Containing Multitudes: Notes on lectures by Dora Malech & Tarfia Faizullah

I really enjoyed these two linked lectures, in which two poets put forth theories that you can see them engaging directly in their own poetic craft. Dora Malech focuses on “inconstancy” and the excitement that happens when the speaker of a poem changes her mind. Tarfia Faizullah talks about vulnerability as a key tool, an issue that I’ve also discussed in relation to writing personal nonfiction (link to downloadable essay, here). They use these concepts as ways to think about bringing multiple selves into our poems.

The assignments at the end relate mostly to Dora’s lecture. Tarfia’s portion starts at 12:11.

[This post is part of a series of my notes on a video lectures from the free How Writers Write Poetry e-course from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.]


Part 1:
On Syntactic Turns and Multiple Selves

Dora Malech = two collections of poetry + Ruth Lily Fellowship

“The word” is a promise, a contract, faith and constancy. This urge can carry over into our writing, but is not always helpful. It can stand in the way of discovery.

“No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” 
—Robert Frost 

In “the poems that excite us and that become touchstones for us in our own lives, we find that there’s an element of inconstancy, of change, of going back on one’s words. And that is, in a way, the kind of hallmark of a writer like Shakespeare.” His sonnets are full of coordinating conjunctions, “that I like to call hinge words, words where you watch a mind change.”

So we watch a mind not giving us a clear stance, but “wrestling with an issue, a question, an emotion, a state of mind.”

Example: Woman’s Constancy by John Donne

“In our myths, that idea of inconstancy is so often negative. Orpheus turns around and he’s punished. Lot’s wife looks back and she’s punished. And so poetry becomes this place where we can go to dignify and find beauty in the ways in which we can’t keep our word, the ways in which we are unfaithful and that’s part of the human condition on some level.”

Ways to create change of mind in a poem:

  • hinge words: or, but, though, if, unless. 
  • break the metrical contract — change the expectation
  • the nature of the metaphor

Example: Sailing to Byzantium by W. B. Yeats.  Uses both: the meter changes after the word unless.

Example: Free Union (L’Union Libre) by Andre Breton uses multiple images/metaphors for the wife, to demonstrate the shifting nature of the bond.

Example: Facing It by Yosef Komunyakaa. Notice the turn after the word No. It’s beautiful to inhabit multiple truths at once; you don’t have to choose one or the other.

“In a world in which fact and reason are valued, in which politicians are called flip-floppers if they change their mind, in which our word is our bond, we’re supposed to be men and women of our words, poetry is a place where we can go to find the thrilling plurality of our words, in which we can be men and women of all of our words. … So I would encourage you to give me, your reader, not only your word, singular, but the thrilling plurality of your words. … You can show the reader that they’re not alone in their stumbling, in their stuttering, in their confusion, in their uncertainty.”

Part 2:
On Syntax and Vulnerability

Tarfia Faizullah = editor of the Asian Literary Review + winner of awards + Fulbrighter + lives in Detroit + author of Seam on Bangladeshi war rape survivors

[I’ve written about Tarfia’s beautiful work in my blog series about reading as a writer, right here.]

“Syntax is identity.” – Li-Young Lee

Poetry allows the self to be multiple. “As an individual, for example, I am a Bangladeshi- American, Brooklyn-born, raised in West Texas, currently living in Detroit woman. And as a self, I am somebody who is very concerned with how to both, how to live outside of those prescribed categories while also allowing those categories to remain as fully intact as possible.”

That’s why we say “the speaker” not “the poet” when talking about the voice of a poem; it allows for the fact that it could be a multiple aspect of the poet.

Distinction between confessionalism (subjective) and autobiography (objective). Vulnerability = owning the various phases and multiple histories we’ve been through, and how this can allow us to write in many different modes. Break through categories and ideologies.

Globalization is happening but we are not all learning/globalizing at the same rate. Delving into our own inner lives enables us to be more empathetic to each other and also ourselves.

Key questions: “How do we write a truly vulnerable poem that is informed by our experiences and our perspectives, but not necessarily beholden to them? … How do we marry content and form in order to create a truly human poem?”

