Sunday, November 22, 2009

Memoir; and Thoughts on the Creative Process

In another course I’m teaching this term, students are writing memoirs. Thinking about their challenges, I decided to develop my points further for this course – although we’re mostly doing poems, and some short stories.

A memoir is a nonfiction form; but most memoirists seem to think of their projects as imaginative, and not only memorial. That is true, I think, in at least two senses: first, memory can be thought of as imaginative recreation of the past, rather than an always-factual representation of people, things, and events as they were. Second, when we present fleshed-out writing that focuses on the past as we recall it, if we want readers to be engaged, and to come close to the emotional as well as the intellectual truths, we will probably need to dramatize our memories. Sometimes in memoir that does actually mean outright invention: transposing, events, leaving things out, making composite characters, concocting dialogue, inventing props, and other things that our memories of long-past events typically cannot recover. Also, if we want to engage readers, we need to use the devices of fiction – dialogue, character development, scene creation, foreshortening, exaggeration – to get at those emotional truths.

This is not universally accepted; there is, in fact, much argument among readers, writers, and critics about what’s appropriate or necessary in memoir.

The line between fiction and nonfiction (not only memoir, but other forms as well) is hard to identify. Some autobiographical novels are closer to “real” events (depending on whom you talk to) than many “nonfiction” memoirs.

It seems to me the memoirist can seek the right balance between fictional or dramatic texture and documentary accuracy. Even if she tries to please the most literal-minded fellow witness to the events she’s writing about, she will most likely outrage someone. If it’s not the “false” elements that make someone mad, it will be the truth itself.

Once we start writing about our memories, or from our memories, we risk replacing memory with interpretation. But we have probably (if Freud and others are to be believed) already re-interpreted certain memories a thousand times before we ever write them down. Perhaps our latest recollection of an event is merely a remembering of the last time we entertained the memory: a recollection of a remembering.

For now, I want to talk about some strategies for structuring our recollections; but these are also ways of recovering them in the first place. I think that when we talk out loud or write the memories down – when we do something social or physical, something that is more than sitting back and dreaming of the past – we study the lacunae, the gaps, as much as we do the threads of action and image.

Most of my memories, when I look, are bits and pieces; they are puzzles of 1,000 pieces for which I have maybe 100 pieces remaining – but often, just the right 100 pieces to reconstruct the rest, although with guesswork, myth-making, self-justification, forgiveness, transfer of blame, etc.

One structural device I call “topic/shadow topic.”

For both the writer and the reader, the mind plays tricks – and wants to be tricked. For the reader, often, it is best not to “tell” what we mean as writers too directly; or, not to tell it in discursive or direct terms in certain kinds of writing. If you write on one subject, but seem by the end to have actually written on another, that can be a more enlightening experience for the reader. Likewise, if you start out writing about one thing, but find yourself writing about another – you might have come more honestly or more effectively to that “shadow topic” than if you’d focused your sights on it at the start.

Some of what we call “craft” in writing is a way to successfully trick ourselves and our readers. You can frame your writing process, or your writing goals, in such a way that you increase your chances of coming to the “right” shadow topic. You might already know in certain ways what you want to say, but creative writers, including essayists, allow themselves to be surprised by their own minds. [Note: essay comes from the French word essayer, to try or attempt; it seems to bear the notion that writing of this type is really guesswork.]

How can you come to the shadow topic?

One way is to deliberately choose a certain armature, or scaffolding, for what you are about to do: if in a memoir about your mother you want to get at what it was about her that made her special, you might “look,” for a moment, at what that specialness is, and then turn away from it at an angle, and go into something fairly ordinary in your memory that has a built-in structure. For example, you might look inside your memory at some process your mother did repeatedly in memory: cooking. (I’m not trying to be sexist, by the way! I grew up in the late fifties and sixties, and my mother spent a lot of time in the kitchen.)

First, we can count on certain elements of such a memory scene to be archetypal, at least for a certain kind of reader: mothers in kitchens will be familiar as a shared experience, maybe even for people who didn’t experience it first-hand. Second, what mothers did in kitchens was repetitive and even ritualized, perhaps: when dinner would be started, what steps had to be followed in what order, her particular methods, who helped, what her favorite utensils were, the apron she wore, etc. (this scene is deliberately clich├ęd – but I want to emphasize the commonness of the scene.)

