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narratives

Brian: My favorite aspect of your novel, one that other “Armageddon” narratives mostly miss, is that the sky may fall, but still nothing is more terrifying than one’s own death (or even one’s own life).  I guess this is a statement posing as a question.

Colin: I like this.  Thanks, Brian.

Brian: A writer friend and I debate over concept v. character. I don’t consider your book to be a “postmodernist rewrite.” But some might. Did you envision this book in that light? To what extent do you see yourself as an “experimental” writer?

Colin: I don’t view it as a rewrite so much as an interpretation, and a loose one at that.  Obviously I pick and choose which elements from the Book of Revelation I’m interested in working with.  I set down a frame on a particular section of a particular translation and worked with those elements. I’m working with the material much in the way that the characters are.  I’m responding to a  limited set of external stimuli, drafting a story in response.

As for the “experimental writer” thing…I’m going to go ahead and say I would accept being called as much by someone else, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it about myself.  In a literal sense, Revelation is a long-form experiment.  In one sense, especially early on, I was balancing a variety of narrative modes against one another to see the effects.  But I also feel like “experimental” has become a way of describing a certain style of work that resists recognizable trends in “realist” fiction.  This is going to date me a little, but I think of a band like Modest Mouse and how everyone would always describe them as “indie,” even long after they were on a major label.  It had more to do with their sound than anything else.  There’s a certain “indie” feel to it.  This is done all the time.  Bands have an “indie” sound, or writers have an “experimental” vibe, even though most of the work that’s out there being called “experimental” is as heavily codified and traditional as what people often call “traditional” (by which they most often mean “realist” or narrative).

Brian: This is interesting. I focus on what some call “unnatural” narratives. That is, anti-mimetic strategies that stretch the reader’s cognitive parameters. Problem is, “unnatural” strategies, such as, say, the experimentations of postmodernism, are very quickly “naturalized,” or incorporated into a set of parameters readers have come to expect. Do you feel pressure to challenge those parameters? Are we always trying to be one step ahead of incorporation? What does the MFA workshop, which wants you to be able to sell your books, say about this?

Colin: I’m interested in working with the expectations of the reader.  For certain projects, I’ll engage with familiar tropes or narrative modes, recognizable genre ticks, references of one kind or another, etc., and use them in specific ways.  Of course, it’s impossible to predict how people will ultimately respond to a provocation or proposition, regardless of the thought and care that went into it.  And I’m also interested in this.  I find it fascinating and extremely useful that you can introduce elements of the “familiar” by opening a story in a particular way, or saying a particular thing at a particular time, and yet every reader will have a different set of associations to a “familiar” thing.  So what you’re really doing is loading the work with a moment of recognition.  It’s a tool in the toolbox.  The thing is, the “parameters” you’re talking about, what tricks are “naturalized” or “familiar,” those are shifting all the time.  So it feels pointless to me to challenge them directly.  Rather, you can use them to enhance or complicate the work in some way.  I gave my grandmother a copy of Revelation because she was very excited about the fact that I had written a book and someone had published it, etc.  But I talked to her a few months later and she said she had to put it down because she felt she wasn’t familiar enough with the Book of Revelation to read it.  Her plan was, and I suppose still is, to reread the biblical version of the story in order to prepare herself for taking this book on.  Now if you’ve read the book, you’ll know that’s entirely unnecessary.  Maybe it would enhance your read in some way, but everything that needs to be there is in the book itself.  At least in my opinion.  But I’m interested in the way her expectations of the book shift due to a structural conceit.  If she ever returns to Revelation, studied up and thoroughly “prepared” for the material, the questions at the center of the book will be as present as they would have been otherwise, only maybe she’ll feel them more deeply because they will resist the information she’s brought to the book with her.  Where, she might ask, is the God I’ve come to know?  Why is the believer in the same position as the non-believer?  What/where is salvation?  But this book is not the Book of Revelation.  It’s not even a re-telling, really.  It’s something else entirely.  It functions on its own terms, even though it incorporates and uses a variety of familiar narrative modes.  Alternatively, if I had attempted to write something that was a direct challenge to those modes, I feel like it could no longer be said that the work functions on its own terms.  I’m tempted to say that if I wanted to “challenge” the Bible, I would just hand out copies of the Bible to as many people as possible.