Vulnerability is what’s really happening in American poetics right now. It enables poets to use a lot of different techniques and tools, not fidelity to one aesthetic or movement.

Example: In Black and White by Erica Dawson. She is a neo-formalist and fearless in what she brings into a rigidly formal structure. Pop culture, vernacular language, gestures come into the poem.

You don’t need to just rely on description. Syntax can create atmosphere, orient the reader — not just in time and place but also in a set of concerns, emotional or intellectual.

Example: There Are Birds Here by Jamaal May. Uses a single word to describe the phenomenon of looking: “no.” Talks back at the reader to transcend the stereotypical idea of what Detroit is. There is an “I” but it describes the full self that is paying attention, not a personal/individual history. It asks us to consider a landscape in a very expansive yet precise way.

“All earthly experience is partial.”
—Louise Glück

“I can only define it as kind of gradual accumulation of information and as a specialization. You can know more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing. It’s hopeless – so that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects.”
—Nabokov

Vulnerability allows us to accept this uncertainty and that we’ll never fully know everything, and still talk about multiple possibilities of the “ghostly objects.”

Two assignments:

• A sonnet which has a major change/turn – voice, style, sonic possibility, attention, argument.
• Write a poem with six hinge words — such as and, but, or, nor, yet, so, until, except, unless, no, not, or any other word or phrase that turns the logic of your sentence.

Prosody (Meter): Notes on a talk by Richard Kenney and William Trowbridge

Here are my notes on another in the series of University of Iowa lessons on poetry craft.

Part 1: Nuts and Bolts

Richard Kenney = MacArthur genius + poet who deals with evolution, physics, time.

So the first thing to note here is that Richard Kenney is totally hilarious to watch. He has a very excitable speaking manner and talks himself into random corners. My favorite part of the video starts around 1:45, when he’s talking about counting syllables in a line of poetry, and somehow he says:

“You could count unicorns. Five unicorns in a single poetic line would, would, uh, …well you see the problem… it would, its sentimentality would be the least of it.”

That was enough to get me started on my writing assignment for the week!

He also has a great schtick where he uses actual nuts and bolts to demonstrate syllables and stresses. Pop in at 3:00 to see a haiku about turnips counted out with nuts, and at 4:10 to see a rendition of an Olde English poem about Sir Galahad recited with bolts, and then a whole bunch of nursery rhymes, and then a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and on and on.

In English there are really just two rhythms that we’re trying to approximate: one is the heartbeat (double rhythm), and one is the hoofbeat (triple rhythm).

Out of these, you can build a line of a poem in two ways:
• the iambic pentameter, which approximates speech, or
• the shorter line, which is like a song rhythm.

The meter is mechanical, “made out of nuts and bolts like this,” and sounds robotic. But human speech varies the stresses according to emotion and feeling. So “don’t worry about it,” he says; “the meter goes along under the surface without any problem,” as long as you revert to the pattern strongly.

“Read the great poems and you’ll find these effects happening all the time.”

“Is it possible to write this way and sound anything like a normal human being? Will it necessarily sound like some sort of faux Shakespearean? No, it isn’t very difficult at all to do this day and night. The fact is I could speak that way for a long time without you noticing.”

“These meters don’t exist in the world. They exist in your nervous system. … It’s not about numbers and counting at all. That’s just the mind trying to understand it at a level of detail which is, in practice, all but irrelevant. The truth is, these things are biological effects.”

Meter didn’t originate just because it enhanced memory, but because it’s inherent to us.

William Trowbridge

William Trowbridge = Missouri poet + Academy of American Poets Prize winner

This part of the talk is all about using meter in free verse. He cites Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, by Paul Fussell.

Free verse still involves meter (syllabic stress), rhyme (often internal to the line), and other elements of “formal” verse. If you’re not paying attention, your poem could “fall into” a metrical pattern that
• you fail to take advantage of, missing an opportunity, or
• undermine/works against what you’re trying to say.

Alexander Pope: “The sound should seem an echo to the sense.” (An Essay on Criticism, Part II)

So it’s important for free verse writers to learn how to “scan” a line.

