Martha Collins’s Race Trilogy

Cover art for three books of poems by Martha Collins: Admit One (in red), White Papers, and Blue Front

I first came across Martha Collins’s work at a seminar on taboo at the Mass Poetry Festival. Sharon Olds read a poem about testicles. Jill McDonough read a poem that included a line about a stripper’s “perfect pink asshole.” And Martha Collins read a poem about race. It was the Collins poem that made me the most uncomfortable. I’d spoken about race plenty in conversation with people of color, but for a white person to initialize the discussion seemed uncouth, discomforting, in a way that frank talk about sex is not. To confess the sins of one’s ancestors and acknowledge the privilege of one’s whiteness seems the biggest taboo in our day and age.

Collins read from White Papers, the second in a trilogy about race in the United States. White Papers focuses on the poet’s own recollections of race growing up in the Midwest and living in New England. Blue Front is a book-length poem circling around and around a brutal lynching that her father witnessed in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois. Admit One uses the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (which her grandparents attended) as a jumping-off point to speak about “scientific racism,” the eugenics movement of the 20th century, and the continuing legacy of racism in the United States. Continue reading “Martha Collins’s Race Trilogy”

The Art of the Chapbook: Paper

Every artist knows the agonizing gap between an idea and a work of art. In my experience, visual art is particularly frustrating this way – perhaps because whatever skills I developed have long since left me, but also because writing comes so much more naturally to me. But even writing brings with it that frisson between the thing you want to say and the thing you actually end up saying. The Internet-famous video blogger Ze Frank calls that gaps “brain-crack.”[i] The longer an idea sits around in your head without being executed, the more you get addicted to the fantasy of the final product. But artists can’t get addicted to brain crack, or they’ll never make any art.

A chapbook has been my brain crack since about 2009. While I’ve been writing steadily since the age of nine, a variety of obstacles kept me from pursuing my literary ambitions as fully as I would have liked. Some of them I overcame, and some of them I learned to live with and work around. And during that time, I learned to take small steps to incorporate poetry (the art form that comes most naturally to me) back into my life in a non-brain-crack kind of way. The small steps paid off, and eventually I was able to compile a chapbook manuscript. But what to do with it? Send it to contests? The fees added up quickly. Submit to a small press? I found some whose books I enjoyed – both in content and in form. But book quality varied greatly. And I began to question the business side of things. Why give up creative control to a publisher who may or may not market your book, which you may or may not be able to afford once it’s been printed? I’d always been interested in publishing as a medium – in fact, my romance with web design began in 1999 when I realized I could self-publish online. And by 2009, it was easier than ever to make small runs of print books.

Continue reading “The Art of the Chapbook: Paper”

Craft Annotation: Denise Levertov’s Use of Argument and Rhetoric

The concept of argument and rhetoric as craft elements of poetry is very new to me and still feels slippery in my mind, which is why I wanted to focus on it. It’s a novel way to approach the art form and calls attention to a poem’s ability to persuade. According to Wikipedia, literary argument is a brief summary at the beginning of a section of poetry or prose, often used to orient the reader within a larger work. Another definition of argument is a poem’s central idea or thesis. Argument is the thing being said, and rhetoric is the way it’s being said.

In his book Poetic Argument: Studies in Modern Poetry, Jonathan Kertzer writes, “poetic thinking demands an intricate display of reason, which must call forth and submit to its mysterious double, known variously as unreason, the irrational, visionary, intuitive, or transcendent.” This extra element, which gets beyond the purely prosaic and into the realm of unconscious beliefs, yearnings, and desires, is the one that seems to baffle those who “don’t  understand poetry.” Prose writers also employ rhetoric and appeals to emotion, but poetry allows for leaps of intuition and seemingly random association more difficult to sustain in prose.

William Carlos Williams famously said, “no ideas but in things.” The poetry of Denise Levertov illustrates this aesthetic. While her poems easily evoke a particular feeling or even an idea, it can be difficult to tease out a poem’s argument, especially without converting it to dull prose. Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Denise Levertov’s Use of Argument and Rhetoric”

Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme

by Frances Donovan

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes discusses rhyme within the context of repetition. This element of craft goes far beyond the end-stopped pure rhymes (mop/top) most people associate with poetry. Rhyme can be any kind of repetition of sound: slant rhymes (month/up); internal rhymes (the loud cloud growled); alliteration, consonance, and assonance (“tremendous fish,” “speckled with barnacles,” “coarse white flesh”); repetition of words, or repetition of entire lines.