Enter into the scene, and paint it as carefully as you can – in memory, or right there on paper. Place yourself in the scene, but on the periphery; how old are you? Who was your teacher that year? Put everything in its place, give it its hue and texture, read the labels on the jars and cans, hum the jingles you heard on TV when the commercials aired. Recall the way the light entered the window above the sink in winter, when the sun set early; remember the sound the exhaust fan made above the stove; study the design of the floor tiles. And smells – what were the smells of spices, of the meat broiling in the oven, of the flowers in the vase that were three days old?

What was the rhythm of your mother’s work; how many tasks were running at the same time: stirring the pot, cutting the onion and wiping her eyes, listening to the evening news on the TV in the other room, wiping your baby sister’s mouth, who was feeding herself somewhat sloppily in the high chair? And you, you’re sitting at the kitchen table, doing your math homework: she stops to check on you, and encourage you, and then answers the phone, which she cradles with her chin on her neck while she returns to stirring; and then a laugh, at something the person on the phone just said…

So you get into the scene. Go much further than you will need to for whatever final episode you’re hoping to construct. Let yourself become entranced by the rhythms, sensations, and incongruent emotions of the scene (perhaps because the innocuous memory hides something more pointed. They usually do, I find; which might or might not be your shadow topic).

Ok. You might, in the first go, have discovered, or at least sensed, that other thing or things you want to get at. While you were distracted by the lulling rhythms and sounds and smells and colors, your mind relaxed, and let go of one of its treasure or one of its secrets.

Write often enough, and it will happen, even if not the first time.

But also, you will rewrite. Writers add, take away, insert, weave, jump out, jump back in – you can be in that kitchen, on that winter evening, but also leap years back or forward, as long as you feel for the unity that must ultimately be in place. Everything is connected to everything else; if we segue, or transition, carefully, we won’t lose the rhythm of the scene or the reader’s patience, either. That person on the phone while your mother was stirring: digress, since you are no longer that ten-year-old child, on what happened to her years later. The TV news is on: what were the day’s tragedies or absurdities; what was the sound of the newscaster’s voice? (Some things that your memory has hidden too deeply you will be able to rediscover as history; ask people, look in books, on the Internet, and recapture the historical part of your life at that general level – then, bring that information back down into the personal. Much of our lives is really “the world,” and has been recorded somewhere.)

Your passage, which might be many pages long if you go through the process above, will be rewritten, condensed, and rearranged. Like a film editor, you can splice in whatever develops a particular dimension of meaning in the passage. Things that seem unconnected on the surface might share some significance, pattern, or point of contact; in any case, much of the art of writing, as in magic, resides in the transitions and sleights of hand. Connectives, qualifications, reiterations, contrasts: everything is related to everything else, but the writer needs to find the relations that will matter within the work.

A process, like cooking, can get your mind into a certain space where it will be more open to meaningful associations. Partly, it’s because we already have the entirety of the “narrative” of a process in mind; we can relax our efforts as it tells itself, and within its interstices, encoded elements will (hopefully) become visible. The process, in this case cooking, is readymade with figuration: the kitchen is a charged space for metaphor, metonym, symbol, irony, myth, and anything else that shapes meaning and vision.

Let me give you another fancy word: "topos." A topos is a template for ideas, or for how to generate writing. For example, I talk about "mother in the kitchen" above; Other writers use the same topos, as do filmmakers and others. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in an essay called “In the Kitchen,” uses the “mother in the kitchen” topos. There are many topoi (plural), although the person who created the term, Aristotle, uses them in a much more precise way (Google "Aristotle" and "topoi" and you will find the original list from 2,300 years ago). The value of the topoi is that there are always many subsequent elements or aspects that go along with the initial elements. For example, if I say "mother in the kitchen" we all think of similar subsequent elements, but not entirely the same. We might think of stoves, ovens, refrigerators, toasters, tables, cabinets, and other things; we think of smells, sounds, the "rules" and rituals of the kitchen (who can do what, for example); and yet, all of those things are a bit different for each of us.

My wife is Japanese; so, for example, there would be no memory for her of her mother baking, because Japanese kitchens don't usually have ovens. They don't bake muffins or pies the way we do in the US. And even today, Japanese husbands or sons almost never do dishes! My mother-in-law was amazed and disturbed when she saw me doing dishes. But for me, one of the features of the topos of “mother in the kitchen” is “somebody besides Mother does the dishes.” That was one of the rules in my house.

