Many people tend to look at poetry as this big, terrifying entity with hidden meaning waiting to kick you across the face as it taunts you just out of reach. I’m here to tell you to stop doubting yourself. Read a poem; think about how it makes you feel. Read it again, pick some images or words that stand out to you and roll them around your tongue. Or simply read it for the sake of reading.
When a poet puts pen to paper, sometimes there is a clear direction they wish to pursue and other times it’s just a flow of consciousness and emotion throwing itself up on paper.
Think about something—a situation, concept or emotion and what you associate with it. How does it make you feel? What images does it evoke? Dive deeper and expand, then play with the structure.
The poet has a reason for why they write but if the meaning the reader pulls from it differs from the original intent, that does not make it wrong. Poetry is for everyone and if you pull a meaning from a poem about loss of innocence or a family member and it helps you come to terms with losing your job or a beloved animal, and then the poem served its purpose.
For example, the poem “Design” by Robert Frost shows us a spider and moth on a flower mingling with images of life and death with the ever present question: does everything happen by design, simply random or does fate only bother with big picture problems?
Excerpt lines 1 and 2:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Excerpt lines 13 and 14:
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
This poem is filled with images of innocence contradicted by darkness; even the spider seems to be free on blame after taking the life of the moth. The image of death on something innocent is a sharp contrast.
Another example of this is the poem “A Dead Thing That, in Dying, Feeds the Living” by contemporary poet Donika Kelly. She ponders the “anatomy of the egg” as a mechanism through which to analyze the effect the termination of a relationship has as she moves towards acceptance.
Now, I am by no means an expert in analyzing poetry but the stigma that encapsulates it must be shattered. I’ve heard countless people, including myself, say “I just don’t understand poetry.” That’s a copout and we all know it. Poetry provides perspective. Some people see a spider ending the life of a moth and they continue with their day, but Frost saw so much more. He saw and an opportunity to ask a question that we all wonder about. Does the world care about things as ordinary as this? If not, at what point does it begin to?
Poetry can be about absolutely anything. Pen to paper to published; whether it flowed freely or each word was painstakingly inscribed, it was carefully crafted with deliberate decisions. It was created to be felt not picked apart and that is why no matter what meaning you take from it; catharsis or beauty, the important part is that you feel it.
A common misconception me and my fellow writing friends thought in high school was that we could only write well when we were inspired. We would go weeks without talking about a new piece of writing we started simply because we weren’t writing. Since beginning college, I have learned that that is just not true. Writing takes time and effort, and sifting through a lot of work you think is garbage, to find the perfect pieces of your writing that are worth combining and expanding upon. With everything from social media, to other classes, to the economy failing, we are losing more and more time for opportunistic writing than we had in the past. The best way to get around this is to set aside time to write. “But Alexa, we can’t write unless we are feeling inspired!” I hear you. So you have to make yourself be inspired. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Set Yourself a Goal.
Do you want to have a certain amount of words typed before your hour or so is up? A certain amount of ideas? A character list? Start small and work your way up to a draft being your goal. Make them attainable and undaunting just to get yourself used to writing during a set time.
- Set the Mood.
From experience, the best place to write is a place where all you do is write. For example, it is not a good idea to write while sitting on your bed, because you associate your bed with sleeping, watching TV, reading, and other activities that are not working on your writing. Find a quiet spot that you can dedicate just to writing and getting work done. Sitting in this spot will condition yourself to become inspired more often than others because your brain will associate it with writing.
- Write Down Anything, Even If it is Actual Trash.
Have an idea about plants with faces eating soup? Write it down. Giraffes with short necks and long hair? Write it down. Writing anything is better than writing nothing. Some of these ideas that you think are horrible sometimes just need a little tweaking to be great. Or if not, they could at least lead you to an idea that is.
- Go for a Walk.
If you STILL can’t think of anything to write down, take a break. Go for a walk. Notice the houses you pass, the wildlife you encounter, the people you meet. Just be present and observant. When you return to your writing space, you will have something to write about, whether it’s a new fiction piece a jogger reminded you of, or just writing down what you saw, you will be writing.
