Poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum of our own thoughts and experiences, our preferences, limited perceptions and points of view. This may be easily understood by other writers, but it wasn’t until the second semester of my MFA program that I truly began to understand the ways in which those aforementioned thoughts, experiences, etc., have their genesis in or are connected to something much larger and that it is worth my time and consideration to explore those contexts. Everything has a place in a poem. Low culture and high culture can mingle with impunity, science and spirituality are not irreconcilable, historical events can inform even my domestic dailyness and most importantly, for me anyway, other forms of art can invigorate how I approach poem-making.
My mentor that second semester of my MFA was David Wojahn. He was the reason I wanted to attend Vermont College and I was both pleased and nervous at the prospect of working with him. As we created my semester study plan, David took into account the subject matter I was working on and went farther than assigning only poetry collections and books on craft and aesthetic. He also suggested films, such as watching both the 1962 J. Lee Thompson and 1991 Martin Scorsese versions of Cape Fear. He urged me to study the work of photographers Sally Mann and Walker Evans, as well as read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, a beautiful treatise on the power of photographs. I listened carefully to the music of the Carter Family, Doc Boggs and the Harry Smith edited Anthology of American Folk Music. It was all a revelation. And I could feel not only a broadening in terms of how I perceived my subject matter, but an opening up in how I might conceive those poems on the page. It was through those types of considerations I was brought closer to understanding a poem’s intention.
Intention—that’s a word I use a lot when leading workshops or working with my own MFA students. I try to make it clear that in early drafts, intention doesn’t have a place, because coming to the page already knowing what you want to say is not a good thing. Even if one is writing about an experience, an object, a moment or bit of language that one knows a great deal about, there must be a suspension of that knowing, to exist in a place of, as Charles Simic calls it, “The Uncertain Certainty.” Isn’t that lovely? The essay of the same name is worth your time. To be okay in a place of not knowing everything about our subject matter allows for possibility in language and in form. It leaves us open to be surprised by what is deep within us. It’s similar to Richard Hugo’s thoughts in his terrific book of essays on writing, The Triggering Town. He stresses the importance of letting go of the “triggering subject” and the limits that come with knowing our subject matter too well. He charges that in a poem, music must conform to truth and not vice versa.
But how do we get out of our own way when writing—so that music is conforming to truth? It’s a struggle for me, even with the understanding. There are times when I catch myself forcing the poem to go left when it very clearly wants to go right. That’s when I loosen the wheel and move through the poem line by line, trying to let language lead, to not allow myself to get ahead of the poem and to trust my subconscious to supplant “knowledge.” It takes practice and a recalibration of self as I write. But what emerges is usually surprising in the best way. And because I’m surprised, the poem feels less prescribed and more immediate. The poem I thought I was writing has become something different and more interesting than what I intended.
Which leads me to the second way I talk about intention with my students. It starts with a question I ask of my own work once a solid draft is in place and it’s the question I ask my students to consider of theirs as well: What do I want my reader to come away knowing or feeling? It has to do with taking a draft of a poem and turning it into something that has “wholeness” (even if that “wholeness” is fragmented or purposely jarring). Where the crafting of the poem takes place. It’s when the poem becomes layered and resonant. It’s when the sum of the piece becomes greater than its parts. It’s where what I learned that second semester with David Wojahn, considering the diction of other art forms, helps me to explore poetry beyond words on a page. I suspect this may seem an odd approach to many. But for me, I’m able to see, hear, experience the work from a place of possibility rather than a more narrowly confined construct.
For instance, I’ll ask myself, ‘If this piece had a song accompanying it, or a soundtrack—what would it sound like? What’s the tempo? The rhythm? What sort of instruments are featured and how does that translate to the page? If this piece were a film what would it look like? What would the camera angle be? At what distance? What’s the play of light/shadow or saturation of color? How do juxtapositions affect meaning? What sort of camera cut or dissolve would allow me to transition more originally? If this were a painting or a photograph, how would the details be composed? What is foreground, background? What is the punctum, (little prick) the detail that wounds us, as Barthes references it in Camera Lucida? This may seem like a bunch of hooey to other writers, but I find that anything that can get me out of my own head, that prevents me from getting stuck on a narrow point of view, that nudges me away from my comfortable proclivities is worth considering. It’s easy to forget that writing is a creative endeavor and not just a means of expressing ourselves. To move beyond our own boundaries, all those little fences we unintentionally built for ourselves along the way, allows us to grow as writers. Because at the end of the day, what’s great about being a poet is that anything is possible in the realm of the poem.We know the world of metaphor well. So when we seek out and thus reveal the hidden likenesses of incomparable things, we are transforming the world, affecting the way others experience the world, which is what all good artists, regardless of type, aim to do.
Teri Youmans Grimm is the author of two poetry collections, Becoming Lyla Dore (Red Hen Press) and Dirt Eaters (University Press of Florida). Her writing has also appeared in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Connecticut Review, South Dakota Review, Sugar House Review and Homegrown in Florida: An Anthology of Florida Childhoods, among other publications. She currently teaches in the low-res MFA program at the University of Nebraska. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with her husband and two children where she sings in a cover band and hunts alligators.