by Jesica Carson Davis
Being an obscure or emerging writer often means taking a day job while you submit your creations to lit mags, and sit and wait for that big break. However, being an artist who works outside of your creative field doesn’t have to be a death sentence for creativity. In my experiences, I’ve learned to make the dichotomy between the repetitive, dry writing I do all day and the weird, open, poetic things I write in mornings and on weekends, work for me. Navigating the gap between the two has enabled me to more effectively channel my creative energies for my personal output.
Those of us with jobs know that those jobs can help make us better writers, even when they aren’t related to academia. In fact, finding inspiration for our creativity isn’t limited to those working in writing fields. Day jobs outside of creative spheres and practices can be necessary for any number of reasons, but more than that: they can enhance instead of detract from artistic pursuits.
For example, when I worked as a cashier, I jotted down snippets of overheard conversation to later use in a poem or story. If you work in a coffee or retail shop, you may want to try crafting flash fiction pieces about the people around you. A landscaping job in late summer could lead to ruminations in the form of a braided essay on the cycle of seasons and the human condition.
Repetitive tasks often seen as boring can free up your brain to process ideas in the background. How many good ideas pop up when you’re not paying attention?
A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that bored people “are more likely to engage in sensation seeking”—that is, to look for activities or sights that engage their minds and stimulate the brain’s reward centers. These people are more prone to “divergent thinking styles”—the ability to come up with creative new ideas. “Thus, boredom may encourage people to approach rewards and spark associative thought" (Article).
The key in making the most out of associative thoughts is to always jot down the idea, even if it’s just a quick note spoken into your phone. I always carry a small notebook in my purse, just for this purpose.
These days I’m working as a technical writer, which means that among other things, I write the not-super-exciting content of the Help section for software applications. Besides instilling the discipline required to work under periodic hard deadlines, being a technical writer has inspired me to use technical language creatively. When I write up bulleted lists of usage rules, bullet points can find their way into my poems, or when I learned how to read code to document APIs, I was inspired to write poems in the format of Java. I’ve even written a poem as a set of FAQs.
When writing for my day job, I do so in DITA, a subset of XML that requires every topic to be categorized as a concept, task, or reference. This organizational method, called information typing, has changed the way I conceive of certain pieces of writing. First, I ask: what type of information am I trying to convey? which leads to what’s the best form to communicate it? This questioning has transferred into how I approach my creative writing process, and can open up a piece to possibilities that I hadn’t previously considered, such as hybrid forms that fall outside the scope of a traditional poem.
A large part of writing involves observing your surroundings, both external and internal. Indeed, writing is a practice that happens even when you’re not actually writing. When you are at work, start paying attention to your surroundings. On your breaks, turn your focus to mining potential material for your artistic endeavors: interesting characters, energetic language, activated observations, physical metaphors. If you can practice watching for interesting images or moments, even while performing the dullest of tasks, it becomes easier to recognize those moments outside of work, to reach for that notebook, and to make time to write.
For example, if you’re in the same small space every day, like a cubicle, consider going macro to observe the smallest details and shifts in light, see what ripples off them. Try sketching how the shadows make you feel. Or, follow in the footsteps of poet, Frank O’Hara, (who wrote Lunch Poems during his lunch breaks when he worked at MOMA), and use your lunchtime in your day job, even if it’s once a week, to practice the art of writing during those spare moments. You don’t have to be attached to the outcome; the writing doesn’t have to be good, just focus on the practice. Eventually you may look at your notes and discover something you can use.
So if you’re working in a non-academic job and jealously watching others turn their creative passions into actual, rent-paying jobs, try to remember that without that dull job, you might not have material to tap into. Instead of feeling your job is stifling your creativity, start paying attention to how your job can fuel it. The dream of supporting yourself through your creative output is already happening to you everyday. It’s up to you to find ways to channel it purposefully.
Approaching novel thoughts: Understanding why elation and boredom promote associative thought more than distress and relaxation
Code Poetry: Poems Written In Programming Languages
Source Code Poetry
Free Download of Frank O’Hara’s book, Lunch Poems
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.
