Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Persona Poems

This week in my advanced workshop we're reading Luci Tapahonso and talking about persona poems.  I've written a few before, and a few Eve poems for the Liveaboard book, but it was interesting this week to really dig in and think about what they can do.

Tapahonso has a persona poem in which she inhabits an entire group of people--it's very moving, very sad.  I've never seen a plural first person persona poem before.  It made me think about how tough it is to speak for an entire group of people.

We also talked a lot about how first person gives us so many "rights" that 3rd person doesn't.  If I'm writing in 3rd person, I can't "pretend" to know the details of someone's story, but if I write in 1st person, I can. It's such an odd thing--because of course it's all invented. But somehow writing in the first person gives us permission to inhabit someone and to invent details.

I've been working on a poem about Mary giving birth to Jesus and it's written in the 3rd person.  After this week's class I'm wondering if it should be a persona poem.  Would 1st person give me more authority?  More permission?  Would it make it more "believable" and intimate?  Things to think about, I guess.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Risking Offending

So I wrote a surprising poem this week.  It's a poem about a really personal, physical thing and it definitely risks offending a number of people (my mom is probably first on that list).  And this of course has made me return to that age-old workshop question:  how do we handle this?

A few weeks ago when Peggy Shumaker was in my class a student asked her this.  She answered it well, like many other writers have, which is that each of us individually has to decide how to handle it.  For her, the risk was worth it.  She told the class her memoir had in fact offended a family member, but she wasn't sorry she had written it the way she had.  And of course we are all grateful she did--it's such an honest portrayal of family life.

Generally, I've tried to avoid this in my work.  There are stories I'm not yet ready to tell.  But reading Tender Hooks  gave me this big push this week.  Fennelly's so brutally honest in her poems.  I don't want to write like her, but somehow I stepped through that door a little bit.  And I have to confess, I love the poem.  I may not like it in a month, but I'm in love now (don't you love that initial crush we get on our new poems?).  One thing that surprised me was how much it affected me.  It's been rare that one of my own poems has changed the way I see the world--often I feel like I'm just trying to explain how I already feel.  (This has made me stop and think about what I'm actually doing with poems, since I do believe they should change us as we write.  But that's another topic.)  I feel really invigorated this week by this poem, and by the whole process of writing.  And surprisingly empowered.

I'm not yet feeling too nervous or apologetic about it.  The poem is about breastfeeding and talks a lot about the shape of my body, and the way we view women's bodies.  I do believe honesty is important in these poems--as a mother I've gained incredible strength from reading Fennelly's poems, and from talking honestly to my mom friends.  So I have to believe if I can make this poem work, it'll be worth it to other moms.  Now I just have to think about whether or not I'm ready to risk offending my own mom.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Writing into Scaryiness

For the first time this week I wrote a poem that felt really a bit scary--not something I normally do.   I've been reading Tender Hooks by Beth Ann Fennelly and loving it.  I've read it before, but it's such an amazing book and teaching me so much again.  She's incredibly open and brave in that book, and it's pushing me to be too, I think.  I've been writing poems about various biblical women and about really personal aspects of my body--both subjects I've avoided in the past.  But I sort of feel exhilarated, too, so I keep writing.

But this week a kind of odd thing happened.   A friend from college asked to see what I was working on, so I sent her a new poem. Her response was positive but really guarded--almost as if the poem had frightened or offended her. This made me sort of freak out too. I haven't been reading any of the poems I'm writing because I feel like I'm surfing the wave a little bit, and I don't want to fall off.  Sometimes reading new material makes me stop writing, as I begin to see the mistakes in it.  But after her comments, I started reading...but actually like a lot of what I'm doing.  So I sent a couple of the poems off to a writer friend whom I really trust, and she loved them, so that was a huge relief.  She's typically really honest with me, so I trust her when she tells me to just keep going.

It's getting to be midterm, which is usually when I get too buried in papers to grade.  This semester I've really promised myself it wouldn't happen.  Fingers crossed!  I want to keep surfing!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Printing Old Poems

Lately I've gotten nervous about losing poems, so over this past week I've been running through my folders and printing out old poems and throwing them in a notebook. I've been in a rush so I haven't been reading more than a line or two of each, as they print...but that's been enough to surprise me.

I've been writing Lucy poems like mad--afraid that if I don't get some poetry down about having a baby (birth, babyhood, nursing, etc.) I'll forget it and I'd really like to work with this material.  But as I've printed, I've realized how much I've actually managed to write over the past few years, and most of that has been about babies.  I've actually got several hundred poems.

I think I may  have forgotten (or blocked) the idea of writing about babies, because for so long I felt like it wasn't going to be something I could do much with--I just needed to write it, and I never direct my subject matter, so I wrote--but it seemed like it would be for just me.  Then I went to AWP in Denver two years ago and attended a panel with Beth Ann Fennelly and she blew that idea right out of the water. Her book Tender Hooks is an incredible "mama book"--rich, articulate, funny, smart--all the things we'd want in a good book of poetry.  And she was published by Norton!

Seeing her book, and listening to her talk, gave me two wake-up calls.  First, writing about birth and children is not off the page.  Of course we've seen so many terrible "baby poems" out there, but nothing is off limits when it comes to writing.  And giving birth--being present at one of the two most fundamental moments of human existence--is a heavy weight poetry topic.  Amen!  And second, it taught me to stop doubting myself.  I learned this lesson once before (actually, at the AWP conference in Vancouver)--to not doubt subject matter (then it was writing about faith) and this was a good reminder again, to simply trust my instincts.  That doesn't mean any of this will get published, or turn into a book, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't do it.

And right now, a ratty white notebook is sitting in my desk drawer with the very first outlines of a book in it.  Feels pretty great.