When the editorial staff (Jesica Carson Davis, Melanie Merle and Allissa Hertz) and I were first identifying themes for our print and online issues, we didn’t realize we were also building our language—a way for you to read us. We didn’t realize that when we separated works into print and online, we were making decisions not only about theme, but also about urgency— about what we believed needed to be ever-present in our digital, always on, always free, always available format; we didn’t realize that the language collection we were curating from submissions was not only of words and images, but that which when placed together presented a collection that spilled outside prescribed lines, in disquieting and exhilarating form and content, re-forming language.
We didn’t ask for pieces about borders and refugees, place and displacement, but that is what we received. From the political to the personal, these works invariably had something interwoven about isolation and loss. The work we present to you in our inaugural issue is made by artists in a variety of media: painters, photographers, poets, fiction and nonfiction writers— many of whom are working to blend genre into something new, yet who may still write or create art traditionally in order to break with tradition. And throughout, pairing visual arts with written works, we’ve blended in a layer that shadows or echoes the other.
While the English language has long been a symbol of imperialistic power, used to create hierarchies and division, we also recognize that this language can be reformed. We persist with the language we have, revolting against it to arrive at what and how we want to communicate, because as Adrienne Rich says, while writers cannot refuse the language they have been dealt, writers “can re-fuse the language given to him or her, bend and torque it into an instrument for connection instead of dominance and apartheid: toward what Edouard Glissant has wonderfully called ‘the poetics of relation’.”
It is apt that the issue begins with Metres’ and Kalfopoulou’s pieces around the relationship that exists between language and suffering— about human beings in displacement. The collection progresses between a consciousness of self, whether in relation to geography, physical or literal, to the conscious attempts to fracture and reconfigure language. At the heart of our collection is the complexity of familial relationships, straddling elements of discord and the need for acceptance.
These are the works joining Manet at the ‘Salon des Refusés’, works that are brilliant and necessary, always uplifting and mercurial, speaking from the future — a medley of ‘re-fused’ works, for us, the Inverted camp celebrating those members of the Refusés. The works in Inverted Syntax inaugural online issue, including The Art of the Postcard series, are a meditation on what Ada Limón asks, about how we live, how we live in the world, amongst inevitable loss and suffering. Each piece, a fearless creation ubiquitously resisting conformity and complacency, takes memorable, haunting approaches to art and language that turn us inside out and convey novel insights into the human experience. Once you let yourself enter this space, your senses start reaching outside the imposed language lines and you start allowing yourself to experience language, including art, viscerally, on your terms.
Read online issue 1.
By Ginny Short
Submitting work for publication is a daunting process for many writers, and one that each writer must find their own way around. In this post, poet Ginny Short shares the process she went through when she first started submitting during her time as an MFA candidate at the Mile High MFA program at Regis University, and offers guidelines for how writers can make submitting a part of their own writing practice.
For me, overcoming my fears of submitting my work to journals meant starting small. l started by looking at journals that I liked, ones that published nature or ecological themes, which I often wrote about, and journals that published the work of poets that I like. I found The Avocet, a small nature poetry magazine that I decided to submit to. It had the advantage of having published, at one point, the work of Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets. I decided not to aim big at first: no New Yorker — in fact, no big-name magazines at all. I went for smaller, cozier, lesser-known journals, both in print and online. I did get some rejections, but I was also accepted into two! Those acceptances were enough to give me the courage to keep trying, and led me to one of my first important “lessons learned”: how to own my work.
In my first summer in the Mile-High MFA, I decided to try submitting some of my tanka poems. Sometimes defined as “five phrases on five lines,” tanka is a Japanese form that has a strong imagistic approach connecting human emotions with nature imagery. In particular, I like a form called tanka prose – essentially a prose poem accompanied by a tanka. I submitted several of my favorites to Ribbons, the journal of the Tanka Society of America. A while later, I got a lovely rejection letter --not a form letter, but a personal one, where the editor made comments and gave me advice about the poems, then thanked me and said “not this time”. Her suggestions seemed reasonable (although I was a bit unsure), so as part of my poetry semester I rewrote and submitted the poems as part of one of my assignments. I told my faculty mentor what the editor had suggested, and he read them. His advice back to me was essentially that he disagreed with the editors; he felt that by making the suggested revisions, I had taken the heart out of the pieces. After a long talk with him, I realized that it wasn’t about whether my poems were good or bad, but whether this journal was the right home for these pieces. There was nothing wrong with what the editor asked, but it did not reflect what I was trying to do.
I learned that the trick in publishing is finding the right home for my work, and realizing that, in the end, it is my artistic decisions that matter. This makes rejection less painful; after all why would I want my heart to be laid open for someone who doesn’t want to see it, or wants me to change it substantially for them to like it? It is not always easy to discern what should stay and what should go, but following my voice has never set me wrong.
