Poetic Manifesto For My Times (Which Are Your Times, Too)

Hello! I’m back at Flatiron Coffee, which I’ve found to be fairly conducive to my writing process. I think part of it is not wanting other people (no matter how much they ignore me or pay me no heed) to think I’m goofing off, so I’d better write something. Little do they know, right now I’m typing about THEM!

Last semester I took Activist Writing Workshop, taught by Dr. Andrea Rexilius. It was the first class I had on the first day of my first semester of grad school, and for the first few weeks I was fairly nervous, unsure as to what I was doing in the midst of so many brilliant people. Eventually I relaxed, acknowledging that either I deserved to be there (as evidenced by the admissions process) or I snuck in and should make the most of it. I’ve come down now on the side of deserving to be at Naropa, and though I may not be as well-read as some people I’ve got something to contribute. (I also love my cohort and the second-years I’ve worked with, as well as the undergrads I’m slowly discovering…they’re everywhere!)

One piece of our final portfolio for Activist Writing was a poetic manifesto, a statement of our purposes and principles as writers and poets. I’ve included it below, with some light editing, as an explanation of some of my thought processes while writing.

Enjoy!

~T

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Poetic Manifesto For My Times (Which Are Your Times, Too)

Poetry can and should be an event that causes a feeling or sensation. As popularly understood, poetry is something lyrical or rhythmic, holding some sort of connotation of song or whimsy. Poetry has been and can be again less of a static object and more of an occurrence, an event, a repeated happening that offers new life each time it is read or heard or performed or encountered.

We should think perhaps less in terms of poetry and more in terms of poets, for though something poetic may exist on its own merits (birdsong, sunset, inhalation) the poet can be the one to translate or interpret for others, to act as a sort of ambassador or messenger between the poetic occurrence and the poetic audience. So let us begin with the poet.

Before the poet, in fact, let us begin with this proposition: above all else, listen before speaking. Listening provides an opportunity to collect (input from the surroundings, thoughts before expression, et cetera) but more importantly listening before speaking allows the poet to acknowledge the other person or persons or the environment as less of an Other and more of a fellow or friend. The act of listening declares softly “I wish to hear you, first.” (Of course, the possibility exists that two practitioners of this proposition will, upon meeting, sit in prolonged silence and may never begin the next step, but in this event a naturally occurring word or prhase will suffice to end the silence; may I suggest “Thank you” as a possible silence-breaker?)

The poet, once the respect for the other has been established, then persists in challenging the other, though not always harshly. (Harshness of course has its place, and softness should never be confused with weakness, but begin from a place of unagitation before engaging in critiques or questions. [This rule, of course, does not govern interactions with others who wish to be treated as Others, or those who treat others as Others, or any who wish harm to an other. In that case, though, poetry may not be the best tool for interaction.]) The challenge at its most basic consists of upending what is considered “right,” or “normal,” or “that’s how we’ve always done it.” This can be through new grammar, provocative method, or disregarding what many consider to be poetic standards (rhyme, meter, form, et cetera). The boundaries of the page are just as confining as boundaries of language, so the poet should consider how his or her or its work can exist outside the page. How big are the margins of a megaphone? What does the word “magment” mean? Who spellchecks sobbing?

These questions were quickly formulated, but the power of the question mark should exist over the entirety of the poet’s work. At the risk of contradicting the words of the manifesto itself, the only certain thing is to be uncertain. Allow for possibility. Leave space for the audience to exist, though not without some sort of price exacted. We return to the audience through questions.

When probing (either in poetic structures or in personal communication) the most powerful question is, perhaps, “Why?” Repeated use of the word “why” in response to a stated position can drive to the center of something more directly than a lengthy inquisition, and the tone of “why” (confrontational in and of itself but also with the possibility of true curiosity) is its greatest strength. Leave the “why” present in your work, and as long as possible avoid answering your own questions. This may seem counter-intuitive or even unproductive if you think of your poetry as having an undeviating purpose, some sort of mission (“My poem will challenge the way people think about violence in this country!”) but if you allow your poetry to exist by its own rights, to engage itself with the audience with the poet as a participant but not a director, then the poem’s absolution of conclusion strengthens its arguments.

The creative process itself is worth investigating. Much of what drives my work are short phrases, misheard song lyrics, misread billboards, words appearing in my psyche like spontaneous creation (“twisted black fingers rake across the sky” – a series of chimney stacks at sunset). This is not new or unique, but I am also interested in what doesn’t make it to the page (what is lost to the moment, what can’t be remembered without a pen in hand). What does make it to the page does not always remain, and what remains is not always best. But it remains.