So, some things would be similar, some different, but each of us could start from the initial element (mothers, kitchens) and create an elaborate, patterned, active scene from our memories and other sources of information (reading, hearing other people's stories of mothers and kitchens). Think of the topos, whatever it is, as a doorway; then, in that room, there are several other doors to go through, and many more through each of those. If you write by imagining what you say as a series of “spaces” or doorways to choose from, you will see that the main problem of writing is not “I don’t know what to say next” but instead, “I don’t know which of these many choices to make next.” It’s a problem of too many, not a problem of not enough.

Also, we can invert, reverse, take out, replace, and do other things that are simple, formal games we always play when we're being creative. For example, Gates puts his mother in a kitchen, but instead of cooking, the main activity he talks about is styling hair. That didn't happen in my mother's kitchen, but I can juxtapose the two things easily in my imagination.

Metonyms, metaphors, symbols: Gates' essay is not simply about hair. It's about how hair is an emotional, cultural, social, and even a political thing. He says "hair" and "kitchen" but he means "people" and "race" or "ethnicity." And maybe, when he started writing, it was his conscious purpose to talk about politics or race. Abut probably, if began writing from a sense of pleasure rather than purpose, he thought first of the kitchen, his mother, someone’s hair, a neighbor…one or more of the treasures of his childhood, worth nothing now but in the ways memory itself confers wealth; and it is through good writing that the wealth is passed along, without diminishing in the slightest.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Definitions of "Poetry"

When people think of “definition,” they generally think of the dictionary: rush to the nearest one (now often online), look up the word, and there you have it. But if you have tried looking up a word in more than one source, you’ve seen that all definitions are not the same. They’re usually close enough, for each equivalent usage, I suppose; but the meaning of a word is a matter of opinion (however authoritative), or of opinion reached by consensus.

But “definition” in its deeper sense is a matter of argument; simply figuring out what to call something, and thereafter how to define it or say what it means, is often the very core of a subject, discipline, or pursuit.

So, we argue for meanings; and the argument is never fully resolved, if we’re lucky: the journey is the goal, as Basho said.

Definition can mean something like outline or resolution, as with an image or a space. So, to define is to find boundaries; but finding boundaries is also finding what lies past boundaries.

Let’s work with “poetry.” Consider each proposal below as a boundary, angled slightly differently than the other proposals for meaning. Order these in different ways; try to create a taxonomy, or a scale, or a hierarchy: which meaning is closer to a “true” meaning; which is more up to date, more expansive, more focused, more helpful in understanding specific poems?

On the other hand, there is much overlap; what are the shared concerns of these seekers of meaning?

But first, I want to point out that when philosophers and aestheticians talk about “poetry,” they often mean something far larger than verse. Frequently, they mean “art” or “imagination” altogether. “Poetry,” though, seems to be a good part-to-whole representation of those larger categories. Why might that be? I think it’s because a definition, as I mean it here, is itself a matter of words.

Poets, themselves, of course, love to define poetry. here’s Reginald Gibbons:

All poetry is language that is also in some way about language.

Notice that this one fits the form of classical definition: genus – species. “An automobile is a form of motorized transportation [genus; a family that includes trucks and motorcycles, usually with four wheels and intended for passengers [species: how autos are different from other members of the genus.]”

Of course, most of these provisional definitions will not bear a great deal of scrutiny if we expect them to be consistent and logical. “Linguistics” is also “language that is also in some way about language.” But by “provisional” I mean “good enough to get us going.” And so, in Gibbons’ definition, we get the notion that poems are often focus on the way language works, how it means, where it comes from. Perhaps we are also meant to sense that poetry pluralizes language: there is more than one level, as with harmony in music. Verse is to melody as poetry is to melody… how far can I go with that sort of analogy?

To put it a different way: poetry is one of the ways we use language to get outside of language; it is “meta” language.

Try another – this, one of many definitions that Percy Shelley offers in his “Defence of Poetry":

Poetry redeems from decay visitations of the divinity of man.

This one’s a bit more poetic – more metaphoric, anyway. Much is embedded here: first, the notion, quite old itself, that humanity fell from a higher state: a golden age, heroic era, or as the line says, godliness itself; which makes of poetry a backward-looking force, and elegy its primary modality. “Redeems” as well is a powerful word in Christendom, and post-Christendom as well (Shelley flirted with atheism). One common argument among poets is whether poetry “does” anything, or has much use in the world:

Poetry makes nothing happen

is the famous line from Auden. But in Shelley’s definition, it’s not Man himself but only “visitations” (glimpses?) of a lost divinity. That also makes of poetry something visual; and focused, I think, on parts and fragments, rather than wholes.

