Monday, February 28, 2011

A Strict Beauty: The Corset of Form in Poetry

Do you cringe at the thought of writing poetry in strict form? I'll admit, I used to.

In some of my MFA workshops at Spalding University, it became a running joke that as newer poets, we would groan when Jeanie Thompson, Maureen Morehead, or Debra Kang Dean would read a piece and say, "This wants to be a sonnet...". We were quite certain our poems did not want to be sonnets. In fact, we did not care what our poems wanted to be when they grew up - like parents staunchly defending their children against a theater arts major, we defended ourselves from having to work in form. Form was scary. Form was restrictive. Form was draconian, and stifled our untrained free verse sensibilities. Mostly, though, form was difficult. We complained our way through rhyme schemes and meter. We wrestled out wordy verse into the tight corset of form.

And sometimes we surprised ourselves, and a sloppy, slovenly slattern of a poem became quite beautiful.

After a few years of study, many years of reading, and finding the open-mindedness that comes with both exposure to and practice of a new thing, I have reached a delicate balance with formal poetry structures. I had the good fortune to attend lectures and a workshop by renowned sonneteer Molly Peacock, who is not only a poet of great talent, but a lecturer who engages with the material in such a way that strict form seems approachable - in light of her discussions, formal poetry becomes the whalebone and strict seaming of fine clothes, as opposed to the rusted chains and straitjacket many fear.

To me, working in form almost always feels like work. On the other hand, there is work I love, and work I despise - my approach is to ensure that I walk into a poem open-minded. Nearly all of my first drafts begin free-form, free verse, no meter or rhyme (aside from the occasional slant-rhyme), and no real structure. I am what I would call, out of the gate, a lazy poet. After whatever inspiration I've had is out on paper, I look at it the way a craftsman might look at a piece of wood, and form is one of the tools I have to shape it. I think about the subject matter and flow, about where the line breaks should happen, and tone. And I think about form. Could it be a sonnet? Is there a turn in there? Is it an echo-ey sort of poem, that could do with a repetition-form like a villanelle or sestina? Is it an overly emotional piece, and do I need the container of form to give me some structure, so that i am not simply vomiting onto a page? Poet Helen Rickerby notes: "Sexton said she liked to use strict rhyme schemes, particularly in her early work, as a way of containing the strong emotion. The harder something was to write about, the more restrictive the scheme."

As I mature in the craft of writing, I have a greater appreciation of form. I highly respect poets who gravitate toward strict form for their work, because it takes quite a bit of discipline (and I am prone to admire folks who make what I find difficult look easy), and there is a special beauty to a poem that is crafted well. I am not scared of form, and cannot articulate why I was - form is a guideline, a structure, not a thing of snapping metal teeth. When I run up against a wall with a topic, or find myself in need of a prompt, I often turn to different forms so I can experiment and see what happens. I've even gotten lucky a few times - I've had sonnets placed in Sixty-Six: The Journal of Sonnet Studies and a handful of other journals.

Now when I think of form, I think of a corset. It may make it a bit more difficult to breathe when you wear one, and perhaps harder to sit down comfortably. However, it improves the posture, it positions the bosom to advantage, and when properly fitted, can be a beautiful addition to your wardrobe.

If you are interested in learning more about forms and finding an encyclopedia of forms which you can read and use as a basis for practice, I highly recommend The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms as a comprehensive, encyclopedic guide, and A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms as a more informal introduction to the topic.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why Beautiful Covers and Good Books Are Like Potato Chips

The Kentucky Vein is getting even closer to being on shelves and in hands! My cover designer, Julie, has done a gorgeous job with some photos by Kentucky native and excellent photographer (and former student employee of mine), Erik Tuttle.

Right now I'm cooing over Julie's designs as I try to decide which I like better, and finding it difficult to choose just one - sort of like potato chips, only not as fattening, and far more compelling.

Another way book covers are like potato chips: it's rare that they're shared. (What? Am I the only greedy lout around?) In this case, I got lucky with some very generous folks. Punkin House Press (namely Amy, who has been my primary contact for big things; Cheryl, editor and fixerof-things for the text; and Julie, my designer for the cover) has solicited my input in a number of ways. I have heard stories from established poets that an unknown writer should not expect to get any input on anything regarding their book's cover, and changes to the text are mandated rather than requested. My experience has been quite the opposite - everything has been a conversation, I feel like my opinions and input have mattered at every point along this book's journey, and that in addition to writing the book, the rest of the work that goes into making text into a book has my name somewhere in it as well. (Given that it would be much easier for the Punkin team to just do as they wanted to speed things along and avoid any possible disagreements, it really is a testament to how this press treats their authors.)

So, Punkin is the type of place where they share their potato chips. For a fluffy lady like me, it is one more sign among many that this is the right place for my work.

Okay, so admittedly the potato chip metaphor is a little bit of a stretch. On the other hand, I do hope when you read through The Kentucky Vein, you find that you can't stop at one, and want to re-read it again and again. (With potato chips, if you like.) It's coming soon...are you ready for your copy?