In May 2017, a group of Mile-High MFA students attended a remote residency in Ireland, spending a week writing together, learning about craft, exploring Irish culture and literature, and supporting each other in their growth as artists. The Mile-High MFA offers the remote residency every spring where writers can learn from local writers and explore another country's art and culture. [Photo by Deanna Rasch]
Becoming a writer also means becoming a part of the literary community. We often think of writing as a solitary act—and in many ways, it is—but we also need a network of support to get us through those long hours laboring through our passion projects. That community pushes us to step away from the endless scroll through Twitter and Instagram and instead attend a workshop or reading series to perhaps provide the motivation and inspiration needed to fulfill our own projects.
But being a part of the literary community also requires its members to give back from time to time. Whether that means teaming up with local prisons to provide writing workshops for the incarcerated, starting an after-school literacy program for young kids, or even creating a website for book reviews to expose people to works and authors that may get overlooked, any involvement has the potential to improve and bolster a community.
As a requirement of the Mile-High MFA (from which I graduated and which is affiliated with Inverted Syntax), students submit a Writing in the World action plan before graduating, detailing how each student will use their writing talents to engage and serve their communities. Many of the ideas students in the Mile-High MFA have suggested often revolve around bringing attention to the art that often gets overlooked and the writers whose voices aren’t quite as loud as some others. These projects strive to create an all-inclusive space for art to be appreciated, no matter the artist, subject matter, or even quality.
As a Denver writer, I’m always looking out for new events and organizations in my community that support other writers. With organizations like Denver Writes, which provides young Denver writers with a supportive community and creative opportunities to express themselves through writing, or FBOMB, a flash fiction reading series, there are resources for every kind of writer in Denver and in most communities around the country. Both of these organizations--and many others--strive to help writers strengthen their craft and confidence in their work. In fact, FBOMB states that their mission is to “1: become better readers of our work; 2: become better promoters of ourselves and each other; 3: share the spotlight with one another, and 4: build community around flash fiction.” Being a writer is not all about getting our work published and promoting our work. It’s instead about recognizing the beauty in all art and lifting our work and others’ work a little higher so it gets seen. We’re all trying to make sense of the world and our role within it, which automatically puts us in the same community anyway.
It’s this engagement that makes being a part of a literary community so special. It’s our duty to help each other succeed and make sure everyone has a chance to make their voice heard and their art to be recognized as a valuable expression of meaning. In any case, isn’t the world a better place with more art? Who are we to put limits on what can be seen, heard, felt, experienced? The world is certainly wide enough for us all.
A few Denver organizations and projects that engage and serve their communities:
At the Inkwell Reading Series
Colorado Writing School
FBOMB Flash Fiction Series
Lighthouse Writers Workshop
Lit Crawl Denver (September 8, 2018)
Poetry Out Loud
Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers
Words Beyond Bars
What are some of the organizations or events in your community that help encourage and support writers? List them in the comments below, and don’t forget to invite a fellow writer along to the next reading or to join your writing workshop.
By E.C. Kelly
With the rise of the #MeToo Movement, we have seen many artists fall to their past and present misconduct, a dismantling of their reputations and careers (and rightfully so). But what do we do about the work they leave behind, which are so often works we as an audience have loved and learned from? Is that work, too, now tainted, or can it exist beyond its creators to remain a viable piece of art to cherish and in which to find meaning? Through her experience with the film American Beauty, writer E. C. Kelly gives her thoughts on the matter.
I was 11 years old, and I had been hunting for my brother’s R-Rated movie collection for three months. He was home from college, and when I asked him about it, he said, “Mom made me hide it. You shouldn’t watch stuff like that.”
The night before he left for college, I was painfully aware that there were exactly 13 hours for me to find and watch as many R-rated movies as I could. I waited until everyone was asleep, and then I went through all the boxes he’d packed. All I found were three books on computer coding, a Minnesota Twins parka, and like 35-five New Order albums. No movies.
