In the second installment of this two part series, we hear from Libby Hart, Joanne M. Clarkson, Sharif Shakhshir, and Christina Olson.
I just keep on heading north, following the Mississippi of the mind.
Generally, I know what I want to focus on in a poem, but what shape it takes from there is an unexpected journey. It’s a road of twists, of bends. There is the odd roller-coaster or two. Up. Down. Slam on the brakes! Reverse. Turn right. Go a little further then do a U-turn. Again and again there are dead-end streets. But somewhere toward the end of a first draft I will sit with the words and begin to interpret a map that was not present beforehand. Someone turns on the headlights and I can see a stretch of road before me. Once I get to this stage I take hold of the wheel again and get on with the act of driving this little vehicle. Sometimes I have to wait for a time at stop signs or red lights. Sometimes I just keep on heading north, following the Mississippi of the mind. Softly, softly there is a favorite song playing on the radio. I hum along. I wind down the windows. I’m reminded of how much I love the wind.
Joanne M. Clarkson: A few years ago I went through a crisis of soul when I felt I was not ‘worthy’ to write poetry because I was not sure my life had mattered enough. I was not sure I truly had enough to say. I was also wrestling with the meaning of ‘courage’ and what constituted a hero. I read many biographies of people of service. As with most types of depression, I got over it when I began looking outward. And when I began to tell the truth.
I started by stealing. I wrote little bits about the tribulations of neighbors, friends and people in the newspaper. I began to understand how people faced difficulty not with the mind but through the heart. Gradually I came around to writing about my own heart. And from my own heart. And I came back to poetry.
Now I feel comfortable writing about my failings and flaws. Not that I write confessional verse at all. And my flaws can be couched in trees or old men or the way cloth drapes saints in museums. I guess I equate risk with empathy. And willingness to say how anything REALLY feels.
“Best Pony” is a game that asks you not to play.
Sharif Shakhshir: I wrote a long poem with only questions, and those questions mostly involved My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. This runs counter intuitive to the expectations of poetry. It’s supposed to be short, provide answers, and be “high art.” “Best Pony” is a game that asks you not to play. It’s a risk, but the risk is part of the game. The deserving follow the rabbit into wonderland… Or should I say they follow the ponies into wonderland? Looking past the pop-art (the pop-art is a weapon and there to disarm you) and the humor (a laughable lure) you find that things get serious, real, and maybe close to home. It does things a poem like this shouldn’t.
However, when you dare a publisher not to play a game, they will usually take you up on that. Yet, when read aloud to a captive audience who cannot help but play the game, “Best Pony” leaves an impact. After reading it at the LA Times Festival of Books a woman told me, “[Best Pony] shouldn’t have been good, but it’s amazing and sad.” This poem’s never been published, but to have that effect on someone makes me feel the risk was worth it.
Christina Olson: The biggest risk I’ve taken in my writing is writing about whatever I please. In the last few years, I stopped worrying that a lit mag or publisher wouldn’t like a subject and just wrote about things (or embarked on projects) that I was interested in--and it’s been such fun. (Not that I was always thinking, Oh, I better write a poem about Bigfoot living in Texas; that will sell! but I think writers tend to worry I haven’t seen people do something like this before: I’m sure everybody will think it’s too weird.) Instead, I’ve been working on a chapbook-length series of poems loosely based on 1990s episodes of Law & Order, or writing an eight-part poem about the Coney hot dog, or making found poems out of old emails. And it turns out those have been well-received. People like talking about television and hot dogs. Meanwhile, I’m happier for writing about them.
Find work from these authors and more in Writing That Risks: New Work from Beyond the Mainstream.