Elizabeth Bishop uses all these techniques. Rhyme runs through her poetry like a subtle thread: always there, but not often when or how it’s expected. Even her prose poems (“Rainy Season: Sub-Tropics”) contain internal rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and assonance: “My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from front to back, the wake of a ship, a wax-white water, or a slowly melting floe.” One can also interpret the overlap of events in these prose poems as a kind of rhyme. In each piece, the titular animal speaks but portrays the same encounters from a different perspective: “Beware, you frivolous crab,” says the toad. “And I want nothing to do with you either, sulking toad,” says the crab. “Cheer up, O grievous snail. I tap your shell, encouragingly,” says the crab. “What’s that tapping on my shell?” asks the snail. Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme”

Craft Annotation: Voice and Point of View in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

by Frances Donovan

One usually hears about point of view as a craft technique in the context of prose. Students of poetry tend to focus on the speaker – “the eye of the poem,” as Frances Mayes puts it. But the two are linked. The mode of narration (first person, second person, third person limited or third person omniscient) informs the kind of “I” from which the poem unfurls. All poems have a speaker; it may be a strong presence that affects the whole tone of the poem, or it may be unobtrusive, a hidden narrator presenting facts without editorializing.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Voice and Point of View in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry”

Craft Essay: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure

by Frances Donovan

An issue I’ve struggled with time and again is how to incorporate multiple scenes in a single poem while still maintaining unity and clarity. Dividing a poem into separate sections with roman numerals or asterisks may work, but not all poems are long enough to justify multiple parts, nor does this method evoke the seamless way a particular sense perception or situation can trigger associations with another time and place.

Proust and his madeleine are a famous example: the taste of a cookie kicks off the epic, multi-volume novel Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Few modern poets have the luxury of such sprawl. But regardless of the length of the poem, one must still learn how to deal with nonlinear time in a way that mitigates the possibility of a confused reader. We experience time in a single dimension (past to present), but the way we think about time is multi-dimensional. It includes past, present, future, and possible divergences from a single outcome.

I set out in search of poems that dealt with the issue of multiple moments (past, present, future, and possible). Continue reading “Craft Essay: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure”

Dispatches from an MFA: Nonlinear Time

As so many writers do, I’ve been letting the perfect get in the way of the good when it comes to these dispatches. I thought it would be a simple matter to re-purpose some of the prose that I sent along with my monthly packets, but the work involved in creating the packets (along with all of my less writerly responsibilities) makes even that relatively easy task more difficult than anticipated. I’m sure I’ll share that work at a later point. But for right now, let me discuss a thorny problem I’ve been having when it comes to my own poems — a craft element, as one would call it in the creative-writing MFA world.

The great problem I’m working on this month is the use of nonlinear time in a single poem — how to transition from one scene to another and to another or back to the first while making the poem feel all of a piece. There’s a lot of talk about keeping the reader in the “moment” of the poem, so this feels like an advanced technique to me, and one that I really want to master.

I did a lot of hunting for poems that use this particular technique and finally had to resort to crowdsourcing (thank God/dess for one particular Facebook community of women poets) to find relevant poems. So far, most of my work this packet has been of the thinking, reading, and researching variety, so it’s a relief to have at least half of one craft annotation finished. I’m trying not to think about the relatively short time remaining before the entire thing is due. As Anne Lamott would say, you do it bird by bird.

Here’s a listing of the poems I’ve found so far, with links where appropriate and bibliographical references where not:

So far, the key seems to be anchoring the work in one particular image or phrase, especially by beginning and ending with it. While I’ve been aware of Robert Pinksy’s work since I moved to Boston 16 years ago, it wasn’t until I read “Shirt” that I became aware of the depth of his own craft. This poem in particular swings back and forth from the moment of putting on a shirt to all the implications of the object itself — stitched together most appropriate with the poetic technique of cataloging and the metric iambs he uses in his lists.

Do you know of a particular poem that also deals with nonlinear time?


Two clock faces photo credit Ron Kroetz via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0