The concept of the audience has arisen before, and so perhaps now is the time to speak more of it. Size and composition and temporality of an audience are traits we should consider, but ultimately the defining characteristic of an audience is this: anyone who is touched / grazed / impacted / implicated in your poetry. Those being influenced by the poetry may not always know it; poetry that exists anew each time it is read will have consequences long after it is transmitted into the world.

My poetry will not erect walls, nor will it smash them down, but rather tunnel through them, or remove bricks, or write graffiti on the walls that already exist. I do not wish to burn bridges, nor build them, but rather teach people how to build boats and how to swim. I will not undam the rivers unless the life downstream has a chance to survive the flood. Action is needed, yes; passion is necessary, of course; and the conversation has begun but it started much later than it should have. None of this grants me license to destroy, or harm, or battle. I stand non-violently with those who wish to engage in this conversation and will do what is in my power to lessen their blows, to speak to those who traffic in power and pain, and change what few minds I can in what little time we have left.

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Project Outreach

Hello! This will be a combination of exposition and something creative – in this case, the creative pieces need the background, plus it gives me a chance to talk about Project Outreach. Project Outreach is a class offered at Naropa, taught by the indomitable Jack Collom, wherein students (undergrad and graduate) seek out, engage with, and support local groups, schools, and organizations by leading creative writing and poetry workshops. (That’s not the official definition, just my own interpretation of it.) My friend / cohort-mate / classmate Rachel (check out her blog at https://rprkr.wordpress.com ) and I have led a pair of workshops with Monarch High School, and are holding a series of after-school workshops with kindergarteners and first graders at Emerald Elementary School. FUN but exhausting and challenging but EYE-OPENING.

We usually open with a writing exercise led by Jack. This week we did a Question-and-Answer back-and-forth, and I partnered with Sara (follow HER blog at https://operationorchid.wordpress.com ). I only have half the exercise (she has the other half), and I’ll put the different writers in different forms, but who said what is less important than we wrote this:

Where do you come from? I come from a town to the east and a nation of oceans.

What did you have for lunch? Reheated lamb and soft red peppers, the texture of tongues.

Can we build a mountain? We can build entire mountain ranges out of our sweat and calloused hands.

How deep does the ocean go? All the way through to the other side, air pockets, salty crevices, right through the round into space.

When does a child become fully grown? The child is no longer a child when she knows enough to ask this kind of question – “fully grown” is a subjective statement.

How far from home are you? Arriving back, in every moment, a leg, a liver, two breaths per bone.

Where will you go from here? I’ve always been where I am, so I’ll stay with me by going.

How well can you swim? As well as an otter, but not as well as a whale.

What are you in between? Located between desires and dreams and what comes next or came before – Time & Space.

What is your spirit animal? If an animal can be my spirit, then it would be oceanbodied and batwinged, with great white teeth.

What is a nest? Building your home with your own beaded sweat and dreams, most often somewhere safe.

How long can you hold your breath? Almost as long as I wish I could, definitely longer than a mile.

How much does regret weigh? Heavy as a feather, light as a mountaintop.

We also take turns conducting workshops and exercises with each other. This week, Sofia brought in a series of objects and had us write three pieces: a history, a present interaction, and a futurity (again, these are my words and don’t sufficiently engage how she led us in class). I chose a stick and wrote the following:

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“A Tale For Trees” (history) Rain fell for the first time when the clouds broke open. Evaporated and condensed and rained again. Imagine events multiplied by the lifespan of the Earth and you’ve got a start. Eventually the rain soaked into ground into roots and up the xylem and phloem of a particular tree of a particular age in a particular place. A man – who doesn’t matter who – approached the tree, apologized, and sent it to the ground. From the ribcage of the tree he fashioned boards and planks. A team of oxen or donkeys or llamas burdened with the man’s commands and his wooden harvest brought the tree’s echoes to a seaport. There, a shipwright of no meager skill and no modest temper transformed the boards and planks into the pelt of a new creature, one destined to ride the waves that give birth to storms. This ship carried cargo, laden with commerce and history as she broke ground in a new world. Years of journeying west then east and sometimes north but never south left the ship stranded, broken apart by the birth of a new ice floe. People came to salvage her metal and timbers. One plank was shaved down to fit snowshoes, strapped to the feet of the youngest son of the last man of his tribe. He fled south, seeking the sun so he could reignite the yellow fire and save his people. The snowshoes were traded at the treeline, where tundra blossoms into forest, traded for food and navigation. The snowshoes themselves were broken apart for kindling, a few scraps escaping the lifesaving campfire. One piece in particular survived, though she snapped at last and came to rest at my feet.

