On Ekphrastics

by Gerry LaFemina

For the last few years, I’ve been working with the Italian photographer Leila Myftija, writing poems in dialogue with her photographs. The photos are varied: one depicts a group of children at the beach, another is a close up of a section of an industrial grate, another a wicker ball. Some conjure my imagination immediately, others less so. One, a photograph of some Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast, is both one of Leila’s favorites and one that has given me fits and starts.

This is an experiment, in the end, of ekphrastics, and so much of my work has engaged art, though never quite like this. A number of the prose poems in Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist are ekphrastics, tackling (often) early twentieth century modernist paintings like those of Joan Miró; I’ve co-edited two anthologies of poets “covering” albums for the Lo-fi Poetry Series; and I got an early start publishing by writing freelance art reviews in the mid-1980s. I love visual art and music, and writing poems can be a way of entering a dialogue with work that excites us.

This photograph didn’t excite me. It’s lovely: it’s framed nicely; the froth of the water is lit up and almost tactile. One small boat comes in, another rests on shore with its fisherman waiting. Time and again I’ve started the poem. Failed. Started again.

I’m reminded of the reaction my students have when I give them one particular writing prompt. Often, when I’m out in a new city, I make sure to go to art museums and after a walk through of the galleries I always stop in the gift shop and sort through the postcards featuring selections from their collection. I like the abstracts, the funky, the non-representational… I buy them in bulk and then bring them to my office. At a certain point in the semester I present them to my class fanned out, face down, tell my students to pick a card but not look at it. It’s a magic trick after all, the ability to make something appear from nothingness. I also hand out 4×6 index cards. Then they turn the postcards over.

The goal: to write a poem that is informed by the picture on the front of the postcard that would fit on the back of it. The 4×6 index cards become the “backs” to assure that nobody complains that one student’s postcard is bigger than someone else’s. Inevitably the questions arise: do I want them to describe the picture? Maybe. Can it use the title of the painting? Sure, but it doesn’t have to. Can I trade for a picture I like better? No.

I received similar questions from those submitting to Clash by Night (covering the Clash’s London Calling) and the forthcoming Poet Sounds (covering the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds). What does it mean to cover a record? I don’t know.

Writing ekphrastics means engaging someone else’s vision with your own, interpreting an art form from one medium to another mediated by your interpretation, taste, feelings. It helps to have strong feelings for the piece, but sometimes, that’s not always an option. Writing about such art becomes a way to develop one’s feelings and one’s interpretation of the piece, much as writing about a love relationship hones and sharpens the feeling toward the beloved. The less one “likes” a particular piece also allows for the imagination to run wild, divorces the writerly vision from the admiration of the artwork (and perhaps wanting to describe it in such a way as to show one’s love for it).

There is something third world about the photograph of these fishermen, something I found vaguely off-putting. I didn’t want to appropriate their culture. I hadn’t been there—the photographer had! I tried connecting them with the old guys who used to fish and crab off of South Beach on Staten Island, but that seemed obvious and trite. I wanted to avoid blank description. I wanted to create a connection where I found none. This is the ekphrastic challenge, made more challenging because the connection in the poem has to also connect readers to the art object even if they haven’t seen the work, heard the song…. What we’re doing as writers in the end is making a separate and equal artwork that pays homage to the original without requiring that the reader know the original, or like it as much as we do.

The other challenge, of course, is to not write the same type of poem over and over again, to not enter each ekphrastic poem the same way. Different strategies ensure different poems. Having different reactions to the originals means that I have different attitudes inherently involved in the writing of each poem. For “Fishermen,” I finally just asked questions of the photo itself, presented those as the first line, giving some voice to my concerns about the composition. Details from the photograph itself emerged, not enough for the reader to imagine the photograph, but the goal of ekphrasia is not to recreate the photograph in text, but to create new art. There’s enough to stimulate a picture in the reader’s mind, and I think I found a meta-purpose for the poem, some emotional depth to make it linger. That lingering, like the heat of the sun onus long after we’ve come in from the beach: that’s what I want from all the art I love.


photo by Leila Myftija; poem by Gerry LaFemina


For Future Reference: Notes on a Writer’s Desk

by Gerry LaFemina

Like a lot of people these days, my students have a stated conviction that the internet is better than print materials for research. It’s easy to think so. If you know what you’re looking for it may even be true. Need to know what a grackle eats? You can find out. Want to know the history of coffee or the cost of it at your local grocery? You can find both out. More often than not, as a poet, I’m looking for stuff that will catch my attention, give me information, images, language that I don’t already have. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I can’t type Things that might interest Gerry into Google and believe that it will come up with something to engage the poetic imagination.

That’s where my reference books come in. If you’re a writer, it’s good to consider what’s on your desk (and neighboring book case!). I believe it’s important to have a good library of reference books that are both helpful and deeply personal. By reference books I don’t mean only dictionaries and thesauri and encyclopedias; I mean, also, those books that can provide information I didn’t know I’d needed to know.

Right here’s where my students complain—I can look up any word on dictionary.com or thesaurus.com. Yes, you can. But the reference books provide more than just definitions, synonyms and antonyms, and etymologies. What I love about the dictionary is not its ability to give me a definition (or multiple definitions) and/or word origin, but also the field of the page of words with definitions. What I mean by this, is that by looking up a word I get a two pages worth of others that are phonically close to it: I find this particularly useful when drafting poems. Let’s say I want to emphasize the word conspicuous. I might look it up in the same American Heritage Dictionary I’ve had since grad school, and find conspirito–“with spirit and gusto”; or I might look up words which start with spic and find spicule–“a small, needlelike structure.” (I particularly like how needlelike is one word in the dictionary, but my autocorrect doesn’t like it spelled that way.) To get such words into a new draft help shape and change the thinking of the poem itself and broaden the field of language that I have open to me.

