How do you prepare for a longer poem? Another way to say it: how do you prepare for love when it ambushes you? I once heard Mary Karr say, "The truth ambushes you." I like reading books from poets who write in different genres. Something about the attention and dedication to the music and heat of words. Something about the ache. How, it seems, they are always writing in lines, not sentences. I prefer the prose poem because it's rebellious and slippery. It's a messy fish.
Let me say it another way: I am thinking now of what Jenny Odell calls "observational eros," which is the act of giving "each object the attention it was due." The intensity of our fascination and focus. Not letting go but needling it.
J.P. Dancing Bear writes, "When a line is perfect, it has the completeness of a highway on-ramp — it has its own structure, its own intelligence, and it transports the reader to something larger... Then I thought about it a different way: what if the on-ramp was a launch ramp; what if the individual line could send you somewhere else should you apply imagination and a little aim?"
In January 2021, I decided to pick a word to encompass the whole year. I chose love (first
with myself, and then possibly another person).
Camille Dungy compares line breaks to waves breaking against each other and the shore.
Tim Seibles likens the line to crooning. He says, "...music allows a singer to bend and stretch words in ways that are not quite possible in conventional speech, but developing a sense of mood through pacing (to draw listeners into a lyrical spell) is essentially the same for poets and crooners... I try to approach the line as both a singer and a reader."
How do you encounter a line? The edge? The rim of a fingernail? A terminus? The end of yourself or a lover or a mother? How do you end your emails? I often write: With gratitude, T.
The poet and software developer T.J. Jarrett told me that she developed her sense of the poetic line from the negative space outside of the frame of the black terminal where she coded on her computer. Meaning her lines were shaped by the border and boundary of her tech job. I like thinking about her writing lines of code next to her lines of verse. We find the form we need to keep writing. We find the line length by the margins in our lives — in what we allow, we make room for — our brains blossom and brew around the periphery of what we need to proclaim. Perhaps, her poem was the entire screen: the code, the lines, and all the pinging emails, all of it counting as she is typing. All art being pushed to the edge like an end rhyme or a balloon, we come to expect a pattern or a pop.
What if the line dissolves? Or the pattern rearranges like rain when it freezes? Snow falls outside my window in Northampton by the inch every hour, a cold kind of accrual. "Cold Pastoral" from Keats. Naomi Shihab Nye writes, "How there can be a place / so cold any movement saves you."
Yes, I fell in love with Love. I fell in love with my word. I still believe in miracles.
My second book of poems was rejected from my dream publisher. They said my work was too referential. What if I softly touched that rejection to see what it could teach me about longing? What if instead of pulling back on my references and allusions I went full maximalist? What if I dreamed bigger than my dream press? What is a dream press? Do you have a dream press or publication? If so, write it here: . This part of the poem is tactile.
The first line I ever memorized was from T.S. Eliot, "What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present."
I am thankful for rejection. And what is rejection, if not another line break? A blue enjambment of water spilling off the table, which is the next line, the next project, next poem, next essay, next book, next nibble — all of it teaches you, all of it is still one poem, one massive volta, veering me to the next shift, if I'm pliable enough to let art pull me into all the different waves of my selves crashing into myself.
A line that keeps opening up for me each time I read it is from John Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Joan Didion wrote, "It all comes back." Even the lines of coke I snorted off the cool, silver metal top of a tampon receptacle inside the P.F. Chang's bathroom where I was a hostess at nineteen. I can taste it at the back of my throat still — the chalky, bitter burn, then numb gums. I hid the baggie of drugs inside a container of Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum Tape, which is fun to say out loud. Try it! I'm not trying to glorify or romanticize this memory, but the association is there, nonetheless. Though, there is a part of me that wants to cut it from this poem, because I am tired of sharing slices of my life when I was hurt and hurting myself and others. I thought no one could see my lower jaw shifting and slack, but I was seen too clearly. The hurt taught me how to be tender and not so naive.
This part of the poem only shows when the sun sets in Sewanee. Jessica Jacobs taught me that poems can have secrets. Do you want to know my secret for this poem?
When I was little, I used to pray to God about my future career. I set up a bargain: "If I'm supposed to be a lawyer, then let me see a blue jay today, but if I'm supposed to be an actor, then let me see a cardinal instead?" I got confused because I saw both birds all the time, and then I forgot which bird I assigned to which job. I laugh about it now, because I think a poet is sometimes an actor who performs rhetorical arguments against abstractions inside the theater of the page.
This part of the poem only shows when the moon is full in Northampton. In "Poetry and the Moon," Mary Ruefle writes "...stars were the first text, the first instance of gabbiness; connecting the stars, making a pattern out of them, was the first story, sacred to storytellers. But the moon was the first poem."
I just finished Saeed Jones' book How We Fight for Our Lives in my long bath last night and loved it. That's it. Oh, wait! There is this one sentence I want to tell you about. There are many sentences to pull, but I'd like to focus on this one where Jones writes, "There was still so much I hadn't told my mother, so much I knew that I would probably never tell her." This, of course, made me think of my mother. I think almost everything I write is a letter to my mom, a way to connect though direct address, in hopes she might grasp some part of me that I am afraid to show her. Which, of course, made me think of Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous and Kiese Laymon's Heavy. Both books being epistles for their mothers, which made me understand my mother's pain, her countenance, and hands better. I am trying to write love back into it.
I'm constantly pulling in the whole world because I'm grasping at all that is around me to remind me to save me (from drowning). Like a kid, I want to show you what is in my hand. Look, Look!
I have dropped the conceit that started this poem about the line, but I'm always thinking about line breaks, especially in a prose poem. Indulge me with two more quotes. Hadara Bar-Nadav writes, "...prose poets use the margin; they write both through and against the margin, even as it is arbitrarily assigned... I have come to enjoy the risk-taking right margin, the one that contains magical line-breaking properties and makes the poem come back to me anew."
My syllabus topper for this semester is from Miss Lucille Clifton: "So you come to poetry not out of what you know but out of what you wonder."