The Poetics of Spells

I’m really excited to have my essay, “Medusa and the Poetics of Spells” up at Guernica today. You can read it here.  The essay began as a craft talk for a poetry class and evolved into something much more historical and much  more personal, so I thought I’d share some outtakes of poems and essays that informed the earlier, more crafty version.

One definition of magic is “making things happen.” Under that rubric a spell is “words that make things happen.” In this context, a political poem can be understood as a spell. Especially the most powerful ones like:

Other spells, like the Anglo-Saxon aecerbot to heal barren or cursed land, or the healing spells practiced by the accused witch Lisbet Nypan, which we can read about in the testimony from her witch trial in 1670 (where she confessed only to being a healer and denied any and all charges of maleficium, contain a description of a previous time the spell worked that end in a plea for the magic to be repeated now. This formal balance between a prose and verse, between the how-to logistics and the ethereal use of rhythm and silence, reminds me of CA Conrad’s (SOMA)tics. (There are lots of examples here.) The way Conrad’s work also proposes magic is rooted in the powers of imagination, that a spell requires a speaker with a capacity for imagining a way justice or joy might be called forth, also reminds me of this ancient tradition.

Loricas and caims are ancient forms of protection spells that use litanies as a way to make a circle of language, to have the lines wrap their arms around the speaker. One famous example is St. Patrick’s lorica, also known as “The Deer’s Cry.” The story goes that St. Patrick recited this poem-spell to disguise himself and his followers as deer. I call bullshit on the suggestion that the enemies they sought protection from were druid warriors, though, or at least declare any enemy of a druid is an enemy of mine. Jennifer Givhan’s book Protection Spell is rich with more contemporary examples how the circle of a poem can become a shield. Here’s one.

I wrote a book-review essay on other contemporary poets whose work might be interpreted as spells for West Branch, available online here. Faylita Hicks, Kenji C. Liu, Gala Mukomalova, Ariana Reines, and Janaka Stucky’s work, reviewed in that essay, is always in the back of my mind when I’m writing and thinking about spells.

Science, Poetry & a History of Disrepair

Southeast Review just came out with their new issue, which includes “A History of Disrepair,” one of the poems I’d hoped to share on the AWP panel, Science at the Source, this year. Unfortunately, but necessarily, the panel was cancelled due to the pandemic. Go here to read that poem, which is about Genevieve Jones, a nineteenth century ornithologist, climate change anxiety, and what it means to love each other in a crisis.

Genevieve Jones

I’d also like to share some of the remarks I’d planned to make on that panel, which was organized by Rosalie Moffett and also included John James, Nomi Stone, and Rushi Vyas.

I am interested in science because I am interested in error. I am interested in learning as a process of determining which assumptions created confusion and unexpected insights that led to the understandings of the world I now think of as “known” or “true.” In science error is an invitation to try asking different questions.

When Benjamin Franklin began his experiments with electricity the driving question about electricity was whether it was a wet or fire. Because the guiding framework for understanding the world was based on the elements, not the periodic table. When I was a fellow at the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life scientists and historians of science would ask me what I was there to research. I started out saying “quack medicine” and was told “don’t say ‘quack’ that’s pejorative.’” I said “dead ends” and they said “you never know.” I said “mistakes,” “wrong thinking,” “foolhardy notions” and they said “you’d be surprised what has turned out later to be true.”

Which has me thinking about Cortney Lamar Charleston’s poem “It’s Important that I Remember a Current Event is a Current –” in Southeast Review:

…carries a charge, attracts the opposition’s glee or anger
to the anonymous comment section. Of course, the current
state of affairs flows through me entirely, twists static
into my hair…

Cortney Lamar Charleston

Read the complete poem here.

Or “Elegy with Mayfly Sex” by Jihyun Yun from the same issue:

Love, I want to tell you all I learned today
of the mayfly, known for their one-day life spans.
How they’re named after the fact of their fast deaths:
ephemeroptera, briefest of wings. How this isn’t fully true,
as they can live submerged as nymphs for years until their sex
forces them out of the water. Just because we don’t see
their living doesn’t make it void….