Between fears of rejection and the challenge of staying true to your work, submitting can be daunting. But we don’t need to let it be. Instead, we can see it as part of our writing practice. Bring to it the same attention and awareness that you do writing the piece.
There are a few guidelines I have found that help in the submitting aspect of my writing practice:
First: read widely. By perusing the many journals and websites that offer a platform for your work, you will have the pleasure of being exposed to dozens of writers, and many, many pieces of work you might not have encountered otherwise. I find that this enriches my own writing; exposure to other writers’ works is critical.
Second: peruse the website of a potential journal. There will be clues within its pages, both subtle and overt, that might help you determine if your work would be a good fit. Read any sample pieces you can find. Do you like what you read? Can you see your piece sitting next to that one you just read? Most journals have some samples available on their website. Some tell you authors that they like. Pay attention. Browse through them. Enjoy. Savor.
Third: follow their guidelines. They will tell you how many words or pages to submit, the subject matter they are interested in (sometimes they have a theme) and what, exactly, they want. Do follow directions. It may not get your work in, but it will prevent your manuscript from being thrown on the editing floor before even being considered. So, read, pay attention, follow directions. Simple but important.
Fourth: keep track of what and where you are submitting. Some journals ask that you do not submit to another journal while they are considering your work (although I find this is rare), others don’t care (but you should let them know if a piece you submitted is accepted elsewhere). Start a regular submissions log using Excel or Word or a lovely handmade ledger.
However you do it, keep track of both rejections and acceptances. You are in good company; own them with pride. Golding's The Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times before being accepted. Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having one published. (YIKES!) Beatrix Potter self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Rudyard Kipling was told he did not know how to use the English language. Who knew?
The poet Andrea Rexilius (1) used transfer paper to print all of her rejection letters on a slip…and she wore her rejection slip! Check out this post for more other famous people who experienced rejections for their writing. It will make you feel better, guaranteed: you are in good company.
Getting published takes persistence. Don’t give up.
Fifth: don’t be discouraged. (See paragraph above.) It is a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and submitting often. Having good work is only a part of it. Remember that all rejections – and for that matter comments or critique – are subjective. I have several pieces that were reviewed by three or more people and got three very different responses. You have to keep submitting. It is not a reflection of your work that you get rejections. Fiction writer Rachel Weaver (2) offered advice early on in the MFA program that I always remember: if more than one person gives you the same advice, pay attention. Go back. Revise. But in the end, you are your own creative director.
Sixth: set yourself a goal. Set aside one evening (or morning if you are a morning person) and plan to submit at least one piece on that day. My goal is to submit at least once a week. You can set your goal according to your time. For novel or memoir writers, there are also places that accept excerpts of novels, novellas or longer bodies of work, like A Public Space, Missouri Review or Literary Mama. Or maybe you have some shorter pieces, short stories or flash fiction you can submit. Whatever you have ready to submit, just set yourself a goal and do it. Learn to see submitting as part of your writing practice.
I’ve followed these guidelines, and this is what it looks like for me: My goal is to submit at least one piece a week (I make it a rule to submit two pieces for every rejection). I am trying out all sorts of journals, even ones I know are a long shot because, well, you just never know. The process of submitting is educational. You discover artists that you never knew you loved, and you begin to see yourself as a contender.
There are a plethora of journals out there and discovering where to submit can be daunting. I used Duotrope which is a searchable subscription service that catalogs dozens of journals for all genres. Access is $5 a month and it has been worth it to me. My submission log keeps me hopeful: I currently have 35 rejections, 17 acceptances, and one poem republished in the “best of 2017” category for that journal as well. I have four essays and 15 poems being reviewed. It isn’t going to happen by magic, getting published that is. It’s going to happen by submitting work.
This week I received two letters: one was a form rejection, the other wrote that they “adored” three of my poems, which will be published in the November issue of Mojave River Review. I couldn’t be happier. Well, getting my first book published might make me happier. It’ll only happen if I submit it. I am working on that. Not that long ago, I had nothing being rejected, reviewed, or accepted, because I wasn’t submitting anything at all. You cannot predict if your work will be accepted or rejected but know that, either way, it is about taking a chance and submitting, because you never know what that journal needs at that moment. So, take heart. At times it may seem that no matter how much you think your piece might fit in, they will disagree. Then sometimes when you least expect it, they love it. The point is, if you arrive at a place where you can own your work, you’ll always feel motivated to submit.
1. Dr. Andrea Rexilius is the program coordination and Poetry faculty mentor at the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University. She is the author of five books of poetry.
