This collection describes my development over the past two years, tracing a shift from conventional meditations (“EVENT”) to radical experiments (“SOUND”) to idiosyncratic narratives (“TWINK”). I hesitate to call this development “progress,” insofar as that implies the newer ones are better. But I do see it as a progress of the Hegelian sort, with a thesis (“EVENT”), antithesis (“SOUND”), and synthesis (“TWINK”), each series being a response to what came before – an attempt to write better, or at least differently.
I admire poets such as Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, and Jack Gilbert because they have managed to write phenomenal poetry in conversational language. Coming into the program, I believed that those types of poems were the only ones worth writing, and so that’s all I wrote. Poems of this sort appear toward the beginning of “EVENT.”
With increased exposure came increased curiosity, which led to experimentation, particularly with regard to syntax. Poems by Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, Michael Palmer, and John Ashbery, among others, inspired me to approach sense-making in a less discursive way. I experimented with strong enjambment, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and other techniques that complicate syntactic meaning. Poems of this sort appear toward the middle and end of the series, “reheating fish” and “Pier 39” being the prime examples. The series’ the final two poems – “The Gipsy Kings” and “Mountain Lake Park” – attempt to achieve synthesis within the series. Inasmuch as they exhibit heightened attention to both syntax and lineation, and to both statement and sound, they bring my rivaling poetic ancestries together.
The “SOUND” series was my final project in “Visionary Poetics,” which I took in Spring 2007. According to my professor, Norma Cole, visionary poetry is that “whose meanings appeal to non-rational readings.” My goal was to write completely non-rational poems using English words and names.
This task proved surprisingly difficult. At first I assembled words at random. But this resulted in scattered pockets of grammatical meaning: subject-verb agreements, noun-adjective pairings, conjunctions that conjoin. I wrote a line of all nouns, thereby eliminating the possibility of agreement with an adjective or verb. But because that pattern was so blatant, it drew attention to the fact that each of the words was a noun, which in turn drew attention to each word’s meaning. I needed the words to flow naturally together, as they do in everyday speech, except the flow could not be syntactic: it had to be purely sonic. In other words, I needed to give my lines speech’s sound without giving them speech’s sense. If I’ve done my job, then these poems affect the reader the way foreign incantations do, i.e. by saying much and stating nothing.
Around the time I was finishing the “SOUND” series (May 2007), I started working on a set of seven definition poems, which I’d been assigned to write as a warm-up exercise for Major Project I.
I don’t remember if I’d heard of a definition poem before, but I certainly hadn’t written one. I decided that the first thing to do was to study the title words, which (at my instructor’s prompting) I had chosen from an essay of mine. (I was told to choose those words that appeal to me for unobvious reasons.) I typed each word into the OED online, Wikipedia, and YouTube, and then I skimmed the resulting web pages and videos, gathering whatever words, images, and notions struck me. This gave me something to ponder and toy with while I brainstormed and drafted, a welcomed departure from my normal routine of starting anxiously at the blank screen.
At first, I experimented with wildly different lengths, tones, dictions, syntaxes, narrative structures.
Gradually, fitfully, some appealing trends emerged.
According to Wikipedia, the English psychedelic rock band “Tomorrow” had a drummer named Robert “Twink” Adler. (I learned this during the grist-gathering process for the series’ first poem, “tomorrow,” which, like many of the early poems in the series, does not appear here.) Something about that name instantly appealed to me. It feels light and playful and harmless, like a Twinkie or the twinkling of a distant star. And yet it also contains the word “wink,” which adds a touch of irony and sarcasm, complicating the connotation in a way I like. I was not aware that “twink” is gay slang for a boyish and naïve young man. Upon learning this, I was dejected, figuring I’d have to abandon the name. But after talking the issue over with some teachers and classmates, I ultimately decided to stick with it, despite some urgings to the contrary. The name just sounds right to me, and the alternatives I’ve tried alter the poems in ways I simply cannot stand. I like to think that Twink – a worrier - would find it fitting that his name has some baggage.
Other trends were more formal in nature. I noticed that sixty words was a good length, the Goldilocks median between the twenty-word sprints and the hundred-word marathons. The final length I settled on was fifty-seven words, which, like the poem titles, appeals to me for reasons I don’t fully understand. Heinz ketchup? Sputnik? Passenger 57, staring Wesley Snipes? One thing I like about fifty-seven is that it looks like a prime number even though it isn’t: its unexpected divisibility is weirdly endearing. I also noticed that opening with verbal phrases (especially participles) created a sense of in media res, which makes these small poems feel larger. Likewise, alliteratively laundry-listing expositional details – weather, time of day, surroundings, mood – was a quick and playful way to add sonic texture and narrative context.
Over time, I incorporated these and other tendencies into what I call “the formula,” a set of syntactic, sonic, and narrative prescriptions that each poem in the series must abide by, a privately concocted fixed form that I am continuously struggling to master. If the form is sturdy enough, then each poem in the series will stand on its own, and if it’s flexible enough – and if I’ve flexed it enough – then the series will not lose its ability to surprise.
I’ve generated sixty-five “TWINK” poems in all, twenty-seven of which appear here. This relatively prolific spurt is a testament to the liberating power of arbitrary constraints. Because they are both demanding and specific, my various self-imposed constraints distract me from my usual doubts and anxieties, my endless worrying over whether the poem is any good or I’m any good or life is any good, etc. By focusing on the constraints, and by working hard to satisfy them, I filter out all the existential hogwash and just write. In the end, that is the progress I’m most proud of and grateful for.