Then I had a revelation. If I were hiding those movies, I’d want them somewhere near the TV. The bookshelf by the TV in my parent’s basement was filled with books my mother had alphabetized to cope with her oldest heading off to college. I pulled out a big fat book (it may have been a Bible) and saw two DVD covers behind it.
I became electric. Vibratory. I became the raw joy of Catholic rebellion.
I had to stop myself from ripping the books off the shelves; I knew they had to be put back in exactly the same order or someone would know what I’d discovered and what I’d done. I carefully laid the books on the floor and took in the beauty of 20 titles—20 windows into worlds I’d wanted access to my entire life.
I did the math. It was midnight. I could fit in two, maybe three, movies before my dad woke up for work. I picked Trainspotting because my brother had a poster of it, Pulp Fiction because it had cleavage on the front and the guy from Grease on the back, and American Beauty, because I’d seen the picture of the naked girl on a bed of roses.
I put American Beauty into my parent’s DVD player. I got a Sprite, snuggled into the couch, and waited.
Very early in the film, Lester Burnham--played by Kevin Spacey--describes how miserable his life is. He wakes up legitimately disappointed that he didn’t die in his sleep. I watched him fit his feet into cushy slippers and deliver the line, “And in a way, I’m dead already.”
Then the camera cuts to his face, eyes shut, pushing into a perfect stream of water from a fancy showerhead. The camera pans out to show Burnham from the back, and it's clear the character is touching his dick.
“Look at me. Jerking off in the shower,” the voiceover entreats.
I am looking.
“This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.”
This scene represented a turning point in my sex education. Sex Ed Part One was discovering I had a clitoris because of a detachable showerhead. Sex Ed Part Two was realizing I could experience that feeling without a detachable showerhead.
This essay used to include a section where I deconstructed and explained how I felt connected to Kevin Spacey’s character. He wasn’t supposed to find a 16-year-old girl attractive, and neither was I. The difference between us was this: I was an 11-year-old girl repressing her bisexuality, and Kevin Spacey is a middle-aged man who had been sexually harassing young (and underage) men for decades.
I can’t say American Beauty is my favorite movie anymore, because I’m unable to reconcile the film itself and Kevin Spacey’s behavior.
The feeling is similar to how I don’t like to step on the grass in front of grave stones, because it’s impolite to walk on dead people. But what if I didn’t know I was walking over a grave? What if someone planted a tree as a grave marker, I missed the plaque, and ate a sandwich in the shade? If I don’t know I’m dropping crumbs on a dead lady’s foot, then in a relevant way, I’m not dropping crumbs on a dead lady’s foot.
I think I’m saying I wish I could eat a sandwich on a dead lady without knowing I was eating a sandwich on a dead lady. I bet there are some people who can still separate Kevin Spacey’s work from his serial assaults. That’s certainly what Roland Barthes would do. “The Author” (or here, “The Actor”) “is Dead” he claims. The important bit is “The Observer.” The art isn’t art until someone (not the artist) holds the piece to their heart and feels something. That’s the creative act. That’s the ball game.
But I can’t hold American Beauty to my heart anymore. So I’m ending this essay with a message for filmmakers and script writers. There’s a space in our hearts that needs filling. We need a suburban, dead-inside woman to experience an awakening. We need middle aged moms flipping off their bosses and masturbating in showers. There is space in our hearts for you to fill and 11-year-old girls that you can save.
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 Kathryne Lim
Poetry is the only art form that aims to engage its audience through three distinct areas, or modalities. Those modalities being visual, the form or shape a poem takes on the page; textual, or the creation of meaning through written words; and auditory, or the formation of sounds and how a poem is heard. While aware of these areas, many poets fall short of exploring all three with an equal level of skill and attention. Though not Diana Khoi Nguyen.
I recently heard Nguyen read from her debut book, Ghost Of--which won the Omnidawn 2016/17 Open Poetry Book Prize--at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver. I knew then that I was listening to something different, something that blurred and tested the limits of what poetry can do. A few days later, I ordered the book and was not disappointed.
