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instinct

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

 

 

Contrapuntal
By Christopher Kondrich
Parlor Press, 2012
ISBN 978-1602353671

Music, for being such a well-diffused cultural product, can be challenging to adequately write about. Like many creative disciplines, it commands its own lexicon and sits atop a tall barrier of entry. But this shouldn’t preclude anyone who wants to get hip-deep; we’ve all experienced music to some degree and should attempt to verbalize our reactions to its influence.

Then you have folks like Christopher Kondrich, a poet who is clearly comfortable writing through the influence of music in his latest collection, Contrapuntal. The first instinct one might have with a book titled after the musical theoretical concept of counterpoint (two or more melodies moving with respect to each other), is to look for counterpoint’s influence on the book’s metrical and sonic aspects. Such an approach would not be a mistake, but Contrapuntal is more than a book of poems informed by musical theory. Kondrich transposes counterpoint and lyrical melody in a book that, yes, deserves to be read aloud (as most books of poetry do).

Four sections comprise the book, and each one is made up of mostly single-page title-free poems that read with a clear, slippery speed. The lines are mostly short enough to slide into one another without any friction on the surface, prompting the reader to stop and revaluate the lines being read. This is a metrical way of demanding a closer inspection, and the poems work for it. Without titles to ground (or disrupt) particular readings of each poem, it’s easy to lose focus on what the aim of each page may be, but the poems channel and direct the reader well.

Between “T”(“Tim”), and the narrator, a slight narrative emerges, but the dates and times are unclear and not really the point. They’re more like those previously mentioned melodic lines swirling around each other, occasionally harmonizing or just meeting within and throughout the poems. More so, there is a sense of self, and self-contradiction and counterpoint, that also swings throughout the book. Early on we get (from I feel it all time):

but either way I can
empathize with you,
not to mention empathize
with myself as I felt
that day telling you
that I can because
I did at the time
and I do now.

Like notes, certain words are emphasized and repeated within and between poems. Here Kondrich brings those notes into play, twining the threads of “you” and “I” and the various identities within the self. Rather than simply penning “I” poems, these lines drill down past the subjective, and by the end the “I” is almost lost. Later we get (from Tonight, the piano will project me into a dream):

threaded outside into something wonderful
and this is called counterpoint

a need to return to a previous state
buried beneath years of habit and rationale

Here the illusion of time rendered through music is brought into play with regard to the self, which is never really static or concrete, but a series of states paved over in sedimentary layers. On the next page:

that’s what one of your colleagues asked me
the man asked me if I felt looped.

If not looped, then maybe even conversing with the self, digging through layers—or not—and bound to repeat the same actions. The first poem of book 4:

Lying awake
I heard two voices
both of which were mine.
I was always afraid they
would remove what I held
in my invisible hands,
and then came the hour
I had to accept
because living meant
accepting the loss
of one hour after another,
of what felt like an hour,
which could be two,
which could be none,
a mere few minutes
compressed into a rock
the size of a thumb.
I spent part of the night
on the couch another part
at the kitchen table—
I would like some tea,
said one of my voices.

This is a solid example of Kondrich’s ability to express the experience of music, listening to music, and collating the voices in and around us. This is the final dissemination of self into segments, parts, a non-centralized existence without the core.

Contrapuntal is not a book about diametrics, bipolarity, or extremes, but rather a sonic and sonorous exploration of the way music, sound, time, and relationships exist throughout the body, mind, and self. Such a read is what contemporary poetry is poised to accomplish, and Kondrich has a measured and meticulous style that winds well around the musical and interpersonal ideas he’s presenting here.

(To sum up our tryptych of posts for Dorothea Lasky, I present a brief and delicious interview)

It seems like some of the best writing that’s happening right now is coming out of the Amherst/ Northampton area. I’m thinking of Natalie Lyalin, Heather Christle, Emily Pettit. Matthew Zapruder went to school there. So did you. What’s the secret?

My instinct is to add to that list with the large number of great poets, writers, musicians, and artists who have come out of there also. But I am not sure where I would stop with this list. So, I will just shake my head and say yes, I agree.

That area is a generative space. Of course, I think so because I went to MFA school at UMass-Amherst (all of these people went to UMass, if not for MFA, then for undergrad.) The MFA program there is wonderful, it just generates. My teachers were Dara Wier, Peter Gizzi, James Tate, Noy Holland–they all taught me so much.

When I lived there, people always called the area the Happy Valley. I am not sure the origin of this, but there is something to the name. Amherst/Northampton, on the whole, is a very tolerant place. As an artist, I never felt more free to exist there and be myself. Where I hung around there, there was a dominant culture of acceptance of behaviors (although, probably this is a bit skewed as most behaviors there are pretty normative.) Still, I think tolerance is the ideal space and culture to create from within. And I think, despite the constricting other places I have lived, I carry this freedom with me always and probably these other poets do, too.

A lot of your poems, especially in your new one BLACK LIFE, use plain language—conversational, chatty—to get at huge ideas…like patience, simplicity, faith, etc. Can you talk a little about how you developed your style?

Sure. I developed my style after a long period of trying to hide what I was saying as much as possible in my poems. That is to say, for a long time I was interested in being as mysterious as possible and creating circles of language that the reader would never be able to follow. I think I distrusted my reader for a long time. Then somewhere in there, I realized that my reader was a person, just like me, who I trusted, but who existed outside of myself. So then, I decided I’d rather try to be as clear as possible and I combined the two instincts into the way that I write today. Still, I think my first instinct–mystery–always governs the poems a little no matter how plain-spoken they seem.

It’s been said that a poem can act as a spell and vica versa. Do you believe a poem can bring about actual change in the physical world?

I think language can always bring about physical change. I think language has weight, exists in the material world. It creates new materials by turning into and/or changing a thought. Thoughts, spells, and poems are physical things (they *almost* literally take up space in the brain.) And changing thoughts also make all kinds of physical change and actions quite literally. Words are the finite forms of a changing thought. They too have weight.

Anyway, casting a spell is like changing a thought, so I guess, yes, I do believe a poem can bring about actual change in the physical world. And, yes, I do believe that a poem can act as a spell. (And vice versa.)

When we worked on Poetry Is Not a Project, you often chose to say less in instances with more might have been said. Is discussing poetry simply case of less being more?

I think of Poetry Is Not a Project as an educational text and I take this category very seriously. I believe in sparseness, elegance, and clarity when explaining an idea to someone. I don’t like to flaunt the complexity of an idea when presenting it to a reader, because I think more often than not this turns off the very readers who are most important to me. In terms of discussing poetry, I don’t think less is more. But I don’t see the book as poetry scholarship, so I think my method is ok in this case.

What are you biggest influences outside of poetry?

I spend a lot of time listening and talking to people. I think the things people say, the ways people feel, and what lives they lead are my greatest influences outside of poetry itself.  Other than people, the visual world is a great influence to me and also, dancing and performance. The physical, spatial world and the arts that are closest to this world are among my biggest influences.

If there was something that you care about other than Love or Awe what is it?

Justice

Click here see Dorothea Lasky’s new book of poems Black Like. Click here to see her chapbook  POETRY IS NOT A PROJECT.