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composition

TY: I want to ask about line breaks, which can do a lot of work in free verse poems. What principles or rules or guidelines do you use when deciding when to break lines?

CW: I try to rely on composition as much or more than instinct. First of all, I aim to compose in lines. I don’t think of line breaks as an afterthought. For me, it’s helpful to read aloud while writing since line breaks are in part about breath. And relating form to content is essential. A poem whose energy is equable may want end-stopped lines with contained images, while one whose energy is frenetic or about a certain kind of momentum may require a type of enjambed composition. I ask myself, what is the poem trying to do? Different line breaks evoke different sensations.

While free verse isn’t governed by rules of meter or rhyme, there is no question that writing free verse can be informed by understanding how they work. I’ve found that experimenting with forms, especially with obsessive forms like sestinas and pantoums, has helped me see how lines work.  It’s not surprising that the writers who proposed the radical idea of free verse in the early 20th century were fluent in meter and traditional forms. Discipline was a means to liberty.

Francis Ford Coppola said something that I relate to this topic; something that has stayed with me. When filming Apocalypse Now, he told Dennis Hopper, “If you know your lines, then you can forget them. But it’s no fair to forget them if you never knew them.”

I like that in part because his ruling of “no fair” sounds like a playground outburst. After all, there’s a certain amount of play as well as rebelliousness in creating. But he underscores the need for laying groundwork before launching squally inventiveness. Similarly, Charlie Parker said, “Learn the changes and then forget them.” Not that writing is the same as interpreting character before a camera, or improvising onstage. But there’s a similar sort of negotiation that is best entered with knowledge of the constraints and a certain amount of skill working within them.

TY: How do you know when a poem wants to be in sections rather than presented as a whole block?

CW: Different stanza structures offer different rewards to the reader, so I consider what I’m trying to achieve with the piece. I use similar judgment regarding stanzas as I do with lines: I try to bring the concerns of content to the needs of form. Changing theme, shifting imagery, musical modulation, the need for a strong pause are some things I consider when determining stanzas. As with lines, experimenting with stanzas brings to light for me the various ways they can build or temper tension and sustain the reader’s investment in the piece. I have a poem called Velocity about a drive at night and the rush of images the narrator sees in her headlights. I presented that piece in a unified block. The content was about an almost manic state and presenting the piece in a unified block created an unremitting tension that mirrored the narrator’s experience. Another poem in “Bartab”, Belly Up, is the expression of a kind of spiral of ruminative thought or anxiety. The same kind of stanza structure would have been too much. Ordering it in carefully composed lines separated the movements and mitigated the tautness.

TY: Some writers talk about inspiration – a Muse is the traditional term – is there anything in your life that inspires you to write and keeps you going when you don’t feel like it?

CW: I grew up in a very isolated place in the rural South and spent a great deal of time alone. That solitude along with an unpredictable and often violent home environment cultivated my imagination by necessity. In those years, flights of imagination were corporeal needs. They were acts of survival. Music and dance and language were terribly important to me. And they still have a power and magic for me that reach beyond fleeting pleasure or escapism. I’ve always tried to write songs I needed to hear. Now I try to write what I want to read. A startling image or seemingly insignificant detail can draw together a moment of unity or emotional clarity. This aspiration continues to summon me. Writing is also an urge for catharsis; a way to exorcise elements of my past and to process it. I know it sounds bizarre, but I have long felt that writing for me is a way to dialogue with generations of my family.

While I do it differently than I did years ago, for me inspiration requires surprise. When I was younger, I bought into the idea that an artist has to live a life of violent transitions. If I wasn’t feeling inspired, I felt it was my duty to go out and challenge stasis. I felt I could only draw on the experiences of upheaval and privation and exhilaration. I’ve outgrown that self-destructive urge, but the need for surprise remains.

Since I was a teen I have rather defensively defied traditional gatekeepers who hindered my efforts at getting my voice and work into the world to connect with a listener or a reader. I’m still driven by this. Before I began the manuscript for “Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad”, I had inherited a bit of the cultural disdain for feminine forms of expression, for the journal or diary. But after confronting events I couldn’t have possibly anticipated, I made a decision to work within personal narrative. Considering the challenges and dangers confronting girls and women, as well as the silence and secrecy surrounding those perils, telling our individual stories can be politically empowering. I teach writing workshops to women in recovery. When you give permission to these women to write about their lives, to talk about things that aren’t part of the cultural dialogue, it’s powerful. You can see the inception of a transformation. I’m inspired by the idea of a similar exchange with a reader.