Or I might use the Webster’s Unabridged Encyclopedic Dictionary. Dating to 1957, it has 4800 columns of facts and pictures. It suggests spikenard, “a perennial herbaceous plant…being the source of the ointment referred to in scripture…. It has a short, thick, carrot-like root, spatulate leaves, and small red or purple flowers in dense heads.” Now we’re talking! What I like about the encyclopedic dictionary is that it includes names of famous people in history in alphabetical order, too. This allows for history to come into the poem.

I keep a Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, too, for quick information about literature, a rhyming dictionary, a style guide. At one time I kept a Bartlett’s Famous Quotations close at hand. More recently, I keep a Schott’s Miscellany close by to rummage for random facts that engage my poetic imagination. For instance, beyond giving me the names of “Some Palmistry Lines” it also lets me know that the area between the Line of Head and the Via Lasciva is the Mount of the Moon. Surely, there’s a poem in there. If not, perhaps the book’s list of “Some Notable Belgians” (none have made it into any of my poems) or “The Hierarchy of Falconry” (itself a potential title for a poem) could provide inspiration.

Because I grew up in New York City and know few birds beyond the common pigeon and starling, I keep a bird book at my desk. I bought it on the remainder table at a chain bookstore years ago. I buy a lot of my miscellaneous reference books on the cheapie rack. A $3.99 guide to mythology may come in handy. More likely though a book called 50 Physics Ideas. Physics fascinates me, and although the math is beyond my ken, the concepts of physics get me thinking. Beside that is Reg McKnight’s Wisdom of the African World, which reminds me, always, to not think solely in my white Western thinking. For a while there was other philosophy (The Art of War, an assortment of Platonic dialogues), a book on tarot cards, a bartenders’ guide, and a Depression-era guide to putting on a pretend circus in your backyard called The Big Time Circus Book. Various books of folklore from all over the world show up. It’s good to shake up the list: bring in an I Ching or a cookbook or a book of common phrases in Portuguese. Of course, I keep the books I walked away from in my adolescence, a Bible and a book of Roman Catholic Catechism close by to make sure I get the details right.

None of these books have anything to do with poetic craft: those books spill off the book case next to my desk. Those books help with my essays and my thinking about poetry but they don’t help with the crafting of poems. The books at my desk, on the other hand, have the potential to help change the direction of a poem-in-progress, can give me language I didn’t know I was looking for, metaphors I didn’t know I needed. Like my own poems, these books reflect my obsessions, but they also provide scope beyond my own go-to knowledge: an important tool. Yes, the internet gives me an avenue to find what I’m looking for; surely, I could look up “fun physics facts” in a search engine and it might provide me with something similar from the books, but I can’t say sometimes where the fact I need is, and the books provide me a way of looking things up without the interruption of emails and IMs showing up. There’s a joy to referring to the reference books, a kind of guided randomness that help shape my poems.


Skill Set: Notes on Tom Lux, Poetry, and Teaching

by Gerry LaFemina

In the two months or so since Tom Lux died, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to have been his student, which in turn has led me to thinking about what it means to be a teacher of poetry. Much, of course, has been written on this topic, and much has been written about Lux as a teacher these last few weeks. He was a poet of rules about poetry, and a man passionate about teaching, poetry, baseball, among other things. He never asked his students to write poetry like his, which is a good thing because I never did. What he asked from his students is that we love poetry, that we challenge ourselves, and that we stick to our rules about poems. He taught me to read voraciously and widely.

When asked once what Robert Lowell taught her, Anne Sexton said he’d taught her taste. I think surely Tom taught me taste. He taught me to read, carefully, often aloud, to listen to the sounds of the words, the feel of syllables in the mouth and in the ear. Tom never demanded I share his taste, but like a culinary master teaches an apprentice chef, he taught me to develop my palette.

And he taught me discipline and craft. Mostly by demanding that I revise a poem, letting me know when lines didn’t work (“That’s a terrible line, Ger. Read it aloud.”), knowing I would go back and revise and revise and revise. I wanted to please him, wanted his acceptance. Many of us did, in those mid-eighties Sarah Lawrence classes, and through that wanting, we worked our poems—draft after draft on a beat up Brother typewriter.  He didn’t like Wite-Out. He wanted us to care to make the poems perfect. He wanted us to be disciplined.

Sometimes I get frustrated when my own students are sloppy. (“No typos. No dummy mistakes.”) I’m not sure if it’s something I’ve done, I wonder if I’ve failed them in some regard that they don’t work harder (but really, did all of Tom’s students feel the way I felt, I know better, now, to know they didn’t). It’s difficult to teach discipline, the discipline to draft, to push beyond the first sense of the poem, but it happens, slowly over the course of semesters, that students fall in love not with poems but with the work of poetry. And I try to teach my students to love poetry, to teach taste by giving them books from my personal collection, by having “library days” during a class session in which we discover books of poetry (and I order 20-30 titles, mostly from small presses, every year).

More and more, though, I’m interested in what I can’t teach, those essential skills of being an artist, those intangibles. Patience, for example. Patience is the skill Lux couldn’t teach me. I was 19, 20, 21. I didn’t want to wait for any of it. I wanted to rush poems into existence, to fight with them quickly, draft after draft. I didn’t give them an opportunity to breathe, to grow, to challenge me. Patience, though, is surely a skill chefs know: you can’t make something cook faster. As I get older, I’m more patient with poems (though, ironically enough, less patient with some of my students’ proclivities for “dummy mistakes.”)

Furthermore, I can’t teach courage. Most novice writers have some courage, they must, if they’re going to write poems, to put themselves out there, to share their verses in workshop. But there’s more to it: the courage to challenge their own beliefs about poetry is important and to challenge their teachers’ beliefs is crucial to developing their own rules and their own aesthetic. The challenge to write in form if they are a free verse poet or vice versa, growth requires change and change is a challenge. There’s also the courage to challenge their peers and the cultural dynamic of the workshop/writers’ group: I’ve seen some writers groups get into a tizzy when a member brings something radically different to a meeting.

