Leaps of Faith

by Gerry LaFemina

In the opening chapter of The Triggering Town, aptly titled “Writing off Subject,” Richard Hugo writes that a “poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean.”  Further he says, “The triggering subject should trigger the imagination as well as the poem.” More it should trigger the imagination of both the poet and the reader, and it does so through it use of language and image, tempo and tone.

I often tell my students, don’t tell me what you want to write about—subjects can be a handcuff. Write the story of the time the police pulled you over for speeding, and you might have a funny or scary or sad story to tell, and you might then leap to the expected indignations of police overreach, the threat of police violence (or lack thereof, and thus emphasize a notion of privilege), or the boredom of small town cops, none of which is surprising because those are the inherent subjects of the story. Such poems don’t thrill the writer in the end, particularly if they’re stories told before, and they offer little to no surprise, no discovery, for the reader. We nod our heads, say to ourselves, damn cops.  Which is to say nothing new for the writer, nothing new for the reader.

A poet might make such poems funny, might read them in such a way that it performs well, but it won’t ever transcend itself. Why? Because the poem makes no leap from its triggering subject, it makes no leap into the creative imagination, that subconscious zone in which the best poetry comes from. In Leaping Poetry, Bly describes the poetic leap as “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again” and notes that the “real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem.”

I would say that more than it being the real joy of the poem, it’s the real essence of our best poems. Consider how one of the words for poet in Latin, is vates which also means soothsayer or seer; ditto, kavi, in many Indian languages. The poet is someone who sees beyond the triggering subject and into the connectivity of the world, hence the importance of metaphor. This is why I tell my students to ignore what they want to write about and instead write about what in the world catches their attention, and then explore, through the act of writing, why it catches them. Such images are often inherently metaphoric.

Still, some ask me, often more than once, how do they make leaps? There is no easy answer to this inquiry, but the inquiry itself leads us to metaphor: the leap in the end is itself metaphoric.

Leaping is an act of childhood, other than the lords in The Twelve Days of Christmas and some track stars, adults rarely leap. But kids—they leap. They leap over puddles and from hay lofts; they leap over each other each other and leap into swimming holes. And they learn the distance they can manage with a leap. Who hasn’t tried leaping over a puddle, only to land in the middle, spraying ourselves and those around us with water? Only by leaping do we know how far we can leap. Only by leaping do we discover what’s possible and what isn’t. Only by practice do we extend our range.

Thus, when writing we have to return to a sense of play, to a sense of possibility, to a sense of exploration. We have to revel in what the language gives us beyond what we can consciously conceive from our triggering desire to write about X. Perhaps that’s why Bly goes back to one of his poetic fathers: “To write well, you must ‘become like little children.’ Blake, discussing ‘experience,’ declared that to be afraid of a leap into the unconscious is actually to be in a state of ‘experience.’”

Consider the urge to publish, the urge to make a career of poetry: this makes poetry an adult preoccupation, and therefore we might feel sometimes a need to make it safe. By that I mean fit into a school, satisfy some audience, and move linearly rather than laterally. We avoid associations that might seem like a stretch for the obvious, the easy, the step as opposed to leap.

Stephen Dunn says a good love poem must have a “but” in it, which is a type of leap. Mark Doty in his poem “This Is Your Home Now” writes:

                                      …Then (I hear my friend Marie
laughing over my shoulder, saying In your poems

there’s always a then, and I think, Is it a poem
without a then.).

“Then” and “but” are easy ways to establish a leap. Whatever follows “then” can be anything. It allows for radical changes in direction, whereas “but” allows us to double back, leap away from our own declarations, avoid being pinned down in our thinking.

Sometimes leaping means taking out the narrative context, and allowing for the language and scenario to do the work. For instance, last night I began a draft of a new poem with this line: “Earlier the sun turned around, began its long walk southward.” It’s a line I liked. I followed it up with this line, “& so the calendar made summer official,” which was crossed out almost immediately because 1. It’s explaining the metaphor, and therefore, 2. It’s obvious. So I started writing a few potential second lines, some of which never got finished:

so finally after dark…
No, too narrative.

the asphalt releasing steam all afternoon
     That’s just repeating the notion that it’s hot.

now that I’ve waited till after dark…

now I walk the town’s streets all the neighborhood dogs dreaming

“Now” could be a leap, a movement away from “Earlier” that opened the draft. However, cutting some more of the narrative away I came up with this for a second line: “Now all the neighborhood dogs dream of filet mignon & belly rubs.” This is a leap of a second line. There’s no cause and effect, there’s no connection, only possibility in the gap between the two. Here the poem as a discovery zone has opened up for me as a writer, and I hope for the reader as well.

Once a student was writing a poem about the county fair, and the poem was filled with all the things that we know are at a county fair: midway games, cotton candy, a fun house, carnies. The poem went to all the expected places and that was its key problem. The poem was vivid, its language, at times, delightful. But unlike the very reason we go to the county fair (to be taken out of our humdrum days), the poem failed to surprise or delight. Finally, I suggested she start listing all the things at the county fair: step away from the hall of mirrors and perhaps the ticket booth— with its connotations of buying “escape,” or the demolition derby, or the adolescents making out in the Ferris Wheel carriage, or the parents at home who didn’t want to cramp a child’s style, or the fairgrounds a week later when everything is gone.