Jihyun Yun
A page of Carl Linnaeus’s notebook

I became interested in science as a subject in my poems because of how fascinated I was by scientific processes at the beginning of the age of Enlightenment when so much scientific work was based on seeing – microscopes and many other ocular devices were brand new, devices like the chronometer were developed to create a precise way to talk about shared experiences perceiving the color blue. I liked reading scientists’ notebooks and letters were the wonder was utterly unfettered; Carl Linnaeus makes some great tender and self-deprecating jokes in the course of his work on plant and animal taxonomies that are mixed in with some truly terrible drawings. Maria Sibylla Merian annotated her ecological illustrations of plants with their pollinators with information she learned from people indigenous to those ecosystems about the medicinal uses of the plants, the red bird of paradise for example was used as an abortifacient.

Maria Sibylla Merian

I don’t have formal training as an historian and I was raised inside the white supremacist propaganda machine that is the prevailing curriculum in most US schools so I’m sorry to say I have learned slowly and at times only by accident or through the generosity of people willing to correct me important truths like how Carl Linnaeus was also the scientist who, in the course of his work on taxonomies, proposed the racist notion that there are four human races. Maria Sibylla Merian I learned used the labor of enslaved people  to obtain her specimens, she did not credit or compensate her sources for the knowledge she commodified in her book and that knowledge, particularly about plants that could be used for birth control was likely used by slave-holding colonizers to further control the reproductive choices of people they believed they owned.

These kinds of errors, which are more precisely called moral failings, are to this day a part of the systems of science and are encouraged by the close relationships between research funding and for-profit enterprises.

I see Kabel Mishka Ligot raising these objections to the intertwining of systems of knowledge and systems of empire in “Duwende Sonnet/Applying for an O1-B Visa,” also in the Southeast Review:

If I list the word enchantment under occupation, I imply that it’s never been felt
on these islands. But people have always been running amok across all
oceans, returning home late at night with monstrous appetites, welts
embroidering their backs.

Kabel Mishka Ligot

We had planned to include a discussion of other poets engaging with science who have influenced us. If you are interested in reading more I suggest starting with:

John James’s books Chthonic and The Milk Hours are great — you can start reading him here.

Rosalie Moffett’s books are Nervous System and June in Eden, a selection of her poems is here. 

Nomi Stone’s Kill Class makes extraordinary use of research in the social sciences and you can also find a sample of her poems online here.

Rushi Vyas writes beautifully about science, faith, and imperialism. You can read some of his poems here.

I also love to recommend:

Brenda Hillman’s tetralogy of books on the elements all provide different, interesting approaches to this subject. I’m particularly interested in Practical Water and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire because of the way they incorporate transcripts and notes taken while she was doing work as an activist attending congressional hearings on the environment.

Camille Dungy’s poems in Trophic Cascade and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, as well as her anthology Black Nature are essential reading for poets interested in writing about science.

Rosebud Ben-Oni’s poems and also her work editing a special feature for the recent issue of Pleiades in which poets write on elements from the Periodic table.

Hahn Kimiko’s Toxic Flora is such a great example of a poet engaging with science. She wrote her poems in response to a column about botany that appeared regularly in The New York Times and blends the precise rhetorical registers of science writing with the more affective possibilities in confessional lyric in such resonant ways.

Hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk about these ideas and other at AWP in Kansas City next year.

The First Review of RUE!

It means so much to me that the first review of RUE was written by Karen Craigo, the poet laureate of my home state of Missouri (and the landscape that forms the backdrop for the book). It also means a lot to me that Craigo understood and appreciated the way this book was born of myriad interlocking misogynies, including those in the medical profession and those surrounding the experience of motherhood.

Craigo writes: “Although I’m going on and on about the rhetoric here, don’t think for a moment that Nuernberger doesn’t get personal. Within the bounds of these arguments, the speaker of these poems talks about her workplace politics (and I absolutely love that she writes about this topic), or she calls out a townsperson who is too touchy-feely at the coffee shop, or she indicts an obstetrician… I know so many mothers who have part of this story to tell — a birth plan mocked and ignored, with no chance that it will be put into effect — but the story told here, of a doctor physically hurting the speaker, goes much further.”

You can read the rest of the review here.

Karen Craigo, by the way, writes with wit and painful honesty in her book, No More Milk, about motherhood and fertility. I’d also like to shout out Dominique Christina’s Anarcha Speaks about the violence at the core of the OBGYN profession and how the field is based on James Marion Sims’s torturous experiments on Anarcha and other enslaved people.

Other poets who have written important and deeply moving books about what it is like to in this culture with a uterus include:

Elizabeth Alexander, Antebellum Dream Book

Lucille Clifton, Next

Olena Kalytiak Davis, The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems

Jennifer Givhan, Landscape with Headless Mama

Brenda Shaughnessy, Our Andromeda

Rachel Zucker, Mothers

I’m grateful for all of these poets who provide models for how to talk and think about the experiences of living inside a body that is sometimes fragile and sometimes treated like a target.