In the book, Nguyen abandons regular stanzaic form, opting instead for sprawling lines, floating fragments, and justified blocks of text. Additionally, she creates forms--circles, shards, silhouettes--from the words on the page. These forms often appear directly beside the images from which they were taken, such as haunting images of family photographs, out of which Nguyen’s brother had cut himself before taking his own life.
The text of the first Triptych that appears in the book mirrors the shape of the family photograph appearing on the preceding page. Within the text, as within the photograph, is a white space where Nguyen’s brother’s form is missing. In appearance, the block text looks structured and contained. But the words themselves create long rambling prose that has no clear beginning or end.
When Nguyen read from the Triptych, her voice was measured and clear. When she came to the white space within the text, her voice dropped off abruptly, remained silent for every missing beat, and then returned with the same measured assuredness. The silence in the middle of the poem was unnerving, captivating the audience. The silent beats came unexpectedly and often in the middle of a word, creating even more jarring breaks, such as:
I am list ening
dropped th e needles
my hands encl ose the environment
I don’t believe I have ever experienced white space at such a visceral level, and the auditory experience ultimately led me to purchase the book. It taught me how to hear Nguyen’s poems in my head, how to take my time with them, how to read them.
While absence and grief are the prevailing themes of the book, Ghost Of is filled with an undeniable spirit. In trying to make sense of something that cannot be made sense of, Nguyen utilizes a variety mediums and is not afraid to be messy or playful or new. Near the end of the book, a sort of revelation can be seen in the poem “Reprise” when Nguyen writes, “Like some strange music: the world started up again around him.”
Ghost Of leaves readers with gives me a feeling of hope--Hope from the fact that art is evolving and our own role in creating it is evidence that we are alive. The experimentation and breadth of Ghost Of is proof that poetry is still very much alive and is even better when shared with its audience in multiple forms.
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.
By Ashley Spurgeon, fiction editor
Many of us read to find a sense of familiarity, to know we are not alone in the world. We read to see ourselves. And we also write for the same reasons. When I write, I’m trying to process the current events that flash like an afterimage when I close my eyes. I’m trying to understand the people I’ve encountered whose voices I find compelling. I’m trying to make sense of my world, my humanity, and sometimes that’s easier when I can set it in a place outside of my day-to-day life and let my characters figure it out.
In many writing workshops and craft lessons, I was taught, “Write what you know.” It was a common refrain that I jotted down in my notes but didn’t really think about until I had finished the first draft of my first novel. I finally knew exactly where the plot ended up and what my book was about, and when reading back through, I realized just how much the narrative reflected events in my personal life, the current political climate, and social issues I had been struggling to understand.
When I sit down to write, I don’t disappear into my fiction and forget the world around me. Yes, I immerse myself in the world that exists on the page in front of me, but that world is informed by the reality that I live every day. The real world crosses over into a fictional world, whether it’s intentional or not.
This blend happens because all creative work strains to get closer to what we are all looking for--a better understanding of the complexity and vulnerability that comes with being human. Our truth sits at the tips of our tongues waiting to be formed into words, and it doesn’t matter whether it is laid bare in a piece of flash fiction, a lyric essay, a sestina, or a graphic novel.
Fiction allows me to reach for truth in a less literal way than nonfiction does, but it still presents something real and relatable for the reader. Nonfiction presents a literal truth that isn’t attainable in fiction. Both genres challenge the reader’s ideas and enlarges their world simply by putting words on a page.
Perhaps that is why there is a draw toward hybridity. Perhaps one genre just isn’t quite enough to reach the level of truth we work so hard to find. If we can weave fiction and nonfiction, with elements of visual art and music and moments of poetry, we can lift the veil a little higher and expose a bit more of our humanity and remind ourselves exactly why we are here.
Fiction and nonfiction are not opposites--genres do not function exclusively of the other, they are parallel, and sometimes intertwining, quests to find truth.