Here, then, we find the third thing no teacher can teach that every artist needs: receptivity. The receptivity of criticism, surely, is necessary. One needs not to be defensive when their work is being critiqued, but that’s not the kind of receptivity I’m talking about. I’m talking about being open to possibility about a poem, to listen to it, to exist in the world where poetry might happen easily, readily, where language in all its quotidian vibrancy is happening, and then when it catches our attention, it’s trying to touch something in us, in our capacity for language. We have to be receptive to the possibility a poem is underneath it.

This is after all, the art of paying attention, and that is surely the most important skill any artist needs, and one that can’t be taught. Don’t pay attention in the kitchen and you might burn the dish, or worse, end up with the fire department stopping in. Don’t pay attention to the poem, and it comes off as half-baked. Tom Lux taught me to pay attention to the craft of a poem, but it took years for me to realize that there were other situations I needed to pay attention to, and those required receptivity, patience and courage. I needed to pay attention to the poem, to what is hiding beneath those early drafts, to have the courage to explore what’s not yet in the poem, and the courage to discard some things that are in the poem (be patient with me, I know you’ve heard it before: kill your darlings). I needed to be receptive to the possibility that I didn’t always (still don’t) know what a poem might be doing. I had to trust my capacity as an artist.

And perhaps that’s what Tom did: he taught me enough about poetry and the process of writing that I could trust myself to figure the rest out. Surely that’s what I try to do in the classroom or with the private students I work with. I try to demonstrate a way to think about the poem, and to think about poetry, I try to give them the skills to engage the work, and I try to help them trust their own ability to make their own rules about poetry. To pay attention and have patience with themselves. And courage to continue.


The Eternal Return of the Same

by Gerry LaFemina

Sometime in the late nineties a writer friend of mine said that if you ever wanted to write a Charles Simic poem all you needed was the moon, an alley, a young child, a woman in a babushka, and perhaps a chicken. I thought of this recently after finishing up a first draft of a new poem. Some first drafts make me feel like there are miles to go before the poem gets to sleep, some make me want to throw it away, and a few, like this one, make me feel excited about poetry. Then I reread it, and it felt like it hit a few of the check boxes of some of my poems: a bit of physics? Check. A train? Check. Nostalgia–often in the form of adolescent love? Check. Catholicism? Check. The moon (ala Simic above)? Check.

Fortunately, somehow, I managed to stay away from snow or rain. And birds of any sort. And New York, punk rock, and fire (this last is an image that permeates my forthcoming collection The Story of Ash).

My friend Joseph Fasano writes about horses. His books could run all the races in an afternoon at Belmont. The first section of Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid is filled with poems working similar themes, using similar phrasing, form, and imagery in new and different ways. Poems work not by rejecting previous convention but by taking conventions—even those of our own design—and turning them in new ways. By establishing patterns, we can establish reader expectations and then subvert them.

Make it new, the Modernists implored. And we try to. We really do. Our obsessions may evolve, but perhaps not so much our metaphoric objects. And let’s face it, no one ever said to Monet, Claude, perhaps we should talk about your haystack obsession. Or to O’Keefe, Georgia, another flower? No one ever says to a math professor, X again? Can’t we mix up the variable? The fact is that I can write rules for myself (and I do), telling me to avoid certain imagery, but that doesn’t mean my variables for understanding the questions of the universe differ. The go-to catalogue of images are ways of defining and understanding the world of the poem, and through that, understanding the world around us. They are hallmarks of a style just as much as form, voice, or perspective might be.

And the fact is, after recognizing that the poem in question shared some imagistic and thematic hallmarks with my other poems, I thought to make some changes. Could the trains be trucks? Could the middle school students in the poem be senior citizens in an assisted living facility? Variations of the poem answered that perhaps these changes could be made, and the poem’s outcomes would ditto be radically different: If you alter the numbers, the equation at the end will be different, and where this poem wound up surprised me and seemed right. So I made the choice to keep the majority of these “familiar” images. If the poem’s conclusions felt like I’d seen them before, the poem would have required the major re-workings above. Instead, to use the math analogy again, one can do different equations with the same numbers, just by changing the functions (addition and subtraction, multiplication and division…). Ditto, we can draw new conclusions by how we choose to work with those returning tropes.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra talks about the eternal return of the same. Things repeat. Time is a circle (is it any wonder the face of a clock is round). Or to stick with physics, I might mention the oscillating universe theory: the universe ends in a big crunch which is then followed by a big bang, and so on.

Or let’s think of it this way: our obsessions are our obsessions and our sensual stimuli— surely a potential basis for many of our go-to images—are often things we see every day. The world of things is where the ideas lie, and it’s where we live. Is it any wonder writers love to travel? New places provide an opportunity to restock the image warehouse, to provide us with new rhythms, to break us from the familiar. Remember familiar shares an etymology with family. Eventually, we do have to return home. For the poet, that means a return to our home images, our home subjects. Our alleyways and chickens. Our subways and pigeons.

In this way, I am no different than many contemporary artists in general and poets in particular. The goal isn’t to always come up with fresh images so much as we have to come up with ways to make those images seem new. Chefs, in the end, only have a limited number of entree options. The goal for them is to re-imagine what one does with a filet, more so than it is to get a different protein to work with each night. Ditto, my “physics” wasn’t the Big Bang or String Theory (both of which have appeared often) but Dark Matter. Just as a writer of a villanelle has to make the repeating lines not seem the same (and now, it’s become common practice for those repeating lines to only sort of repeat), so, too, do we have to write our familiar images and themes in new ways. They’re familiarity ought to provide comfort for experimentation and function as a leaping off point for us to explore new potentialities. The goal is for them to repeat but not be redundant.