Titba & the Invention of the Unknown

The Salem witch trials were a miserable shit show, but Tituba’s ingenuity, subterfuge, and resistance was extraordinary. My essay about her testimony is now up at The Public Domain Review in their Conjectures series. While writing this essay I became fascinated by the power a story can have to create an oppressive power structure and also to disrupt one:

“Glamour, grammar, and grimoire all share the same root. The Inquisitors imagined in one testimonial after another that they saw the transformation from person to demon before their eyes, even as they clung more fiercely to the power in the illusion they held about themselves, that they were not the ones conjuring such nightmares. It was Goodwife Sibley who asked Titiba to perform that old English spell with bread, dirt, and urine to ease the suffering of the poor afflicted child Betty, but that moment glimmered back in court as Titiba’s idea, her spell, her fault.”

You can read the the complete essay here.

Seeds for Starting a Docupoetic Project

Last week I wrote in this post about the Docupoetic tradition, drawing on lecture notes and reading lists from a graduate seminar I taught last year called Docupoetics & Lyric Research. I thought folks might be interested in borrowing some of the generative writing exercises the students and I did in that course.

Exercises 1 & 2 were requirements in my class and I asked students to choose 3 or more of the others to guide the development of their projects. Those can be completed in any order and often work best when repeated over many days.

1. Docupoetics is, by its nature, project-based research and writing. To begin you’ll need to identify or create an obsession. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be instead – biologist, conservationist, lawyer, wedding planner? Your answer may point you towards a fruitful area of study. What kinds of non-literary art do you keep going back to – the song you still put on repeat after a decade,  a work of art you like to visit at the museum every time, the niche filmmaker you love? Try looking through the classes offered by your community center and think about which ones might be fun to take and imagine learning flower arranging or self defense through a process of poetry instead. My students chose topics that included the slow food movement, orchids, puppetry, beekeeping, and superfund sites.

2. I encouraged everyone in the class to develop a (soma)tic practice to go along with their obsessions. A (soma)tic is a kind of ritual designed to engender poetry, though the rituals themselves can feel like poems or performance art pieces in their own right. CA Conrad developed the idea of (soma)tic poetry practice and Conrad’s descriptions of the (soma)tics as well as the poems that emerge are absolute favorites of mine. You can see some great ones here. When writing my poetry collection RUE my (soma)tic exercise was to take a walk in my meadow every morning and meet a plant (when possible I would sustainably harvest it for food or medicine or bouquets) and  then go home to research its medicinal, botanical, and folkloric background. Brenda Hillman kept notebooks while attending the congressional hearings, which could be described as a (soma)tic exercise. The book Practical Water was one of the results of this practice. Students of mine chose (soma)tics like preparing and savoring food in mindful ways, taking aerial acrobatic classes, taking a foreign language class, and undertaking daily photography projects.

3. Locate visual materials – photographs artworks, archival documents, advertisements, etc. Alter these primary sources in a lyrical way. Consider how Solmaz Shariff makes government documents tell the truth despite themselves with erasures here. Or how Nance Van Winckel transforms the encyclopedic absurdities of western capitalist patriarchal hegemonies into an encyclopedia of absurdity by erasing, collaging and altering a Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set into Book of No Ledge. (You can see excerpts here.)

4. Collect quotes – scholarly, difficult, jargon-rich – on index cards. Write what the quotes mean to you or what memories they call to mind on the back. Keep and grow this collection as you work on your docupoetic project. Later you may collage these index cards into dialogues like Anne Carson’s in Men in the Off Hours (especially in “Thucydides in Conversation with Virgian Woolf on the set of The Peloponnesian War”). Or check out Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s work for ideas about how to write in conversation with the texts you find most resonant – in our class we read M Archive, where each page of the book is written in response to a line from M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of the Crossing.

5. Conduct or locate oral histories and/or affidavits related to your obsession. Muriel Rukeyser in Book of the Dead  and Mark Nowak in Coal Mountain Elementary brilliantly incorporate the voices of those directly harmed by mining practices into their book-length docupoetic projects.

