This is the first of a new blog series I am devising with a fabulous student from my poetry classes at Politics & Prose. When Shari Lawrence Pfleeger first took my A Poem a Day class last year, I was thrilled to discover that in addition to writing very good poems, she asks the kind of intelligent questions – about form, about process, about content – that the whole room benefits from hearing discussed. I suggested the idea of turning her questions and my answers into a blog series, and she loved it.
So, starting today, I’ll be posting one of Shari’s questions and my answer. You already know who I am; here is a little info on Shari.
After a long career in mathematics, software engineering and cyber security research, Shari Lawrence Pfleeger has returned to her real passions: riding her bicycle, fighting for social justice, and writing poetry.
And here is the first question:
Shari: What is the relationship between the reader and the poet? Does the poet write for herself, or does she keep the reader in mind when writing the poem?
Rose: I cannot remember a time when I did not think of writing as at least a potentially public act. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books, with two parents who were serious readers. I remember running my fingers over the spines of books on the shelves when I was very young and feeling a kind of magic in the author’s names. I knew that the stories and poems read to me had been written by various people, just as I knew my dad was the author of the stories he made up for me himself.
In the early stages of my own making of a poem or a piece of fiction, I keep the idea of a potential reader far, far away. However a poem begins – perhaps with an image that I feel compelled to bring to life in words, or perhaps with words themselves, a phrase or a sentence that springs to mind with a sound that feels just right – I need to protect that impulse, that impetus, from outside interference for the poem to come into being. I have to listen very closely to that sound, or look very closely at that image, allowing it to take on the flesh of words unimpeded by what a reader might anticipate or want. Those early drafts, whether 2 or 20 or anywhere between, are private, intimate, only for my eyes.
Once the poem has found its form, its shape, and feels quite close to finished, then and only then do I think about what the reader might need to follow it. Usually, at that point, what I do first is put the poem away for a few days. When I return to it, that break gives me fresh eyes, and I can look at the poem from the outside in, instead of from the inside out. At that point, the changes I make are usually small, but important, and often have to do as much with sound as with sense. A poem needs to make its own music, to sing its meaning to the reader. I work aloud throughout the process, but when I think of the reader it is in those last stages, where the refining takes place. Some poems are more easily accessible to the reader than others, but each one has to have its own sound, its own time signature, for the reader to feel and hear.
It sounds a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? Protecting the work from a potential reader, then polishing the work toward a potential reader? Rather than trying to simplify this, let me offer an example from another art form that might add another angle to the discussion.
From the ages of 10 to 14, I was a serious student of ballet, and dance – its discipline and study and structures – informs a lot of how I think about any artist’s task. My dance teachers often talked about the difference between what was called, loosely, studio technique and performance technique. Some dancers are quite accomplished, even dazzling, in class, and consider performance almost beside the point. I had good friend growing up who was like that. She would have been content to dance in the studio, for her own satisfaction, and never get on stage. But there are other dancers, often less accomplished in class, who get on stage and really shine.
I was one of the latter. Performing for me was the goal of all those classes, and writing for me is the same. Even in my most private journal entries, I find seeds of poems and stories. Making a piece of art to give to the reader, to be the kind of gift that, say, Anne Sexton’s poems or A.S. Byatt’s novels have been for me, precious gifts of understanding and compassion illumination –that is my ambition, my hope, my target.
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