By Kateri Kramer
I think I have always been drawn to hybridity, that is, drawn to the combination of two different elements to make something new. Last week I was looking through my father’s, well really my grandfather’s, flat files. Amongst the old ski posters from Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, and the inky woodblocks of tiny carved fly fisherman, there were two canvases next to one another. On the first is the face of a woman that looks a little Picasso-esque with a pronounced nose and hues of Caribbean pink and peach. Hanging from the woman’s ear is a fishing lure. It’s not painted, it’s an actual lure which I realized when the other side of the hook punctured the flesh of my index finger. On the other canvas is another, different, face far more kindergarten-esque than Picasso-esque, which was apropos seeing as I was likely around four when I painted it. Covering the face are glued-on pieces of torn paper, glitter, and Number 2 pencil shavings.
Human beings are by nature hybrid beings. We are made up of so many different things; stories and cities, joy and sorrow, our mother’s influence and our father’s influence. Maybe then, hybridity in nonfiction (or fiction or poetry for that matter) is really the best way to convey who a person is. That is, the essence of a person distilled into words and whitespace. I found this was the case for me when trying to write about my father or grandmother. I needed the influence of other media or art forms to build a more fully formed version of the person I loved and knew.
The essaysist, David Lazar taught me during one of the residencies in the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University, that the essay, in its true spirit is hybrid. He writes,
"Nonfiction is in many ways a non-genre, the un-genre. Do we need to be liberated from generic pedagogy in the same way that some English
Departments were liberated from periodicity,not avoiding periods (Oh let
not time deceive you/You cannot conquer time) but not being so rigidly
structured by them? They only pay me to ask the questions. Which is why I write essays, and why I continue to believe that the essay is the ultimate
hybrid, or if you will, Hydra form.” (Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror”)
In the essay Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror, Lazar reminds the reader that humanity has been using hybridity since the 3rd Century B.C. in “prose and poetry in letters and prosimetrae, satires, and plays” and argues that all nonfiction is indeed hybrid in some way or another (biographies stepping into the realm of history, essays meandering into poetry).
It wasn’t until I found hybridity that I felt like I’d found a space for my work, or at least found an avenue in which I could write about my father and grandmother more fully.
Whether I am attempting to write an essay similar to the form of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, or shifting from conversational speech to formal in a more traditional piece, the essay, as Lazar points out is “hybridic almost by definition.” Writing (and reading) hybridity can sometimes be a balm for the writer’s soul- providing new opportunities for exploration and beauty on the page, nudging a new investigation into the parts of self that before seemed unreachable by the language and form that we’re most accustomed to. Ultimately, hybrid essay, cannot but equip us with a new understanding of art and humanity.
A List of Hybrid Nonfiction Books to Check Out
I’ll Be Your Mirror, David Lazar
Bluets, Maggie Nelson
My Body is a Book of Rules, Elisa Washuta
Imagine Wanting Only This, Kristen Radtke
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, Dorothy Allison
Lost Wax, Jericho Parms
Limber, Angela Pelster
When I think of genre, I think of a color-by-numbers coloring sheet. I think of borders that are imposed to contain identities, whether that be an association to a country, a religion, or a culture. I, for one, was raised Catholic by a Maronite Catholic father and a Ghanaian-Lebanese mother who went to Catholic boarding school. My mother was exposed to the beliefs of her Asante heritage, and her father was a Lebanese Muslim and her mother was a Ghanaian Protestant. That meant I had relatives who were practicing Catholics, Muslims and Protestants. It meant for my mother, designing a faith for herself that made room for all. Because of that, when it came to religion and faith, I had no borders or lines dividing the shapes on my coloring sheet. It meant I had no choice but to be human first, before being a race or a faith or a gender.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a mixed-race woman who doesn’t fit into one race that I find the idea of genre challenging. As a writer, I find myself sometimes adhering to publishers’ restrictions on length, form, content, and I want to write more and more for a world that publishers will not let exist. When determining what kind of journal Inverted Syntax should be, I found myself frustrated with the different genres we must impose on readers because we are all in this world of controlled categorizations. As readers, we have memorized frames of references and schemata that we draw upon to help us make sense of content and context within literary works, but that background information only makes sense within certain spheres, a limited group with similar experiences.