6. As you compile all of these documents and learn more through various primary and secondary sources, keep a process journal where you describe and observe yourself as a researcher. How does your learning feel? How does the library feel? What are the sounds and smells in the archives or out in the field? What kinds of conversations do you have with librarians, scholars, fellow researchers, yourself, your friends, your family as you dive ever deeper into your subject? Keep track of the sensory details, the conversations, the feelings, and the memories that come to you as you research. Let these daily pages become poems that infuse the rest of your docupoetic work.  For examples, see Marwa Helal combine the archival and the personal to incredible effect in Invasive Species.

7. Would persona poems be appropriate for your project? There are questions of cultural appropriation and savior complexes to consider when approaching a persona poem – Alexander Chee’s article here for fiction writers poses some really useful questions in this essay that can help guide docupoets too.  In The Afflicted Girls, which recounts stories of the Salem witch trials, Nicole Cooley creates speakers with deep historical knowledge about the trials, but who also step back and reflect on how that knowledge has been acquired, as well as what it means to try to imagine a way into another person’s torment. Creating a specialist persona can be an effective way to integrate your researched material with more personal elements. Dominique Christina’s Anarcha Speaks is a collection of poems that give voice to the enslaved women who were brutally tortured as part of J. Marion Sims’s human medical experiments that are the basis of modern gynecology.  Christina’s work provides extraordinary examples of how a poet can imaginatively or spiritually call forth other people’s voices in poetry.

8. Go through all of your notes with a highlighter and identify the most evocative passages and the passages with the most exciting language. Look for recurring images, sounds, characters, and concepts. Think about how fragments can be ordered to create coherent or disrupt narratives. Try to find an idea or two that you come back to again and again. How does the rest of your research, knowledge, and experience form a watershed of streams that feed that central river? Collage your favorite passages together together while creating new material to create greater fluidity or to amplify the fragmented nature of the work.

Docupoetics & the Art of Lyrical Research

Last spring I taught a graduate seminar on Doupoetics and a take-away from that class was that the act of learning can be the engine that drives a poem. In my own graduate school years my early attempts at poems rooted in research often fell flat in readings by my workshop groups. My readers observed that the poems lacked tension, because wonder as a central emotion on the page was boring, like happiness. Though harsh and a bit discouraging at the time, this was a really helpful critique that led me to notice that in many successful works of docupoetics the speaker is presented as someone who is being transformed through research. When the tension in a poem is rooted in the act of learning, the experience of the human mind working on the page can be very exciting and full of perilous flirtations with revelation and the abyss. To this day I find myself asking my drafts if they are capturing the inner struggles and reckonings that can be such an important part of the experience of wondering.

Yesterday I picked up new poetry collections from Monica Sok and Rick Barot. These books treat research as a lyric act and they are teaching me new ways of undertaking radical transformation through field and archival research. Maybe this latest wave of researched poetry has you curious about the docupoetic lineage? I’ll share here a little overview of the evolution of the docupoetics, which I gave as a lecture on the first day of the seminar, followed by a reading list from the course. Soon (Tomorrow? Next week?) I’ll post some of the writing exercises my students and I undertook throughout the semester.

A Brief History of Docupoetics

There is a long history of poetry that combines investigative reporting with the rhetorical tools of lyrical writing. In his recent collection of essays on poetics forms, A Short Book on Form, Robert Hass proposes that the trend in contemporary poetry that has come to be called Docupoetics is deeply rooted in the mode known as Georgics, that traces back to at least the Greeks. The Georgic is a didactic or instructive poem intended to give information on a skill or an art. Because there was once a time when there was no skill or art that was not derived from nature and “nature” was not a concept that could be conceived any more than a fish could conceive of water or any of us could try to describe air before the Industrial Revolution turned a good portion of ours into a polluted fog, the term “Georgic” and the term “Pastoral” are often confused. But the Pastoral, unlike the Georgic, is traditionally a poem of longing for a past time, traditionally sung by urban poets adopting the persona of shepherds. 

I was once an urban poet imagining myself a shepherd, until I read Virgil’s Georgics, which includes among its how-to guides a book of instructions for beekeepers. Once I realized the scientific method was as much a form as an ode it, that the data charts on honey bee populations and the use of neonictinoid pesticides is as much a form as a sonnet, I never lacked for a subject or a longing to write.

