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I wanted to call this series of digital letters Close Reading because it’s the name of a practice that happens in many writing circles. We look at a poem or story closely, spend time making observations, and use those observations to learn about why the piece has certain effects on the reader. In turn, reading-as-observation teaches us lessons we can apply to our own work. Close reading helps us learn how to write.
I’ve been thinking that slowing down is one of the things I love most about poetry. Close reading (which happens, too, during the revision process as we examine each word and do a close reading of our own writing) anchors my internal monologue, the rush and pull of it, so that I can finally, mercifully, focus on a single stanza, line, or image.
My hope for this newsletter is to provide a kind of a dialed-down version of the classes and workshops I offer throughout the year. These next few months, I’m going to do some experimentation with different formats to see what works best here. Your feedback is welcome!
Speaking of experimental writing…
I recently wrote a post for the Ploughshares blog about Elena Rivera’s The Perforated Map. As much as I adore this book, it was difficult to write about it because Rivera’s poetry is unconventional, non-linear, and, I suppose, experimental. Though I felt compelled by her words and the spaces they took up on the page, I had trouble understanding what was going on when I first read the book. A few years ago, I would have probably said to myself, “this is too hard,” but now I realize that through the practice of close reading, I can bounce light off of any text and find something to respond to.
What does it mean to call a piece of writing experimental? And is “experimental” really the right word?
“Experimental” is defined in my computer’s dictionary as “involving a radically new and innovative style” (I note here, as I always do, that “radical” means “getting to the root”). And “experiment” includes this definition: to “try out new concepts or ways of doing things.”
What about that word, “new”? I’m curious about it because a technique can have a long history with lots of precedent and still be deemed “experimental.” Rivera’s book, for instance, pulls from, among other sources, Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse,” which was written over seventy years ago!
Maybe it just takes a long time for a technique to be absorbed into the mainstream (how to define “mainstream” is another story). Maybe it takes a lot of different writers and artists to illustrate the different elements of an experimental technique. I’m not sure.
Is there a non-experimental poetry? A “normal” poetry? I’m a believer that every successful poem has to go against the grain of conventional syntax and rhetorical expectation in some way, otherwise, it wouldn’t be a poem. One of the jobs of a poem is to get the reader (and writer) to think about language differently and to bring out language’s music.
And yet, certain poetries are very much about resistance and revolution. Pushing against the monolingualism and oppressive ideas of what is “appropriate” or “professional” in a poem. Indeed, pushing against the very role of the conventional poetry. Pushing against to make space.
Vaughan Rapatahana writes of the “continuum of experimental poetry” and that it is “a revolution, an electric prod into the cerebellum” (again, these connections to radicalism and revolution!). Experimental poetry can lead us to “Ahh!” or “Ugh!” or “What?” or “Of course!” It can make us remember what we love about poetry.
Where this is all leading is a writing prompt: Write a poem that is more than, as Rapatahana puts it, “textual, stanza-ridden, English-language, mono-meaning, stably located, word play…” Upend the piece. Destabilize it. Perhaps experiment with the techniques included in his essay.
And, by the way, what do you think of Rapatahana’s craft essay? Do you consider your own poetry experimental? Have you written work that refutes conventions related to space on the page or throws out genre conceptions of what constitutes a poem in the first place?
What makes a poem experimental? It’s a question that perhaps can’t be fully answered, but I think we can learn a lot from asking it.
A few summer opportunities:
I’m going to close this first letter to all of you with info about ways you can join me this summer if you’re interested.
A number of you have found your way here through micro-memoir classes. I’m kicking off a new class on June 1st called In the Breakroom: Micro-Memoirists Write about Work. We’ll be telling stories through writing about our working lives (paid and unpaid, emotional labor, heart work, and gigs we’ve got just pay the bills—the interpretation of the theme is as wide as you want to make it). There are still a few seats left.
I’m also teaching a summer class through the Loft Literary Center on the poetic line which begins in mid-June.
To get a taste of what the poetic line class will be about, here’s the recording of a workshop I presented last weekend at the Mass Poetry festival on the same topic.