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Tara Skurtu
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Thank you so much, Gail! Your comment made my day. :)
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Every time I hear someone say I don’t like poetry, or I’m not a poetry person, I think the opposite is true. I believe everyone is a poetry person. Poetry is just a form of storytelling, and we’re born to tell stories. A few weeks ago at Bistro de l’Arte in Brasov, Romania, I was rearranging the order of my manuscript, yet again, when a little girl wandered over to me, looked at my laptop screen, and rested her chin on my table. I asked her in Romanian if she knew poetry. Yes, yes, she said, I know poetry. I like it. Kids get it. I once read Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” to a ten-year-old girl. We were talking about how a simple moment can be a poem. I told her I was going to read one that was just this. I wasn’t sure if the length of it would hold her attention—Bishop poems are so patiently written, and reading them requires patience. (I often tell my students that her poems are like beer—sometimes an acquired taste.) Also, based on my own experience googling several of the boat terms toward the poem’s end the first time I read it—bailer, thwarts, gunnels—I knew she wouldn’t understand all of the vocabulary. “I caught a tremendous fish…” As I read it, she sat quietly, looking from one object in the apartment to another. I couldn’t read her face, but she didn’t look particularly interested. “…And I let the fish go.” I looked at my young friend, who sat without talking for a moment. You know what? she said. You’re right. It’s about something so simple, it’s like it’s not even worth it. Oh. I probably shouldn’t have, but I felt a little bummed out. I knew she was just a kid, that this was just a poem—But then, she continued, she makes it worth it. The moral of this moment? Children teach us about poetry. Somewhere along the way—usually around high school, sometimes college—a lot of students (mainly the ones who aren’t writing poems) become intimidated by poetry. They associate it with archaic grammar, rhymes, rigid form. It has to be understood one specific way, becomes something that can’t be penetrated. Before beginning a writing exercise for a Mass Poetry Student Day of Poetry one morning, a teenager raised his hand and asked me, Do we just write, or do we write in the form of a poem? The good thing is, returning to poetry is just like trying to use a second language you haven’t spoken or heard in a while: its essence remains intact. It’s all about getting started. I write Poetry is… on the board (I got this idea from my good friend, poet Derek JG Williams). Each student comes up and writes a word. Fear, feelings, imagination, story, fiction, life, art, analyzing, communication, nature, reality, honesty, mystery, melody, limitless, unknown, dreams, freedom, love, hidden. Sometimes unlearning is the simple act of realizing again what you once instinctively felt. I... Continue reading
Posted Jan 7, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Poets be warned. Only in Romania is there a poetry reading series known as the slaughterhouse. It’s called Thoreau’s Nephew (Nepotu´ lui Thoreau) and takes place in a brightly painted, very smoky bar called Insomnia (sounds like a literary purgatory, doesn’t it?). I was invited to read there in 2013 while in Romania for the first time. In Sibiu the night before my 5-hour bus trip through Transylvania, a friend called out to me across Piața Mare, The poets in Cluj are not so nice! Thoreau’s Nephew is a bimonthly club de lectură that was formed in 2008 by a group of writers, critics, and professors one night at Insomnia over drinks: Ștefan Manasia and Ștefan Baghiu (poets and critics), János Szántai (writer and film professor), and François Bréda (writer and theater professor). Their question: how could they transform this bar into a literary space where Romanians and Hungarians could feel at home? Why the name, you might ask. Manasia says they were thinking of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and, in particular, that they saw Thoreau as a main figure of the anarchist movement. A perfect father for an anti-establishment poetry night. The name is tricky, though—in Romanian, nepot means both nephew and grandson. So, in a sense, the inspiration for this lecture club is that of legacy—one in which free speech is the law of the land. Here’s how it goes. The poems are printed and placed on all the tables in the bar—and, if they aren’t written in Romanian, translations are provided when available. The reading begins like any other. One of the Ștefans introduces the featured poet, who then reads for 20-30 minutes. (The most