But back to your question, I think we want to innovate.  That means different things to different people.  Most people want work that explores new ground, digs a little deeper, maybe, or addresses something abandoned or untouched, or recasts the die, etc.  This is as true of the “experimental” writer as it is of the YA novelist.  So, as you’re making work, it helps to know what you’re ambitions are.  And I think young writers tend to feel that more than know it.  No one in my MFA program was too concerned with me selling my work.  In fact, when I pressed faculty for information, everyone seemed just about as confused and unsure of the game as I was. I won’t go into it here, but it’s obvious that the face of publishing is changing and has been for some time.  The people I listened to most at school were those who encouraged me to make the work I wanted to make, and trust that if I kept at the whole publishing thing I would eventually land on my feet.  At the very least, during those desperate nights when you feel you’ll never make it as a writer, that no one will read your work, let alone pay you for it, that your “career” is a joke, etc. (we all have these nights, right?  Or maybe some poor souls feel this way in the morning…), but at the very least you’ll have a folder full of work that you love and that means something to you.  That’s not enough for everyone, but at one point it was something that kept me going.  It got me to this point, where I’m a little more comfortable with myself.  I don’t ever think you can shake the fears, the doubts, the reservations, but you can make it to a point where they’re no longer driving the car.  This is something a teacher of mine once told me, another thing that stuck, that you’ll never get rid of fear and self-doubt, but as long as you don’t let them take control, you’ll be alright.  They can even be useful.

Brian: That’s beautifully put. Thank you. We have Marcus’ whole life in a slim volume. Did you always envision this book as being relatively minimalist? Why did this approach speak to you the most?

Colin: I knew the book would need to be spare.  I wrote a lot more than is included and edited it out or set it aside knowing it would never go into the book in the first place.  I drafted the in-between scenes and most of what (in the book) happens off stage.  For example, the letter Marcus is obsessing over in the second chapter, I have that written out and saved in a folder on my computer.  The exact wording of the letter is irrelevant for the book, because for that scene what matters is not what the letter says, but the way Marcus is reading the letter.

Also, throughout the book, I wanted a clear sense of how things had moved in the characters’ lives.  I needed to be able to write each new chapter as if it were continuing a story, rather than picking up at some random point and beginning again.   I was interested in a story that feels clear and direct and yet is full of gaps.  The book is a kind of distillation.  There is a story here, but it is obviously not the “full” story.  In fact, I’m skeptical of the idea that there ever is one.

I’m interested in examining our relationship to the unknown, but I didn’t want to be withholding without purpose.  I think the gaps introduce elements of the unknown without tendering purposeless obfuscation.  The gaps make the world feel bigger.  I heard a story once, and I’m likely remembering this wrong, that when Gil Evans was working with Miles Davis on the album Sketches of Spain, Evans wanted to include “quiet” in the composition.  Not silence, but “quiet”.  The way he went about it was to instruct the players to play a large instrument (like a gong) softly.  So, it was actually a fairly loud sound, but it created a sense of quiet because that loud sound was loaded with the possibility/sense of an enormous sound.

But there were a lot of things that made this approach important.  Another major one was speed.  I wanted the book to move quickly, or to have the feeling of something that is moving quickly.  This isn’t an articulate way of saying this, but the book needed a kind of “woosh” to it.

Brian: Is this because death “wooshes” us?

Colin: Oh god, if we’re lucky.  I hadn’t thought of it this way, though.  Life certainly does from time to time.  David Byrne had it right.  And here’s the annoying part of the interview where I include a hyperlink to a Youtube video.

Brian: There’s some interesting textual variety here. Why fill up the page sometimes, sometimes not? Is there a relationship to poetry there?