Confessions of a Could-be Confessional Poet

by Gerry LaFemina

A recent collection of essays, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, raises some issues about confessionalism, autobiography, and the role of the lyric I. Confessionalism, that moniker lodged against Lowell by M.L. Rosenthal that was then owned by an entire school of poetry, has of course led to numerous classroom discussions in which students declared that anything they wrote in lines that expressed their feelings was poetry: I’m just confessing how I feel. The more melodramatic, the better.

Of course, that’s where many of us start, and I want to say that most of my poetry still “expresses my feelings,” insofar as my obsessions–emotional, spiritual, psychological—are my obsessions. These are my truths, and they are the cornerstone for the lyric I of my poems. I am less bound to the notion of fact: adherence to details for the sake of documenting what happened is the place for journals or diaries. The poem is about the reader as much as the writer, it’s an exchange in the marketplace of the line, in which the poem has to have relevance for both. The sordid details that we’ve played over and over again in our heads may offer a cheap thrill (though in this age of Facebook posts and selfies, of Instagram photos and Yelp reviews, I think not). The fact is, we’re already bombarded with the tabloid details of people’s lives on a regular basis: what does poetry offer as a place of confession? As a place for autobiography?

In my college yearbook, I have a quote from Simic: “I can imagine many lives in which I could be perfectly happy or perfectly miserable.” It was my understanding of being an artist, something akin to what Kinnell says in “Poetry, Personality, and Death”: “We move toward a poetry in which the poet seeks an inner liberation by going so deeply within himself… that he suddenly finds he is everyone.” What must we be liberated from if not the ego that begs for the facts of our lives to be told beyond the small cadre of confidants we would normally share those facts with.

Fact is, I’m less concerned with my life stories. I’ve told them. They hold no secret for me to get something more. When I tell a story about my son’s birth or my father, and someone says to me (as happens regularly), “You should write a poem about that,” my reaction is always the same: “No!”  A good anecdote does not necessarily make a good poem, in part because so many poets tend to write the poem as if the anecdote were more important than the poetry.

My mother tells a story about giving a group of cousins one of my books because in the poem “The Barely Visible” my great aunt Sophie appears in factual glory, she who “survived/ two husbands, a daughter/a granddaughter and a great grandson.’ As a matter of fact, another person who appears in the poem, a boy I knew in grammar school, appears in hyperbolized detail. And the historical figure Amos Stiles, a shipwreck survivor whom I read about in the shipwreck museum on Lake Superior also appears in the poem. Though they appear, the poem is about none of them, but rather about an obsession of mine then: how our species survives adversity and tragedy.

More to the point, though, a couple of these cousins called my mother asking about the “facts” of some of the book’s other poems. And my mother told them what she’d come to understand: the poem’s facts are the facts of some alternate reality, one that looks a lot like ours but isn’t ours.

Actually, my saying that’s what my mother said is me making up another detail to support the truth of this essay, my current obsession, while simultaneously being disinterested in the facts. Rather, my mother said something like “Gerry isn’t writing an autobiography.”

That’s not to say there aren’t autobiographical details in my poems, there are, but more often than not they are diving boards from which I leap into an imagined life. As I said some twenty years ago when interviewed by a student newspaper, “The guy speaking in my poems is everything I hope I am and everything I’m glad I’m not. We’ve shared a lot of the same experiences, but the ‘I’ of my poems isn’t me exactly.” I’m imagining those lives that Simic mentioned. My goal is not to tell my stories, but to enter an experience of discovery, one that I hope generates a feeling (and, I hope, empathy) when the poem is read.

In my poem “After Reading Rexroth I Step Outside,” the speaker recounts finding the bones of a dead child while morel mushroom hunting. The poem’s title is counterfactual: I had not been reading Rexroth, nor have I ever found the bones of any creature. The point of autobiography that I led to the poem was seeing mushrooms in the grass at work:

Low moon tonight & nearly full.
See how it illuminates the alien bodies of mushrooms
colonizing the weedy lawn.  They’re a surprise after six weeks
of near drought, delivered, no doubt,
                                                                      by the drizzle that followed—

their fibrous necks lifting up their heads so they seem to look
in wonder.

Everything else is imagined not to trick the reader about my life experience, but rather to engage the reader in the same experience of discovery I had in writing the poem. In this way I’m expressing what Adrienne Rich called “our desire [for] a poetry in which the ‘I’ has become all of us, not simply a specific suffering personality, and not an abstraction which is also an evasion of the poet’s own specificities.” That said, once, after a reading, a woman came up to me and asked, “What happened with the dead child?” I said I didn’t know because the poem ended: I wasn’t interested in a moment beyond the lyric experience explored in the poem. She was very upset and felt that she had been manipulated.

My argument—both with her and in this essay—is that I’m an imaginative writer. If I wanted to write my autobiographical experience, I’d be writing memoir (and we know there have been numerous debates about the license some memoirists take with fact). I write poems because their lyric intensity and compression, their language and structure, allow for a more powerful affect. I write poems because my favorite poems had such an effect on me: reading them led me to imagining those lives detailed in them.

Even in my love poems (and I’ve written a number of love poems), the poem is an attempt to metaphorize and understand the feeling. Love, at its best, is one of the most transcendental of feelings: we become part of the other. As Kinnell notes, “As with poetry, so with love: it is necessary to go through the personality to reach beyond it.” The details about the relationship, about the beloved, are secondary to the poem’s attempt to capture the insights and feelings of being “in love.”

Of course, this is my way of thinking about the poem. This is not meant as a complaint against those whose lyric selves are closer to their personal biographies. Many of my favorite writers write a much more autobiographical poem. It’s a large table, and we all can sit at it. And whether we metaphorize our lives or explore them in their autobiographical details, the importance of mediating those experiences via poetry—those aspects of craft that the art form offers–is key. In its discussion of confessionalism, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes that it “should be considered not as a prescriptive formula held by one group but as a general permission felt by most poets…to treat personal experience in its most intimate and painful aspects,” and dare I say its most pleasurable and joyous aspects, too. Although I’m sure the quote is using “treat” for its third American Heritage definition, “to deal with in writing or speech,” I prefer to think it actually is using the sixth definition, “To subject to a process, action, or change, especially to a chemical or physical process or application.” Writing a poem about experience ought to change the event(s) in question; it must find its truths if it is going to not just entertain our readers, but engross them, make them participants in the poem itself—in its language and breath and imagining; the discoveries in it become part of their experiences.


