“What is Poetry?”

In the wake of slam poetry and “spoken word,” confused audiences have asked themselves what poetry actually is. I think people tend to imagine that it looks and sounds like an English sonnet, with rhyming couplets and metered form (we all did once, right?). It might even have some kind of resolution: a neat bow of a message tying the whole poem together at the end. A poem might look this way, obviously, but I think we’ve moved on since Wordsworth. Poets like Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself”) pioneered free verse, or unrhymed, unmetered poetry, free of form or convention.

Poetry was able to say what it wanted, how it wanted. Postmodern writers came back to form from time to time, but usually to satirize their predecessors (think Annie Finch’s “Coy Mistress”, a response to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, or Billy Collins “Litany”).

Trace in the Mind: The Quiet by Anne-Marie Turza

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In her debut collection, British Columbian poet Anne-Marie Turza uses specialized narrative and metaphor to explore the nature of silence. Often, this does not refer to literal soundlessness, but to an awareness about distinct facets of being, some beyond our experience. Say, for example, the subjective truth about a stone cricket, or the physics of a pitch thrown by Satchel Paige. Throughout the poems, the subject eludes the grasp, unable to be defined, but the author persistently grapples with its dimensions:

One says: it was smaller then. And one: it was larger, so
large, its sound was elsewhere. And one: as in measure-
ments. Counting the charged particles. One says: it’s close
and scalpiform. And one: it slips from everything, in all
directions. (13)

A hybrid of poetry and prose, Turza’s lines evoke fabulist Italo Calvino, especially in their inquiry into unrealized worlds. Her syntax is defined more by considered language than meter, her enjambed lines brusquely leading the reader to poetic resolution. Set off by wide margins and the blank page, the text occupies negative space, each poem’s meditation a contrast against its undefined surroundings. In poems like “Barren”, the speaker approaches silence through negation, calling to mind Kant’s noumenon (“thing as it is in itself”):

Nowhere in the real will I divine you.
Not in the shards of stones. Not in the shade of stones.

Neither in the blue tint of the stones’ shade.
Noplace in the air. Your eye. Tell me: what’s caught

your eye? Not the fern, now uncurling, sporing
its split leaves. Where then is your attention held?

I’m barren and I am your mother. Discarnate child,

yours is the stark eye that can’t be born.
The naughting eye: and nothing after (57).

The absence of the speaker’s child is felt as she observes the phenomenal world, alone. Her unborn child “observes” its mother’s experience, its disembodied eye nihilates “the real”. Life for the speaker is meaningless. Paradoxically, the absent child has a presence in this poem; unable to be “divined” with the senses, it exists beyond the edges of comprehension, of language, in an unrealized space. The child permeates and surrounds the phenomenal world, like the whiteness around the text.

Elsewhere in the collection, Turza invites the reader to abandon human subjective experience:

—And its sound?
—As in the toothed whale. There is a buried hearing organ.

—And its sound?
—It enters the immersed body firstmost through the throat.

A hallmark of the collection, the query-response format suggests a disciple/teacher relationship. The teacher mediates the subject through metaphor, using abstraction to map out uncharted territory the same way a whale might navigate its surroundings. In this poem, the texture and reverberation of sound becomes visceral, we feel it enter “through the throat.” Turza’s voice in the collection operates much the same way, attempting to orient the reader in a foreign context.

In The Quiet, Turza asks the reader to transgress the boundaries of the known. We enter a state of silence, of willful imagination and unrealized possibility, to contact what lies beneath. It is a world of degrees. Her treatment is at times private, intensely focused, and at others, cosmic. The collection is a pleasure to read and an inspiring inquiry into the nature of being.

Anne-Marie Turza is thirty-four and lives in British Columbia. She has an MFA from the Writing Department at the University of Victoria. Her poetry has appeared in several literary magazines including Arc Poetry Magazine and The Mahalat Review, and the anthology The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2010.

The Male Gaze in Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”

I’m not sure how much thought has been given to the lyrics of one of this summer’s signature singles (especially in the wake of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which seems to be getting all the publicity), but Daft Punk’s single presents a compelling picture of sexuality. I’m of two minds on the lyrics.

From the feminist perspective, the song describes the pursuit of women from the view of a predatory male, one who either veils his advances in phoney ideology or is oblivious to the threat he poses. Especially after hearing a cover by the English indie rock band Daughter, sung by female vocalist Elena Tonra, I think this interpretation holds water. On the other hand, my initial interpretation was that while the lyrics admit a masculine perspective, they attempt to describe a universal human impulse, not one strictly of men.