Colin: I suppose so, in the sense that I was interested in graphic interruptions.  I think the white space on the page guides the way we read and can dramatically alter our interpretations of and engagement with the text, and that’s something many poets are concerned with.  Certainly more than most fiction writers.  But I’ve just finished two books of poems and that feels very, very different.  It was something else entirely, really.  For Revelation, I was interested in certain moments standing alone, or inserting gaps here and there.  Slowing things down or speeding them up.  I wrote the book in standard paragraphs, and it wasn’t until we were editing the book that I spaced it out like this.  Once I had done it I immediately thought, oh, this is right.  This is perfect.  Then I had to edit everything all over again.

Brian: How long did you work on Revelation, from the first intuition of the concept to the final edit?

Colin: I wrote the first draft of the book in a month.  Or, about three weeks.  During that time, it was practically all I did.  I sent it to readers then and spent a few months editing.  Then I Quixotically sent it out to publishers and agents.  Mutable Sound got back to me in a matter of months.  We went for it.  Following that, I spent maybe three months editing and re-formatting the book.  I took it to Martha’s Vineyard and immersed myself in it in the way I had done when I first wrote it.  The book was published exactly a year after I finished the first draft, but I was sending them “updated final versions” up until the last possible second.

Brian: Talk a little bit about your web presence. Your site does some interesting things.

Colin: Ha!  My web presence.  First please allow me a tangential anecdote: about a year ago I was in Austin doing a reading at 5 Things!, a monthly reading series held down there.  At the time, Amelia Gray was involved in running things and she was the one who invited me to read.  After the reading we were all hanging out at Amelia’s and eating tacos and I was being drunk and Amelia said something about the fact that I had a kid.  When I said, I do not have a kid.  She looked at me a moment and then said, well you need to work on your web presence.

That’s been the resounding cry from all concerned ever since.  I recently started working with a publicist  (Lacey Dunham at Atticus Books, she’s amazing) in preparation for the release of A Long Line of Diggers, a pair of novellas I wrote that they’re releasing in 2013.  One of the first things she said to me after we introduced ourselves was, we should talk about your web presence.

I mean, to be honest, it is primarily jokes with myself.  That’s about it.  I just thought to write, it’s all a desperate attempt to be funny…but that’s not entirely true because if I’m posting something, it’s almost always because it’s making me laugh to myself at that moment.  So I guess it’s kind of selfish…

The website is a pride of mine.  My friends Rebecca Elliott and Heather McShane helped me do the code for it.  They helped me realize what was a very specific dream.  It does exactly what I wanted to do.  It is an extension of my outlook in certain ways.  It is a random assortment of images that are related to my work in specific ways and excerpts and stories and interviews and what have yous.  There is no way to “successfully” navigate it, meaning the only way to potentially ever access all of the material is to keep going back and trying over and over again, although you’re just as likely to get nowhere or cycle through the same thing over and over.  Like I said, it’s random.  I imagine it’s terribly frustrating to many.  But I find it immensely pleasing.  (Not frustrating people, mind you, but the site itself).

Brian: That’s why I love it! These are interesting moments you describe, when folks who want to market you “need to talk to you about your web presence.” How comfortable are you, in general, with the prospect of marketing yourself, or, altering aspects of what comes naturally for you for the sake of marketing?