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” —William Faulkner
The Man, The Boy, and The Donkey: An Aesop Lesson For Receiving Feedback In Our Writing, By Kierann Elliott
Would the man, the boy, and the donkey have left the walls of their cozy and sturdy farm if they had known the tragedy that was in store for them that day? Of course they would have. What a silly thing to ask. For what comes from fearing the unknown but empty tummies and hearts strained by stress? Better to take that walk to the market square and shake hands with feedback. Only compared to them, you’re not going to hoist the donkey over your heads.
For those who may be a little more than lost right now, The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey is an old Aesop fable about—you guessed it, a farmer, his son, and their beloved donkey who are met with constant criticism about how they are walking to the market square. And the farmer, feeling quite embarrassed over the critiques, tries to make amends to their behaviors to match the critiques. This goes on until the donkey is hoisted into the air, its legs tied to a pole, and ends up being dropped into the river below where it drowns.
Sometimes, in your own writing, you may feel just like the farmer. You may receive feedback—whether they are constructive criticisms, abrasive scorn, thoughtful comments, suggestive rewrites, or a combination of the four—that makes you feel like everything you are doing is wrong and maybe, just maybe, you don’t actually know what you are doing.
So I’m going to stop you right there. While you shouldn’t outright reject any feedback you receive on your work, you shouldn’t take it at face value and feel like you need to re-do everything. Instead, remember this: All the travellers on the road have their own lives and their own ways of riding a donkey. So in some ways, their feedback is valid. It just might not always be relevant with your own ideas or, in that case, to the farmer’s situation.
When you are receiving feedback, take a step back. Think about where the feedback is coming from, whether it is from a different perspective or because something wasn’t clear enough in your work, and try to figure out what the feedback means for your work. The feedback may also show you where you need to improve in your writing, even if the content of it isn’t the most relevant to your vision.
Keep in mind that research is a crucial tool when it comes to writing and relieving your anxiety over writing, especially if you are thinking about incorporating ideas, places, and concepts you don’t have first hand experience with. Perhaps more importantly, research will keep you from perpetuating stereotypes so you don’t tumble into creeks of controversy like Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem “HOW-TO”. If you are looking for insight on how to conduct research for your writing projects, I would suggest taking a look at Kristen Kieffer’s advice on researching for novels.
I know sometimes it’s hard to receive feedback. It can even be discouraging. But know that you are allowed to take a step back and think about where it’s coming from. Don’t feel like you need to lift the donkey over your head. It’s not the smartest move anyway.
Meet the blogger:
KIERANN ELLIOTT lives and works in the Twin Cities. Her work has been published in The Fulcrum.
It was a school librarian who first told me comic books and graphic novels weren’t “real books,” exemplifying an attitude that is still all too present in literary circles. While a few serious autobiographical works like Fun Home, Maus, and Persepolis have reached critical acclaim and worked their way into the contemporary canon, a lot of comics are still dumped into the elitist category of “low” art. It’s only when we start to break down this gate-keeping that we can start to see how many works in the graphic format are worthy of the same consideration as any other book. The iconic artist Jack Kirby once said, “Whatever I do… I can assure you that it’ll electrocute you in the mind!” Hopefully these five titles will do just that.
1. Black Hole by Charles Burns
Black Hole feels like a low-budget horror movie you remember watching at a drive-in theater in a nightmare. The plot weaves through the perspectives of a group of high school kids in a fictionalized 1970’s Seattle, during an outbreak of a sexually transmitted disease that causes bizarre physical mutations in those infected. Burns builds an intricate, eerie, and emotionally resonant coming-of-age story, with his swirling pen-and-ink drawings playing into an aura of dread, alienation, and unsafe adolescence. Black Hole can be purchased from Pantheon Books or your local comic book store.
2. “Habits” by Lauren Monger
“Habits” follows a cast of anthropomorphized rodent punks through their everyday misadventures. The dialogue is quick, realistic, and darkly funny, and Monger’s watercolor illustrations are alternately grimy and endearing. Beneath the humor, the characters speak to pain and ennui that runs deeper than punk-rock angst. “Habits” is published as a weekly strip on the Vice website.