2. Rachel Weaver is the author of Point of Direction and a faculty mentor for fiction at the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University.
By Melanie Merle
“All serious daring starts from within.” -- Eudora Welty, On Writing
I read an article recently about how the throat opens, how singers train the apparatus of voice -- how singing properly feels completely different in the body than one might imagine. Like certain smells or flavors — or sex or giving birth — the act of open-throated singing is pretty much impossible to describe. Even the label “open throat” is inaccurate. The throat only widens a few millimeters, though it feels cavernous. The sensation of the opening, of the voice freed from the body, is an illusion.
By contrast, in the recent glut of headlines, arguments on social media, I am choked. Through the constant influx of disturbing information, I am witness to pain, grief, chaos. I feel trapped between seeking quiet and screaming urgency. The fact I have a choice between using my voice, in relative safety, and choosing silent observation, speaks to privilege. At worst, I face ostracization by/from friends and family who don’t share my opinions. At best, my words might offer solace to those who are like-minded and feeling alone. Vocalizing on social media or walking together in marches has proven a source of strength and community for people who feel powerless and isolated, particularly those living in places where they find themselves in the minority.
I see the use of voice equivalent to having or using power -- as in, my voice is a powerful tool, and I may or may not choose to use it. When I am shouted down (say, on social media or at the Thanksgiving table), someone attempts to control my voice. My power (my ability) to speak is ever present, though I may stay quiet to conform to social niceties. We all face those moments. That's not the same as a true threat of violence, the loss of job, etc. -- real factors for many who fight inequities in our culture.
Rebecca Solnit makes an important distinction between our reasons for silence, stating “What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought and what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great are as different as swimming is from drowning.”
It’s easier to disappear into a book or the bubble of a yoga class than to pen this blog post. But I don’t want to drown.
So my mandate as a writer now becomes: how to give power to the voice, and perhaps, in doing so, embolden others who remain silent to speak? Because I don’t believe I’m alone. I believe there’s a slow gathering of voices and a stubborn refusal to drown. Or, in the words of Anais Nin, "The day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
Creative writing teachers, especially in workshops, like to ask “what is at stake” in a piece, suggesting our writing finds its power, its center, in what’s at stake. I have come to see that concept extend beyond our writing, however, to ourselves. The act of writing -- being an act of performance, of informing community -- makes the writer vulnerable. The real "what's at stake" is the writer. We are what's at stake.
The vulnerability is real. To press through the vulnerability -- to arrive in a place of full voice, of honesty, in the writing expresses power to the audience. So what is it to have sound caught in your throat? What is it to have words trapped in the body? And how do we train ourselves, as writers, to translate to paper the power of what we feel, but struggle to name? We practice.
When I feel sound caught in my throat, I come to this writing practice which has often helped bring the sound to paper.
Create a word cache by making a list of words, free-associating with the concepts “open” and “close,” as in “open is _____” and “close is _____,” or “opened is _____” and “closed is _____.”
Write out as much as you can remember about a time when you felt most free.
Write out as much as you can remember about a time when you felt constricted.
Write out as much as you can remember about a time you took a risk.
Write a few paragraphs or 10-12 lines as a set of rules, drawing from your word cache and your memories.
Then, just as we might take up singing or baking or knitting, or yoga, we practice. One of my favorite yoga teachers is fond of saying, “It’s called ‘yoga practice,’ not ‘yoga -- got it!’” He snaps his fingers for emphasis, and chuckles at us as we sweat and groan and fight for another millimeter in a forward fold, drawing us away from the illusion that that millimeter is what matters. In that way, we practice writing.
As writers, I believe we begin with audacity. We accept that we were not designed for everyone to like what we have to say. We dare to look inward and unhinge the thing locked in the throat, to then commit to outward expression and let ourselves become “what’s at stake”. We get good at saying what we want to say, open-throated and unafraid.
Dear Fans of Inverted Syntax,
By the end of October, we will launch our inaugural online issue. Our singular goal is to become the center of your reading universe, to monopolize your reading space, to make sure you have Inverted Syntax on the mind all of the time. In the next few weeks, you will notice a difference with our online content. We are aiming to intensify the online reading experience with an online aesthetic that will match the work and articulate the visceral. And, you should brace yourselves because we have scoured our submissions (which were read blind) and solicited artists, writers, and even filmmakers to bring you something indescribable, something that will intoxicate your senses. And while the online issue is going to leave you exhilarated and inspired-- possibly inducing hyperventilation--just wait and see what the print issue in January 2019 does to you.