He reads a whole bunch of poems to demonstrate how to scan them, and why the poet chooses certain syllabic effects.  There’s a lot of technical information about the six types of metrical units, etc., which are in the full video transcript.

My favorite example poems were Kinky by Denise Duhamel, from her book which is all about Barbie and Ken (!!), and Apartment by Rae Armantrout.

His advice: Run home and “scan” all your lines and see where you can make them more effective — don’t use an overly heavy beat for a light romantic subject, for example.

References for the technical stuff:
Rhyme and Meter Glossary
Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns — chapter on free verse

EXERCISE:

Try writing a poem with the heartbeat (double) or hoofbeat (triple) meter, or with both.

Sketching for poets: Notes on a how-to talk by Robert Hass

So, I’m taking this amazing free online course, How Writers Write Poetry from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.  We get twice-weekly video lectures that are all available on YouTube, and we write new poems twice a week to workshop.

I’m finding that I want to channel my inner undergrad and take real lecture notes!  So, I thought I’d share — I also had fun looking up the links to the poems that were quoted in the talk.

My aim is to take notes on at least 30-50% of the lectures this way; I’m assuming some will be more compelling or info-heavy than others.  This first lecture was a real treasure trove; thus, a loooong post!

I’m already finding these exercises incredibly helpful as I put the final touches on my poetry manuscript which is coming out very soon. :)


These notes refer to a video lecture by Robert Hass that is part of the free How Writers Write Poetry e-course from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Please note that the poet quoted many poems from memory, and some quotations might be paraphrases. Where I have looked up a quotation, I’ve included the link/citation.

Please let me know of any corrections at minal [at] minalhajratwala [dot] com . You can also read the closed-caption transcript on YouTube.

Lecture: Sketching Techniques

Robert Hass = Former US Poet Laureate + 7 books of poetry + founder of the Northern California eco-poetry festival Watershed + winner of MacArthur/Pulitzer/etc. Married to the poet Brenda Hillman.

*

Hass says “sketching” is a technique for sitting down to the blank page — “which I’m not very good at.”

The painter, Degas, ran into his neighbor, Stéphane Mallarmé. Degas said he was having trouble writing poems; he had ideas but couldn’t turn them into anything. Mallarmé said, “Ah, the problem is that poetry is not made out of ideas, it’s made out of words.”

Sketch 1 line, 2 lines, 3 lines, 4 lines, then a paragraph.

1 line

The basic unit of poetry is a single line.

Some forms are single-line poems. In Japanese, haiku are often written in one long line.

In this world we walk on the roof of hell gazing at flowers
—Issa, 19th c.

That’s the English version. In original, literally, a series of possessives: This world’s hell’s roof’s flower gazing.

Looking for a parking place I can’t find to meditate
— rough paraphrase of a poem by Allen Ginsberg.

The line can be identical to the sentence, or the line can spill over into the next sentence. You get a pause, or you get energy.

The boy walked out into the field to see the white horse.
— paraphrase of a line by DH Lawrence. 

In a single line, it creates a sense of peace. If you broke it other ways, you could create anxiety, or suspense.  [Here is the actual poem, which is a bit different: poets.org/poetsorg/poem/white-horse ]

Examples of wonderful single lines:

All things that love the sun are out of doors.
— William Wordsworth poetryfoundation.org/poem/174814

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then?
—Gerard Manley Hopkins. bartleby.com/122/29.html

Half my hundred year life is gone.
—a Chinese poet <?>

O Rose thou art sick.
— William Blake poetryfoundation.org/poem/172938

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
—Theodore Roethke  poetryfoundation.org/poem/172106

Exercise/sketch: 

  • Write down 20 sentences that might be lines from poems / first lines. Look around the room  you’re in now, and write sentences that are descriptions of things. Look around, check out your feelings, and try writing sentences that are a single thought or phrase. Begin with an image, some record of a feeling, something that takes you inward, a strange metaphor, an image of the adequacy or the inadequacy of the world.

2 lines

One is about identity, two is about relation.