surprising part of this portion of the night is that everyone in the bar—the audience, on average, 60-80 people—is silent and listening, or reading and listening, to the poems.) After this is when the fun begins. The microphone is handed over to the audience. As Manasia puts it, Everybody becomes a literary critic for a couple of hours. This, he thinks, explains the success of Thoreau’s Nephew. Anything goes, and it does. Some people speak just to hear themselves talk (as with any Q&A), others debate from different corners of the room. The critiques build momentum, are known for getting tense. Meanwhile, the poet watches, listens, drinks (featured poets receive drinks on the house). “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” In this context, Thoreau’s sentence from Walden really hits home. The audience is honest, anything but gentle. It’s true—they’re not nice. Manasia says they didn’t expect to have such a big success, big audience; but, from the beginning, it was the best literary event in town. In addition to Romanians and Hungarians coming to feel at home in poetry, the regular audience consists of lawyers, doctors, philosophers, painters, professors, critics, students, and general lovers of poetry. They come here and take the mic and say beautiful things, ordinary things, or crap about poetry. A lot of writers call... Continue reading
Posted Jan 6, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Poetry has the logic of memory, the spontaneity of dreams, yet is much like calculus—each line is, in a sense, an asymptote composed of and continually approaching the limits of language in an attempt to reach an infinitesimal, wordless realm. This is also one way of saying that a good poem is unpredictable and has something at stake. We teachers get our fair share of student poems about puppies, sentimental love pains, the general first person loving the general world and wishing for general peace and universal happiness. Poems that could be about anyone doing anything anywhere at any time. But poetry shouldn't run in place—it should be running towards a wall and then through it. Sometimes be specific isn’t enough advice. This year I’m teaching creative writing in English at Transilvania University of Brașov (and yes, it’s really in Transylvania). My students are doing something regularly that seems nearly impossible to me: writing poetry in a second, sometimes third language. A few weeks ago I asked them if they knew what “at stake” meant. They didn’t. We broke it down, delved into etymology: a pole, a stick. We discussed “burned at the stake,” “impaled on a stake” (the latter is easily understood in Romania, whose history includes the likes of Vlad III of Wallachia). Sometimes language requires demonstration. I placed an assigned printed poem on the table, then held a mechanical pencil above my head. I stabbed the poem, pinned it to the table, tore a ragged gash through the middle of the page. I asked them to give me some words to describe what this poem just went through. Risk. Danger. Limit. Loss. Yes. Last year I taught composition at a women’s prison through Boston University’s Prison Education Program. These students have everything at stake every single day. My sister, who has been incarcerated on and off for years, taught me that there are no words for how important writing is in prison—especially poetry. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”—one evening I wrote this famous first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” on the board. We were about to read Hamlet, and I was introducing them to iambic pentameter. Who taught you that? said one student, and, when I asked what these two words made them think of, another said, iambic contamination. To overthink the language we use naturally could indeed contaminate its fluency for a moment, but it also may create new paths of clear, precise expression. Sometimes a path is a form. Poet Jill McDonough, who taught incarcerated college students for thirteen years, visited my class one night and discussed how the villanelle is a great form for expressing circular thoughts and obsessions. Things that matter. The following week, over half the class turned in handwritten villanelles ranging from the desire to cook a single meal at home, the irony of having to sew American flags, the simple act of being able to shave in privacy, the feeling of having more than a monitored... Continue reading
Posted Jan 5, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Yes, the whole point is that it's completely made up. :) (Also, when I'm teaching in Romania I tell the students it's a Macedonian structure.)
Yes, the whole point is that it's completely made up. :) (Also, when I'm teaching in Romania I tell the students it's a Macedonian structure.)