“Sing, wood!” (current) Splintered and fibrous. Run my fingers along its edge, but beware the splinters! (Or even the threat of splinters is enough to dissuade me.) Looked at from a side : layers of root and history, a canyon’s bitter walls, telling stories of drought and flood, years under sun or shadow. What stories did the wood tell? Crack like a crocodile’s mouth, no eyes to cry crocodile tears, no crocodile teeth therefore no need for crocodile birds who act like little feathered dentists to antediluvian monsters. (They couldn’t fit anyway.) Smell a song of forests, ballad of kings and queens of vegetation, laid low by the century of conflict and betrayed by their own subjects. Taste is possible, but again, beware the opportunity presented by splinters! A shadow cast is no longer than its maker.

“Futurewood” Discarded as junk – No chance to tell her stories – Silenced soon.

“Wander In”

Hello! This is my second creative post. (If you haven’t read “Twelve Year Growth” please do so!)

I also realize that this may be the first time some of you have read this, since I’m going to include links on Facebook and Twitter, so welcome!

This piece comes from my creative manuscript for the Writers in Community class we took last semester. I haven’t really touched it since December but may clean it up for later submissions.

At dinner tonight some of us from the cohort were talking about how more of an emphasis on submission might be helpful. It would help build our C.V.s, it would get us to write sharper (at least it would help me write with more of a focus), and we could get more confidence. Confidence is something I feel is elusive, and I know sometimes as a writer I lack it. That’s why I enjoy hearing from other people – bad writing is not worth talking about, so I’ve at least got that.

Thanks again for visiting! I will try to keep this updated more regularly (with a combination of previous work, current work, and general thoughts on writing). Have a good night!

-Travis

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“Wander In”

What do we learn when we wander? Beyond the photographs and memories and mementos and souvenirs what is it that sticks in our mind in our craw in our gut, buried in the deepest recesses of our primitive brain, the brain that speaks to us when we sleep and shouts at us for fire and beasts and lust – what sticks?

In this day and age and what use is a colossus, even one you can sail a tanker under? Our gardens aren’t hanging so much as hanging around hanging about and getting captured instantly and let go for the next novelty. What use a library when you haven’t got eyes to read? Sure, we can circumnavigate the globe but when was the last time we really saw something?

We sit across from people all the time but we don’t know any better. If we did we might not sit at all, or choose others to sit across from, and why do we stare we can’t help but stare we’re sorry we stare but the idea of opening up the mind and letting someone else in is a scary proposition, everyone should admit that if only to themselves. What were they eating that day?

We don’t know and don’t care or maybe we don’t care and haven’t found out yet the words to the new songs. Someone other than us keeps singing these songs and using words we forgot or we don’t know yet like indigenous and fortification and cavalry, the words don’t always fit together but they stream together and it’s in the watery-ness of their being that we live.

Haven’t we ever wondered why we were the ones left behind? Surely it occurred to us but unless we take the time to examine the proposition from a new angle {any angle other than the one that dominates our nearsightedness} we’ll be left here, waiting for the next bus the next train the next motorbike or outrigger or dammit maybe we should just carve a canoe and call it something else.

We thought we knew how to love but we forgot that, too.

So It’s Been A While!

I think the important thing about a blog is being consistent. And the important thing about being a writer is being consistent. So to that end, here we go – a fresh Wednesday post!

Yesterday I ran some errands and then sequestered myself in full public view at a coffee shop (Flatiron Coffee on Arapahoe in Boulder, great place). There were a series of scenes in my novel-in-progress that have been giving me trouble. To me it’s the emotional crux of the story, why we care about these people, and I couldn’t make it work. So yesterday I just said “Write it out, edit later.”

Twenty or so pages later I had the scenes. I came home and did some light editing, and then plunged ahead on a scene that had been scaring me. It’s supposed to be scary (the scene) but I was scared that it wouldn’t be scary enough on the page. I listened to “Seraphim” by Dead Can Dance on repeat while I wrote it, and finally got something that worked.

I think the consistency will be key, though – I can’t and shouldn’t just wait for the urge to write, I need to be writing every day, and maybe once a week have a blazing session like I did yesterday. It’s hard to balance writing and school sometimes, but what I’m learning in school (and from my classmates) is absolutely helping my novel-in-progress (from here on out, my NIP!).

I guess this is a ramble, and as the blog develops I’ll post more. I’ve got to go back and rework the pieces I already posted, as well as increase my blog readership (thanks for following me, Rachel!), maybe via social media…

Anyway – please stay tuned! More to follow.

-T