Colin: Thanks, Brian!  I get the idea and use and even necessity of an “artistic persona”.  I think it’s not only a marketing tactic, but also a tool for guiding readers as they approach your work.  That said, I’m a terrible actor.  So my “artistic persona” or my “web presence” has always just been an extension of my normal, social self.  An exaggerated extension, sure, a distillation, but one that, as you say, “comes naturally” to me.  Lacey is an amazing publicist and we never did wind up making any serious changes to the website or any of the other ways I’m using the internet: social media sites, etc.  After we started working together a little more closely, I think she got a handle on where I was coming from and things started to gel for both of us.  She might not have even been concerned initially, but rather looking to make sure we were on the same page.  And I think we are.  I’ve been called “strange”.  The work is “strange”-seeming, at least to some.  And my web presence is certainly “strange” in particular ways.  But I think once you see the whole picture it starts to make a certain kind of sense.  So, in answer to your question, I’m fine with the idea that artists or writers might work to present themselves in a certain light, I think we’re all doing this all the time anyway.  But I think it’s important that the presentation/illusion be in some way a part of the work, or that it help us to better understand the work or inform us as to the terms on which we are to engage the work.  However, in terms of serious alterations to the self, I’m just not a savvy enough fellow to stray too far from home.

Brian: Some very exciting things are happening for you in the near future. How do praise, fame, etc. affect your work?

Colin: There are some exciting things happening, yes!  Or things I’m excited about, at least.  There will be the book of short stories Animal Collection out in September 2012 (Spork Press) and then two novellas will be released by Atticus Books in 2013, as I said earlier.  I’m excited for all of that and to tour and on and on.  As for the second part of your question…I’ll need to see your sources.

Brian: What about the not-so-near future? Do you have ambitions for bigger projects, different modes, more experimentation, etc.? Do you feel the need to evolve as an artist?

Colin: I just finished two new projects I’m really excited about.  The first was a book of poems collaboratively written with another poet, Ben Clark.  It’s called Kate Jury Denton Texas.  Most recently, I finished a book-length poem.  Right now it’s called And We Will Stay That Way.  These were the two “ambitious” projects on the horizon this spring, but now they’re finished and out in the world being read and hopefully they’ll soon find a home.  I’m also about halfway through a new novel that is doing some strange things.  It’s a lot of fun to work on, but it feels very odd moving back into fiction after being so heavily steeped in poetry for the last few months.  To me, every project feels singular, though I’m sure you could locate patterns and identify developments in style, etc. if you were to look closely after the fact.  I’m interested in making work that is exciting to me, and part of what excites me is examining new ground, or the same ground in radically different ways.  I don’t feel pressure to “evolve” as an artist.  Or, if there is a pressure I feel, it is not on those terms, necessarily.  I feel pressure to keep myself interested and fully invested in the work.  But I don’t look at it as a progression as I move from project to project.  But if I were to use the language of a linear progression, I would say I work “backwards” as much as “forwards,” and of course “side to side”.  As I see it, I’m sifting through and rearranging a network of constantly shifting ideas and associations.  It’s a mess up there and out here.  Each project is a momentary organization of a set of needs, ideas, impressions, etc.   Let us look to the T-1000.  Ideally, each book would enter the world like one of his blades or needles, exacting and perfectly fitted to a specific use, and yet the full effects of the introduction of that new element are unpredictable.  That’s one of the motivating factors behind sharing the work, I suppose.

Sigh.  That is the second time in two days I’ve brought up Terminator 2.  Something is wrong with me.

Brian: Well, I don’t see too much wrong with Revelation, or with the way things are going for you. Thank you so much

Certain sections of broca’s area of the brain are involved both in how words are given syntactical order and how gestures, physical movements are interpreted as flow, as arc, as coherent actions. We know that broca lights up like a pin ball machine when shadow puppets are introduced before the eye. My theory of narrative is that it is arc, gesture, syntactical force the most common of which is what we call a story, but not exclusive to story. We have difficulty seeing narrative as lyrical because it seems more “rule” bound than what we consider lyrical–thus, my students tendency to resist turning their gerunds and participles into active verbs, as if adding “ing” to the verb kept the language safe from being overdetermined and definite. This use of gerunds and participles creates a lot of syntactic ambiguity and I think the brain recognizes this as somehow more “lyrical” because it does not activate the broca region to the degree that a syntactically definite sentence (or concrete sequential gesture/action) would. I have often been called a n intensely narrative poet. Truth is, hardly any of my poems use story as their main agent. There are antidotes or gestures toward action in my poems, but very little plot or tale. If I think of four of my most well-known poems, only “Elegy for Sue Repeezi” is a true narrative. “Ode to Elizabeth,” while using antidotes, is truly an ode–a poem of praise and its narratives (I never have one narrative in any of my poems) are illustrative of a panoramic attitude toward a place rather than telling the story of that place. My poem “Fists” is also without a plot. There are actions and memories, but nothing happens that could be construed as a plot. “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” is not at all a strict narrative.

