Introduction to Poetry

My Genre X…

In my first experiment I will be writing a series of poems. How many exactly? I don’t know. But, I do know I’m interested in experimenting with poetry because I think it will totally transform my origin piece. Since my origin piece was a 6-8 page personal narrative, I was able to write many scenes about my relationship with my brother and the paper was much less condensed. With poetry, I will be forced to pick small, specific moments to focus on. Maybe as small as important dialogue and conversations.  

I’m also considering either writing these poems partially or completely from his perspective, or at least what my interpretation of his perspective is. I think a series of poems is especially fitting for my topic because part of what makes me want to write about my relationship with my brother is because it is pretty distant, and marked by few words and interactions. I don’t need pages and pages to write this story well, I can write in a series of sentences and stanzas. 

My relationship with my brother is dynamic and has changed a lot over the years. I’d like to integrate its dynamic nature into my piece by writing each poem in a different year or stage of our relationship. 

After doing some research on poetry, I’ve found that different sources actually have some similar takes on how to write this genre. According to this lovely little writing blog, it can all be broken down into 10 simple steps:

1. Know Your Goal

2. Avoid Clichés

3. Avoid Sentimentality

4. Use Images

5. Use Metaphor and Simile

6. Use Concrete Words Instead of Abstract Words

7. Communicate Theme

8. Subvert the Ordinary

9. Rhyme with Extreme Caution

10. Revise, Revise, Revise

For some reason, this brief ten step list made me more confused and lost where to start than before. It almost seems too easy. 

Unfortunately, on my next google search I came across another list, also 10 steps and also seemingly too simple:

  1. Understand the benefits of writing poetry
  2. Decide which type of poetry to write
  3. Have proper poem structure
  4. Include sharp imagery
  5. Focus on sound in poetry
  6. Define the poem’s meaning
  7. Have a goal
  8. Avoid clichés in your poems
  9. Opt for minimalistic poems
  10. Refine your poem to perfection

So far, the only thing I’m sure of is to definitely not use cliches. 

My next move was to look at samples of poetry, hoping it’d properly show me the ropes of the genre. After googling the “best poems of 2019” I came across a very diverse grouping of poems on the New Yorker:

Lately, remembering anything involves an ability

to forget something else. Watching the news,

I writhe and moan; my mind is not itself.

Lying next to a begonia from which black ants come and go,

I drink a vodka. Night falls. This seems a balm

for wounds that are not visible in the gaudy daylight.

Sometimes a friend cooks dinner; our lives commingle.

In loneliness, I fear me, but in society I’m like a soldier

kneeling on soft mats. Everything seems possible,

as when I hear birds that awaken at 4 a.m. or see

a veil upon a face. Beware, the heart is lean red meat.

The mind feeds on this. I carry on my shoulder

a bow and arrow for protection. I believe whatever

I do next will surpass what I have done.

In this poem by Henry Cole, which according to the NY Times is one of 2019’s best poems, I noticed a very unique writing style. The way he breaks his lines, even interrupting sentences midway really intrigued me. I love the emphasis this places on every last word of a line. Each word seems amazingly intentional. I think this is what makes poetry stand out from other genres. There is no room for filler or jargon, only the “real”. 

After reading a few poems I began to realize poetry offers a whole lot of freedom and very few “rules.” Since I’m one to like a lot of instruction and direction with my writing, it will definitely be a challenge to experiment with this genre, but I’m excited for it. 

Blackout Poetry: “If the CIA did haiku”

When I read Andrew Kleon’s description of blackout poetry (see above) the vague plans swirling in my head for unarticulated reasons seemed to click. I knew that I wanted to do something with President Mark Schlissel’s statement to the UM community amid the events of 2017 when known white supremacist Richard Spencer was trying to speak on campus. And I also knew that I wanted to try my hand at blackout poetry, since one of my friends had recently posted some of her gorgeously illustrated creative endeavors on her Instagram story. But only after hearing blackout poetry described as akin to CIA censorship did the connection between the themes of first amendment rights, rhetoric, and blackout poetry become clear to me. However, before I took on the grandiose visions in my head, I had to do some research to figure out just how one actually does create blackout poetry.

a collection of four different blackout poems by Andrew Kleon

Blackout poetry is created when the – writer? author? creator? – artist decides to redact all but a specific selection words from a physical piece of text. That’s the most generalized description that I can provide without inadvertently excluding any subset of blackout poetry. Since so much of blackout poetry is subject to personal creativity and visual presentation, I would classify it as more of an art form than a written genre – but I guess that’s why they call writing an art too, right?