Curating the issues is a team effort. A few weeks ago, the Inverted Syntax editorial team attended a staff retreat to finalize content, layout, and more, but what happened next was wonderful and unexpected. In case you missed it, one of our Editorial Assistants, Jesica Carson Davis, recounts in her recent blog post “A Record of an Inverted Retreat” the beauty and spontaneous community that can grow when you accept an invitation and take a creative risk.
Jesica writes, "Being at the start of something, being part of an endeavor’s nascent phase, feels exhilarating. There is no rulebook, and we are not writing one so much as recording our choices, creating documentation.
Most writers and artists are compelled to do some kind of record-keeping, including sculpture, comics, poems, and songs. To create something is to cheat death a little: this thing you make may outlive you, if only on a bookshelf, or someone’s memory. As a record of the retreat weekend, I offer this account.
For the future, we will create Inverted Syntax.”
That said, we are going to be closing our submissions window on Friday, October 5 and taking a break from reading submissions; however, our 'Blog Submissions' and 'Join our Team' are STILL OPEN! We will also be taking a break from emailing you our biweekly-ish digest so that we can focus on finalizing the journal’s issues. You’ll probably not hear from us again until we launch the online issue. Until then, we hope you will invite others to subscribe to our digest, and we hope you and others ‘Like’ our awesome posts on our social media feeds. We hope you continue to share your love for Inverted Syntax with your friends, family, neighbors, strangers--anyone who will listen.
Read Jesicas “A Record of an Inverted Retreat”
This letter was also emailed to the journal’s subscribers.
by Jesica Carson Davis
The urge to create is fundamentally human, whether we write poems, sing songs, or paint pictures. Creation is a form of record keeping, one way of saying I was here, this happened. In an attempt to capture some of the magic I got to experience as Editorial Assistant at Inverted Syntax’s first staff retreat, I present here a record of what it was like to be at the beginning stages of an exciting project, meeting the other editors, finding our own way together. Inverted is a journal about exploring hybrid forms, finding out what happens when we go outside the given lines.
Our Founder/Editor-In-Chief, Nawal Nader-French, had planned a full agenda in which the primary purpose was to work on Inverted’s first online and print editions. However, the retreat weekend up in Boulder County was balanced out by fun, creative events, such as a poetry workshop, meditation time, a painting session, video calls with other editors and writers, and of course, writing. There wasn’t anything on the agenda specifically about team-building and camaraderie, but those were some of the best outcomes of the weekend.
The other Inverted editors knew each other from Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program, but I’d never met any of them in person (though we’d had plenty of communication over email and Submittable--the digital platform we use to track submissions). This could have been nerve-wracking, but immediately upon arrival, Nawal made me feel beyond welcome in her gorgeous home with thoughtful gift-filled tote bags and conversations about poets we both admire. The other Editorial Assistants, Melanie and Allissa, greeted me with warm hugs, and soon enough we were all bonding over wine and a massive welcome dinner. Melanie, a nonfiction writer, drove in from Oklahoma, and Allissa, a poet, had driven in from south of Denver, so we all appreciated the decompression.
Friday evening we attended a local poetry workshop at the Firehouse Art Center in downtown Longmont. Getting there became an impromptu team-building adventure after we discovered someone’s notebook had been left on the car’s rooftop and we had to work together to retrace our path, joining forces to find it. Luckily, it was recovered and still intact; the tire treadmarks gave it extra character. The workshop itself was a quietly meditative experience in which attendees got a prompt (write 10 lines about “Home” and then edit them based on a series of suggestions), followed by everyone reading their work and giving each other feedback.
Though we knew that Saturday would be starting early and packed with activities, we all stayed up past midnight talking about life, getting to know each other better, playing with Nawal’s adorable beagles, and sometimes even discussing writing.
Saturday morning began with a guided meditation led by Melanie, who teaches yoga and has a perfect voice for leading such an exercise. I’d thought the meditation lasted about 15 minutes, and was stunned when she told us that it was closer to 50. A focus on the creative chakras and Melanie’s guidance put us in an open mindframe and made us more receptive to creativity, ready to read, organize, and assemble upcoming issues.
Nawal opened up the day’s editorial duties by proclaiming that “We are rewriting the rules,” setting a tone of freedom without expectations, which we ran with. Since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there isn’t an inherited, existing framework to adhere to; we can make new decisions as we go.
The next 30 hours passed in a blur of reading, conversation, and good times: When we began assembling the online and print magazines, Nawal encouraged us to look for themes, such as boundaries, disruption, and relationships.
A video call with Andrea Rexilius, a poet and Program Coordinator for Regis’s Mile-High MFA, confirmed this approach: consider the journal’s layout like you would organize a manuscript. Stay open to a narrative arc, or consider folios (chapters within the journal), which will be subconsciously informed by our aesthetic and the pieces we’d already selected for publication.
