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intuition

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

 

 

Why are the best artists not always the most successful? I have a friend, Marco, who I believe is the most visually gifted artist I’ve ever met. His eye, his sense of color, shape, perspective, line, and shading is beyond good; it’s great. His conceptions are often both original and novel (not always the same thing). Yet, he is unknown when many lesser artists, including people Marco and I grew up with, are far more successful. Why? I mean we could say the usual stuff: luck, the ability to schmooz, a benefactor who took a liking, etc, etc, but what might be the common, non toxic explanation?

I believe being recognized is a talent, a capability in its own right. It can arrive at success or fame either from the stand point of optimal normativity ( a word I coined to express a talent for fitting in to standards of excellence intuited among the prevailing norm of a field) or abnormativity (the ability to seem abnormal, or distinct in a manner that pleases the normative’s desire for variety). These are separate gifts from artistic ability, but I believe they are essential to most success in the arts.

True originality is never apprehended until it has been either normified or abnormified–either taken into the norm of what is considered right and well, or taken into the abnorm of what is considered acceptably quirky. In short, true originality does not exist until it is well on its way to no longer being original. The human mind, the eye, the ear, the sense, the intuition follows after it, not seeing it until the mind and ear and eye evolve enough to apprehend. The audience must be invented with the artist. And so I have several theories as to why Marco is not as famous or successful as some of our mutual friends who have not even half his ability. I could put them bluntly as: he is both too normal and abnormal in ways that do not signify success or fame:

1. He has poor skills for knowing who is valuable and who is not, and he does not cull the herd of who and who not to associate with. Alexandro, a mutual childhood friend of ours who is successful, highly successful (art books by Pittsburgh University press, exhibitions globally) knew who and who not to waste time on. He wasted time on us when he was a teenager and we were the only game in town, then departed from associating with us when he caught the eye of a major latin American art power broker. He did not hurt or help Marco. Alexandro simply took off for more promising associations. Alexandro did not waste energy. I don’t believe he did this consciously or out of disdain so much as he had a talent for recognition. He had good target sense and an ability to articulate his aesthetics. It is no surprise to me that his art works, though well received, are not as emphasized as his critical writings on the arts. He is an expert in Latin American art of social protest. He knows Marco is a superior painter. he will never champion his work. He went after what he instinctively knew would help him achieve his goal. His goal was never to be a great artist. Most people in the art scene do not essentially care about that.That’s too sloppy. His goal was to find steady and admired success in the arts, to achieve a homeostasis of well-being as an “artist” in the top circles.. To that end, Alex was good at being both normal and abnormal in all the right ways. He did not waste energy, and his desire was, in a sense , as normative as a law student’s. One brand of this sort of thinking is called professionalism. It is only one variant and it means showing up and presenting one’s normalities and abnormalities, one’s in the boxes and “out of the boxes” in a package that is appealing to the gate keepers.

2. Marco while at the same time he is too available, is also too unavailable: Alex was not available when it would make someone desire his availability. He had the gift for making others slavish, and courtly. They courted his attention. Marco, because of his superior artistic gifts, had great trouble either courting the power brokers who were not equal to his standards, or denying attention and availability to those he considered talented (some of whom were lost souls and would never do him any good). He was also so obsessed with his art he never developed a marketable “Style.” Marco did not imitate Marco. This is also problematical when it comes to achieving success: how does one learn to imitate one’s self without appearing to be stuck in a groove? Most people do not know the difference between true style and voice, and parody of style and voice. You can fool most of the people almost all of the time until some expert says you are a mere imitation of yourself, and then the crowd decides to agree.

Talent means many things: one is recognizable ability, and the other is the mystique of being recognized for that ability. I believe these are very separate talents. Picasso had both in abundance–a genius for norms and abnorms that would serve his fame and success. Some call this luck, or good fortune, or fate. I believe it is a talent whose mechanisms are capable of being studied. This is an opening salvo in that regard.

PHOTO CREDIT: MARCO MUNOZ