Friday, November 20, 2009

Moving Onward

My students are quite concerned with "voice" these days. They want to write poems that are uniquely their own, poems that are immediately recognizable as John Q's, Sally G's, or Ruben T's. Often, their quest for a voice confronts their willingness to participate in the various exercises I have them attempt in my classes. I think the issue for them is they prefer the term "voice" to "point of view." "Voice" is more poetic--song-like. They want to be opera singers. To be on stage. They want fruit baskets delivered to their doors.

There are no fruit baskets in poetry, only fruity poets.

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I get a lot of resistance to my assignments in workshops. This is partly because my assignments can range from the bizarre to the elaborate. This is also partly because the students are at the stage where they are trying on their own identities, both as people and as writers, and to follow my very stringent and oftentimes impractical rules would demean their art.

I basically run workshops based off of the exercises I give my students--they don't bring in poems composed outside of this context. For one, a lot of times they dust off crusty poems they had written in the past for workshop and I'm of the opinion that this is the time to practice craft rather than impose craft on an already wrought piece. For two, it's just easier to conduct a workshop with honest feedback if the poem in front of the participants are assignments. ANYWAY, to bring us back on course, I suppose it's an honest, earnest concern, especially from a population who's just beginning a writing path.

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Teaching, administrative work, and the arrival of my page proofs have got me in an introspective mood these days. I've been buried under an avalanche of work, so I haven't had the time to converse with you guys about my meanderings.

Anyway, all this stuff got me thinking about my own writing journey, which wasn't a very linear journey. I got my page proofs for Requiem for the Orchard today, and I've been thinking about how different my three collections are and my relationship with all of my books.

To be honest, as much as I love SIU Press and the work that I have done in the past, I'm sick of my first two books. (Allison and Jon, if you're reading this, don't worry-I still read from the books at readings and plan to do so far into the future). Can we say such things? And can I look back and say that any one of those books encapsulated a particular "voice" that I was striving for in my poetry?

Just looking at the first book, there's such a change, both tonally and stylistically--and the shift in tone and style was conscious and wholly intentional. I did not want to write a sequel of the first book, though initially many people suggested that I craft one. But why would I and how could I? I was a different writer when I wrote the first book, I was a different writer when I started the second book. How could I expect to duplicate both the style and the sincerity of the initial production.

So this retrospective while looking at the pages of this newer document, has been quite interesting. At this point, with three books in my catalog, can I say that I've found my voice? And what to tell those students who are looking for their voices? Generally, I tell 'em to read more. Sometimes they do. Often they blow me off. I'm okay with both. Their journeys are their journeys.

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I too like pizza.

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Other stuff--read last night to support the Western Washington University literary journal, Jeopardy. Quite a turn-out last night and it was good to see many of the students (so of whom were discussed above) at the reading. Good on you.

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It's nearing the end of the decade and I've been listening to NPR's 50 most important recordings of the decade debate.

It's quite interesting and I don't agree with a lot of it, but that's why such lists are compelling. They're very careful to signify that they're talking about importance and not necessarily the best recordings.

Imagine me trying to do the same thing with poetry? Do we dare? A lot of things happened in this decade, y'know--9/11, the upsurge of the internet as a viable force, the pressures of new media on the publishing industry, the rise of POD publishing, e-books . . . And of course the poetry books that have arisen from all of the above and then some.

Whew. This might require another blog.

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Current spin:

Chad Vangaalen. "City of Electric Light"==a fan video.

5 comments:

Justin Evans said...

I was just asking about voice on my blog, how I seem to shift every 18 months or so. I would love your take on the issues I brought up.

C. Dale said...

Be careful, ODLP. We are not good judges of our own work, especially when it comes to voice and style. I can speak for myself by saying I felt my second book was totally different from my first. But then people told me they were different but obviously written by the same person. I would say the same to you, having read your work.

As for fruity poets, yes, there are a number of us.

Oliver de la Paz said...

Justin, my take on it changes depending on my mood, whether I've been writing, and whether or not I'm feeling the normal anxieties that accompany this writing profession--see CDY's comment above.

CDY, you're so right. We can be really awful judges of our own work. I thought book #2 was a hot mess for the longest time. It, for all intents and purposes was a hot mess, until it got into Jon Tribble's hands and then he reorganized the poems so that there seemed to be a clear and discernible point of view. Funny how sometimes we need someone to tell us about our own work.

These micro discoveries about voice and style happen all the time when I give readings and there's a Q & A session. People open questions with things like "It seems like you're attempting X . . . " or "Your work seems to grapple with Y . . ." My usual response is "Really?"

My favorite poets tend to be the fruitiest.

jeannine said...

I think when you're just starting out you're so careful about protecting what's unique - "your voice" or whatever - but once you've been writing a while, you get less worried that you're going to be able to shake it, even if you wanted to. I notice that most writers - have their own vocabularies, touchstone images, ways that they segue from one thing to the next - and they don't really change. That is true of you and of many of the poets I read. Ten poets may write on the same subject, with the same prompt and each of them wil write a unique poem. Just remind them of that.
I often want students to try out persona poems - and with it, the idea that they can have many voices. What's interesting is that even when they're trying to speak in someone else's voice, they still sound like themselves. I think maybe that reassures them. I also hate when someone thinks that reading is going to affect their voice; it's a lazy excuse to get out of reading, really. I keep saying "Only in the best possibly way."

Susan Allspaw Pomeroy said...

O, glad to see this, and still grateful for your unbiased (?) eye on my ms. I agree with CDY, and also add this: your voice is, and should be, in flux, enough to reflect how we change--in life, in perspective, in geography, etc. I love the movement from your first book to second, and there are times I want something from each.