Thus, we spent Saturday morning reading each accepted piece and writing down three or four keywords (like tags or metatdata) for each piece, simple descriptions of themes. Later, when reading the pieces aloud, we compiled a list of the most common keywords that would be used for grouping. It became clear that many of the pieces we’d selected were linked, through tone and imagery, sometimes even subject matter. These links weren’t consciously intended, so it was cool to see them appear as we read.
One of my favorite parts of the weekend was sitting in a circle, reading accepted work out loud to each other. We savored favorite lines, sometimes gasping, getting goosebumps and tears from being moved by pieces we’d read before. It was a gorgeous reminder of how art can break against you again and again, like a wave, how delicious it can be to get drenched.
Throughout the weekend, we kept up a lively discussion about the differences between publishing online or in print. We talked about how a piece posted on the internet has a better chance of reaching many more people than one that’s perfect-bound and physically distributed. How some pieces feel more urgent, like witnessing refugee experience, and thus should be published in a way that gives them a chance at the greatest possible audience. How online issues have a spatial advantage over ink: a 25 page piece would take up a quarter of the print version but can unfold at length on a website, without restrictions. How lucky we are to have both routes available to us now.
We skimmed dozens of print and online journals, charting what we liked and didn’t like, to stimulate discussion. We covered everything from the table of contents organization and serif vs. sans-serif fonts to letters from the editors and placement of contributor bios. The exercise made my tech writer brain begin to assemble a style guide to capture the editors’ decisions on pressing issues, like whether to use indentations or line breaks for paragraphs and how capitals would appear in the titles of pieces. Writing our own rules as we go.
It is exciting and a little intimidating to realize that since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there’s no formula for how to run it; we can collectively decide the best way to do things, find ways to make the form best fit and reflect the content. For example, while some Editors-in-Chief wait until their readers finish going through the slush pile to narrow pieces under consideration, Nawal was in Submittable for hours every day looking for new work. Instead of sticking to one genre, readers were encouraged to provide feedback on submissions in every category. After all, Inverted’s mission centers around hybridity.
As the day grew long, we decided to skip a yoga session in favor of tea time, and to keep working, though a dance party broke out because we needed to reinvigorate. A sense of urgency began to set in: the retreat will end soon and we will disband in the morning, so let’s make the most of our time together.
Soon it was getting dark, and it was time time for a video call with David Hicks, the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Regis Mile-High MFA. After some discussion of the retreat life and what we’d been up to, he generously invited all of us to attend one of his writers’ retreats next spring! As part of the support that Inverted Syntax receives as a journal partly supported through The Mile-High MFA, the retreat invitation included a personal manuscript consultation, for those of us working on our own books. It felt like winning a small fellowship.
Once we hung up, it hit us that we’d been at it for almost 12 hours, and that we were approaching the end of our productivity. It was time to pour wine and take a break. Canvases and paints appeared, Nawal’s Ghanaian-influenced curry released its enticing aroma from the stove, and we finally put our work aside. I’m still thinking about that curry, topped with tomatoes, onion, peanuts, banana.
As we unwound from Saturday by collaging and painting with acrylics, we took turns reading from our own work, pieces that not many others had yet heard. Reading poems-in-progress felt like making proclamations: I am here, I made this. Creating and sharing art as a way of raging against, or embracing, the void.
Sunday morning rolled around, and once again we collectively decided to forgo physical activity (a planned hike) in favor of focusing on the journal. There was still so much to do! By then we were fresh enough to want to keep working but brain-drained enough from the previous day to take a break from the creative side, which meant focusing on marketing and logistics.
We discussed our wish list, dreams for the future: possibilities of a local reading series, the AWP conference, poetry contests, maybe even another retreat someday for other writers. Then we pivoted towards administrative duties and deadlines, playing with design for the online issue and entering pieces onto the draft site in advance of October’s online publication.
Too soon, it was time to go home.
Being at the start of something, being part of an endeavor’s nascent phase, feels exhilarating. There is no rulebook, and we are not writing one so much as recording our choices, creating documentation.
Most writers and artists are compelled to some kind of record-keeping, including sculpture, comics, poems, and songs. To create something is to cheat death a little: this thing you make may outlive you, if only on a bookshelf, or in someone’s memory.