Let’s start with the second, more favorable lens.

In the first stanza, Pharrell describes sexuality as the biological impetus of all life: “What keeps the planet spinnin’/The force from the beginning;” and really, there can be no argument here, at least on the facts. The question becomes whether this admission is genuine, or only a mask for the speaker’s predatory desire (a gray area exists here: it can be both).

In the hook, meanwhile, the speaker admits a contrast in motives, the object of desire “up all night for good fun,” while he is “up all night to get lucky,” but he makes an attempt at inclusivity in the second line of the hook, replacing both speaker and object with the pronoun we. Taking into consideration each stanza and hook, the game of pursuer and pursued seems to be a frame artificially imposed on human sexuality, and one we agree to participate in: men are trained to pursue, women are trained to attract, but both are seeking completion as mediated by the frame. Of course, this can be accommodated in a feminist critique, and doesn’t necessarily undermine its argument.

The feminist view comes into focus when we hear “Get Lucky” sung by a female vocalist.

Shoddy Writing in Breaking Bad

I’m going out on a limb here: the finale of Breaking Bad was not good. With its general disregard for the viewer’s intelligence, I found it just another entry in a well-acted, but overrated, soap opera.

Let’s address that point first. Like the American soap and its many equivalents, Breaking Bad relies too often on coincidence to advance its plot. Take, for example, Walter’s chance meeting with Jane’s father in the bar in season 2, just prior to his witnessing Jane overdose in Jesse’s apartment. While heightening a sense of dramatic irony, the demand on the viewer’s suspension of disbelief is onerous. Is there, like, one bar in all of Albuquerque? Or the revelation that Andrea’s younger brother, Tomas, was the boy who killed Combo season earlier in the series. Too much.

“Felina”, the finale of season 5, makes use of coincidence in its pivotal scene: Walt, arriving at the headquarters of uncle Jack and the white supremacists, manages to gather all the supremacists in the same room, conveniently in position of his Jerry-rigged truck, recover his stolen keys without being noticed, and gun them all down. Even when he suffers a chest wound, he is allowed enough time to wrap up his turbulent relationship with Jesse. Here the show resembles a Saturday morning cartoon, allowing its heroes and villains closure before their death. You might remember how Hank miraculously survived a volley of bullets in “To’hajiilee” just long enough to look badass? Obvious fan service…

The Most Popular RPG Ever

On the advice of a fellow blogger, I revisited the perennial question about social media: on the whole, does it do more harm than good?

The consensus is generally something like, “Yes, but only if you spend too much time on the Internet.” Moderation, moderation. To which I ask: does anyone just Facebook a little bit? Are we all hypocrites?

Everyone knows the knocks against social networking. It doesn’t mean they aren’t true: I disabled my Facebook profile for several months, but like an addict, came back. At first it was just to moderate a group of artists, but I gradually realized the main reason I relapsed was a sense of loss: it was too much to miss out on the visual histories and triumphs of my ether-friends. That’s the honest truth. Frankly, social networking encouraged a less than admirable tendency to follow some friends more than others. I didn’t want to be left behind in their lives.

On another note, social media is kind of fascinating, in that it represents a communal effort to build, or at least frame, our lives in a favorable light. This isn’t news for most, but I don’t think it’s entirely negative. Our albums and avatars create visual narrative, and we affirm them through sharing and “liking” them in a kind of forum. It’s basically the most popular role-playing game, and the most significantly creative act most people participate in on a regular basis. I’ve also found Facebook useful for collaborating with other writers and our contributors, and monitoring the traffic we get on our site.

So I’m on the fence for now.

– David Pulido

Authenticity and Writing

This post was inspired by my own struggles with verisimilitude in my work. Lately, I’ve found that I’ll come up with a potential story, write out a few drafts, and then find them unbelievable from a narrative standpoint. They just ring false.

The initial ideas always seem good. I like to imagine them as bright, unadulterated, complete orbs of light floating around in our heads. Each one contains what we want the reader to feel. But when we try to translate the little idea orbs into text, something gets lost in translation, and it’s not a matter of grammar or diction (I think anyway).

So what’s going on? I have a couple theories. One being, our ideas might suck.

