Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Poetry Couch

I've been remiss in my new blogger duties recently. This has happened for a few reasons, not the least of which has been juggling the many hats I wear as the fall semester began. I teach a creative writing workshop at the university here, I teach up to six courses online at a time, and I've got a preschooler who's only in preschool five hours a week. Blessings all, to be sure. And recently, I've been doing the really fun stuff that has to do with the book.

One of my (many) complaints about the last experience was that I didn't get a single piece of significant editorial advice. Now, I like a good ego stroke as much as the next poet, but I know that my work needs work, and I enjoy doing it. So I'm always looking for a reader to point things out to me, to make me re-envision as part of my revision. (Maybe that's why I married a poet.)

So when I sat down with the editorial notes from my new editors at C&R Press, I was beyond excited. The notes came in two different styles, one from each of the editors. One was a list of comments, questions, and points that went for a few pages, and the other was a long conversation on the phone where we talked through a lot of points and options. Both were really interesting, enlightening, and helpful. And both made me think.

Some of the questions raised had to do with the syntax that I use in my poetry. I should give a little backstory here and say that my book is about growing up in the South and is peppered with vernacular and idioms. There are several voices in the book, and some of them have their own poems. And as I tried to recreate their voices both in terms of sound and content, I found myself straying from what I know to be true, accepted, and maybe even required about the English language. In short, in my efforts to use the syntax to create the effect I wanted and needed, it was necessarily not correct.

Now, I'm not talking about "ain't" and long, drawn out syllables. I'm talking about transliteration and the like. So while it may work on the page to do its job in terms of its sound and music, it leaves some grammatical issues to be addressed. For example, when I write lines that use compound modifiers, do I hyphenate them, which is the correct thing to do in terms of the grammar rules?

This may not seem like a big issue, and in truth, it's not. But the process it made me go through is what interests me the most. I had to look back through my book and comb it for its discrepancies. For the choices I made consciously, knowing better. (I'm a grammarian in all other parts of my life--just not my poetry.) I had to look at those choices and determine why I made them, whether or not they were the right thing to do, what consequences they may have had, or not had. In short, I went to therapy. For my poetry. I went to poetry therapy. And it showed me a lot.

I looked (again) at the people I was writing about. I considered their language and their demeanors. Was it a fallacy to correctly punctuate for a person who never went past the fourth grade in school? Or was it a fallacy not to? If I was trying to write the stories as I heard them, did that mean that I needed to privilege sound over sight?

I decided at the end of it all to not punctuate the words correctly. I just couldn't bring myself to do it. There was a heightened self-consciousness implicit in hyphenating these words that felt at odds with the language itself--and the people who speak and spoke it. And what, in terms of my poetry therapy, did that reveal?

The South is, at best, a beautiful difficulty for me. There are wonderful people there, and natural beauty, and kindnesses that are unparalleled. But there is also a pervasive ugliness that can transcend even the best of these beauties. It's difficult. It's complicated. It's full of contradiction and counter point. And ultimately, I had to leave it. To better understand it. To make sense of it. To make peace with it.

And in the end, I've come to realize that I abhor and love and hope that it will change but meanwhile have to accept it as it is. That I can't force it to fit into any neat category or properness of rules, in terms of grammar or otherwise. I can only speak of it, and my experience with it, on its own terms and let the spoken to take from it what they will. Those are the choices I made in leaving the place. In returning to it. And in trying to decipher and represent it.

So forgive me, readers and editors, for the broken sytnax and disobeyed rules. Forgive me for knowing better and doing it anyway.


Barbara Jane Reyes said...

Hi Stacey, this is a good post. I started to comment re: use of "proper" language and it got very lengthy. So here's my lengthy response to you. Thanks again, bjr

Anonymous said...

For one still shoveling stuff around the publishers, this made an interesting (and, I thought, elegant) read. As Arnie said, I'll be back!