So if this is true, why do I have a reputation for narrative rather than lyrical poetry? First, with the exception of Whitman, I loath floating or ambiguous syntax. I find blunt sentences, strong verbs, and concrete gestures to be far more aesthetically appealing than ambiguity. Floating is not a desire of mine. Words with no definite position are active principle tend to be inert and uninteresting to me. I also am not a big fan of conventional plot, or linear progression. I like quick bursts of energy, the voice strong and moving between different registers of speech. this does not fit the groove of what we currently recognize as lyrical poetry. It also is outside the groove of what we call narrative poetry proper (which I often find pedestrian and boring). I am far more interested and turned on by affective–narrative, poetry that excites with many gestures and strong movements. My poems are too cognitive for many contemporary poetic tastes, yet, among the narrative poets, or those more conventionally anchored to narrative, I am considered too lacking in progression and the nuance of progression. What many contemporary poets admire I often find inert and faux-lyrical. I also have no love or particular patience with neutral registers of speech and much of what passes for lyrical shares this very middle brow way of uttering–a sort of ongoing equivocation and mincing around nuances that may or may not exist. No thanks.

So if narrative poetry is not story, or linear progression, or antidote, what is it? It seems to be that form of poetry that engages the syntax of gesture,of action, that lights up the part of the brain that wishes to create an arc, to make sense of an action or series of actions. I write poetry in this manner because, while prose can relay information or story well enough, it can not come close to poetry and line in terms of creating the vital tension and speed of gestures, and it cannot isolate single lines, or rhythmic gestures as well as free verse. Prose, except in its more experimental forms, insists as an ordering agent that is closer to logical progression and priority of information, and its stories then are never pure modes of action. They are set up by exposition. Poetry allows me to dump exposition and cut to the chase. Poetry allows me to move between the ordering of the Broca region (syntax and gestures) and the isolate, monolithic qualities of single words as words–language as a form of pure sound and vocality without locality. Poetry for me is the realm of affective action. line moves, line itself is narrative. It makes sense that much language and experimental poetry, getting rid of coherent meaning or story, would start skewing and playing the line in a far more dramatic way. Why? Because the line is a gesture! The line itself then becomes the story or story arc.And gestures also stimulate the formal, narrative impulses. Narrative does not go away, it simply is transformed into the actions of the lines. As for prose poems like those of James Tate, much of Tate’s work is hyper narrative, a series of gestures that may add up to something very different than a coherent story, but which activates the sense of kinesis, and verbal action I think we need to stop seeing narrative as antithetical to poetry. Lyricism in its manifestation of divine possession and afflatus and ecstasy (thus closer to speech as the gift of tongues, and steeped in mystification) made an unholy marriage with prose a while back. Most of what we now call lyrical poetry is merely neutral middle class equivocation complete with line breaks, and the absence of any strongly gestural speech. In short, little of our current poetry talks with its hands. I believe both the greatest narrative and lyrical poetry is gestural, in infinite process of gesture and flux. My poetry is not so much anchored in the understandable as making a dance out of the understandable and the obvious. I like to set the overt dancing. And the most rhapsodic, non-cognitive poetry which we tend to think is lyrical does the same–only from a covert position that must be careful it is not simply a species of class identification. True lyrical poetry moves. It has its being in movement. Both the genuinely narrative and the genuinely lyrical speak with their hands. Poetry speaks with its hands.