Specs of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

One might think the title is a typo, that I meant “Specks of Dust.”  Speck, from the Middle English “specke” and deeper still to Old English, “specca,” meaning “a small spot, mark, or discolorization” (American Heritage Dictionary).  But it’s no typo. In this case I’m referencing the Latinate “specere”—to look at, to see. As poets, our job is to see but also to present in such a way so that others can see.

I’ve put my spectacles on for this. I’m near sighted with an astigmatism, so they help me see. Seeing (along with the other four senses) is one of the most powerful tools for a writer; furthermore, the poem itself functions as a presentation of those images—literally they help readers imagine. In this way the poem itself functions as a kind of pair of spectacles to help the reader see what the writer saw—literally or in the imagination. What we see then, what we ask others to see with us, must be vibrant and vital, must be endowed with life.  We are asked then to pay attention.  As writers watching, it’s not what’s familiar that catches our eye, but what’s unfamiliar. As the City of New York used to say in its ads after 9/11: “if you see something, say something.”

In that regard then, the poet is spectator, a kind of witness. The spectators at a baseball game spend a lot of time watching nothing happen waiting for a homerun or a dramatic diving catch or a play at the plate. Ditto, the spectator of the world watches the mundane waiting for the world to deliver something worth reporting on. If we’re distracted, we might not notice something, might find ourselves not bringing it to life in a way that captures the imagination.  More importantly, what we see needs to be something that captures our imagination, it needs to find its language within us so that we can bring it to life for the reader.

In this regard, then, we become speculators in both senses of the word.  First off, in our writing, we are making new thoughts. We are considering the importance of our images, and thus we are speculating, and by that I mean “to engage in a course of reasoning often based on inconclusive evidence; conjecture or theorize.” The best poems think through images, engage the material in creative ways. The best poems provide the reader with this new thinking. In that way, the poem is an act of commerce, an exchange of time and energy for the linguistic experience found in the poem. In this regards, the poet is a speculator in another way, too, “engag[ing] in the buying or selling of a commodity with an element of risk on the chance of profit.” Each image chosen, each word chosen to bring this image to life, is a commodity brought into the poem, and with it comes the possibility of a successful poem. Ditto, the possibility of failure.

All writing in some way is about what’s on our spectrum, in this case meaning the “band of colors produced when the wavelengths making up white light are separated, as when light passes through a prism or strikes drops of water”—in other words, what’s visible to the eye. We train our writer’s eye to see things, but often what we see says more about what our filters, our unconscious thinking, our obsessions, than the world as it actually is. Consider the infrared and ultraviolet frequencies of the seeing self. Ask a group of spectators what they saw in a particular moment, and they’ll give you an equal number of narratives because what they see says as much about their interior world as it does about our shared exterior world.

We are asked, then, to speculate, to wonder. To ask questions not only about what we see, but to also ask why we see it.

For those of who find in our present world the nostalgia for the lost world, the past that is gone and yet remains, for those of us who, as Stanley Kunitz put it “Anyone who has lived to the age of five has enough for a life time of poetry” we are dealing constantly with specters, those “ghostly apparition[s]” of a life we can’t shed. Memories are a kind of thinking. Ditto the imagination. By working with both, we create specters for our readers, the best poems become part of their memories if we get the language right, the music right.

Because the poem reflects its writer’s obsessions for the reader, because if reflects the world seen by the poet and not the world as such, the poem functions, then, as a kind of speculum.

Our language exists on a spectrum; the more we read and write, the more we experiment with the elasticity of the language, the more we go searching for Coleridge’s “best word” the broader our spectrum of possible words get. Ditto our craft skills exist in a spectrum. We grow as poets engaging in what’s possible and needing to expand that field of possibility we broaden the spectrum of our prosody.

Spectacle is the name of the quarterly journal of the circus arts, from the second American Heritage definition: “A public performance or display, especially one on a large or lavish scale.” I like to think of the poem as spectacle, too, though more akin to the first definition: “Something that can be seen or viewed, especially something of a remarkable or impressive nature.” At least, a poem should. Each line crafted from the best words, the images, the musicality of the language.

The poem should be spectacular.


On Writing with Duende

by Gerry LaFemina

The question becomes, in the end, why should I care about your subject matter? Think about it: why should anybody care about the subject matter of your poems? This isn’t meant to be harsh—just a reality check. If your poem is solely about content, solely about things you’ve already known and thought, what insight does it offer someone who doesn’t know you? You’ve asked the reader to spend time with your poem, you owe him or her something for the effort.  The question, therefore, becomes twofold: how much time have you spent with your poem?  How have you rewarded the reader for giving his/her time to your work?

Federico Garcia Lorca used the term duende from the Spanish “duen de casa, ‘master of the house,’” and by that he meant something akin to soul. I think of it as the master of the house that is us, the unconscious, the transcendental. Maurer in his introduction to In Search of Duende says Lorca’s vision of duende had four elements: “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.” Not all art has it, but the most resonant work should have duende, something that makes it compelling, something that makes it “deep,” as Lorca puts it.

But what makes a poem compelling? I think it goes back to the notion of writing to discover something deep within us; I’m not talking about emotionally deep necessarily, but something found when we refuse to stick to the surface level of subject matter or conscious notions of what we’re writing “about.” The more we allow ourselves to discover what’s beneath our poem, what surprises us, what is new for us, the more likely we are to explore a moment in which we bring duende into the poem.  We find it in the writing of a poem when we don’t know what we want to say, but through the work, through using the poem as a way of thinking, we clarify and refine a new thought. That’s when we are making something (as opposed to transposing our thoughts into lines). This is a kind of magic or alchemy—when words in lines become more than just words in lines, but shape a new thought. As William Stafford put it, a “writer isn’t so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is he does not draw on a reservoir; instead he engages in an activity that brings him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays…” It is in this manufacturing of a new idea that we go beyond ourselves.

