PUSHING YOUR MATERIAL AROUND
Audre Lorde wrote, decades ago, that “there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” I’ve always loved that quote, but last spring I thought about it for the first time in a while, as I read the New York Times profile of the poet Anne Carson. Explaining how she thinks of writing, Carson said, “it’s really important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before.” Here were shades of Lorde–making ideas felt, making the mind move instead of just receiving. And then Carson put her finger on a way to actually do that: it happens, she says, “mostly because of the way you push the material around from word to word in a sentence.” Language is so concretely material–and a writer’s job, fundamentally, is pushing pieces of it from place to place.
This struck a nerve because it’s easy for me to forget that the material I’m working with isn’t just my subject matter–it’s word and sentence and line. Focusing too much on what I want to say usually makes for less interesting writing. So I try to remember that I’m not really looking for the very best way to say something. I’m looking for a way to make language move, to make a reader’s mind move, in a way it hasn’t before.
One strategy I like is looking to other languages. I live in Hong Kong, so Cantonese is a natural, but before I lived here I learned some Japanese and Spanish. I’m far from fluent in any of these languages, but the point, for my purposes at the moment, is not fluency. You can find interesting ways to move your words around just by reading the Wiki pages of languages you’re curious about. The two important questions for me are: What can another language do that English doesn’t? And what happens when you apply that principle to writing in English?
For example, Cantonese, like other varieties of Chinese, asks yes/no questions with paired verbs: “Can you or can’t you come with me to the beach?” “Do you or don’t you want to eat barbecued pork?” The answer is a form of the verb rather than “yes” or “no.” So you might say, “I can” to answer the first question, and “I don’t want” to answer the second. That’s very different than English, which has the universal “yes” and “no” to answer any yes/no question no matter the verb. How could you use this in your own writing? Well, it sounds formal, even a little irritable, in spoken English. In a poem, you might use this construction to elevate your tone. Or in a story, you could indicate some tension in a conversation by making the dialogue stilted this way.
Or take Japanese, whose grammar usually delays the verb and its conjugation. So you might not know, until the very end of a sentence, whether someone’s inviting you to eat barbecued pork or saying she already ate it. A lot depends on context, and on helper words (if she says “yesterday” at the beginning of the sentence, you know she’ll end up with a past tense verb, for example). What would happen if you revised a few sentences or lines so that the verb takes a backseat and shows up only at the end? Would that change the tone of a poem, or the personality of a character, or the feel of your narrative voice in a scene? What if you removed helper words so that a character’s or a line’s intent or timespan is less clear?
Another, more direct way to borrow elements of other languages’ grammar and syntax is to feed something through Google Translate and back. There may be good reasons for you to choose a particular language, but you might also just try out a few at random. I’m working on a series of poems loosely based on World War II in Japan, so Japanese makes sense for me. Here’s a stanza of a poem alongside its Google translation into and back out of Japanese:
She is suspended at the mid-
section of the ladder, climbing
for water. Her hair’s whiteness
shines in the fern-laced light
the cave’s mouth opens to.
Is interrupted in the middle of her
section of the ladder, climbing
for water. Whiteness of her hair
fern shines in mixed light
mouth of the cave opens.
I liked the Google-produced “fern shines in mixed light,” and the subject-less verb phrase “Is interrupted” instead of “She is suspended.” I used both in subsequent stanzas of the poem, and I also experimented with dropping articles and pronouns in other lines. The poem’s not done yet, but I really like the surreal, removed tone it has now because of the syntactical gaps and the off-kilter repetition and rephrasings.
Shifting my focus from the content of a poem to the way I can push its words around helps a lot when I’m revising. But it’s also really good for getting started, especially when I’m trying to switch out of running-errands or checking-email mode into writing. That leap is always hard for me, so I’ve got an good-sized arsenal of writing prompts I’ve collected over the years.
Instead of subject-based prompts (“write a poem about winter,” for example), these have formal, arbitrary requirements and some near-automated language generation strategies. One of my favorites is Rita Dove’s “Ten Minute Spill” from Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell’s collection The Practice of Poetry (a wonderful book for this kind of prompt). You have to write a ten-line poem including a proverb you’ve changed in some way (“let sleeping dogs lie” might become “sleeping dogs never lie”), and using five of ten words you’ve chosen in advance. Dove includes a list of evocative ones like “cloud” and “needle,” but every time I do this I just look at any piece of writing–the newspaper, the cereal box, whatever–and pick some solid nouns and interesting verbs. Since each piece of the poem is either readymade (the word list) or requires only a simple tweak (the proverb), writing the poem feels like solving a puzzle. The results are rarely a full poem draft, but I usually get several good, surprising lines that end up elsewhere. Not to mention the satisfaction of having written something fifteen minutes after having poured myself a cup of coffee.
I also really like erasures, for similar reasons: choosing language from an already-published text automates part of the writing process, and makes drafting a poem feel like a treasure hunt. And I love the potential for interesting relationships between a source text and the resulting poem–an erasure can make a kind of conversation. It’s best to start with something out of copyright, if you want to play around with that relationship, but depending on how you use the language you can make your own poem unrecognizable enough not to worry about it. For example, if you blot out all the words in a bottled-water advertisement that aren’t natural imagery, rearrange what’s left, and fill in the blanks to make a poem about your dad’s obsession with The Sound of Music, you probably don’t need to cite the original source.
I use one of these strategies pretty much every time I sit down to write, whether it’s to polish a near-finished poem, to solve a problem in a current draft, or just to get started. I hope they may come in handy for you, too. Whether you’re a poet or a fiction or nonfiction writer or playwright, whatever–next time you’re stuck, see what happens when you stop thinking about content, and start pushing your puzzle pieces around on the page.
Collier Nogues’s first book of poems, On the Other Side, Blue, was published by Four Way Books in 2011. She has received fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Oregon’s Fishtrap, Inc. Recent poems have appeared in The Literary Review, Matter, The Cincinnati Review, and the American Academy of Poets’ Poem-A-Day feature.