As a record of the retreat weekend, I offer this account. For the future, we will create Inverted Syntax.
by Amanda Schuster
When I first started writing creative nonfiction earlier this year, I panicked. I am a person who likes to solve a problem, to tick a box, to arrive. I am at my most satisfied when I have completed something, or at least achieved a portion of what I set out to do. Similarly, in writing poetry and fiction, I like to get to a point that I can call it good enough, send it off, and all is well. But when it came to writing nonfiction, I found I couldn’t do that; letting it go, even if to only one or two people, didn’t feel like ticking a box or solving a problem. It felt like exposing parts of myself and parts of my mental and emotional processes that I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to see--those thoughts and attitudes I experienced but which I was afraid to commit to in writing. I couldn’t hide behind the guise of a character or a voice not my own, as I sometimes did (or could plausibly claim to do) in fiction and poetry. It was painful, and I was ready to quit.
At first my nonfiction work only existed as side notes to the novel I’m working on while I attend the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University. As I wrote parts of the novel, thoughts and memories would arise, and I felt compelled to stop to write them down before continuing with the book. After doing that several times, I thought that maybe those side notes could become works of creative nonfiction. However, I knew very little about how to go about doing that, so I decided to learn. I signed up for a dual-genre study, with creative nonfiction as a secondary genre, and began to work on my first piece for submission to the workshop. Writing creative nonfiction allowed me to directly address my experiences, which was refreshing, but it also left me feeling raw and exposed in a way I hadn’t expected.
In creative nonfiction, I am learning, the writing process and the mental and emotional processes of the writer are often one and the same. As Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola explain in their creative nonfiction textbook Tell It Slant, “As you write [creative nonfiction], in a sense, you re-create your own past and your sense of self, and you do so in front of a live audience, over and over again.” In other words, the process of our becoming--the mental and emotional development that is usually kept private or only shared with those closest to us--becomes part of a nonfiction writer’s work and thus becomes accessible to anyone who reads it.
With my love for all things tidy and complete, the thought of exposing the mess of my process to another person, let alone one I hardly knew, was terrifying. During my first several attempts at writing creative nonfiction, this fear nearly paralyzed me. I thought, as we often (and usually mistakenly) do, that I was alone in my fear. When I finally went to members of my writing community with my concerns, nonfiction writer and faculty mentor Kathryn Winograd gently but firmly told me that creative nonfiction is about “the messy process of the mind, not about the neat, pat answer,” and that fear and discomfort over facing and exposing that is sometimes part of the deal. My adviser and poet Andrea Rexilius suggested that I step back and hybridize to give myself a little of the cover that fiction had been providing me.
I took the advice of both mentors, and, slowly, it helped. Telling myself that, if I needed to, I could hide parts of my process by retreating to fiction freed me up to put on paper what I wanted to say without the immediate fear of being exposed. Reminding myself that every writer has a messy process, and that one of the points of the creative nonfiction genre is to explore and capture that process, gave me the courage to stay in it.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg warns us that “it is important to remember we are not the poem.” She reminds us to “stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.” Human experience is infinite, and words will never be able to capture the entirety of a person’s existence, or a character’s, or a moment’s.
I am slowly learning to let my work stand on its own--to let it be a moment, a perspective, a snapshot of a specific time and a specific place--rather than expecting it to represent me permanently and in entirety. I’ve had to learn that, just like in life, I will never be able to tick all the boxes in my writing, or to wrap up my thoughts in a complete and tidy package. This perspective makes me more willing to embrace and disclose the mess of my process.
It is both a frustration and a relief that I can write until the end of time and never capture it all. The boxes will never all be ticked, the problems will never all be solved, and I will never completely arrive. I try to remember these things now when I still feel anxious about exposing my process via writing. The words may be mine, and they may be a reflection of a moment through my perception, but they are not me. I am made up of infinite moments captured and uncaptured that can never be fully rendered in art. Ultimately, I’ve decided (see how I wrapped that up neat and tidy, there?) that I’m okay with this, partially because it’s an unavoidable part of life so I kind of have to be, but mostly because that’s exactly where the most lively and interesting parts of writing--and life--happen: in the exploration, the uncertainty, the mess.
Resources and Additional Reading:
“Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, Tell It Slant (creative nonfiction anthology and guidance)
Kathryn Winograd’s website
Andrea Rexilius’s website
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
by Allissa Woodson
I have always felt that my writing was an act of independence, and an assertion that I had control of my emotions. When I first started writing, it felt good to me that, even though my emotions were written out on paper, I had the sole right to them. It felt like therapy. It made me feel strong and capable. I found solace in my solitary practice, and I liked having physical control over my thoughts and feelings. Here they are, sorted out in a way that feels right to me on the page and I can share that or throw it away.