As Longinus said, “In literature … we look for something transcending the human.” Easier said than done. One might say this transcendence stems from the intersection of vision, craft, and process that allows us to “go deep” as it were; Horace says, “It is not enough for poems to have beauty; if they are to carry the audience they must have charm as well …. If you want to move me to tears you must feel grief yourself.” Poems can function as a charm in this sense: “An action or formula thought to have magical power.” (American Heritage Dictionary). They can move a reader to tears, but only if, in the writing, the poet felt grief.

That’s all well and good, but how do we write with duende?  “[T]he duende is force not a labour, a struggle not a thought …. it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning it’s in the veins” says Lorca. Cryptic enough, I know, but I think when we find a poem we’re writing is too easy, when it skips on the surface of our thinking, when we are more concerned (the way the new formalists were) with meter and rhyme (with the poem’s surface, as it were), we are removed from the duende. The duende isn’t in what we write about (or don’t write about) but about why we write or avoid certain topics. “[E]very artist called Nietzsche or Cézanne, every step he climbs in the tower of his perfection is at the expense of the struggle that he undergoes with his duende, not with an angel, as is often said, nor with his Muse.” Duende comes from within, Lorca claims, not from outside the self.

Still, we see it reflected in the world outside of us. Our imagery, how we engage the world and put it into language is a way of acknowledging that struggle. More, perhaps it’s a way of acknowledging the struggle we have of being human–to be singular and communal, to be temporary and transcendental. Craft, by the way, helps us articulate and shape that with which we struggle, giving it a form that allows it to be shared. That’s the importance of poetry. Lorca claims that the duende comes from the acknowledgment of death, but perhaps it’s not a literal death, but the death of the ego, the self, the fear of being lost/consumed by society. The poet, the singer, the artist says “I’m here” but being here is only important insofar as there’s something necessary for us to hear.  Something’s at stake, the self, and the reader recognizes that gamble. This is the importance of craft, of expression. One can have duende—raw and screaming—without artistry or artistry without duende, but neither is satisfying. “[T]he duende loves the edge, the wounds, and draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression.”

We have all heard guitarists who are technically adept but have no soul. Lorca would say they have no duende. Talking about Andalusian songs, he writes “[T]he transcendence of deep song, and how rightly our people called it ‘deep.’ … It comes from remote races and crosses threw graveyard of the years and the fronds of parched winds. It comes from the first sob and the first kiss.” The depth is the stuff below the initial draft, below our “subject matter,” below the story we want to tell, the emotion we want to express. It is the reason we want to express it, someplace we often don’t go. Adrienne Rich says, “The unconscious wants truth … The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious trying to struggle with that desire. The complexity and fecundity of poetry comes from the same struggle.” Duende is perhaps a force of truth, even the truths we withhold from ourselves.

I remember Marie Howe once saying to a group of my students something to the effect that the mind won’t allow us to tackle subject matter we’re not ready to handle, and she may be right. But that doesn’t mean we choose to look at it: when we consider the poetries of glibness and irony, of anecdote and post-modern fragmentation that are popular today, we see a chronic avoidance of depth, of the darkness, of duende.

Still, though, we talk about it, and bewail its absence on the literary landscape. For those of us who want more from the poems we read and the poems we write, we might wonder if there are surefire ways to make duende happen? Rich says this: “If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite.” By starting here, we “kill” the reality of experience and in this death allow for the imagination to find truths devoid of biographical facts.

What leads this quest for truth? n his book Leaping Poetry, which explores non English poetry and celebrates much of it for its duende, Robert Bly would say that the associative leap will help us create linguist experiences (poems) that generate emotions, and these emotions are “true” for reader and writer. He says, “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.’ (We are all experienced in that fear.) The state of ‘experience’ is characterized by blocked love-energy, boredom, envy, and joylessness.” One might characterize it as the wound where we might find the duende.

If we think of the unconscious as one of those deep sea trenches in the Pacific, duende is the lava pouring out between the tectonic plates. We rarely see it, its easy to ignore, but it’s the source of enough heat and light to help species of shrimp and fish to evolve.

Bly believes that a “poet who is ‘leaping’ makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance.” An attentive reader feels that psychic connection between object and idea/emotion. As Dickinson has been quoted as saying: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” She is talking about duende. We want a poem that makes us feel.

There is no formula for generating duende; if there were, it would be commonplace. That said, by writing associatively, by allowing our imagination (that unconscious associator) to lead the poem away from conscious facts and into the realm of truths, we begin to get close. We should be more concerned with the experience we’re making via the writing of the poem than some experience we’re trying to transpose. Beneath that urge to tell our stories is something more, something deeper. By not flinching from the hurtful and frightening but swimming toward it (the way undersea explorers to dive toward the lava flow) do we begin to face the possible sources of duende.


The Delicacy of the Image

by Gerry LaFemina 

Much has been said about the importance of the image to the poem. Images function as touchstones in poetry, they help create the landscape of the poem, provide a means by which the reader imagines the world and context of the poem’s thinking. They are the things that embody ideas, as it were, but they are also the things that shape the ideas for the reader. It’s no wonder that two of the twentieth century’s most important schools of poetry included the word image (Imagism and the Deep Image movement) or that Aristotle thought of metaphor as the most important skill a poet could have: metaphor allows image to stand in for an idea. As Stephen Dobyns puts it “the image half of the metaphor has the greatest possibility of touching the reader” (and thus work symbolically). A poem, in the end, is a formal assemblage of words—of sounds and meanings and images—and as such, the image cannot be isolated but has to be considered, too, as part of a whole. The overall effect of a poem, then, is the power of the images to bring about some understanding via the pleasures of language; one of our jobs as poets is to maximize both the pleasures and the effect for the reader.

