Q & A, Part 1

25 02 2009


On January 22, I gave a talk (“Voltage!: Engaging Turns in Poetry”) about the ideas behind Structure & Surprise at my undergraduate alma mater, Hope College, in Holland, Michigan.  The experience was a real treat for me for a variety of reasons (getting to see my former professors and long-time friends, getting to share my ideas, getting to continue to learn from the excellent conversations I had, etc).  One key reason, though, was that I got to visit a few classes at Hope (including Curtis Gruenler’s literary theory class, and Pablo Peschiera’s advanced poetry writing class) to meet and interact with some current Hope students.

What can I say?  I was mightily impressed.  All of the students I met were extremely perceptive and smart, deeply sincere, brightly funny, and truly engaged…

So engaged, in fact, that some from advanced poetry writing have sent me some further questions to consider.  I plan to supply responses to (or artfully dodge!) a number of these questions via blogpost over the next (approximately) two weeks.

The first question I want to address really is a cluster of questions, a cluster, if I read them correctly, growing out of one central concern: the place of poetic structure in the process of composition.  The questions in this cluster are:

–From Jon Dean: “How aware of structure do you think the poet should be while writing?  Should we set out thinking ‘This topic would work well in emblematic structure’ in the same way we set out saying ‘I will write this as a ghazal?'”

–From Karly Fogelsonger: “As a writer, do you think structure should come out of a poem (is it inherent in a poem from the poem’s genesis, and just needs to be identified and developed) or do you personally usually begin with an idea of structure, and model the form and content of a poem accordingly?”

–From Stephen Herrick: “The book [Structure & Surprise] is more of a critical work…so I wonder how its view of poetry affects the process of writing.”

Great, vital questions, all.  My intention here is to give a few straight answers to the above questions, but then I hope to complicate and develop those answers.

As I discuss a bit in the introduction to “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” in S&S, the focused consideration of structure can enter into the poetic process at almost any stage, from inspiration and pre-writing, to drafting, to revision.

I tend to think of the close consideration of structure as a significant part of the revision process–that is, once you have a draft of a poem, you can, if you are aware of poetic turns and some of the pivotal maneuvers you can make with them in poems, examine your poem for many things: to see if it has structural interest (if there’s no turn in the poem, is this okay? is this intentional? does the poem need a turn? if so, where, and what kind?); to see if your poem, if it has any, is taking its turn(s) well (or if the turn is sloppy and might be improved).  (Here, in a little more detail, is how I think structure can aid with revisions.)  So, what I’m saying here, Karly, is that, in this view of poem-making, structure begins to emerge as the poem emerges–structure doesn’t have to be decided upon prior to the growth of the poem.

HOWEVER, I also am certain that structures can inspire and encourage poetry writing in just the way that, as Jon suggests, ghazals can.  Check out this page I recently put up on the blog, on writing collaborative, ironic, two-line poems.  In an hour or two of playful collaboration, you (and a friend or two) can probably make 20 really good ironic, two-line poems.  (That is, you’ll probably make about 40-80 poems; of which 25-50% of them will potentially be keepers.)  Here, poetic structure directly informs and feeds into the process of poem-making.

I think there remain to be discovered and shared many more such exercises/activities to promote the creation of poems-with-turns.  As this blog continues to grow, I anticipate posting many more.

Here’s one I’ll develop a bit more and post soon:

1) For your subject, decide on a process from nature (think of any branch of the sciences to help you come up with ideas: astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology) or technology (industrial processes, demolitions, etc)–note that this will work best if it’s a process you may be intrigued by but don’t know much about (you may need to do some research–that’s fine!);

2) Describe this process in GREAT detail; and then…

Well, try this first, they I’ll tell you the turn in, say, two days…!

Jon (and Karly…aw, heck, and Stephen!), you (all, essentially) ask if a poet should set out thinking s/he is going to write in a poem employing a particular structure.  As the above indicates, I think that’s a very fair way to begin crafting a poem.  However, I would of course add that at some point you cease drafting, examine what you have, and start revising, and just as your draft of your ghazal may in fact be the seed of a great villanelle, your draft of an ironic structure poem may turn out to be a dialectical argument poem…  Just as one should not force that poem to be a ghazal if it’s greatness resides in another form, so one should not force a poem to take a kind of turn if its greatness lies elsewhere.

I’d also add that just as some forms are tough (even downright scary) to write (and so it would probably be a mistake to try to start a poem using them) and others (such as the ghazal) are more productive and inviting, so, too, with structures: some, at least (right now) to me, seem tough (I’m looking at you, Emblem!) to write, but others (like some versions of the ironic) seem easier, more approachable.

And I’d add, lastly, that I hope that S&S and this blog will assist and encourage the development of creative pedagogy which might serve, more and more, to reveal how cool, funny, smart, revelatory, &c, &c poems can get written using the turn as a major building block of the poem.  We’re just at the start of this important conversation.