O Virgil, my colony of bees collapsed. Perhaps because of the bi-planes spraying pesticides on the soybean fields on the farm to the north and the one to the south of my weedy acres. I’m dying to be a shepherd, but I try not to be all feelings about it. A bee is not a metaphor. It is itself, huge and furred and clinging to my sweater lethargic like it doesn’t belong in this autumn. I shook it and shook it and then peeled the black furred legs of that bumble bigger than my thumb onto a blade of ornamental tall grass in my neighbor’s yard. A praying mantis did the same to my grocery cart this morning, riding with us through all the aisles, now on the potatoes, now on the olive oil, then rode the brown bag of coffee across the check-out line.

Of course georgics, by their nature, endeavor to tell us how to live. Not just how to be beekeepers, but how to live as beekeepers, how to live in the company of whales, of apple trees, of those fair few cocoons you might encounter beneath, teeming with something gelatinous and half-made. Georgics tell us how to live as what we are, as beings as heavy on the earth as a mountain of concrete and rebar can be. They tell us how to live without pretty pastoral metaphors about a past that never was designed to make it all feel alright.  Georgics in the present day must account for neuroscience, for sociology. They must understand the temptation to pretend their prairies are going to be all right, even as they know most of the prairies that are left are ditches lining the highways between one field of soybeans and the next. For this reason, Docupoetics sometimes feels like a more accurately descriptive word for what poets like Sok and Barot achieve in their work. Learning through feeling and feeling through learning is a poetic impulse that goes back to the beginning of poetry.

A Docupoetics Reading List

I’ve offered here a history of Docupoetics as an updating of the Georgic tradition. But there are other ways critics have described the development of this poetic mode. Some excellent critical introductions to Docupoetics include:

Philip Metres, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy”

Tarfia Faizullah, “Against Explanation”

 Joseph Harrington, “Docupoetry and Archive Desire”

This review-essay, “The Poetry in Footnotes, Endnotes, & Bibliographies,” on recent collections by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Marwa Helal, and Chaun Webster I wrote for Ploughshares.

To suggest that there is such a thing as a canon sends me into what Derrida called archive fever over what to let in and what to leave out — Joseph Harrington discusses the phenomenon brilliantly in the essay above. Though I must check my temperature to do it, I offer this fragmented list of canonical Docupoetic texts from my revised and updated syllabus for Docupoetics & Other Forms of Lyric Research, a graduate seminar:

Virgil’s Georgics — A how to-guide for gardening, viticulture, animal husbandry, and beekeeping, with forays into the nature of the gods and the cause of civil unrest.

Christopher Smart’s The Hop Garden — Hops farming & beer making! With a side of political allegory

Vita Sackville-West’s The Land — A celebration of the English countryside through the seasons written by an accomplished landscape gardener, dear friend and lover of Virginia Woolf, and noted critic of heteronormative marriages.

William Carlos Williams’s Paterson — An epic recounting of the industrial and cultural history of Paterson, New Jersey.

Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead — An account of the devastating effects of a silica mine in West Virginia that draws on court records, affidavits, and medical findings.

Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” — A history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that focuses most closely on the uprising on the slave ship Amistad.

And the most incomplete list of all, a sampler of contemporary poetry collections that make extensive use of docupoetic methods or powerfully evoke the docupoetic tradition:

Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive — A novel-in-verse in conversation with past and future archives that include the work of Audre Lorde and M. Jacqui Alexander.

Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary — Accounts of devastating mining disasters that draw heavily from archived testimonies and oral histories, as well as photographic evidence.

Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearble Splendor — Explorations of identity through engaged research into cyborgs, mythical hybrids, and adoption.

Philip Metres’s Sand Opera — Through erasures of army manuals, abu ghraib arias, and other lyric interventions, Metres critiques the U. S. engagement in a racist, imperialist war in Iraq, as well as the racism directed at people in the US on the basis of Anti-Arab bigotries.

Susan Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives — Reveries on reading the archives of New England writers like Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and others. Poems are interwoven with evocative photographs and facsimiles of pages from these archives.

Craig Santos Perez series From Unincorporated Territory — An extraordinary triptych of poetry collections that tell the cultural, historical, political, indigenous, and ecological stories of Guåhan (Guam).

Layli Long Soldier, Whereas — In lyrics, prose poems, erasures, translations, and resolutions Layli Long Soldier challenges and reinvents the language of treaties and death warrants from an indigenous perspective, imagining new ways to be a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and the United States, and inviting readers to reconsider the myriad meanings and responsibilities of their own citizenships.

A RUE Sampler

Thanks to Tin House for publishing “Hexagenia Limbata,” the last poem from RUE to appear in magazines before they make their debut, all together with a spine, in April. Here’s a sample of some other poems from the book that are available in journals online.

