October 31, 2010

A Poet's Voice

What do writing teachers mean by "finding your own voice?" More than anything, one realizes the voice.  It's unmistakably you--your own words in the way that you would say it. Beginning writers often don't trust their voice, and they try to sound like other writers. It won't work!

Here's an example of a poem with a strong writer's voice:

Curtains by Ruth Stone

Putting up new curtains, other
windows intrude.
As though it is that first winter in Cambridge
when you and I had just moved in.
Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.

What does it mean if I say this years later?

Listen, last night
I am on a crying jag
with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta.
I sneaked in two cats.
He screams NO PETS! NO PETS!
I become my Aunt Virginia,
proud but weak in the head.
I remember Anna Magnani.
I throw a few books. I shout.
He wipes his eyes and opens his hands.
OK OK keep the dirty animals
but no nails in the walls.
We cry together.
I am so nervous, he says.

I want to dig you up and say, look,
it's like the time, remember,
when I ran into our living room naked
to get rid of that fire inspector.

See what you miss by being dead?

from Second-Hand Coat (Boston: Godine, c1987)

The voice is so singular, so strong.   In the space of just a few lines, we are completely connected. It is intimate, immediate, and sweeps us into her world.  A memoir in a few associations.  In two lines, we have a history of a marriage and a widowhood. "Now cold borsht alone in a bare kitchen."  Stone has nailed the reader with an inescapably vivid detail. The taste is something the reader knows.  A stanza break and a question, "What does it mean if I say this years later?"  The stanza break here allows the writer and reader to make a transition. What does it mean?  I like that the question is not answered in the poem, but the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. The next stanza presents a dramatic scene and a memory of another scene. The final question nearly stabs the heart with its poignancy.    The title is so well chosen.  It begins by putting up curtains, but the shadow meaning of curtains, meaning the end in a drama, also comes in.

Each writer's voice is singular and unique.  It's important to preserve it through the drafts of the poem.  One's voice is made of the way that you talk, your word choice, the things you notice, the place you live, the intimacies you have. It contains your obsessions and passions and quirks.  Love those! Love your voice.

October 17, 2010

The Poet's Power

Greeter of Souls
by Deborah Digges

Ponds are spring-fed, lakes run off rivers.
Here souls pass, not one deified,
and sometimes this is terrible to know
three floors below the street, where light drinks the world,
siphoned like music through portals.
How fed, that dark, the octaves framed faceless.
A memory of water.
The trees more beautiful not themselves.
Souls who have passed here, tired brightening.
Dumpsters of linen, empty
gurneys along corridors to parking garages.
Who wonders, is it morning?
Who washes these blankets?
Can I not be the greeter of souls?
What’s to be done with the envelopes of hair?
If the inlets are frozen, can I walk across?
When I look down into myself to see a scattering of birds,
do I put on the new garments?
On which side of the river should I wait?

from Trapeze (Knopf, 2004)

Lately, I've been thinking that poems are made of desire.   This one, for instance. yearns with a dark intensity.

It begins in the natural world. After the first line, it falls into another world, the one you might enter after death. She uses the images of a hospital parking garage, a dark recess below healing, or past it. Delightful is her fusion of sense details: "...where light drinks the world,/ siphoned like music through portals./  How fed, that dark, the octaves framed faceless."   The alliteration of f sounds, "framed faceless" seem to reinforce the earlier f sound, in "siphoned."  There are many f sounds: deified, fed, frozen.  The word siphoned is an interesting choice.  One thinks of muzak played in elevators, drawn off, stolen from its rightful source.   The word means taken away from, and 'taken away from' is the topic at hand.   Is it the narrator that is taken away from, or is it the others?   The language shifts from literal to figurative and back as she wanders across the line between this world and the next.

She writes from the body:  "What's to be done with the envelopes of hair?"  Vivid detail.  It haunts us.   "When I look down into myself to see a scattering of birds,/ do I put on the new garments?"   Perhaps the narrator is speaking of her own death.  It seems so.   She is on a brink, desiring still.  "Can I not be the greeter of souls?"   This sentence with the word 'not' seems to cast two shadows.  "Can I not be....." is a heartbreaking choice of words for this poem. It speaks to the mystery we face, after being, can I not be?    "Can't I be" would have more correct grammatically but would not lend the additional meaning.  The 'not' reinforces the angst.   She is witness to death--others and her own, and she expresses the poignancy and confusion.

Poems like these reach into the subconscious, use both memoir, myth, and music, and release both deep wonder and awareness.

For more information about this poet, click on this link:  Deborah Digges

October 4, 2010

The Muse

I like to have two chairs at my desk, one for me and the other for the spirit that joins me at my work.   That is how it feels--the work is not just mine, it comes through me; so I must acknowledge this unnamed spiritual help.

When one person, by herself, even in self doubt and confusion, sits down to write, something happens.  She listens to herself and this other.  A world can rise up out of nothing at all, out of piece of blank paper and a pen, and it can hold such vivid life that it can change everything.   Writing can change the writer and it can change the reader.

A writing teacher once suggested a creative visualization in order to create a guide for yourself in your work.    I recommend this.  Consider who your literary influences are and choose a persona for your own muse.  Let your muse help you create the work and present it.