Another, from the German poet/philosopher who renamed himself Novalis:

Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.

A bit stark; file under “hyperbole.” But actually, I like the underlying metaphor: that poetry heals (notice that it partakes of Shelley’s “saving” metaphor, if you allow for the equivocation – they’re both Romantics, after all), and that “reason” (think of William Blake’s Ulro and Urizen – another Romantic!) harms. For “reason,” replace with “real world,” “materialism,” “greed”… whatever strikes you as the thing we sometimes need refuge from; poetry heals it, Novalis says.

(to be continued…)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Prose Poem

The prose poem is a hybrid creature, not accepted by many as poetry at all, but not taken seriously as prose fiction or essay by others. It seems to like that questionable status, however, and generally lives near the border with uncertainty or doubt.

What is a prose poem? It is generally short, a few lines to a few pages. It does not have lines in verse, or broken lines, and when there is a break we call the parts “paragraphs” rather than “stanzas.” But at the same time, the prose poem aims for compression like a lyric poem; it might feature more repetition or other linguistic effects; it might focus on a particular image, or gesture, or scene, although it might also tell a story.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, if it matters, between a prose poem and a piece of flash fiction. If the author is someone mainly known as a fiction writer, then it will often be seen as short-short fiction; if the author is generally a poet, it will be a prose poem.

The prose poem might have begun, a couple of centuries ago, as a way for poets to escape the constrictions of poetic form. French poets especially liked the prose poem, as traditional prosody in French is very rule-bound; so the prose poem offered escape from those constrictions.

The prose poem is a modern creature, and modernity is all about revolution, breaking rules, trying new things just for the sake of newness. On the other hand, the breaking of lines on the page to show that a poem is a poem is not such a very ancient convention; much of the Old Testament (Job, or the Song of Solomon, for example) could be thought of as prose poetry.

Some prose poems insist on staying inside a kind of box, like the sonnet; they like that square, almost-rectangular shape of the single paragraph, which I think of as a kind of box, or perhaps a stage with proscenium arch: some strange specimen is intimately framed for our amusement.

Many prose poems partake of the absurd, the surreal, or the merely strange or droll. We read, we enjoy or wonder at the strange sight or action, the funny conflation of words or things, and then, as with any tightly-bound work of art, we take a moment to wonder at what we just read. The brevity of lyric poems and of many prose poems tempts us to read again, to see if what we saw is still there.

Te prose poem is not a song, usually; sometimes it’s a snapshot, a post card, a brief note (as in a diary or a field journal), an anecdote, a cameo, or a moment.

Smetimes when we can’t quite say what a thing is, we call it everything else, searching for similitudes; moving backward in order to go forward. “Prose poem” puts together two things that are considered opposites; they cancel each other out, and what’s left is defined by negation as much as presence.

One way to approach poetry, or anything that is sought after, is by continually redefining it. A poem is its own definition. Here are two operative definitions from David Lehman, in the introduction to his anthology Great American Prose Poems:

The prose poem is…poetry that disguises its true nature.


Just as free verse did away with meter and rhyme, the prose poem does away with the line as the unit of composition. It uses the means of prose toward the ends of poetry.

Both these definitions, it seems to me, accentuate the tension between absence and presence. That tension or counterpoint might itself be a key to the modality of the prose poem; but one way to approach the task of finding one’s voice or style or theme in art is to seek after one’s own definitions.

There are many anthologies devoted to the prose poem. Here are a few:

Among those poets who have excelled at the form are: Charles Baudeliare, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Simic, Russell Edson, Harryette Mullen, Mary Oliver, James Wright, Ray Gonzalez, and Mark Strand.

Here are several prose poems to study – all at the Poetry Foundation Web site:

Russell Edson, “Antimatter”
Matthea Harvey, “Wack-A-Mole Realism”
Ray Gonzalez, “And There Were Swallows”
Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel”
Lydia Davis, "A Position at the University"
Gabriela Mistral, "The Lark"
Charles Simic, from "The World Doesn't End"
...and an interesting analysis of a prose poem by James Wright by the poet Robert Peake, at his blog site.