“The Petty Politics of the Thing” — 32 Poems

“Rue” and “The Bird of Paradise” — Stirring

“A Great Place to Raise Children” — Tongue

“Pennyroyal,” “Queen of Barren, Queen of Mean, Queen of Laced with Ire,” and “Regarding Silphium, the Birth Control of the Roman Empire for 600 Years, Extincted by Careless Land Management in the Year 200 AD” — The Account

Conversations with Plants: An Exercise & Reading List

As I prepare to go on a pretty extended book tour, I have been thinking about what one loses in these frequent vagabond periods that are so often for many of us part and parcel of the writing or academic life.

For a time I felt trapped on a farm in rural Missouri in a county where I had a hard time connecting with the conservative community around me. I developed a habit of talking to the plants in the pasture behind my house to ease this loneliness. My ways of listening in these conversations took the form of observation, research, sustainably harvesting wild foods and medicines, and learning the stories cantankerous hags and witches like me had been whispering about them for as long as people and plants have been friends. And I’m far from the only poem who interacts with her botanical muses this way – Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora, and Melissa Kwasny’s Thistle are all books of poems born of sustained company and conversation with plants. It might be fair to say that Emily Dickinson is the gardener who first showed us the way.  

Since I left that place, I have been developing a new exercise in writing and living to create connections and a feeling of connectedness on the road. I thought maybe other poets would find it fun to try. Or that folks using Rue as a text in their creative writing classrooms would like to share this exercise with their students.

  • Find a plant you recognize from home (or one of your previous homes, if like me you’ve had many). If you are using this exercise in a classroom or workshop, ask the students to bring a plant with them from their front yard, a green patch in their neighborhood, or found on the commute to your meeting place. Ever since I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s chapter on plantain in Braiding Sweetgrass I look for plantain first. She describes it as a respectful naturalized plant, offering its many medicinal uses and, unlike many other invasive species, plantain manages not to displace indigenous species as it spreads. “Its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds.” I aspire to be this kind of wayfaring stranger.
  • Make a contour drawing of your plant without looking at the page – keep your eye on the plant and slowly trace its shape with your eye as your hand tries to track your gaze on the page. If you are honest and resist the urge to peak, your drawing will be very strange, but you will have really seen this plant for the first time. You could also try this exercise using touch, tracing the plant with one hand and translating the sensation to the page with the other.
  • Using field guides or google, research the biology of this plant. Learn its reproductive methods, its pollinators, preferred soils and drought tolerance, the other plants and animals with which it shares these ecosystems. Fill a page or three with your notes.
  • Search for the folklore of your plant and find out what stories people have told about it. Many of the plants you meet will be invasive, many will be indigenous. Be ethical and respectful as you decide which of these stories to retell and how. Remember how colonizing nations sent their priests and anthropologists to steal knowledge that was used to enable soldiers to follow stealing land. Be mindful of what histories you reenact and what futures you make possible with your words by considering the context around the plant stories you encounter. Consider your own lineages, resistances, complicities. Appropriating stories that are not yours to tell will only exacerbate the pains of history and increase your loneliness; honesty may have the opposite effect.

    This part of the research process always reminds me how deep and fresh the wounds of history are. I think often of Layli Long Soldier’s poems in Whereas where she writes of the grasses that are so important to prairie ecosystems, which means writing of the 38 Dakota warriors the U. S. Government hanged over those grasses, which means writing of the missing and murdered indigenous women, which means writing of racist cruelties. I learned from this book to hear how the grasses indict and demand restitution and restoration.  I also think often of Ross Gay’s “To the Mulberry Tree,” and how he can’t talk about the tree whose fruit he loves without noting the frayed rope among the debris in the park, before finding deep among the branches a hopeful vision “that none of us will ever die terribly, / but stay always like this.” In a meadow where I loved to walk, ironweed roots are filtering last century’s acid mine drainage from the creek waters above the defunct coal mines even as the ground around them trembles with fracking-related earthquakes. After doing this portion of research, write a paragraph or a page about what you have learned and what you hope to keep learning.
  •  Ask someone from the place you have reached to tell you the name of another plant you are seeing for the first time, one growing near your familiar. (If you are doing this writing exercise in a group, partner up and share the work you’ve done so far.) Ask this person what else they know of the plant that they’d like to share. Ask field guides about its biology and ecosystems. Write what you have learned and what you feel, enough to fill at least a page. Write about your own stories and the people you have met in this new place. Plants are precious, but you need not be precious about them or construct the lie of a human-less world around them. Tommy Pico writes, “It’s hard to unhook the heavy marble Nature from the chain around yr neck when history is stolen like water.” Read more from his book-length poem Nature Poem and remember for better and worse we are in this ecosystem with the plants and bees and candy wrappers and microplastics together.
  • Repeat this exercise every day you are on the road.
  •  Repeat it again when you return home, a changed person, to a changing place.

