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