10 responses

25 02 2009

Hello Dr. Theune!

Just wanted to drop a line and let you know I’m following along. 🙂 Awesome book, awesome blog!

-Ashley Samsa

26 02 2009
Mike Theune

Thanks for visiting, Ashley! More wackiness in store–stay tuned…
No pressure, of course, but do send me any ideas/questions/poems/&c that you think might add to (or challenge) the conversation here.

26 02 2009

Hi, Mike.
I’m one of the students in Pablo’s class you visited. Just dropping by to say hi, that I enjoyed the enthusiasm you brought. Thanks for the time you’re giving to answer our questions — I’m looking forward to more.

– Ario

26 02 2009
Mike Theune

Thanks for your note, Ario–and for sharing your book with me in Pablo’s class! Thanks, as well, for your own good question, which I hope to address in upcoming days. And please do be sure to ask follow-up questions if I’m not being clear…or convincing!
All best,

28 02 2009
Jon Dean

Thanks for answering my question!
I tend to write in a very “shoot first, ask questions later” sort of way, hammering out a draft and then asking it what it wants to be when it grows up, so I like that you talk about using poetic structure as a tool for inspiration that doesn’t need to be set in stone from the start.
The two-line ironic poem activity you linked also looks like something I’ll have to give a try. With content like this, I’ll have to keep an eye on this blog.

– jd

28 02 2009
Mike Theune

A pleasure, Jon! Right: use poetic structure in whatever way it might help you write your poems. I’m hoping to put up some more good writing prompts in the relatively near future, so do stop by again!


25 03 2009

OK, here is a question that was actually posed to me, having to do with reading and studying poetry, rather than writing it, but that is where we start, after all, isn’t it? I think the question applies to your studies, though.

While teaching the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement, my students (juniors in high school) were unexpectedly excited to delve into each poem. While I like to think some of that had to do with my teaching, I think most of it had to do with my selection of poems. We read such poems as “The Lynching” by Claude McKay, “Theme for English B,” “The Weary Blues,” and “Harlem (A Dream Deferred) by Langston Hughes, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, etc. and these poems seemed to mean something to the students.

One day, one of my students, a generally quiet boy, raised his hand, and when I called on him, he said, “Miss, why is it that I read all these poems and I understand them pretty well for a while, and then all of a sudden something changes in the poem and then I have no idea what is going on?” I believe, in his own way, he was referencing the poetic turn, the “surprise,” if you will, that we all know and love, that is a staple to many of the poems I choose to discuss with my students. The rest of my students nodded emphatically, and waited, wide-eyed, for my response.

The best I could do for them without getting too pedagogical and losing them entirely, was to make a joke and say, “Because that’s what makes good poetry!” and discuss, not too in-depth, the set up and punch line format that these poems seem to follow and how that style added to the message of the poem.

I think they followed me for the most part, but I also think there was probably a better way to answer that question. How would you answer that, Dr. Theune?

24 04 2009
Mike Theune

Hi, Ashley,

Sorry for my delay in responding to this. I’ve been thinking on this, and, well, I got nothin’! Or: nothing more than your good pedagogy and teaching haven’t already covered and addressed.

I think you did a great job talking your students through their surprise and disorientation. Using jokes is a great way to do this. I wonder: are there other good, popular examples of turns to use? Examples the students might be familiar with that you could point to and say: “Look: you LIKE being disoriented here. Poetry provides you with the same thrill of disorientation…”? (But also: deeper orientation; or, potentially more profound orientation.)

These examples are too mature for your students, but I can’t help but think about movies like The Prestige or Fight Club–they’ve got thrilling turns that are surprising and even disorienting, and they’re at the heart of what those films are and do and mean. (When I watched The Prestige for the first time, I had little idea what happened at the end…so I spent two hours on-line reading reviews and analyses! Now, I get it, and I love it…) I wonder: what kinds of popular examples of thrillingly disruptive turns might be useful and appropriate to discuss with your students?

Please keep me posted if you think of ways to handle this kind of inquiry, and, in the meantime, I’ll keep thinking on this, Ashley, but for now what I mostly want to say to you is: good work!

All best,

25 04 2009

Fight Club! I reference that movie to my students ALL THE TIME! That is just the right maturity level for my kids. 🙂 How did I not think of that?

We actually discussed Fight Club and The Matrix and a few others at the end of Catcher in the Rye, when they were disappointed by the lack of turn, and I had to explain to them that this book’s intent was to mirror real life, not the cinematic version of life. This sort of discussion would definitely help my teaching of poetry, too!

Thanks for the help!

26 04 2009
Mike Theune

My pleasure! (Though it seems you’ve got so much of the good teaching already figured out, Ashley!)

I LOVE how you discuss the turn to try to speak to the power of a piece of writing’s (strategic) non-turning. That’s really smart– (The phenomenon of strategic non-turning in poetry is one I hope to write on in upcoming post… Maybe in a few weeks’ time… Keep an eye out for it!)

All best,

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