Break up into groups, something they love to do now-a-days, and assign the following roles among yourselves: Line and space coach, image and word choice coach, rhythm and syntax coach, and meaning/subtext coach. This last coach will look at the poem in terms of its meaning, try to figure out what the poet’s intentions are for this and that, and edit wherever those intentions seem to be going off.

Now I will model how I might look at a poem when I first receive it and give a brief primer for each of my other coaches.

Line and Space Coach

1. Long Line Poems
Usually, these do not leave much white space, and are either narratives, contain catalogues, lists, enumerations, effect a voice of import (or mock import) and sometimes imitate the gravitas of scripture, but not always. C.K. Williams is known for long lines.

Suffice it to say, these are some of the reasons long lined poems are long lined poems. The free verse of long line poems is usually cadenced, rhapsodic, psalm-like, or prosaic-narrative or epic/mock epic. In free verse terms, its ancestor is the blank verse of Milton, or the rhapsodic, sacred text style of Whitman. Ginsberg’s Howl is written in long lines. Long line poems can be either breathless–a cascade of words and rhythms, or stately.

2. Short Line Poems (Skinny Poems)
In metered verse, these will be poems that employ no more than a couple metrical feet per line (see John Skelton), and in free verse, they usually focus on a single image, or incident, or action. Robert Creeley became famous for the skinny poem. Quickness is one of the purposes of short lines. Another is containment, as if the words–even “is” and “was”–were all precious pearls being squeezed out of a tube.

In a short line poem, each word gains an importance it may not have in longer lines. The poem may appear almost over whelmed by the white space. If the poem goes on too long, it may almost disappear into that white space. Imagine Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last By The Door Yard Bloomed” written out as a Creeley poem (Yikes). Short line poems draw more attention to everything: the line, the space around the line, the words, the syntactical strategy, and so forth. Here’s an example by William Carlos Williams. It is not as thin as his “Locust Tree In Flower,” but it will do for now:

To Waken An Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind–
But what?
On harsh weed stalks
the flock has rested,
the snow
is covered with broken
seedhusks
and the wind tempered
by a shrill
piping of plenty.

This poem is little more than an extended metaphor, actually a Homeric metaphor on old age, but it is tricky: why is it called “To Waken an Old lady?” The birds get to function both as an extended metaphor for old age, and as an actual flock whose shrill piping wakes her up. No line is above five syllables. It does most of what skinny line poems do: draws attention to each word, focuses on a single action or incident, or unit of images. It does not go on for too long. This is a perfect use of the short line. The short line poem has its ancestry in epigrams, fragments, epitaphs, ancient forms of graffiti, and proverbs.

3. Medium Line Poems
Medium line poems are not common in early free verse, but gain in frequency once free verse becomes the normative form of writing poems. Why? We tend toward the happy medium in normative structures. The suburbs are neat, and clean, and sensible, and free verse has become neat and clean, and sensible. The language of such medial length free verse is usually measured, understated, nuanced. One of the best poets in this mode is Stephen Dunn. If you study Dunn’s line, you will find, especially in his middle career poems, that he seldom goes over eleven syllables, and that he is a poet of wit, of reason, of a measured and sometimes mildly ironic stance. In his best poems, you get the feeling this is a ruse so as not to ruin the expression of overwhelming feeling by letting it get, well, overwhelming. The medium line poem is saying: “I am measured, I am not flighty, I don’t want to draw the wrong sort of attention to myself.”

The Medium line poem is often a creature of both narrative (long lined) and wisdom (proverbial short line), and its direct ancestor is the sonnet. Dunn does not augment this measured line with false form (putting a poem in tercets, or sextets, or quatrains only because the boxes please someone’s sense of symmetry). You will find this sort of poem proliferating in certain highly thought of literary magazines, but not all.

4. Staggered Line Poems
Those poems that are in Fence or magazines more oriented toward language poetry will use staggered lines, lines that go with Olson’s “Projection By Field” theories. Jorie Graham uses this sort of lineation at times. It tends to announce itself as speculative, experimental, disjointed by desire, Poems that use a varied line–some long, some short, what I will call “undulating” lineation are of two orders: 1. A poet with purpose. 2. A new poet who doesn’t know why his or her lines are long, short, or medium.

