Here’s a writing question I’m currently carrying around in my pockets: After having been immersed for several years in the close-up (small motor) work of collaging found language for my poems, how do I re-position myself to embody the broader strokes needed to see the work through to completion? The poems in my manuscript in progress, PRE-, spin out from dictionary definitions for words beginning with particular English prefixes. All the language is found—but, fractured and juxtaposed with a free-hand, freewheeling approach. Recently, the poet Elizabeth Robinson suggested I write a letter to the manuscript in order to “open up to the heart of this project.”
Dear PRE-When I work on you, dear PRE-, I am working instinctually and with an approach that is more common in the visual arts than in the literary arts—you may remember I was an artist first. Like a collagist, I lay out the materials I have gathered—in this case words and phrases from the dictionary—and examine them disassociated from their source—I have selected specific language fragments, words, images that appeal to me, interest me in some way (more about this later), then, in a process of trial and error I begin creating an assemblage out of them—the assemblage is the poem. I don’t know where the juxtapositions will take me—that is what I want to find out—that is my inquiry.Dear PRE-, what meanings and emotions can arise out of this instinct of mine to put non-narratively attached language pieces together? I don’t want to create a new narrative—I do want to transform. I want to metamorphose the purposeful, explicatory, directive language of the dictionary into something that surprises and glows, that stumbles, make mistakes, that disregards and regards. One of my attractions to prefixes as a jumping off point is that they are agents of transformation—and that that is all they are—they do not stand outside their agency. By creating a new beginning (and they create it by the action of butting up against and thus hold the art of collage within themselves) they change the world/word into something it wasn’t before they arrived.I don’t know what the assemblage (poem) is going to “mean” or the emotions it will hold until it starts to take shape. As it takes shape I get a feeling that has a movement or direction—this movement is the lyric element, the lyric response—it is a response within the making, not outside it. This feeling/thinking that comes out of the act of juxtaposing directs the choices I make. Perhaps a theme emerges—and since these come out my unconscious preoccupations, I do find shared themes throughout the work—a preoccupation with the body (female) its intimacies and vulnerabilities; the human in concert with and alienation from nature; death, transformation, and the spirit; human created catastrophe (war, devastation, cruelty), natural catastrophe, displacement and exile.The creating of each assemblage, dear PRE-, is an intense process of experimentation. Just as a visual artist works with color patterns and the dynamics of shape and texture in creating a collage—moving things around, trying out different formal relationships, attaching and ripping apart, I work, as poets do, with sound and rhythm and image, forming and reforming relationships. I am experimenting with how language unmoored from source and even from that deep desire “to tell” can hold emotions and even ideas (as an abstract visual collage does?). That is an inquiry.And voice is an inquiry too. The voice you have, dear PRE-, is the voice of the process itself—not of a speaker, per se— I hope this voice of juxtaposition, with its odd sounds of rearrangement (moving furniture?) and strange sutures, is invitational to the reader, sparks thinking and feeling. (I think now, as I write you, how I love Meredith Monk.) Is this “voice of process” opposed to “voice” as we experience it in a lyric? That is an inquiry. Where I (the writer) come in as voice is as the shaper of the process, or more truly the user of the process—obviously this same process in other hands would create completely different poems. Is the hand that chooses material and makes juxtapositions equivalent to voice? Can it be as filled with meaning as the voice in a lyric? Or is there an emptiness at the center that can’t be overcome? I hope not. Or I hope that the emptiness is an evocative one that creates possibility as the reader fills and empties the space of the poem with her own engagement with language—a kind of surprising and revealing which I hope the juxtapositions make possible. Can language taken out of the “telling” context be flexible and pleasurable and emotive and even personal—a talk between writer and reader? That is an inquiry too.What, dear PRE-, do you need from me now? Do you need more clarity of forms—are there too many forms? Do you need fewer interruptions in flow—the poems deriving from each prefix perhaps in longer more continuous movements together? Do you need titles that move away from the prefixes and toward suggestion of the themes? Do you need to be able/allowed to explain more to the reader—oh, how would I do that?—or, do you want me to find ways to show and tell and “teach” the reader about the poems while she is reading it? Do you need a vigorous winnowing out? Are you meant to be a quite short book? This is a “maximalist” work—there is a lot of language going on. How to claim that maximalist quality, which seems to me so intrinsic to my own drive and desire, my own demonstration of my love of the process (and in this sense the heart of the book) without swamping the reader in too much “abstract” speech. Are even more patterns or repetitions needed within the poems and between them as a device to counter and/or make accessible the plenitude?Dear PRE-, I would like to add illustrations in your text—I’m thinking dictionary illustrations—from vintage dictionaries (my own beloved Webster’s Collegiate is now vintage since I received it in 1969). Perhaps these could go between sections. Or do I want to add other kinds of visuals? More empty images, to create blank spaces, but that are not quite as blank as simply the blank page. I have the sense that visual pauses would give the reader resting points. Would you even like me to find an artist to collaborate with? Or is this too, too much in the already much of the poems? I also wonder about epigraphs at the beginning of the sections to point more to themes? These are perhaps not the crux of the “problem of the text”—but, part of the inquiry.For now, dear PRE-, this will be all, because I want to get this to Elizabeth. But, I will write you again soon, with my questions and etc. I appreciate your infinite patience.Love,Barbara
Arboreal (Apogee 2014), Flying in Water which won the 2005 Winnow First Poetry Award, and The Secret of White (Spuyten Duyvil 2009). A portfolio of poems from her manuscript PRE- is featured in the June 2014 issue of Verse and additional selections were recently published in Web Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly and are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika. Her poetry has also appeared in OmniVerse, New American Writing, VOLT, Witness and numerous other journals. She teaches in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.