Genre restrictions also perpetuate the idea that because things tend not to be created to fit into multiple overlapping categories, human beings who are able to fit into multiple identities, whether by gender or race, are opposed by a world that struggles to accept them because they don’t have a designated genre space on “the bookshelf.”
The idea of genre in literature and the arts, like with the idea of borders, not only minimizes our humanity but also restricts creativity to a fixed system of comfortable patterns while trying to contain artistic impulses within the bordered spaces that is allotted for our creativity. Can creativity be restricted? What art can be produced in a world of genre restrictions? If we continue to adhere to these outdated writing and artistic rules, we will not transform our world but instead allow the corruption of our humanity.
Throughout history our world has changed because of hybrid thinkers, those with competencies in multiple areas: Da Vinci was an inventor and artist; Benjamin Franklin was a politician and a scientist. Genre categorizations become a bigger issue than simply whether a piece of writing is more poetry than prose, they become an affront to creativity, to invention and innovation, to humanity, to identities, and to the boundless possibilities that exist when hybridity is allowed to thrive. For some, genre categorization feels playful and safe as when one colors within the lines, but for many others, it is a suffering that restricts invention and creativity to imposed lines.
Much like borders, genres are a construct. And the publishing industry, much like politics and government, controls the lines and often rejects cross-categorization. In a world where bookshelves are structured around what is the most marketable, crossing genres creates a problem for the publisher.
But real life is not neatly composed to genre. Our lives are disjointed and disconnected. Sometimes I think in poetry, speak in prose and dream in fantasy, and I’m still learning how to write this voice. Hybridity thus is inevitable, because the act of writing and making art is an identity-making act. And when you bring yourself to literature and art, you arrive multifaceted, in broken and fractured parts. How can you not cross genres?
We break the genre rules so as to write ourselves, so as to write and paint across the genre coloring lines until there is no “genre” but instead a new space for brave new works.
by Nawal Nader-French
How do you typically introduce yourself? Most likely, you want to make a good impression. So what do you do?
I’m somewhat of an introvert, and it takes a lot for me to overcome the anxiety associated with meeting new people--new faces, unfamiliar topics of conversation, stepping off into a new space. It’s terrifying. The self-deprecating voice in my head talks a million miles a minute, often churning out irrational and unanswerable questions: Will I be liked? Will everyone notice how odd I am? Will I talk too much, like I always do? Will I warn myself beforehand to play it cool and then turn into an awkward fool anyway?
Over the years, I’ve pushed myself to get over the fear by just telling myself to jump in and do it. But that doesn’t stop me from overanalyzing every decision, the way I’m received by other people, and whether or not I’m engaging or if I’ve offended anyone.
So you can imagine how I’m feeling right about now as we launch Inverted Syntax and our upcoming fall issue. Again, that voice in my head chatters away: Will the team and I put together the vision we have in mind? Will this journal live up to being the dream we envisioned, that is, not being yet another literary journal, but be a new voice that “pushes the boundaries?” Will we attract the artists and writers we need? I don’t like the vulnerability, yet here I am putting myself out there and going for it anyway.
But it’s important you know that Inverted Syntax didn’t arrive here on its own. If it wasn’t for Stephanie Vessely who inspired me to try out this idea that became the journal, I’d probably still be debating whether or not it was even a good idea at all. Our entire staff is extremely generous with their time. We are all volunteers. We are doing this because we believe in you out there—you, who needs a place for your voice to be heard, you, the hybrid experimentalists, you, the progressive.
So it’s not quite opening night, but we are dressed and ready. We are brimming with excitement and vulnerability, and we’re hoping you will like us. We are hoping you’ll enjoy our literary show. We are hoping we don’t disappoint you or ourselves. But most of all, we are hoping that this fall, we deliver something bold, perhaps something a little inverted, something truly wonderful.
Founder, Inverted Syntax
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
Submitted by Kateri Kramer