So those are the basics. Line coaches, take all this into consideration when you venture towards a class mate’s work.

Image Coach

Imagist poems use image exclusively, or nearly exclusively to either render an object, or to imply a greater meaning (ontology) behind rendering that object, image, etc. You must ask if the poem before you has any images that may not serve the poem. Very often, poets fall in love with an image without considering how it will effect the rest of the poem. If an image sticks out in such a way that the rest of the poem is either dwarfed by it, or out of sync with it note this. We often refuse to kill an image even though it may be killing the poem. Also, be aware of imagery that, if thought about deeply enough, is not really an image:

Black tears of rage pour like rivers
down from her ice blue eyes.

Say these lines ended “To Wake An Old Lady.” It would throw the poem off. It would be out of place. Suddenly this old lady would be a bad actress in a third rate version of media.

Look for cliches. If a personification shows up, ask if it is functional to the poem. If hyperbole rears its head, and the rest of the poem is free of hyperbole, ask if it comes at a critical moment, or is just an alien force within the body of the poem. Word choice is also something to be thought of along these lines. Does the poem suddenly indulge in ten dollar, latinate words when the rest of it uses a simple vocabulary? Is it heavy on adjectives that, rather than modifying and enforcing the power of a noun, are being used as a crutch for nouns that don’t hold up. Think of the sounds of the words.

To that end, here’s a primer on vowel sounds. The highest sound in the English language is the double EE. This is why many depressed writers hate adverbs. Here are the sounds in order of pitch:
- Long E, as in wee
- Long A, as in glade
- Long I as in bide
- Long U as in pew or boo
- Long O as in bone
- Short i as in bit
- short e as in bet
- short A as in bad.

Sounds that are either dipthongs or close:
- oi in boing
- aw as in saw
- ow as in how
- short O as in ah/body
- Om, and short U as in of, butt, luck, mud, muck.

English is not tonal, but it is–just not enough for tones to change meanings (but moods? Definitely!). Here’s a way to see how high and low sounds might function at a primitive level. Baby talk is often more about the sound than the meaning. It is very tonal:

Wee! We say, Wee! yay!
Make fly, sweety pie!
oodles, ooh! my poodle
oh, so soothing!, sit, pet, laugh!
loins burn? Aww!
Ow! How odd!
Uh, Ugly ugums. What muck!

Low u sounds often go with the hardest consonant sounds such as muck. This is not accident. We are tonal creatures. Word coaches, if you see a couple high sounds in a row, or a series of low sounds, or if the uh sound is appearing in places it shouldn’t, or if too many high e sounds are making the poem sound like a ditzy and shallow-pep-rally, note it. If the word choices seem wrong or off, if a simpler word would do, note it.

Note too many passive verbs (is, was, are, were). Note too many verbs made into gerunds. If there is alliteration, is it excessive? If there is an unintentional rhyme, does it hurt the poem?

Syntax and Rhythm Coach

Grammar and syntax control the speed, pacing, and temper of utterance. Grammar, if used with mastery, can create rhythm and timing. So your job is to ask the following: does the poem use complete sentences, and does its punctuation or lack of punctuation add or distract from the poem? If it uses fragments, and run-ons, why? Is the flow confusing? Does the syntax support the rhythm, and is the rhythm organic to the writer’s intentions? If the sentences are paratactic, why? If they are long and go beyond the line, or, if they are full of subsidiary clauses, and added on phrases, does it work, or does it get in the way?

Finally, meaning, and ontology. Here, the coach will determine if the poem is going off its original intentions and why. What is the poet trying to say? This will be the last coach to weigh in, and from this, the discussion of the poem will branch out. I am hoping that the coaches learn something about their own line, word choices, imagery, syntax, rhythm, and meanings while acting as coaches. We shall see. This is division of labor.