At the risk of alienating some would-be writers, if you don’t have something important to say to the reader, then say nothing. The maxim, “Don’t speak unless you improve upon the silence” comes to mind. I’m not necessarily advocating that we censor ourselves, but it’s worth considering the feedback of our audience: if they feel like “nothing’s happening,” or if they can predict all the narrative beats of your work, you might need to go back to the drawing board. Think of your effort as practical experience.

Beautiful Prose

Like many English majors, I keep a list of my favorite sentences (people do that, right?). It’s hard to explain why certain writing styles appeal to me, or turn other readers off, but it’s the shared love for writing that keeps us all coming back, I think. I just wanted to share some of my favorite sentences with you, and hear some of your own!

This one comes from W.H.D. Rouse’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. I like Rouse’s for its lack of affectation: other translations structure Homer’s epic in stanzas and rhymes that take away from the work’s relatively conversational tone. The “poetry” that emerges naturally from the text is beautiful as is.

Here, the narrator finds Odysseus languishing on Calypso’s island, afraid he will never again reach Ithaca:

The tears were never dry in his eyes; life with its sweetness was slowly trickling away (65).

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a sentence that gave me such a strong sense of futility. Despite the heroic circumstances that separate us from the protagonist, I feel that here and throughout the epic, we can relate with him because of the familiarity of the translation’s tone. Many of us have felt the overwhelming force of circumstance on our lives, the influence events have on the way we carry on, and unlucky for us, we usually don’t have a divine benefactor to whisk us away. I’d like to chalk all this up to Rouse keeping close to Homer’s original voice, but what translator doesn’t claim to do that?

The Art and Performance of Alice Glass

Lead singer of the band “Crystal Castles,” Alice Glass is probably best known for her raucous vocals on tracks such as “Doe Deer” or the self-referential “Alice Practice,” the single which first drew attention to the band in 2004. What sets her apart from other female vocalists, even taking into account the Riot Grrrl movement, is the feral, supernatural quality to her performances.

[Disclaimer: the music is LOUD, and epileptics should avoid these videos. Any interpretation is my own and completely speculative. All lyrics are from the official band website.]

Shrouded in heavy fog and lit by strobes, Alice seems to emerge on-stage, breaking into spasmodic convulsions, pacing to steady, insistent beats, or standing mute, her foot propped on an amplifier and hand stretched towards the audience. The band is marked by contrasts, and Alice is as likely to lull the audience into stupor as she is to break into frenzied screams. The music itself is designed to overwhelm the audience, flooding them with 8-bit glitches and strange, powerful drones.

On Revision

When writing, revision can be both the most gratifying aspect of the process, and the same time, the most paralyzing. On the one hand, you have a chance to polish off your work, to shape it into the magnum opus you imagined one day while daydreaming on the john. It’s undeniably important. But, in my experience, if you entertain the need to revise while writing, you won’t get anywhere. So first, a little on the virtues of revision.

A former professor once told me that when you step back from a piece and return a while later, you effectively have a new set of eyes on your work. You can chalk it up to temperament (maybe you skipped breakfast the day you started writing, or found a parking ticket on your windowshield). Or it may be a matter of perspective; at the risk of sounding like a popcorn psychologist, we grow every day, and the “you” of tomorrow might be more capable of writing that piece than the “you” of today.

On Inspiration and My Writing Process

Inspiration is a little overrated when it comes to writing. My experience is that it might take you a couple of pages before you lose the impetus that got you started. In other words, you should rely on steady, determined, inglorious writing to take you the distance. I don’t mean to say inspiration isn’t important. The problem is, I think, that most people assume good writing comes from an epiphanic moment, which turns the exercise into a waiting game. When lightning doesn’t strike twice, people call it quits. Remember why you started, but never forget that the process of writing is as important, and usually yields more, than the whim that got your fingers typing. That said, here’s a little on where I find inspiration:

Reading other authors. It’s a basic but true ingredient of good writing. But don’t take my word for it:  authors from Raymond Carver to Stephen King praise the value of “research” when writing your own, original work. Ben Franklin copied whole journals to learn writing techniques. Don’t rule out work from fields outside your comfort zone, either: as a Humanities major, I’m not particularly great at math or science, but having recently read (and deeply enjoyed) works by Carl Sagan and Michio Kaku, I’ve found my own framework broadened by their views on astrophysics and the natural world. So read, read, read, until you’re confident in your own voice. Then keep reading.