Sometimes, though, my writing felt selfish. When I got serious about it, my time became less dispensable. The people I loved (often not writers themselves) felt neglected because in addition to the time I was taking to write, I was also busy with biology homework and handing out pancakes at the local IHOP--the normal undergrad gig. There weren’t many in my life who fully saw the value of the work I created, or the necessity of writing as a form of therapy. There were times I felt unsure and frustrated, and even times when I felt totally uninspired because of the lack of support. So naturally, it became my own responsibility to take care of my writing needs, and to do what I needed to do to stay sane. But writing all alone is a difficult practice, and hard to sustain without support.
I met the person who would become my friend and my writing partner in January of 2017. Pj and I clicked right away. We were the only two poetry students in our cohort at the Regis’s low-residency Mile-High MFA, so we were instantly paired off together. The person that you write with doesn’t have to be someone who shares the same beliefs or that writes the same way; my work was winding and abstract while Pj’s was imagistic and compact. However, I always valued her advice and insight, and because of our mutual visions, our work naturally moved in a similar way towards a complex web of emotions and ideas that we are both happier with.
Pj is from Houston, and for ten days every January and July, we attended lectures and workshops together. Most importantly, though, during that time, we wrote. While we got so much done during those ten days, it still didn’t feel like enough time. After the first residency, we didn’t do a great job of keeping in contact. We sent a text message here or there, but nothing organized or planned.
The most important part of having someone to write with is that you hold each other accountable. Finally, knowing I had to take action if we wanted to stay in touch with our creative partnership, I set a notification on my phone for every Friday: “Check in on Pj.” Whenever the notification went off, I sent Pj a quick “How are you?” text, which inevitably led to a conversation about our latest projects and our lives. I quickly fell into this Friday routine, and even the simple back and forth check-in had me feeling like I needed to write more and feeling more inspired.
It wasn’t until the the third Mile-High MFA residency when program coordinator and fiction writer David Hicks, along with his colleague and close friend, Sophfronia Scott, gave a powerful lecture about their relationship as “writing buddies”. The idea instantly clicked. I knew that Pj and I would be able to write together in the same way. We already had started a habit of maintaining contact, which seemed to be the biggest hurdle. David and Sophfronia discussed how they had used various video chat services. We took that advice and ran with it, so when the residency came to an end, our writing buddy relationship didn’t.
The concept of writing buddies is not a new one. It's no secret that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound exchanged letters and that Pound heavily edited Eliot’s draft of The Waste Land. The New York School of Writers, which included writers such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest, were known for their collaborative work both amongst themselves and with painters. In The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Works, Kenneth Koch writes, “We were very close friends, John, Frank, and I, and poetry was a big part of it... we inspired each other, we envied each other…we were almost entirely dependent on each other for support” (213).
With inspiration from other writers who had done the same before us, the weekly text message between Pj and I turned into a weekly video chat. With that method of communication, we developed a routine that works for us, and we now cover a lot more ground. We always spend the first half of the chat talking about what we are up to and how our writing is going, which is always the most valuable aspect of the chat for me. The weekly writing feedback and advice that I get from Pj, and hearing about her own struggles as a writer, all come together to inform my writing. Because of that, I never begin the second half of the chat, (that is, the writing part), feeling like I don’t know what to write.
Elizabeth Bishop describes her first talk with her lifelong friend Robert Lowell about writing poetry as "exchanging recipes for making a cake." Pj is always showing me new recipes, and it saves a lot of time; where I might be experimenting with too much salt or licorice, Pj may have already tried it and be able to give me the feedback that helps me get to my desired result more quickly.
One of the other benefits of having a writing buddy is that it is much harder to slack off when you have a camera pointed at you (or another set of eyes on you, if you are in person). For our sessions, Pj sets a timer, or we just go until one of us is tired. Sometimes I read instead of writing, or do whatever else it is that I need to do. Sometimes only the chatting gets done, and not the writing. Sometimes our planned writing schedule gets postponed three times in a row. No matter what, though, we plan the next chat.
The distance between Houston and Denver no longer feels as far as it once did. Writing together with Pj via video chat versus in person has still had the ability to transform my work. We have both learned to find what is lacking in our own work by seeing the strength in one another’s. We share our words and worlds. That experience adds a new vocabulary and allows me to see the power of a single image or the impact of a well-placed line break. Having a writing buddy has meant receiving and offering insights, making suggestions and asking questions, and it has helped me make significant changes to what and how I write. Not only do I get more writing done, but the quality of the work I create has improved along with my feeling of confidence and self-worth. The writing buddy relationship we have built is genuine, and I feel only great work can come out of it.
Because of establishing this writing buddy relationship, I no longer feel the guilt of neglecting others around me. I no longer feel selfish in taking this time to write, because it’s not just about me. Having a writing buddy is about making a commitment to support someone else in their writing. It’s about holding each other accountable to the work. But it’s more than that: We erase the doubt that we have for ourselves about our potential as writers and the difficult aspects of our own work.