Although many of the decisions we make in composing a poem may be unconscious, they are never arbitrary; and later in our process, as we edit poems, we are deliberately making choices to improve not only how we say what we’re saying but also clarifying for ourselves what we’re saying. We are strengthening the metaphorical relationship between images and ideas. Jane Bennett in Vibrant Manner talks about “the vitality of the material that constitute” an assemblage and mentions the Chinese notion of shi, which helps to

…illuminate something that is usually difficult to capture in discourse: namely, the kind of potential that … results from the very disposition of things. Shi is the style, energy, propensity, trajectory, or élan inherent to the specific arrangement of things.

There we have it again: Best words. Best order. As Mary Kinzie puts it in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry: “When metaphor is used well, the vehicle is seldom flat or single-valued; the images belonging to it have physical qualities that suggest a tenor of feeling or idea with more than one component.”

What does it mean to assemble our images? What does it mean to use a metaphor well?

It helps to remember the delicacy of our material. Because we work in words and not gauzy materials, we may think any word might do, and that if a noun alone doesn’t do the work, a modifier can add clarity. The computer allows us to move words easily, to see them in different places and different combinations so rapidly that we may forget the material power of language as we first experienced it when we fell in love with poetry, with the possibilities of words. Yes, our material is flexible and malleable and can perform many different functions, but we also have array of words that mean similar things for a reason. Language has the potential for amazing precision. As Carver notes, “It’s possible…to write about commonplace things and objects and using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—chair, a window-curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling, power.” He goes on to quote an Isaac Babel story in which we’re reminded that “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place.”

Such use of precision is an example of delicacy as established by the fifth definition of the word on Dictionary.com: “extreme sensitivity; precision of action or operation; minute accuracy.” The image, and how we present it, requires delicacy. In talking about Whitman, James Wright (that wily, deep imagist!) praised the poet’s “delicacy of music, of diction, and of form” and then offered this caveat: “The word ‘delicacy’ can do without formally rhetorical definitions; but I mean it to suggest powers of restraint, clarity, and wholeness.” The imagistic powers of words are limited or enhanced, Wright reminds us, by how we use them; that’s why it helps to be wary of adjectives and adverbs.

That said, I do think we need to consider the “formally rhetorical definitions” of delicacy here, because I think there’s much to be considered by the poet when thinking of the poetic image as a delicacy. For instance, Dictionary.com’s first definition of the word I’ve already touched upon, and that is a “fineness of texture, quality, etc.; softness; daintiness.” Language, when used well, is delicate.  It may be simultaneously harsh, loud, and durable, but we should always consider the fineness of each word, too.

The second definition of the word is also important to keep in mind. This definition is more akin to what many of us think when we think of delicacies (particularly from delicatessens): “something delightful or pleasing, especially a choice food considered with regard to its rarity, costliness, or the like.” Remember, images spark the imagination, and because we associate this word with taste, delicacy reminds us that images are embodied in language that engages any of the five senses. By “delightful” I mean something different than pretty, but rather they must engage the senses in ways that are surprising, that literally are full of light in that they illuminate the thinking of the poem. When we encounter a poem such as “Piñata” by Christine Garren, we understand how images delight in this way:

Brief yet amaranthine,
what’s left is this
wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches where we went, those programs
left. And now, next door, the neighbor’s daughter
has a party every August
as her mother did. This year the strung-up animal is a donkey
being beaten
in the elms.

The opening line is abstracted and yet relates to a piñata. Then the metaphor surfaces: this is about a divorce/break up even though those words are never mentioned. Instead, the images tell us this:

… torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches we went, those programs…

What we see though, too, is not just the second definition of delicacy in play, but also the fifth in the way line breaks shape individual lines to make meaning so that implicitly “the churches” have been shoved “into a landfill,” representing the failure of a sacred trust.

This is all followed by the actual piñata, this one of a donkey, which is a deliberate choice (Does the speaker feel like an ass for believing in her marriage? Does she feel like a beast of burden?). And of course the speaker feels “strung-up” and “beaten.” Through their delicacy, the images do the work of illuminating the feelings of the speaker and allowing the reader to experience that illumination.

The crafting of this poem, though, also represents another definition of the images’ delicacy; Dictionary.com’s third definition calls this “the quality of being easily broken or damaged; fragility.” In its only unique definition of the word, the American Heritage Dictionary notes “Fineness of appearance, construction, or execution; elegance” as a definition for delicacy (AHD’s fourth definition correlates with Dictionary.com’s third). Both of these definitions are related, particularly when discussing poetry. It’s been said that a poem can’t be paraphrased. The way the images are structured in the lines as they are suggest any other reworking of the poem would damage its capacity of maximum effectiveness for the reader. Line three is powerful because we are set up for an actual piñata and thus “wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries” shocks us. What “torn valves and surgeries”? These images announce the metaphor, their delicate placement adds surprise and intrigue to the poem.

Definition four of delicacy is also an important aspect to how we think of the image’s function in a poem. “[T]he quality of requiring or involving great care or tact” is an important role. Metaphors must be precise; they must be apt. To go back to Dobyns “When someone accuses a poem of being vague, this often means that the object of a metaphor is unclear or that the relationship between object and image is imprecise. Vagueness is withheld information and usually no amount of thought will supply what is missing….” A poem’s images must—without being heavy-handed or too vague—carefully bring to light the relationship between object and idea.

In order to do this, then, the image and how it’s employed must be keen to the last definitions of delicacy, which are variants on the same theme: “fineness of perception or feeling; sensitiveness” and “fineness of feeling with regard to what is fitting, proper, etc.” The specific image allows us to perceive through its “fineness” a feeling, and this feeling is proper and fitting to what the poet is trying to express.