I could go on about this topic. For example, I would love to talk about Lorca’s “duende” and how my pursuit of it has been important to me since I was a much younger writer. Suffice it to say, I find inspiration everywhere because I like to solve problems. I get excited when I read something that succeeds or excels in what it aims to do. I want to know how the writer achieved that and I set about figuring it out.

Perhaps more important than the question of inspiration is how to persist in its absence. For me, the answer is just that – persistence. Perspiration is more reliable than talent or inspiration.

booklady bathroom pic

TY: I hear lots of sound devices in your poems, which is one of the ways even contemporary poems can sound musical. Have you been influenced by music in your writing? Or how did you become conscious of and use sound so well in your work?

CW: I’ve absolutely been influenced by music. I grew up drenched in music of every kind. I was taught nursery rhymes from a very young age, and memorizing Bible verses was very important. We had songs and rhymes for every occasion when I was small that I still remember – a morning song, and one to say goodnight and even one for when I came out of the bath! It was great stuff, really instructive in language while filling me with delight. Not surprisingly, my first poems were really just juxtapositions of different words that were interesting for their harmonic interplay, if you will; experiments with the music of language. Today when I’m at work on something, I have found that reciting it while walking helps me explore its rhythm. I’m very conscious of poems as something read aloud, the physical sensation of their recitation, how it’s like singing. When talking with excitement about something I’m working on, I frequently slip and call a poem a song and vice versa. It used to cause me chagrin, but now I look at it as a blessing, the fact that there’s unity in the things I love to do.

TY: What writers do you return to most often? Why? What is in their work that continues to teach you?

CW: Andre Dubus, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Susan Minot, Breece D’J Pancake. When I was a student of Gregory Orr, he talked to me about creating one’s family of writers, and I think it’s essential, really. Among poets, I’d say Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, Jane Kenyon, Gregory Orr. I love how Simic never gets in the way of the poem but trusts the unadorned image. But in talking about what I admire and try to learn from these writers, I could devote several hours to each.

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Cesca Janece Waterfield is a journalist, poet, and songwriter based in Virginia. She has been selected three times to receive songwriter grants from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). She is the author of Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press). Her poems and fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals. She can be reached at cescawaterfield.com

 

 

Just before puberty struck with the force of the furies and made me a moody kid, prone to sudden bouts of gloom and equally sudden bouts of elation, it was discovered that I had a gift for music. The mode of discovery was a cheap 20 dollar Magnus chord organ purchased for my sister at the now defunct “Two Guys” supermarket.

Two Guys wasn’t exactly a supermarket, but, rather a combination of a supermarket, clothing, and toy store–with a little bowling and pin ball area for the kids to keep them busy, and way ahead of its time (Sort of a proto-Trader Joe’s/Wegman’s). It went out of business sometime in the late 70s, I believe, but, at the time, it was known as a place with good cuts of meat and an area to keep the kids occupied while the parents shopped.

Anyway, my parents purchased the organ for my sister who, after a few preliminary forays, never touched the thing again. Of course, I was not to touch it all, just as I was not supposed to touch my brother’s accordion years before. If my mother had not been ignorant of my brother John’s ability to involve me in con games, she would have learned years sooner that I could play any tune, and, often, its chord structures, simply on hearing it. John had caught me playing his accordion by placing the straps around my shoes (I was too little to make it go in and out any other way), and touching the keys or black buttons while I pumped furiously with my legs. After beating me up, he realized that I could play the keys while he pumped the accordion, and my mother would think he was finally taking his lessons seriously. She did not disturb his genius, but would applaud from the kitchen down stairs after we had played “The Merchant of Venice” or “Ave Maria.” She never found out I was the button pusher, key man, and so we got away with it.

The organ was a different matter. It came with a few books of popular songs, and had buttons you could push for the chords which were marked–white for major, black for minor. I was old enough now to be left home when they shopped, and my brother was out somewhere. Porgy and Bess was on WPIX. They often put it on if a Yankee game was delayed on account of rain. If not Porgy and Bess, it was “Pride of the Yankees.”

Because I was home alone, I could wallow in the music. It literally made the hair stand up on my arms, and I wept when Dorothy Dandridge sang “I loves you Porgy,.” I was a weird 12 year old. I turned the television off, and approached the organ I wasn’t supposed to touch, and played “I loves you Porgy” by ear. As is my habit, I played it again, never wearing it out, and producing the same physical effect upon myself–even more so–on the 10th replay. I was filled with static electricity, and nothing in me was silent except my “feelings.”

