Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Talking Poetics #6 : Rusty Priske

When rob asked me to discuss my process of building poems, my first reaction was remembering what I told a fellow poet out in Lanark County – I have no idea how to write a poem. She literally laughed at me as by that point I had been performing for a while and had received a number of accolades for my work. I explained that I wasn’t claiming that I couldn’t write poetry, just that I didn’t know HOW I did it. I just wrote.

Of course that was an over-simplification. I DID have a process, it just wasn’t something I put a lot of thought into. These days, as I continue my move away from writing for the stage and more towards writing for the page, this process has changed and I continue to find what my new normal will be. As a spoken word poet (and especially a poet who concentrated on Poetry Slams), there was definitely a specific process.

I started with a topic, most of the time. Sometimes I started with an idea for a rhythm or a ‘gimmick’, but those were rarely my better poems. It had to be ABOUT something that I wanted to talk about.

Since I mentioned that I wrote for Slams, I should explain that a bit. For those who don’t know, Poetry Slams are competitions where poets get up on stage, perform a poem in under three minutes, and judges chosen from the audience give a score. This is absolutely nothing more than a hook to get people to listen to poetry, and it works (mostly), but over time the ‘sport’ of the competition has grown so that sometimes, to some poets, the sport is more important than the poetry.

This is why, in my process, it was very important to me that I ignore the competition aspect when I was writing. If I thought about the scores or what the judges would like I ended with bad poetry. Every time.

(Now, CHOOSING which poems to perform in competition, is a whole different thing. If the poem is written honestly, there is still an art to knowing what the judges will like.)

Once I had the topic, I just wrote the poem.

Which is nonsense, of course.

I often tell people that I write quickly. I would generally finish a poem – from the time the first word is written down – in under an hour. This seems incredibly fast, but it ignores that by the time I have written that first word, I have already done a bunch of advance work, in my head. I think about ideas on the bus, in the shower, on conference calls at work, wherever. My only rule was to not ‘write’ anything in my head, so I wouldn't feel bad when I inevitably forgot it. The feeling of the poem – and the general structure – would be there before I start writing.

One of the things about writing for Slam, is the timing of the poem. I always wrote all my poems in one of those steno-style notebooks (though I think they are not technically steno-style, because I wanted the cover to open to the left and not the top).

I found it interesting that when I wrote fiction (mostly when I was working on the Legend of the Five Rings story team for AEG Games), I wrote on the computer, but when I wrote poetry it was always longhand. I never gave that much thought. I just did it.

Also interesting to me, since I switched my focus to the written word from the spoken word, I have also changed that. I now write almost exclusively on the computer. Why the change? Unsure, though it does make editing easier.

When I first started writing poetry, I had the kind of notebook with a blue line down the centre, so I treated each side as its own page (which is why when you see my poetry written down, I tend to write very short lines). I learned very quickly, with my physical writing style (printing with fairly small letters), that three pages was three minutes. That was the space I had to work with. (Not an exact science.)

That also meant that edits were something I could do only with pen scratches and margin writing. I didn’t edit much at all. Part of this was the Allen Ginsberg style of ‘first thought, best thought’, but the other part was the fact that with oral poetry, nothing is set in stone. I do not have a deadline that says ‘after this, the poem is final’. Most of my real editing was done as I was memorizing the poem for performance. I would learn through that where the awkward phrases were and where things didn’t come across the way I meant them to.

Example: One of my first ‘big’ poems is called ‘Why Art?’ Originally there was a section in there that read something like:

That little feeling in the
Back of your stomach
The pit of your heart
Or around your brain
That tells you SHE... is the one

When I started memorizing the poem, it just felt awkward. I intentionally had mixed the metaphors, but  what looked like an intentional shuffle on the page sounded weird and garbled on the stage.

It became:

That little feeling in the
Pit of your stomach
The back of your brain
Or around your heart
That tells you SHE... is the one

So, I did edit, just not on the page. (Later when I was publishing some of these poems, I had to go back and make sure that what I had written down was actually the way the poem was in my head.)

I remember Kevin Matthews saying that the poem wasn’t finished until it was performed and while I agree with the sentiment, I would argue that it wasn’t finished even then.

I remember standing at the back of the Knox Hall during VERSeFest, with one of the feature performers, Mary Pinkoski. Mary is the former Poet Laureate of Edmonton, a former National Slam Champion, and a current incredible poet and good friend of mine. We listened as another talented poet (whose name escapes me), said during his reading that he had changed the ending of his poem a number of times but now it was published so he was stuck. Mary and I looked at each other and said, “Uh, no. If you want to change it, change it.” That shows a clear attitude difference between written and spoken word poets. Poems are alive. When I stop tinkering it is only because I am now working on something else.

But, as I said earlier, I have shifted to working more for the page. So now how do I construct a poem?

I have no idea how to write a poem.

I just do it.

My Creation Myth

Our reading tonight
Comes from the first gospels of Rusty

In the beginning there was an idea
Or the germ of an idea
A concept, a nagging thought
Or maybe a hook
Something that could be a poem
Or wants to be a poem
Or IS a poem yet unformed
And the desire to create is upon me
And I see that it is good.

On the second day there are words
Turning concepts tangible
From Air to Water to Earth
And hopefully Fire before going back to the Void.
Words tumble over each other
Forcing perception into meaning
Until they form prose.

On the third and fourth days
Come the rhythm and the rhyme
As the words fall into place
Into a pleasing shape
More palatable for the mind.
My body feels the beat
Of the words on the street
As prose becomes poetry
And craft becomes artistry
The poem flows from the pen
(Can I get an amen?)
But creation is not yet complete.

On the fifth day I learn the way to Carnegie Hall.
I go over the words
First memorize then learn
Gestures, movement, speech
Disparate parts of the whole
Until the poem no longer exists on paper
It lives in my head until ready to be shared
On the sixth day.

This is C-Day
Collaboration Day
Poetry ceases to be a solo affair.
There is me.
A mic.
A stage.
A crowd.
The poem is released from its prison
And unleashed upon the ears of the audience
The words enter and are transformed
Each is altered by the one listening
Until the poem has become ten poems
Twenty poems, forty poems, more.

And on the seventh day, I rest
Until there is an idea
Or the germ of an idea
A concept, a nagging thought
Or maybe a hook.
Something that could be a poem.

Rusty Priske [Photo by Erin Dingle] is the Spoken Word Editor of Arc Poetry Magazine and the President of the Arc Poetry Society. He was the long time National Slam Master for Spoken Word Canada and Slam Master for Capital Slam in Ottawa. His work has appeared in three books (most recently in Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology from Mansfield Press), on eight CDs, and in multiple issues of Oratorealis. He has performed poetry from Victoria to Halifax, including with members of the Vancouver Opera Company and as part of the Caravaggio exhibit at the National Gallery.

In 2018 Rusty was awarded the Zaccheus Jackson Nyce Memorial Award for his contributions to the Canadian Spoken Word Poetry community.

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