Poems themselves, in the end, are metaphors for experience, and as such they become experiences for both writer and reader. The images employed in the poem are delicate gears in the “machine made of words,” as Williams put it—the wrong gear, and the cogs don’t turn, or they do but at the wrong speed, or they wear out easily. It’s keeping in mind the sheer potential strength and weakness of the image in the assembled whole of the poem that makes us understand their delicacies, their strengths and weaknesses, their deliciousness.


On a Poetic Voice

by Gerry LaFemina

Many years ago PBS ran a series of television shows about American poetry called Voices & Visions. Each episode focused on one great American poet, and I think that name, Voices & Visions sums up nicely what poetry becomes about for each of us who write it. Voice and vision share a symbiotic relationship within the work of each writer. Vision shapes the types of poems we write. Our voice as embodied in the poems hone and develop our vision.

As we write we think through our subject matter, embody that thinking in language, and shape it with line. Graham Wallas in The Art of Thought mentions a little girl who “had the making of a poet in her” because on “being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, [she] said, ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say.’” Wallas seems to agree that poets think as they say. By giving our thoughts voice, our visions are refined and defined as our own. Poetry is an art where a solitary voice and our solitary vision fuse in the making of each poem.

The history of the lyric is filled with distinctive poems of the I; poet Gregory Orr suggests that every culture has a lyric poem because the human need to express the unknown and overcome chaos. To be able to put it into language and thus “order” feelings that overwhelm us is an inherent need. Consider how many people write when they are sad or depressed; or why when they’re ecstatic with love they write about it. There’s a reason why there are so many love poems, so many elegies, so many cliches about writers who are crazy: writing allows us to express and to edit (or, better yet) clarify exactly what we feel. Although long over, the Romantic era’s sensibility of the poetic I remains rooted, perhaps, in William Wordsworth’s notion that inspiration is found “in the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which the poet works on when he can “recollect in tranquility.”

It’s easy to think we must recollect accurately, after all novice writers are told to write what they know, but not how to leap beyond the self into the imagination. What we know only takes us to the edge of mystery. The next step is to envision what we don’t know based on the empiricism of what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, what is possible. Novice writers are taught various forms but not how to use the poem to help them find their vision, how to use it to shape their voice. It takes time, truly, to discover the intricacies of poetry, to learn the various ways it might be used, and the various ways it helps us to formulate what it is we mean to say. That’s rocky terrain. It means we have to acknowledge that we don’t know what we want to say just yet, we have to begin in uncertainty, in a world that often seems filled with talking heads who seem so certain as to what’s right and wrong. That’s why it’s good to remember that we tend to learn more from our poetic failures than our successes.

We must also remember to trust the poetic process and our ability to actually find something to say. Writing in this way allows that voice and vision are interwoven. In one of the first books of literary criticism, The Literary Mind & The Carving of Dragons, the Chinese scholar Liu Hsieh notes that poetry is a combination of fruits and flowers. By fruit he means that what is said that is sustaining, in other words: content. Flowers refers to how content is said. A good poem has lots of fruit and lots of flowers, vision and voice. [1]

Louis Simpson in his essay “Honoring Whitman” notes that “[p]oets don’t have to be philosophers on the scale of Kant—they need only have ideas that enable them to make sense of their experience and make it seem worthwhile to go on writing.” More though, we have to express our vision in a way that makes it seem worthwhile for the reader to go on reading. Just as our experiences must be transmuted to be more than just the facts, so, too, must our voices be transmuted.  It is important for poets to love language and its possibilities—the way certain syllables make our mouths move; the way certain sounds clash together while others blur into each other. The poet’s voice is a transmutation of our own, but heightened: not in diction, or in rhetoric, or in intelligence (a good poem does not drop SAT words will nilly) but in concern for the musicality and imagistic capacities of each word and in concern for the possibility of multiple meanings and ambivalences through an understanding of homonyms, connotations, and denotations.

This understanding, then, allows for some help with the “best words” part of Samuel Coleridge’s dictum that poetry is “the best words in the best order.”  Our vocabularies surely reflect our poetic voices; ditto, our syntax and diction (our word order and how our words are used) shape our voice and tone (the attitude of the speaker toward subject matter). “High” language about base things can add sarcasm done well, or it can seem pretentious done poorly. Word order helps this. But order does not only include the ordering of words in our sentences, but the ordering of words in our lines. Our sense of line—of rhythm, of pacing, of its potential to make meaning, to create emphasis or surprise—is also part of our voice. As our sense of the possibilities of poetic craft develop, so too does our poetic voice.

To put it more simply: our voice is made up of our poetic vision, our sense of poetic craft, our love for language, our subject matter and our attitude toward it. With that said, whether we use the I or not, our poetic voice is an extraordinarily intimate part of our poetic selves. What develops as we develop a voice, is the lyric I who uses a private language for public discourse.  By a private language I don’t suggest our words mean “differently” than the dictionary definitions, but rather our language is representative of our thinking, our private selves. It’s this intimacy that defines poetry as different from many pop songs, that seem to be very “public” in their sensibilities. And, when done well,  the intimacy of a poem is its strength. Bly suggests “[p]oetry is best imagined as a conversation between two beings, even if it’s a conversation between body and soul. If two beings talk inside a poem, the reader usually has a chance to get a word in edgewise.” 

What I like about this way of thinking about a poem is that such conversations require both a level of trust and a need to withhold. We trust that the poem is a safe place to discover what’s beneath our wanting to talk about a particular subject matter, and we can withhold everything that seems unnecessary or uncertain. Our poetic voices are means of exploring and defining (or constantly redefining) our visions and such explorations should also help our voices to evolve. For our readers, they become confidants in the dialogue, sharing in the experience of thinking, so that it becomes part of their thinking, too. But they have to be invited into that experience through the poem’s voice.


[1]These first five paragraphs are a slightly variant version of comments on voice from LaFemina’s textbook Composing Poetry: A Guide to Writing Poems and Thinking Lyrically (Kendall Hunt, 2016)