Odd to say, but this sort of hair standing up/weeping is not a faculty of the feeling sense–of a judging function. It is not a case of you feeling something is beautiful. The best way to describe it is that you–the you of opinion and preconception–vanishes. I consider all acts of creation to be acts of mercy. Some part of us becomes better than we normally are. Watch a child on a rainy day coloring away with a box of crayons–completely absorbed, at one with the motions of his or her hand. There is no rancor or ego or pride in it. Great artists might have enormous egos, but not while they are in the process of making their art: they are at one with humility. You are dreaming awake, and, though the act be deliberate, it is still, in some way, passively “received.” It moves through you not from you. It is what is meant by true engagement in a task. I can tell a tool maker is good, or a window washer just by watching him move. I know by the level of presence–if he is merely doing the task, or also being “done” by it. I believe talent and interest causes us “to be done” while we are doing. We become what we do–not only the performer, but the performed. Some force, call it the non-judging faculties of intuition/sensing, allows us to be entered and to truly enter. Noun and verb are one. The boundary between what we do and what we are does not exist in moments of creativity. Time, which is the most disgruntling of inventions wrought by the judging functions (thought/feeling), is suspended. Space follows suit. A musician keeps time, but he is not “in” time. An artist deals with space, but is never restricted by it–not while he or she draws or paints or sculpts. It is only through intuition and sense that feeling and thought may be suspended, and, also, oddly enough, given their highest realization. Plato was afraid of poets because they did not seem either systematic or deliberate enough. They did not move through intelligence, but, rather, by a great and, as even Plato admitted, often superior folly.

So I was in the midst of such folly when my parents arrived home. I did not notice the time, and did not hear them come up the dirveway, then into the house. I didn’t hear my sister complain that I was playing her organ until she screamed it two feet from me. My mother was looking at me strangely. She said: “I had no idea.” A month later, a piano was delivered to our house.

My mother said: “Bang on that thing all you want Joseph… I love you.”

I wanted to be a composer more than I ever wanted to be a poet, but it does not really matter: the process of writing, or playing a piano are exactly the same for me when I’m alone–suspension of time and place, a sense of being in the flow. I was too old to become a concert pianist. Physically, I lack both the dexterity and fingers to be a great pianist, but I can compose at will, without thinking about it. I can get on a piano and immediately make a decent musical structure. This has little to do with my intelligence and feeling functions, and everything to do with allowing the intuitive to hold sway. Many people do not become artists not because they are stupid, but because they are incapable of suspending the thinking/feeling functions. They fail to become writers and musicians and painters because they cannot enter their highest stupidity.

I believe crayons, and coloring books, and ink and chalk, and musical instruments, and toys should be strewn all over a workshop class room. Anything that allows an adult to lean over the paper the way a child does when he or she is coloring is all to the good. We make much of “professionalism” in the arts, but that is deadly to the creative process because it is exactly the opposite of what happens when we are in the act of making things. In order to “construct” we must be decreated. We must be taken away–our snobbery, our little clique in the workshop, our worst selves must be murdered, and then we can go where we must go in order to create.
So before I write, I often play the piano for two or three hours. I just play–sometimes the same thing over and over again until I am not there. I play to erase myself. Maybe I take a walk, or I do anything that gets me out of feeling/thought. I never force myself to write. I consider playing the piano, or a long hot bath to be indistinguishable from writing. So I am a big advocate of allowing painters or musicians into a writing class. Some people are picky when it comes to sounds, so it’s best perhaps to encourage artists to come and draw and paint, rather than to let musicians play. This is for “in class” writing. Many people resist writing among others. It’s unnatural to them. So here’s a compromise:

Bring knitting or drawing or music to the class. For the sake of others, use head phones with the music. Instead of writing a poem, you have the option of jotting down words and phrases and lines that just come to you–anything except what you must consciously think or feel about. When you have gotten twenty words, or a few phrases down, go off and make something out of them. Here’s an experiment: get hold of Bach’s cello suites. Jot down the following words and phrases: “Pristine,” “dork head”, “”I love you madly with my cello,” Sop”, “tumultuous”, “Red,” “Aqua”, “Lions,” “cleats,” “copper onion skins,”” Tangier,” “somber,” “rain,” “roof,” “night fall,” “demean,” “dapper,” “alba,” “sorcery.” As you listen to the cello suites, cross out all but three of the words. Take these words and make them the origin of a poem without ever putting them in the poem. Include something about the cello suites, or refer to them in the poem. Good luck.