The most famous 2-line poem in Latin:

I hate and love, you may ask me why,
I don’t know but I feel it and suffer.
— Catullus  [several translations of Odi Et Amo here: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/latin-poetry-podcast/2013/01/16/i-hate-and-i-love-catullus-85/

It’s two lines but each line has 2 parts.

Look to the blues, spirituals, call & response.

Examples:

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified Desire.
—Blake poetryfoundation.org/poem/246230

Who is it knows the trouble I’ve seen?
Nobody knows but Jesus.
—spiritual

Emptiness! my bride!
Who whistles? who listens?
— Tomaž Šalamun  http://creative.sulekha.com/their-guru-an-emptiness_54677_blog

The wind that blows
Is all that anybody knows.
— Thoreau

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me,
Why should you not speak to me?
—Walt Whitman

Last winter I observed the snow on a spree with the northwest wind
And it put me out of conceit of all fences and other imaginary lines.
—Whitman

Soft as the massacre of Suns
By Evening’s Sabres slain
— Emily Dickinson http://emilyeveryday.com/2009/07/22/soft-massacre/

What’ll I do if you are far away
and I am blue. What’ll I do?
—Irving Berlin

Study of the work songs of the Bantu [in Technicians of the Sacred, ed. Jerome Rothenberg, ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520049123]: Someone says a line and someone responds. The 2nd line must not be obviously related to the 1st.  For example:

1st person: The elephant was killed by a small arrow.
2nd person: A lake dries up at the edges.

Skillful relationship between the lines: A large thing defeated by something minor. And, the dried lakebed resembles elephant skin.

Exercise/Sketch: 

  • Write a question and then write an answer. Answer in a surprising way.  Or make a statement and then ask a question.
  • Look at your one-liners and see if you want to add a second line. Let the second one surprise you in relation to the first.
  • Consider 2 lines as a game you can play with yourself — quick flash free association to get to the second line.  Try it with the same first line a few times. See what happens. Go Salt: Pepper. Then, Salt: Wound.

3 lines

Here you have the whole world of haiku.

Suma village / A urine-stained quilt / drying on the line

—Busan

Also think about the rhythm of the body and the rhythm of the mind.

3 is about weaving together different things or parts.

Exercise/Sketch:

  • Write something out that’s fairly long: description of your day, a vivid dream you’ve had lately. Then try setting the phrases dancing in a  three-line stanza.

4 lines

Humans organize the world into fours. North/South/West/East.  The world of knowledge — like a strong table on all fours.

Models: Chinese quatrain / English ballad.

Yesterday we climbed stony mountain.
The rocks on the trail were the color of trout.
We talked about our lives, about loneliness.
On top, in the fog, we couldn’t see a thing.
—Tu Fu

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
—Robert Frost  poetryfoundation.org/poem/171621

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
—Theodore Roethke  poetryfoundation.org/poem/172103

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,  …
—Elizabeth Bishop  poets.org/poetsorg/poem/armadillo

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
— W.B. Yeats  poetryfoundation.org/poem/172055

Make a proposition/ask a question.

Often three lines set up the situation and then the fourth line/leg sets the thing down.

Four brushstrokes of what’s in your consciousness.

Can play with rhyme.

Listen to the singing inside four. We are form-seeking, meaning-seeking, symbol-making creatures to the core of our being. This desire fuses with the sets of four, the order and play of numbers – so this is often where poetry really comes alive.

Exercise/Sketch:

  • Make a four-line gesture that comes to some kind of peace, or question, or disturbance at the end.
  • Write a line. Then write a pair of lines—see how many odd ways you can make relation of twoness: grammatical parallel, rhyme, same idea, contrasting idea. Then try the dance of three’s: take perceptions you have and see what they look line in a three-line stanza, set your imagination skipping. And then maybe for the task of definition, the four line stanza would be appropriate.
  • Hass shares an exercise that his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, assigns: Write a four-line poem that completely sums up your view of the world.

Whew! That’s plenty to do!

Classmates, I look forward to seeing you in our class forums :) and please also feel free to poke around this site or connect with me elsewhere: