics, to discarding the familiar. Form and structure offer control over the environment, and it feels cozy and safe within a solid plot outline, within a satisfying conflict and resolution. For some writers, these components are guideposts, while for others, they are limitations; limitations towards understanding the other and thus our own humanity.
Experimentation can free us to once again write expressively and bring us closer to the self. In writing and art, experimentation functions as an agent of renewal. As writers and artists, we need to practice experimentation as a way to help us reinvent our approaches and use it as a vehicle to help us get out of structure and form, rules and rigidity. When I experiment, I am looking to extend, perhaps even subvert, the boundaries of what is considered artistic practice. Subverting traditional practices in writing allows something new to grow within ourselves and in our work. Most literary works have in some form been at one point experimental before becoming accepted as the norm. As a movement, experimentalism is associated with modernity, implying a rejection of traditions, values, and forms. Experimentalism favors self-consciousness, fragmentation, discontinuity, capturing real life which is often ambiguous. What may appear alarmingly random, is life coming at us in unusual and sometimes disconnected moments. When we step back, real events and scenes are disjointed. And yet historically, we narrate within structure, fearing the unknown in the deviation, and instead insist on portraying work with continuity, even when life does not present itself that way.
One way to step into the realm of experimentation is to consider recycling work that already exists. When I say recycling, I am saying rearrange, redesign, rethink, cut up what exists, and find something new in what already exists. When we recycle through found poetry, erasures, or collaging, we detach and re-adhere, graft others work, and undermine the authority of the author and self, allowing us to better understand the self and the other. By subverting the expectations of what makes something art or poetry, we open the door towards invention.
Recycling language is the realization that one does not need to generate new material. It’s about repurposing what's already been created. And through the process of repurposing, there’s this sense of unpredictability and an element of chance. Writers who repurpose permit a set of unreasoned rules to shape the fate and configuration of their use of language. Writers who experiment with recycling, replace making something new with choosing from what already exists and rearranging them in new ways. And with that, previously written language, like the preconceived versions of ourselves, can come to be seen and understood in a new light.
There are a few methods I like to use to recycle. One is through found poetry, including erasures and collage cut-up technique. When finding poetry, I seek out a pre-existing piece of writing with a non-literary function. By adding, deleting text, and making changes in spacing and lines, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry, I can redefine that text and make something new. The writer Annie Dillard in “Mornings Like This: Found Poems” writes that turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context, “The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.” I like the idea that the use of found texts and images shake fundamental assumptions about artistic practice. I like that with found texts, we can obscure the line between the everyday life and high art, raising important questions about why we value some objects as art and not others; raising questions about how we assign value to the other and thus our humanity.
When creating from found texts, we have to be both observant and imaginative. If we focused on language and structure instead of on utility of a text, many texts that we read during our day (e.g. instructions in a manual) could be the basis for a found poem. When we re-configure pre-existing language into new systems of imagery and ideas, we place voices in conversation with one another across centuries and continents and we can transform the self.
Experimental poetry, such as found poetry, reveals that we are not separated singular beings, but beings found within the other, in layers and dependent on one another. It reveals that we must step into the space of the “other” to be able to borrow from the “other.” When we repurpose texts and rearrange them into new conversations, we establish that life is in conversation with multiple layers of life, interacting with past, present, and future. Using others words and grafting them to our pages, we see text composed of other texts; that is, one’s self as composed of other selves.Roger William Gilman, an American writer, philosopher, and educator wrote in his article, “The Raw and the Cooked: writing cento” that:
When a self is composed of other selves, its self-interest is not in mortal conflict
with others’ interests. When we are composed of each other, violence against an
“individual” Other is violence against one’s “own” Self. And so we are always on
all sides of any war. Every side loses a war. If we recognize that we live inside
each other we will see that we cannot afford to war against each other. When the
economic, political, and cultural interests of nations are in bed with each other,
legs intensely intertwined, they cannot afford to fight. Cultivating our humanity
lies in our regarding Our self as an Other’s self. Such gardening can happen only as
Seeing oneself as another.
In the search for words, we are searching for ourselves, and we find ourselves embedded in the other. And sometimes, the world is found in both what is left and how it is redacted. Closely associated with found poetry is the erasure or blackout poetry — which is poetry that is found by erasing words from an existing text, often in prose text, and framing the result on the page as a poem or prose. The results can stand as is or they can be rearranged into lines and/or stanzas.
As an example, take the work of artist and writer Tom Phillips who marries poetry and art in the same space. Phillips has spent about 50 years redacting text to the most creative levels. Calling his work “a collaboration with the author of the original work and a fight”, his creation a A Humument is originally a Victorian novel that has been altered on every page, either by painting, collage or cut-up techniques, to create an entirely new version. Phillips writes, “I took a forgotten novel found by chance. I mined, and undermined its text to make it yield alternative stories, erotic incidents and surreal catastrophes, which lurked within its wall of words. I replaced with visual images the text I’d stripped away.”
By collaging, Phillips not only erased but took cut-ups of disjointed and discontinuous text and placed them into new discourses. This idea of being able to subvert language, a narrative, inspires me to use cut-ups in my writing as a way to rupture and tap into the secret of language. Major postmodernist author and artist, William S. Burroughs once said of collaging that “when you experiment with cut-ups over a period of time, you find that some of the cut-ups and rearranged texts seem to refer to future events”. Similarly, David Bowie, known for using cut-ups in his lyric creations, said in an interview, “If you put three or four dissociated ideas together and created awkward relationships with them […] the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes.” This “unconscious intelligence” that emerges from dissociated ideas guides my pen, and its existence directs my desire to want to use language to create a reality that operates on a soap opera continuum--where stories are repurposed and reality is subverted.
The literary collage, or the cut-ups that Burroughs and Bowie refer to is a blend of pre-existing texts usually by several different authors. It is the act of removing texts out of original spaces and rearranging them into something new--the act of bringing together fragmented texts from unrelated sources, assembled and juxtaposed into new formations. When I cut up and push things against each other, different discourses present disparate ideologies, contrasting perspectives create productive ambiguities. This collision of ideas through cut-ups often times gives life to different voices and new relationships between the unrelated, whether they are events, objects, or images. As an experimental writer, I am often looking to capture the discontinuous yet seamless appearance of life. With collaging, I can express my creativity through the texts I choose and the way in which I arrange them. Using cut-ups allows me to juxtapose the texts, and for a resonance to occur between divergent texts without the forced appearance of seamlessness.
When we experiment in writing and art, we remix old and new approaches to form and aesthetics, and this is an incredible opportunity to remix ourselves. It is an incredible opportunity to reconfigure our prefabricated molds of self-identity. It allows us to approach creative writing through other means than personal experience. And that approach can infuse work with creativity.
When we remix language, we remix reality, we take apart pre-existing text and images, we make them ours, we undermine the self, we become the other, and we realize, there is no “the end,” no finale to the show. And when we go there, we begin to shake off the restrictions that interfere with creativity. When our words overlap, our lives overlap, and like a soap opera, our stories live on forever.
Digital ways to Collage
Language is a Virus
The Lazarus Corporation Cut-Up Links
Another cut-up machine
Generate random text
Dada Poem Generator
Burroughs Video on Cutups
Burroughs cut-up poems
Bowie video on cutups
The Strategy of Simultaneity in Ted Berrigan’s “The Sonnets"
Kenyon Review articles on Erasures
Tom Philips website
Tom Phillips Video
Austin Kleon on Erasures and found poetry
John Ashbery audio recording of To a Waterfowl
Line Sources for To a Waterfowl cento
Wolf Cento by Simone Muench
Found Poetry Review (archived)
A found poem Dash it by Annie Dillard
Submit your Found Poetry
Since I got my first digital camera in 2001, I’ve been thinking about ways to integrate words and imagery. Until recently, my concern was focused on how to mix poetry and photographs, with some attempts more successful than others, but in the last couple years, I’ve expanded my inquiry to additional media and dimensions.
This has included making poemboxes (sculptural interpretations of my poetry that usually involve a box), playing with geoboard poetry, collaging image with text, and including text when painting and sculpting. When you have another medium to incorporate beyond the written word, one you interact with using your more physical body, such as drawing or assembling, it helps you to approach the work from a new perspective.
Sometimes I am literally holding words in my hands. How does that feel, how does it differ from just reading them? Do some words weigh more than others? How can I embody what poem fragments like “blue stone” or “compilation of silhouettes” or “body as shelter” mean in the work, visually, not just linguistically? When we convey meaning beyond words can comprehension work at a more fundamental, primal level?
Lately, my joy in creating hybrid works is playing with their physical presence: I want words I can touch, turn over in my hands instead of just seeing them. Wondering how to translate a poem into a sculptural format was how my poembox project began. Sometimes I write sentences on pieces of ribbon and wind them around a geoboard to see how fragmentation and viewing from different angles changes the way I experience a piece.
I’ve made poems as flowcharts and mind maps (similar to some of the work in DIAGRAM magazine), chopped up a paragraph into small pieces and mixed it with dirt, played with spreadsheet poetry (inspired by work like Jamie Mortara’s “Parse Table”), buried a prose poem in the ground, wrapped lines into scrolls to sleep with them under my pillow, and used a wooden box with 31 paper slots as a daily writing prompt (asking: what gap do I want to fill today?).
Objects can invoke non-verbal associations: symbols, the collective unconscious, etc. Anything can become an ingredient in your art, but not much starts as a totally blank slate. How can use of materials with pre-existing connotations enhance or affect a piece of work? What happens when you add text to the mix?
Of course, people have been creating mixed- or multimedia art for many years. But assigning these labels tends to focus on ingredients, prepares the mind to experience a piece based on its raw materials, potentially making it more difficult to see the whole through the sum of its parts.
If we instead speak of a piece that goes beyond text to span several media as hybrid, perhaps we can better focus on its holistic composition than the boundaries it incorporates or transcends. Would that change how we experience a piece of completed art? Would it change the way you’d want to compose new work?
There is no limit to ways you can play with integrating your words with the three-dimensional world. If you could carve one sentence into a stick, what would it say? Can you make a shape with clay or play-doh and then write a poem about its existence? What if you gave yourself $5 and 10 minutes in a thrift store to make a visual collaged poem? What would a poem look like as a movie? As a comic book?
Taking words off the page and onto unexpected materials gives us new ways to process their potential, to uncover what they mean to us. Working outside your comfort zone can be intimidating at first, but that’s the point: to see what grows from exploration of unexpected places. That’s one of the beautiful things about hybridity: it can include whatever you need it to.
By Kathryne Lim
Dorothea Lasky’s writing on color and poetry is what sparked my own interest in the use of color in poetry. Colors are interesting in that they are descriptive words that can be interpreted differently by different people. For instance, the color green may make one person think of a rainforest and another of a green Mustang. Yellow may evoke feelings of calm in one person, anxiety in another. Looking at color can be an interesting way to experience a poem in a new and different way.
The following is a writing exercise around color that I like to use with groups. It’s a good way to think about how colors affect imagery in a poem. It can also be used as a tool to uncover different layers of meaning within a poem.
First, distribute a poem that contains a lot of colors or color words. Wallace Stevens’ mysterious “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” is a good one to use. Next, ask the participants to circle all the colors in the poem. Have the participants circle all the color words as well. Color words may not be direct colors, but words that suggest colors, such as rainbow, peacock, cloud.
Have a discussion with the participants about what those particular colors represent and what emotions they evoke in them. Discuss whether any of those colors or color words are used in surprising ways in the poem.
Lastly, assign the participants three colors that they must use in their own poem. When they are finished, have them circle the colors and color words used. Just for kicks, have them switch around the colors in the poem. Ask them how this changes the meaning of the poem and whether it offers new insight into their own thought processes.
Do you listen to music when you write? Have you ever thought about setting your words to music, and if so, what would that sound like?
Knowing how susceptible I can be to influence, I’ve become more careful about what I listen to during my creative process. Gloomy music on the stereo can steer a poem into melancholy. Too often, I find lyrics heard in the background make their way into what I’m typing. When I write, I don’t listen to music with words at all--I want all of the words to be my own, as much as anyone can own words.
Despite distancing myself from it when writing, I love music and spent years wondering how to bridge the gap between my musical and poetic passions. Unfortunately, I don’t have a great singing voice, and though I have respect for spoken word, I’m not a performer. In the mid-90s I gave a poetry reading at a rave, crouched behind the leg of a folding table the whole time, whispering into a microphone and begging the DJ to turn down the mic gain until my voice was virtually inaudible.
However, I discovered that the accompaniment of music is a welcome addition when performing my work and not just because the focus isn’t all on me. When words and music work together, they can create a whole that’s greater than its partial sums. Music is capable of transcending linguistic differences, expressing feelings that can’t easily be translated into words. I wanted to be able to access that power, though I’m still playing with various ways to do so.
Last winter, I was asked to collaborate with Stratus Chamber Orchestra here in Denver for their Dreams and Aspirations-themed concert. I eagerly accepted the opportunity but realized it was a challenge. How could I create a new, longer poem centered around a theme that could easily veer into cliché and have it ready for rehearsal in only a couple weeks?
Though I have written a few poems for friends’ weddings, I’m not comfortable with writing poetry on demand, so I took guidance from CAConrad and created a poetry ritual. I wrote down my childhood dreams and my current dreams, which was more difficult than I expected. I then cut them into strips, and each night, paired a childhood dream with a current dream, rolled it into a scroll, and put it under my pillow. I did this for four nights, until I ran out of dreams. In the morning I’d wake up and immediately write down everything I could about my dreams and what I was feeling. I then combined those notes with other texts I’d written about the ritual and dreaming, cut about 80 percent of it, and shaped the final orchestral piece.
While compiling the long poem, I listened to the music I’d been assigned over and over again: Charles Ives’s “The Gong On The Hook And Ladder,” a discordant, somewhat atonal piece that drove my partner out of the house and sent my dog into hiding for the several hours it looped on my stereo. It was an important part of the process, as I wanted to absorb the work’s frenetic energy, hoping that it would infiltrate my poem.
When it came time to rehearse, the conductor handled the hard part of deciding how and where the vocal sections would be interspersed with the orchestra. Unlike some of the other writers in the show, I didn’t read my work overtop the orchestra playing; instead, the words framed the music. I loved watching the other performers, seeing how different people found their own ways to convey their work. Everyone had a different approach, some more narrative, some more abstract, each creating a gorgeous atmosphere for reflection heightened by musical accompaniment. The two nights of performances felt like quite a success, with the immersive seating night (where the audience is seated within the orchestra, as shown in the video), almost selling out.
The orchestra piece made me want to experiment more with setting my words to music. When my friend Carl Ritger—who records and performs under the moniker Radere—mentioned a poem of mine that he loved, I suggested we turn it into a song, and he readily agreed.
The first step was to record the vocals. I spent an evening with a mic in hand, reading a couple poems over and over again while Carl ran the feed through various delay pedals and effects, all the while fiddling with settings on his modular synth setup.
I read each poem more than 20 times. It was more fun than I had expected. The repetition enabled me to loosen up and try various ways of reading: Poetry Voice, NPR Voice, Spoken Word Voice, and many others, until I settled into a voice that felt authentic and mine.
My favorite way of reading the poems was at a whisper—it seemed to fit the theme and tone of the pieces. I was inspired by a poetry performance given by a couple friends of mine, Gabrielle Lessans (who has poems forthcoming in Inverted Syntax) and Danielle Ferrara, at a salon in Boulder last winter. The two of them read their work over William Basinski’s Watermusic (coincidentally one of my favorite pieces to play in the background while writing), as their act Pop Philosophy. They sometimes whispered, sometimes raised their voices, and usually spoke at the same time, which created a weaving effect. Their performance wasn’t rehearsed, yet it worked: the themes from the different poems played with each other as they intertwined, created a third meaning out of two separate pieces. It felt like an invocation—spellbinding and almost witchy.
There are many ways to play with integrating words and music, all you need is a phone or a laptop. You don’t need to spend years mastering an instrument; instead, spend a couple days getting to know a program like Ableton, GarageBand, or FL Studio. Use the mic on your phone and play with layering. Think about the soundtrack your life would have, what your poems or stories would sound like interpreted musically.
Would writing with the intention of setting your work to music change what you write about, or how you write it? Do you care about rhyming and meter, or would your song be more freely constructed? I’ve been asking myself these questions lately. I may never arrive at a final answer, but I’m having fun playing around to find out.