Poets Talking to Plants, A Reading List

David Baker, Swift: New & Selected Poems. Norton, 2019.

Wendy Burk. Tree Talks. Delete Press, 2016.

Lucille Clifton. Good News About the Earth. Random House, 1972.

Emily Dickinson. The Gorgeous Nothings. New Directions, 2013.

Camille Dungy. What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. Red Hen, 2016.

Judith Farr. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Harvard University Press, 2005.

Nicky Finny. Rice. Triquarterly, 2013.

Vievee Francis. Forest Primeval. Triquarterly, 2016.

Ross Gay. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. University of Pittsburg Press, 2015.

Jody Gladding. Translations from Bark Beetle. Milkweed, 2014.

Louise Gluck. The Wild Iris. Ecco, 1993.

Kimiko Hahn. Toxic Flora. Norton, 2011.

HD. Sea Garden.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly. The Orchard. BOA, 2004.

Melissa Kwasny. Thistle. Lost Horse Press, 2006.

Sandra Lim. The Wilderness. Norton, 2014.

Ada Limon. Bright Dead Things. Milkweed, 2015.

Layli Long Soldier. Whereas. Graywolf, 2017.

W. S. Merwin. Garden Time. Copper Canyon, 2016.

Aimme Nezhukumatathil & Ross Gay. Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens. Organic Weapon Arts, 2019.

Tommy Pico. Nature Poem. Tin House, 2017.

Aaron Shurin. Flowers & Sky. Entre Rios, 2017.

Tess Taylor. Work & Days. Red Hen, 2016.

Brian Teare. Companion Grasses. Omnidawn, 2013.

Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.

Virgil. Georgics.

Maya Jewell Zeller. Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts. Entre Rios, 2017.

 

Exercises in Creative Revision + Some Notes on Running a Revision-Focused Workshop

I recently had a chat with a talented poet working on a first book. This writer was in an ad hoc workshop group and wanted to know what I thought about some advice on voice that had been given. The advice wasn’t given carelessly or cruelly, but it did reveal that the giver of that advice was not a good reader for this kind of project. As happens sometimes. I love dearly some people who aren’t always good readers of some of my projects.

A draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

But this student was stuck on that note in a way that reminded me of all the revisions I’ve seen over the years where a writer tries to implement every single suggestion and answer every single question a workshop raised. It reminded me of all the poems I’ve ruined over the years by clumsily stitching this person’s vision to that one atop my own lost draft.

Sometimes you have to ignore advice altogether, I told this young poet. Sometimes you need to do the move that was critiques twice as hard or do exactly the opposite of a recommendation. Sometimes you have to cut the parts the workshop loved best. But what I wanted to convey to this writer and try to teach explicitly in the workshops I facilitate is that the workshop is a small part – and in no way the editing part – of a revision process that works best when it is generative and playful.

A note: I have really appreciated and learned from thinking about how workshops can become toxic spaces for BIpoc, LGBTQ+, and disabled writers. Beth Bich Nguyen’s essay on Unsilencing the Workshop is required reading; as is David Mura’s, A Stranger’s Journey, on creative writing, craft, and how/why race must be considered as a crucial part of these subjects. This particular workshop group was versed in these ideas, and even proficient in innovative workshop methods like Liz Lerhman’s Critical Response Process. I’m thinking here about how writers learn to use the feedback they receive when they can trust the spirit in which it was given, as well as the cultural competencies of the giver.

One of Gwendolyn Brooks’ notebooks

In my workshop classes I’ve been trying to develop a Revision-Focused pedagogy. To that end, the most significant assignment I give is “The Big Revise,” where I ask students to revise a poem five ways. The grade is based exclusively on how boldly and radically they experiment from draft to draft. Frankly, I never grade poems at all, because I can’t imagine what it would mean to say a poem is an A, much less a C. So the only experience they have with grades in my workshops is via a rubric based exclusively on trying, experimenting, and risking. Depending on the course I might ask students to do a Big Revise once or to undertake this process every time a poem is workshopped.