Jumping time, jumping place, jumping frog contest at the county fair, and how I didn’t win despite the bullfrog “ringer” I was given when I was eight, summer vacation in upstate New York. My frog came in second place, and then I set it free.

Of course I don’t have to tell you that last bit isn’t true. It just illustrates the way language and time and place can all lead to a cognitive and imaginative leap. The best leaps are both risky and inevitable.

The British Underground reminds us to “mind the gap,” by which they are imploring us to be safe, to step over the space between the station platform and train car. Whether we are readers or writers, poems beg us to take some chances, the leap as much a leap of faith as a leap between modes of cognitive thinking, between conscious and unconscious experience, the little electrochemical charge of a thought surging across the space between axon and dendrite some thousands of times. Leaping, in the end, is how we think.


Book Review: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Contents Under Pressure 
by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Broadkill River Press, 2016

Reviewed by Bryce Johle 

Ellen Prentiss Campbell gives us a taste of several coming-of-age conflicts in her short story collection, Contents Under Pressure. From the metamorphosis of college student to real-world-dweller in “Sea Change,” to the challenges of midlife crises and divorce in “Peripheral Vision” and “Entangled Objects,” and even dealing with the denial of life’s bookend in “Dance Lessons,” Campbell grounds us in reality, unearthing the drama in otherwise mundane facets of school, work, love, and family.

The book takes us to relatable places, but one story does so with a surprising twist. “Sea Change” is my favorite story in the collection. Campbell introduces us to Adrienne, a college student studying marine biology. She’s the kind of character many of us identify with: passionate about her major, but wishing the college struggle would lead her to something more fulfilling. We’re full of envy when Adrienne impulsively answers an ad that reads, “Seeking adventurous scientist for underwater exploration. Willingness to relocate a prerequisite.” The tale takes us down a path where Adrienne’s “underwater exploration” has another prerequisite—becoming a mermaid through medication designed for physical alteration.

With this story, Campbell plays with the idea that you should be able to become what you’re passionate about. It reminds me of my friends and me, how we grew up with big dreams and constant distress over potentially using our degrees in writing, fine art, and accounting to manage a Domino’s or push grocery carts. “Sea Change” is at once the epitome of escape from the real world and the ideal post-college destination.

It’s also the only story in the book that takes a science-fiction route to makes its point. Among a series of ordinary narratives which feel drawn from life experiences, it’s surprising how well Campbell performs with more fantastic subject matter. It reminds me of a Vonnegut adventure; it’s moored by concrete issues, but fearlessly wanders into strange territory to achieve a swimmingly impactful metaphor.

Other standouts are the stories that feature previously established characters. “Peripheral Vision” and “Entangled Objects” are adjacent in the book, and each follow Meg and her husband, Walker, an older couple who continuously experience the vicissitudes of marriage, teetering on the prospect of divorce.

Campbell’s strength is developing characters over time, which she proves with these two stories. Her ability of splicing together marriage conflicts in a chapter-like design displays endurance with the drama. Specifically, she shows us an uncertain couple trying to regain a sense of youth. They dress up like JFK and Jackie for a Halloween party, where an authentic fortune-telling gypsy warns them that “something is going to happen,” and to “be ready.” In “Entangled Objects,” the uncertainty is prolonged in their home, where the reader is allowed to feel Meg and Walker’s seniority through thoughts of their grown-up children and refusing to forget old affairs.

The book opens with “Depth Perception,” a story that attempts to criticize psychology and adoptive parenting, which Campbell is able to do by the end of the story, albeit with sacrifices to flow and character development. This story emphasizes Campbell’s difficulty with developing characters within the frame of a short story, showcasing a big plot with contrived players.

Despite the issues with the title story, this collection also contains gems like “Bicycle Lessons.” Here, Campbell accomplishes the great feat of manifesting the mind of a child; she acknowledges when something in Lydia’s small world is out of place, but retains the ignorance that keeps her from fully comprehending the reality of a situation. Campbell intentionally withholds information, never explicitly telling us the reason for Lydia’s father’s spotty home presence, aside from the fact that he stays at someplace referred to as the “Lodge.” By the end, there’s a strong implication of her father dealing with depression, accompanied by the metaphor of “learning to ride” that holds up the whole story:

I mounted the bicycle and rode fast toward the Lodge, as though I would be in time to see him, as he stood on the fire escape, stretching up on his toes, preparing to dive, preparing to fly. As though, if I hurried, I could catch him as he fell.

It’s a story that lets your nose leave the page only to sigh and contemplate its binding, final words.

Contents Under Pressure shows us Campbell’s ability to frame poignancy, especially when she takes the time to carefully recollect life’s steepest humps and unfold her characters across stories. While it’s not a perfect book, it’s a successful kicking-off point for establishing her potential in the fiction realm.