There are a number of different approaches to making blackout poetry. In my discussion of the conventions of blackout poetry I’m going to break the whole process down into two halves: Composition and Creation. I’m using “composition” to refer to the process behind the words that comprise the poem and “creation” to refer to the physical manifestation of the piece.

I’m actually gonna switch things up on you and talk about the creation side of things first. The creation of blackout poetry starts with the selection of a base piece. Some people use newspaper clippings. Other people use random old books. Authorities on blackout poetry all seem to agree that you can use pretty much any previously written piece as your base. A general theme is that the base piece was written by someone else originally, but there’s no one saying you can’t blackout something of your own. Then, there’s what you do to the piece. Another general consensus seems to be that everything done to your base should be done physically – with sharpie paint, crayon, pencil, etc. Even though the New York Times apparently made an app that allows users to electronically blackout sections of articles, it’s just not the same. From there it’s up to you. Some people, like Kleon, stick to the CIA style plain black sharpie redaction, while others (see above gallery from Intstagram) choose to whiteout or add illustrations or collages to either change the visual appeal or add meaning to their poem. The physical presentation of the poem is where the artist has the most freedom, because they must draw their words from what’s already been put on the page.

When it comes to the composition side of things, a lot of people seem to say that the best, maybe even the only, way to to start is my skimming a page for a word or phrase that stands out to you. What to do after that is somewhat ambiguous. Some sources just suggest looking for other interesting words then (magically) putting them together to form a poem. When I talked to the friend who first sparked my interest in the genre, she explained that after finding the initial word or phrase she composes based on syntax. If the phrase is a noun, she looks for a verb, or vice versa, and eventually a poem comes out. She seconded the suggestion of composing on a separate notebook before doing anything to the actual piece, only marking it up when she knows exactly which words to keep. Blackout poems are all very short, maybe a phrase or two. However, it doesn’t seem like much about the text itself matters beyond this point. Some people claim that you need to redact at least 50% of the text for it to not count as plagiarism, or that you should avoid using more than three words in a row. Some people rely only on words in their exact form on the page, others adapt them with letters from adjacent words, or even black out all but a single letter from a word in order to spell their own. Some blackout poems read disturbingly like a “live, laugh, love” sign, while others are insightful, funny, quirky, or downright confusing. You write from what the page gives you.

Remembering Through Writing

Surprisingly, Writing 220 is the class I write least in. I am in an art history course where we have short papers due weekly. I am in an upper level writing art history course where we literally turn in one paper and get the next assignment in the same motion. I am in another creative writing where I write poetry almost everyday. All of these courses challenge me to write in different ways, the familiar academic way in both art history classes, and new ways like in creative writing and Writing 220.

Being challenged to write in different ways has opened my eyes to what writing can do for me. With the repurposing project I can be direct and provocative. With my assignments in creative writing, I can look at the same things infinitely different ways. Sometimes I work through my challenges by creating images that clarify what I need to do. Those images tell me what it is and sometimes more importantly, what it is not. Sometimes I reconnect with the past. I can remember and I can look to the future. Sometimes I write a string of lines that make me feel so comforted I can fall asleep happy.

That happened to me when I was assigned to write a poem about a place I love. The first place that came to my mind was my Grampa’s house in East Aurora, New York. I grew up in that house, along with my sister and eight cousins. I spent all the major holidays there and random weekends that were equally major just because I was there. I could describe every detail of that house and provide a million stories about each room, but I won’t. In short, that house is where my family gathered and made our most cherished memories. It was more than a house, it was like feeling completely content with doing absolutely nothing. And I mean that, sometimes my cousins and I would all nap in the basement but I still remember those group naps fondly. We all loved that house as we loved each other, but Grampa got sick and had to sell the house. Today, new people live there and the windows we always kept open are always shut. I am torn between wanting to go back to get that feeling again but knowing that it won’t be the same. Grampa passed away and we’re left without the place and person who facilitated many of those memories. I wrote about missing the house, but the house is really him.

