When poetry is good — I mean like, catch-your-breath or haunt-your-brainhouse good — it sort of takes on a life of its own, independent of the creative force behind it. The poet disappears into the wings, and you’re left unable to take your eyes off the verse at center-stage. An amazing poem just… exists. And we read it, take it into ourselves, make it our own.
But as writers and as astute readers of poetry, we may have the most to gain from peeking behind the curtain of the work that most blows us away. Often the better the poem — the more magic it works on us — the more skill and control and craft the poet exercises behind the scenes. (By way of example, take my experience with a beginners’ yoga workshop this past weekend. I quickly discovered that the easier some pose looked — “ha! that’s basically what I have to do to shave my legs in my tiny shower!” — the more effort went into making it look easy. I am, believe me, now humbled, terribly sore, and pumped about my next class.) You’ll hear from some that examining that craft somehow leeches the magic out of the poem itself, but I disagree. We’re not talking Oz vs. the little man pulling levers and pushing buttons; there’s just as much magic in what the poet does to bring a great poem to life.
And obviously it behooves us to look into that magic — to let it leave us stricken and then ask in awe “yeah but…how?” As writers, we want to know what works so we can try it ourselves. As readers, we want to know how poems come into being so we can appreciate the whole process; understanding the input breeds greater understanding and admiration for the output.
This is one of the reasons I love the format of the interviews with artists in WomenArts Quarterly Journal. They focus on craft, and give readers a peek at exactly how their favorite writers, artists, and musicians do what they do. Granted, there are artists in all disciplines who are better at talking about the “how” than others. There are plenty of artists who focus more on the “what” — because this is simply where their interest lies, or because they have fallen under the spell of their own work and are invested in seeing the magic they create as the product of an un-examinable magic they possess. But on the whole, I find that conscientious artists are eager to talk about how they get from that inspirational-tickle to a final draft, and that such a conversation deepens the relationships between poet, poem, and reader.
I had the chance to dig a little deeper in an interview with Traci Brimhall for WAQ’s latest (and first nationally-distributed!) issue. Traci’s book Our Lady of the Ruins (Norton) won the Barnard Women Poets Prize in 2011, and I encourage you to pick it up; it’s a collection of poems in the voices of female exiles in a post-apocalyptic world that is, as I told Traci in our interview, genuinely frightening. Not a casual read. Not the kind of book that leaves you easily. Check out the interview for Traci’s thoughts on how that book came together, and what it’s like to write what scares you.
Seriously, there’s really fantastic stuff in this issue. (A special shout out to Paige Lewis, whose poem “In Michigan” qualifies as one of those catch-your-breath-ers. I remember reading it as a submission and knowing after one read-through that we had stumbled across something awesome. I’m so glad we got to put it in our pages.)
More to come regarding poetry to start your year off right…