Koch, Kenneth. The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Work. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.
Preview Koch’s book here
by Ted Downum
I come from a proud Irish-American drinking family. Even by the high standards established by my mother’s ancestors--even by the standards of my grandfather, who drank himself to death when he wasn’t that much older than I am now--I was a high achiever in the field of alcohol abuse.
Though I’m now several years sober, I have usually shied away from delving too deeply into my personal experience of addiction (or my family’s experience). Who would want to read what people in twelve-step programs would call “war stories”—sordid tales of alienated girlfriends and vexed relatives, lost jobs and DUIs, trips to the emergency room and various rehab clinics? Why would I want to relive those experiences, fictionalize them, and put them on display for the world?
I never saw myself ever fictionalizing my life as artfully as other fiction writers until I read Lucia Berlin's stories. Because of her work, lately, I feel less hesitant about using a real event as the seed for a work of fiction. In reading Berlin, I realize that the central aim of her work--like any conscientious writer of literary fiction--is to unearth and present to her readers, the humor and devastation embedded in the human experience, which is probably the most powerful aspect of writing.
In carefully wrought and deeply affecting stories often drawn from her own unusual life, Lucia Berlin displays lives thrown out of balance by addiction, poverty, cultural displacement, and simple, powerful human urges--for love, belonging, and comfort. If you’ve never read a Berlin story, you need to add her to your reading list.
As an aspiring short-story writer (and one who shares many of the same thematic interests as Lucia Berlin), I found a great deal to admire in the posthumous collection of her selected work, A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), published eleven years after her death. The pitch of emotion Berlin summons in her stories, with language that somehow manages to be both spare and rich, is painfully intense and incredibly engaging. Her stories about alcoholics—Berlin herself struggled for much of her life with a crippling alcohol addiction—have all the unsparing honesty of Raymond Carver, but where Carver’s drunks are often lost or numb, Berlin’s alcoholic characters suffer terribly, and she makes us feel every twinge of their thirst.
“Unmanageable,” one of the short stories in the collection, follows the efforts of its Berlin-surrogate narrator to secure a drink in the early hours of the morning. The story holds a bitter irony in its title: though the narrator’s drinking problem has clearly reached the point where an outside observer could call it “unmanageable,” the narrator displays focus and determination that no alcoholic in the maintenance stage of her drinking would find surprising, or even especially remarkable. "Taking the bottle with her, she went to the bathroom then. She showered and combed her hair, put on clean clothes. Ten more minutes. She checked to see if the door was locked, sat on the toilet and finished the vodka [...] She moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer. She was mixing orange juice from frozen concentrate when Joel came into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. "No socks, no shirt” “ (153).
Berlin is concerned with engaging the reader in her characters’ desperate everyday realities, such as the alcoholism of the narrator in “Unmanageable.” Through the recovering alcoholic’s journey, she asks readers to connect with their own humanity, recognizing that life can be messy and unromantic, and fraught with its own kind of peril.
Berlin once said in an interview that, "I think writers want to change their realities in some way. You want to show what’s lovable and beautiful and so you sift through your life and you can look at it one way, or you can look at it another. And writers, I think, are people who need to affirm, need an affirmation about their life. And to me, it’s a way to make things positive, not in a corny way, but to make beauty out of negative things or difficult times, or just to make sense” (Lucia Berlin: Writing Advice And More…).
Indeed, Berlin’s ability to sift through her life, to mine her personal experience for story material in an attempt to make sense of it, is quite artful. Having herself raised four sons while working assorted odd (and sometimes degrading) jobs, locked in a long battle with alcohol addiction, Berlin honed her talent for portraying everyday human struggles to an amazing sharpness. She excels in capturing the moments of grace and beauty that arise in the midst of family dysfunction, economic struggle, and substance abuse. “This sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break. I patted her and she flinched. She hated to be touched. So I just watched her by the light of the streetlamp through the window screen. Just watched her weep. She was totally alone, like my sister Sally is when she weeps that way” (Panteón De Dolores 251). While she conveys breathtakingly lovely demonstration of empathy for her characters, Berlin, still never glosses over their struggles, or the hurt and bitterness her characters feel.
Lucia Berlin's clarity of language enables the reader to share in her raw, hard-won honesty about her addiction, about the damage it permitted her to do to herself and her life. She reminds me that employing my own experience--however uncomfortable that might be for me, the writer--is crucial to the emotional depth of my writing. Berlin reminds me that writing good fictional characters is about revealing what it means to be human, and that experiences are not the only place I should look when I set out to create a plausible character, but to always look into my own heart.
Learn more about Lucia Berlin
Other books by Lucia Berlin
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