Often the first (and sometimes second draft) in a student’s Big Revise portfolio closely follows the notes given in workshop. But after students have deployed this low-hanging revision fruit, they have to think more deeply and weirdly about the relationship between their ideas and an audience of readers. This is when the revisions start to get really interesting.

A draft of May Swenson’s “Women”

To help students imagine a wild, weird, radical revision process, I show them the revisions of some well-known poems, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and also let them take a peek at the pages of one of my drafts in progress, covered up in scrawling margin notes. I also give them revision prompts to help inspire those 3rd, 4th, and 5th drafts:

  • Add new images and reframe existing ones. Make the eye of the speaker a kind of camera that zooms in and out, pans around, and endlessly seeks unlikely angles.
  • Complicate the chronology. Add three or more jumps in time.
  • Change the point of view from first person to third, third to second, etc. Try a persona. Try a different persona.
  • Enrich with research. Add a tangent that involves interesting factoids from science or history. Meditate on a story in the news that hangs heavy on your mind. All the better if the research seems unrelated to the poem at first glance.
  • Make the poem twice as long. Then make it half as long. Your new half will probably not look like the old one.
  • Cut and salvage. After every draft pause to notice what you might have lost from earlier drafts. Bring those beautiful lines, stanzas, and ideas forward, combining them with what you love best about newer versions. (Printing out the drafts and the cutting them into chunks that you scotch tape together into the new poem can be a fun and productive way to approach this.)
  • Play with form. Let the poem lead you to its form. Has your voice fallen into a somewhat regular rhythm or line length? Try to make that pacing intentional throughout the whole poem. Maybe you notice your lines are quite ragged and unpredictable – be intentionally irregular and disrupt those spots where the line lengths are regularized. Have repetitions emerged that might lend themselves to becoming a refrain, or even a pantoum or villanelle? If you are in the 12-18-line range, ask yourself whether the poem wants to be a sonnet. Consider whether you are writing subtly in the tradition of odes or ballads or other familiar forms, and whether you might like to make that subtle influence more explicit.
  • Polish the lines. (An exercise not to be used before draft 5). Focus here on varying sentence length and structure. Put a short periodic statement after a long and complex sentence with many subordinate clauses. Have a dependent-independent-clause sentence follow an independent-dependent-clause one. Reframe one or two lines as questions. Can you get away with an exclamation point? Try some asides and learn to love the em dash.

The Big Revise is a great process to use on your own as a writer outside of workshops too. It is one I personally use. But it is also great to enter a workshop conversation knowing a piece will have to go through such an intensive revision process after the workshop is over. That understanding reframes the role of the workshopper – no longer are they hypothetical editors praising or critiquing a piece, leaving the author feeling accepted or rejected. Now they are on the same team as the poet, working with them to brainstorm ways to see the poem with fresh eyes.

This relationship puts those giving the workshop feedback at ease too – many people (like me when I was a student) can hardly bring themselves to speak in a workshop for fear they will hurt someone’s feelings or because they do not believe that kind of evaluation of another person’s work is appropriate or because they are still developing a vocabulary around the idea of revision. Some students will only say what they liked about a piece, which is helpful for sure, but those encouraging and confidence-building notes do not always lead to a workshop that inspires.

I have seen in classes where I used this Revision-Focused workshop method how poets smile and eagerly jot down the ideas their classmates spitball with a spirit of camaraderie. And I’ve seen lovely, sustaining writer friendship emerge from these rooms, in contrast to the competitive or spirit-crushing environment that can arise when writers give the workshop a position of authority and judgement over the work. In a Revision-Focused workshop there are no succeed or failing poems or poets, there is only the writing, undertaken joyfully together.  

Getting symbiotic with scientists & film-makers

Poems on instances of symbiotic mutualism were commissioned by the True/False Film Festival. Ant/acacia expert extraordinaire, Dr. Todd Palmer, provided the scientific background. The brilliant multi-media geniuses Chelsea Meyers, Becca Sullinger, and Mike Marshall made this sensory feast out of my little “Symbiosis Sonnet.”

whistling thorn acacia
“Symbiosis Sonnet” was the text of this short at the True/False Film Festival

And be sure you don’t miss the one on the Lancet river fluke, with a poem by Marc McKee! Or E. Coli symbiosis with Jaswinder Bolina’s poem. And here is Nicky Beer’s poem on beloved ocean symbionts.