I realize that some parts won’t make sense to people outside my family because I reference inside jokes and family specifics. But writing this poem allowed me to go back in a way I never thought I
would be able to again. I will probably never be a poet and it doesn’t matter how “good” this poem is, it did something magical for me, like 307 Oakwood used to. Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 11.00.41 AM


To go to 307 Oakwood. What village road
to 307 Oakwood, if not every weekend, that Sunday
when the Bills played the Titans. The green
painted exterior and white trim,
an open bay window, looking into our little world,
a small needle hole. A porch swing which swings
back and forth through the days, months, years
of memories of 307 Oakwood. Cold in the fall,
colder in the winter, only in temperature,
like the first shiver from the first snow.
The long magnetic driveway that pulls
in warmth and family. A pull so enticing
a stranger walked in, turned away only because
there was no beer in his hands. A barn with a broken basketball hoop,
shoddily fixed with quarters stacked. A live wire
that stings, strung gazebo to barn. Outdated
familiar wallpaper surrounding
aging familiar faces. Well-worn furniture
facilitating group naps after eating too much. Lesser
but beautiful old houses flanking each side, 307
Oakwood stands apart, the first red leaf among green,
hearing your name in a crowd,
where family swings by
and stays for Hershey kisses. Cases of OV
and cases of orange pop kept cool
on the back porch. Inside, cheese and pepperoni pizza,
thoroughly baked, cut in squares.
Bags of pretzels, chips, and dip
poured into bowls, spilling onto our paper plates,
like freshly popped movie popcorn,
framed by tan whicker holders.
Roast beast, begun before we woke, filling
307 Oakwood with the inescapable scent
of beef and au jus, the way
the smell of pine stays on your clothes.
Too much horseradish, always too much horseradish.
A feast greater than the occasion, but
with us all occasions are greatly equal.
18 years of 307 Oakwood, many more
for many others, but many more
is still not enough. Not enough
mornings waking up to cinnamon toast,
caked perfectly with drippingly too much butter,
reading the newspaper, seeing that smile,
hearing that voice. The laugh that makes you cough, infectious.
Repeated jokes, no less funny, lining up
to get a hug that squeezed you but filled you with love.

The swing finally broke,
couldn’t support us one second longer.
307 Oakwood moved on
made changes, updated, surely more changes to come.
307 Oakwood is something else but
we are still right here.
The green and the white stay the same
but the window is closed, new memories being made
behind the needle hole made smaller.
To go to 307 Oakwood is not to go back. We loved
and took all there was, we gave
all that we were, constantly balancing Ovaltine filled past the brim.
In memory alone does 307 Oakwood
still exist, in memory alone
can we return. Fading, failing,
my imperfect memory betrays me. I can’t lose
all I have left. I can’t win more. But
if I ever knew 307 Oakwood, I know it’s newly giving,
to new people, what it gave to me.

A Beautiful Body.

The older I get, the harder this gets. They tell you that you that confidence rises as you grow older, wiser, more educated, more worldly. That insecurity subsides. That opinion becomes kinder, more rationale and grounded. That support turns unwavering. That you will finally, really see yourself, all of you. Yet sometimes, I think  we live our whole lives trying to remember the most basic things.

1. At this moment, I have a goldfish-dressed-in-an-astronaut-suit temporary tattoo inside my left forearm. I will always find joy in the child-like.

2. At this moment, I’m also wearing not one but three Rainbow Loom bracelets. (All the rage.) I will always be bold, even in the choice of neon rubber bands around my wrist.

3. At this moment, I am gorgeously myself. I will always be gorgeously myself.

Here’s to our beautiful bodies, because you have a beautiful body. And if nothing else, dare to write words like this because they are important. Write them. Say them. Mean them.