Seeing the Angles: An Exercise in Camerawork as Creative Revision

For years I’ve been starting my writing practice every day by walking to the woods (when I lived near the woods), the meadow (when I lived on homestead in the prairie), or the community farm (when I lived in the city), on the lookout for a plant that lit a spark in my mind. I’d come home and research the plant and then poems would start to happen. (If you’d like more details on this creative practice, I wrote a post about it here.)

“Staghorn sumac! It’s pretty, it’s a native species, and it’s late winter emergency food for quail and pheasants and thrush and pheobes and crows. I am finding its abundance very reassuring in these days of mounting scarcity.”

Even though I can’t imagine writing poems about plants again after writing about them so much for RUE, I still love the rabbit holes botany research sends me down. Did you know quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, which the post-colonial historian Rohan Deb Roy described in Malarial Subjects as “symbiotic with Empire”? I didn’t, until the day I wanted to know something about liverworts.

I’m a recent convert to Instagram — I missed the pictures-of-food years — but I have loved transforming my private practice of spotting and researching plants into a more public one that incorporates photography into the exercise. This practice has been reminding me how much the craft of poetic imagery overlaps with photographic techniques.

“Hard not to love these feisty burdocks even if there are a dozen in Fiona’s fur right now. Soon their huge wooly heart-shaped leaves will return and also the ghost moths, whose larvae feed on their roots.”

My wonderful teacher from my time in the MFA at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, Nance Van Winckel, used to advise us to do a revision of every poem that focused exclusively on the angles of the imagery — did we have establishing shots, close-ups, long shots, medium and medium close-up shots? What about the bird’s eye view, the worm’s eye view, and the truck shot? Did we roll and tilt and pan?

When I started trying to make the camera see what I see in the plants every day, my friend, the filmmaker Polina Malikin, suggested I try to see the plants from below and also at their eye-level. (Or do I mean leaf-level? root-level? blossom-level?) I spend a lot of time these days contorted oddly in the grass at the park, but it really helps my writing to practice so many different ways of seeing.

Louise Gluck’s “The Silver Lily” is a great example of how this videographic approach to poetic imagery can work. The poem begins with tactile sensations in the body:

The nights have grown cool again, like the nights
of early spring, and quiet again. Will
speech disturb you? We’re
alone now; we have no reason for silence.

Then she moves on to an establishing shot of the moon over the garden:

Can you see, over the garden—the full moon rises.
I won’t see the next full moon.

We get a sequence of close-ups — snow drops opening and closing, maple seeds falling. There are daffodils in the crook of a tree trunk which the reader sees as if peering over the shoulder of the newly risen moon:

In spring, when the moon rose, it meant
time was endless. Snowdrops
opened and closed, the clustered
seeds of the maples fell in pale drifts.
White over white, the moon rose over the birch tree.
And in the crook, where the tree divides,
leaves of the first daffodils, in moonlight
soft greenish-silver.

And then we return to the sensations in the body — fear, trembling, longing:

We have come too far together toward the end now
to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain
I know what the end means. And you, who’ve been with a man—

after the first cries,
doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?

I”t’s wild mustard time here! Known as famine weed and charlock to the 17th c. herbalists, the leaves were ‘boiled and eaten by the common people in spring before the flowers blow.'”

Creative Revision Exercise: Choose a poem that isn’t quite working and try rewriting it with three new close-ups. Add an establishing shot and a shot that moves in some way. What happens to your poem if, as in Gluck’s, you frame it with lines situated in the sense of touch or sound, before you turn the camera on?

“Despite what “some people” say, I think it is a poet’s duty to stay in the moss and fern room at the conservatory until the docents throw you and your notebooks out in the snow.”

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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