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Raise your hand if you’re scared of writing. I am. I’m terrified of writing anything that’s not a poem. Especially blogs. They remind me of casual conversation, recorded. Or of a close-up photoshoot, a friend behind the viewfinder trying to convince me to act natural as I attempt to isolate the muscles around my mouth to make the kind of half-smile that says I don’t know I’m being looked at. I prefer the candid or the crafted, and the blog falls somewhere in between—it says, Act natural, but do it now please. A perfectionist’s worst nightmare. But maybe this fear is just an excuse for not getting started. Last week I was sitting in Bistro de l’Arte, a cozy restaurant in an early 16th-century building—my favorite neighborhood spot in Brașov, Romania, where I’m teaching for the year—talking to my friend Gail over Skype about my blogophobia. Gail is the most wonderful cook imaginable. Cuisine is her GPS; poetry, mine. She told me about a moment in a book she read in which a young Italian man was teaching the narrator to speak Italian over a beautiful yet simple meal in Rome. Speak like you eat, she said, which is also to say, write simply. Write what you write. Often the best writing advice comes from people who aren’t writers. If you can tell a whole story in a few lines, said my friend, you can write a blog. A whole story in a few lines made me think of one of my favorite poems, Andrea Cohen’s “The Committee Weighs In” (which appears here in The Threepenny Review and boldly begins her newest collection, Furs Not Mine, by Four Way Books). It tells a story in eight narrow lines. Ha! Sounds like an argument in one’s mind, said Gail, after hearing the title. I recited the poem. In it, the speaker jokes with her mother about winning the Nobel Prize—again. It’s a lighthearted game whose plays lull you along like an established meter—until the last word hits you through the heart. It’s a little game we play: I pretend I’m somebody, she pretends she isn’t dead. A monosyllabic hammer, that word dead. Tell it to me again, said Gail. And this—retelling—is another usual difference between a poem and a blog. A good poem, like a good song, makes you want to reread, hear it again, write it into your mind. A blog, something more like thought—immediate speech. Gail used to be poemphobic. She didn’t know how to approach a poem, said she didn’t understand poetry. Fortunately, poetry isn’t something meant to be understood. It uses language to express something that cannot possibly be said in words. It orients us, is a story, a moment, the argument within the mind. A poem approaches limits—of language, our own. And now, here Gail was, getting the essence of this poem after simply hearing its title. She was right. It was all about the committees in our minds. The committees in our heads, like fear,... Continue reading
Posted Jan 4, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, Leslie! And, I agree. (Mistake can be such a good word.) I'm glad you're going to try the exercise. It tends to get everyone talking and laughing right away, and puts them in the mindset that anything can happen at any time in class.
Thank you so much, Maria! I'm so happy about this. :)
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Have you ever heard of a tipperau? This is the first thing I ask my composition and creative writing students when I walk into a classroom on day one. They look at me, confused. I spell it on the board. No one has ever heard of a tipperau. It’s an ancient Romanian architectural structure, and you’re going to draw one right now. Now they really look at me. Like I’m crazy. I get a few whats and hows. (Especially when it’s a composition class.) This is great. They’re already outside of their comfort zones. Don’t worry, I’m going to tell you what it looks like. But here’s the thing: you have to draw it with your eyes closed. Usually here I get some laughter. But I mean it. I make them close their eyes, tell them I can see if they’re cheating, and then add one more rule. No talking while drawing. We begin. The tipperau is a large rectangular structure, wider than it is tall. On the right side of this rectangle is a tall tower. This tower has a triangular roof. At this point, they’re really fighting the urge to open their eyes, and I usually hear a little laughter, some frustration. They want to ask questions, they want to get it right. On the left side of the rectangle is another tower, but this one is even taller. I don’t want to spoil the secret recipe of the tipperau on the internet, but I’ll tell you that I slowly describe a building similar to a cathedral (a bell in one of the towers, a large arched doorway), but with some quirky features like a circular window with bars and, finally, a moat—without a bridge. And now for the best part. They open their eyes to inspect their stunning asymmetrical, rudimentary drawings full of geometric shapes as scattered about as they are cohesively arranged. I make them hold their tipperaus up high and show them to their classmates. Everyone is laughing at this point. It’s hard to be embarrassed about these beauties. The reasons are obvious, but I ask them why they’re not embarrassed. The answers range, but say basically the same thing: we had no idea what to expect, and we can’t be perfectionists with our eyes closed. I tell them that drawing a tipperau with their eyes closed is what writing is like. Or, to be more precise, it’s what any creative process is like. You begin with an idea you don’t understand, and you move forward blindly, with an intuitive guidance that can’t be explained. Or, to put it more simply, from a single word—even an unfamiliar one (especially an unfamiliar one)—we create a world. And through the creation of this world we begin to understand the idea. Even if we start with the same word and are given the same instructions, the worlds we create will be unique. Not one tipperau looks the same as another. This speaks to voice, which many young writers... Continue reading
Posted Jan 3, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Jan 2, 2016