Listening list (some things I listen to when writing):
Monolake: Hong Kong
Silent Season: Campfire Stories series
Mysteries of the Deep series
GAS: any album, but especially Königsforst and Zauberberg
Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Vol II
Windy and Carl: any album, but especially Consciousness
The Caretaker: any album
Jo Johnson: live sets and albums
Pole: CD1 or CD2
A Winged Victory For The Sullen
By Jesica Carson Davis
I used to loathe political poetry, found it to be tedious and lecturing. Too often, it seemed to focus on the outrage and demands, a didacticism that results in rhetoric of lyricism at the sacrifice of the poetic. Political poetry also didn't feel like it had much to do with me. Perhaps I had been previously looking in the wrong places, attempting to connect with protest poems from the 1960’s, written before I was born. No wonder I didn’t feel an emotional, creative, or intellectual connection.
However, in the months after the 2016 election, a majority of the writing that came out of me could be tagged as political poetry, and I haven’t been able to stop writing it since. I process thoughts through the written word, so I turned to poetry in an attempt to make sense of a world that felt like it was crumbling around me. I wrote with no attention to form or meter. I wrote to work through—and work out—a feeling of impending doom, chaos, and persecution.
Eventually I looked at my notes, all those rough drafts, and wondered if I could turn them into poetry by emphasizing images and elements, balancing emotions and concrete situations. Could I make something potentially beautiful from the ugliness I saw and felt? Even if I couldn’t, my attempts made me feel less stuck. I’ve written a sonnet on birth control, poems on the prison industrial complex, and made a poembox about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, among other things.
Creative writing, especially the language of poetry, has the power to transform thinking and is a testament for the necessity of poetry in times of crisis. Amidst walls erected in the name of public safety, children interned and separated from their families, people of color who are shot by police, the erosion of health care and impending loss of choice over our own bodies, poems of protest and resistance can empower us to transform our world. When we the people resist being categorized by politics, we cross the boundaries imposed upon us, and we are open to accepting our differences.
And as Chad Bennett says in his piece, “Why Are More Americans Reading Poetry Right Now?” “…poems often nourish questions more than answers. Poems tend to foster uncertainty. Poems cultivate mixed feelings.” Poetry can help us become more comfortable living in an uncertain space, teach us to hold and evaluate conflicting beliefs without our heads exploding. In times of crisis, poetry is there for us.
As most of life is more gray than black and white, there is another option between these diametric poles: make some art. Try doing it outside of your chosen form(at) or genre. If you’re a writer, try painting. If you’re a photographer, make an assemblage sculpture about what’s coming into your life right now. Write a Villanelle about how the world feels like it’s on fire, then write a Tanka about that gorgeous, looming moon. Then rewrite them breaking the forms. Get together with other creative people and talk, create things while you are together, plan and execute projects to keep you making art. If you’re open to it, do a poetry ritual, or cast what could be thought of as a spell, which brings us back to the power of language. Just keep creating and talking, especially about the hard stuff. Invite a change, or at least attention, pour light where before there was darkness.
Creating something against inhumane policies takes strength and means standing up and saying who you are, that your life matters, that others lives matter.
Sometimes we have to write things just to get them out to help ourselves—focus on the process over the product and make something new without worrying about how it’s going to look when it’s finished. Now is your time to get your creativity out. Turn it into a force of reckoning.
So this July 4th, start a creative revolution in your life. It’ll be a revolution for you as much as for others. You never know who will be paying attention. You may bring something into the world that someone really needs. Speak to your power. Do something creative, begin by doodling or a writing a journal entry. Write a poem in a notebook, sketch your own face in the mirror, play with clay or paints. Express what the hell is going on in and around you.
It is easy to feel defeated by current policies and decisions, but you can resist through your creativity. Keep making noise and practice using your voice. Figure out how to listen, how your own voice might be best expressed, and what you want to say. Then say it, say it again, and keep saying it until you see change begin.
Further reading suggestions:
Look, Solmaz Sharif
Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
Nature Poem, Tommy Pico
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker
The January Children, Safia Elhillo
Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong
Seam, Tarfia Faizullah
Milk, Dorothea Lasky
Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith
#NoMorePresidents at Heavy Feather Review
Learn more about Jesica Carson Davis and her work here.
Submitted by Mile-High MFA candidate Chris Moore
This is for working with metaphor in a sort of light and humorous way—and a way that has the potential to stretch your thinking a great deal.
I have been amazed doing this with my class of fifth graders over the past couple years. It’s remarkable how they have been able to find endless things in common—like between a dragon and a dishwasher, for example. 😆
If you do not have a writing buddy, you can use these sites to generate nouns:
Random Word Generator
Random Noun Generator