3. Video Tonfa by Tim Goodyear
This is a funky one. Video Tonfa is simultaneously an eclectic collection of film reviews and a memoir, offering personal insights within handwritten criticism of hundreds of movies, accompanied by sketches of VHS covers. Scrawled on yellow legal pad paper, the book’s aesthetic is rough and personal. Video Tonfa itself is as much of a curiosity as any of the dusty Blockbuster tapes referenced within. Available from Floating World Comics or your local comic book store.
4. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates has already reached widespread recognition as a journalist and the author of the brilliant Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power, and his first piece in the comic book format is no less impressive. A Nation Under Our Feet uses the characters and world of Black Panther to explore questions of government, nationhood, and power. The writing contributes brand new layers to a fascinating fictional universe, and Brian Stelfreeze’s art brings a rich Afrofuturist world to life. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet is available from Marvel Comics or your local comic book store.
5. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
One of the better-known comics on this list, mainly due to a film adaptation in 2001, Ghost World chronicles a close and turbulent friendship between two young women. Much like “Habits” the dialogue is snappy and the humor hides pain. The plot is adventurously meandering, with a menagerie of weirdo side characters including psychics and Satanists. Clowes’s monochrome, fifties-style art is reminiscent of early Mad Magazine. Ghost World wanders through a strange and uncomfortable sort of growing up. Available from Fantagraphics or your local comic book store.
What are your thoughts? Was my school librarian right? Am I leaving out any great, imagination-frying books? Let me know in the comments!
Meet the blogger:
MAX FIREHAMMER is in his third year as a creative writing major as Hamline University. The last comic book he read was Sugar Skull by Charles Burns, and he’s open to recommendations as to what the next one should be.
So here’s the thing, I’ve got baggage. It’s not cute or quirky, and it doesn’t make me a tortured artist. It gets all jumbled together in the front of my brain where I’m trying to sort through the setting description for the fiction I’m writing (well, trying to write).
You may be thinking, “Jennifer, everyone’s got baggage. It’s part of being human. Don’t act like yours is special.” And you’d be right. Everyone’s got baggage. Everyone’s got issues, and that’s why I want to talk about creative nonfiction, or CNF. When I took my first creative writing class and was introduced to CNF, I thought, “The whole reason I write is so I don’t have to think about me. My life is boring. Why would I write about it?” And then I started writing about it.
I wrote about the toxic relationship I had recently left. I wrote about feeling lost without my hometown reputation dictating who I was. I wrote about the deaths I saw on a nearly yearly basis throughout high school. All my baggage came tumbling out of its suitcase, and it felt incredible. I physically felt lighter.
There are many others who have also talked about how writing about our baggage helps to lighten the load. The author of one article explained that the relief of writing it all down doesn’t come from catharsis alone. “I imagine catharsis as an evolutionary adaptation, nature’s mechanism of positive reinforcement. Catharsis feels good, so writers seek to recreate the experience, in this case by continuing to write about troubling experiences. This initial purge can lead to mulling over, which results in new ways of seeing old problems and an evolution of thought.”
Counselors have also weighed in on the topic. One decided he should take his own advice and try creative writing. He ended up sorting through the baggage that 100 hours of counseling hadn’t gotten to. Yet another article stressed that writers in particular could benefit from CNF. It states, “Authors can benefit from this because their jobs are filled with doubt and fear and imposter syndrome and all sorts of feelings that often can’t be expressed, for fear of damaging their brand, or their work or their income.”
Once I started writing about my damage, I couldn’t stop. I wrote letters that I would never send to the people who hurt me. I wrote journal entries to myself, asking my future self if we would be okay, pleading with my past self to hold on, reflecting with my present self if we were really happy. The longer I wrote and let everything spill out onto the page, words and tears alike, the more often I could say, “Yes, Jennifer, we are happy. This isn’t where I thought I’d be, and I’m scared, but I’m happy, and I think, someday, I’ll be okay.”
Creative nonfiction is in no way a substitute for professional help, and I am in no ways an expert. However, CNF helped me, and it helped me a lot. If any of this resonated with you, give it a shot. Go ahead and put your bags down for a bit.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Or if you want to see what CNF looks like on the published page, check out Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
Meet the blogger:
JENNIFER FRITTON is a junior BFA student at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. She’s working towards a degree in Creative Writing and is looking forward to her retirement in 70 years.