Why Poetry

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I read poetry

Because of lines like Stein’s

All this and not ordinary

A line just distinguishes it. And

Frank’s Hum-colored Cabs

That bring me elsewhere

Only to gasp from knowing

I have been here before.

Poetry is slow

-writing that asks for

Slow reading.

For meaning not easily teased

For brevity that strikes its heart-mark

For the now and now, this,

That you and I share

That was nothing before this.

Poetry by Scribblerbean©

As a former writer for hire, I would discharge words like cheap bullets that more or less hit their marks.  My brain ran on a loop, a Dickinsonian groove, stuck with language as habit rather than craft. Over time, dissatisfaction over crappy writing jobs morphed into illumination, as I tired of the language in my possession and my cavalier use of it. I decided it was time to relearn English, but set my bar as high as I could. Poetry, I knew, was the highest form of language. So I pursued it by going back to university, but that wasn’t enough.  Image

From September through to mid November this year, I shared a virtual classroom with about 35,000 poetry learners around the world, who ranged from teachers with advanced degrees to eager and nervous novices. Devoting myself to a fast-paced syllabus, the study of poetry shaped my mornings, infused my afternoon half-naps, kept me up until my entire household was fast asleep. But this was a class unlike any I had ever signed up for.

Offered through Coursera, Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo, lovingly) boasts of both passion and bold, cutting-edge pedagogy. Meticulously designed and taught by University of Pennsylvania’s Al Filreis, ModPo is an intimate, no-lectures-given, community-driven, tech-enabled village of multitudes brought together by a love of language. Given my unconventional academic path and my physical distance from institutions offering the rigorous training I craved, I have been thankful for the accessibility of MOOCs and online learning. But ModPo is an experience as extraordinary as Al himself, sprung from an ecosystem of webcasts, readings, and live events open to all lovers of poetry. And quite unlike my online classes with their forums and uploading of course content, one is present “in ModPo” truly and holistically. Al and his brilliant, captivating TAs are, safe to say, ever-present both on- and offline, through weekly webcasts, in near-synchronous online exchanges, and on campus, real-life/real-time meet-ups at the Kelly Writers House. Al and the ModPo team offer presence, accessibility, and enthusiasm, and immense generosity with both material and insight. ModPo gives its students more than a deep engagement with poetic texts and ideas; it cultivates an uncommon community that jumps borders. Image

Nearly two weeks after its official end, ModPo’s forums are still abuzz with students-turned-online friends. The poetry talk rages on, hearts and minds urged wide open anew to receive and make meaning of Whitman, Dickinson, O’Hara, Stein, Kerouac, Ashbery, Goldsmith.

It was the right decision to pursue poetry because there is much fulfillment in it. Whether I evolve towards poetic practice that involves writing and publishing remains to be seen, but I am hopeful with this, my renewed relationship with language. Today I am more than content chatting with newfound poetry friends around the world, and unraveling newfound favorites, like Whitman and Stein, and O’Hara, Ashbery, and Silliman. Thank you, Al; and thank you, ModPo community.

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How To Make Muffins

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On afternoons when the air crawls and my words get lost in a cloud in my head, I bake. As cupboards slam, the rattling of cake tins begins to dislodge ideas, shaking them loose like flour through a sifter.

For all its demands of focus and precise amounts, baking draws me into a state of unforced thinking, a mental meander that spills out beyond the countertops, past the lines on the measuring cup and confines of the measuring spoons. Before the hour is up the words begin to rise up, because memory is like yeast.

My chocolate chip cookies have found fans among my children’s friends for about a decade. Even without consulting the recipe, I can make these cookies without paying too much attention to amounts of flour, baking powder, baking soda, two kinds of sugar. I know the space a cup of butter occupies in my mother’s pink mixing bowl.

Sometimes the mixture is a pinch short of salt, or the butter is half an ounce over. Routine dictates deftness and pace, but sometimes I just want my cookies. The mess I make in my kitchen is spectacular. If the batter comes to a texture like down pillows (as it must for today’s sour cream blueberry muffins) it will be beautiful coming out of the oven. Hunger, as Carlo Collodi wrote, is the best sauce. Despite improvisation, a need is satisfied.

Not so when I attempt to write. As a craft, writing is more demanding and less forgiving than baking. So much can fall flat. There are no tried-and-tested recipes. There are no basic ingredients when one has tens of thousands of words to choose from, and only the most carefully selected will do. And even then, an afternoon’s efforts do not guarantee a satisfying result. Where it takes an hour to bake even the most gorgeous of all cupcakes, it can take a lifetime to create a work of substance and elegance.

I think about this when I struggle to craft a 500-word piece I can be happy with. The writer Jane Hirshfield, in taking apart the meticulous writing of Emily Dickinson, has said, “a single word can be as consequential to the experience and meaning as a single link is to the integrity of a chain.” And so I run my fingers over words to find the choicest, freshest ones (never, never use too much), roll them around so I can taste them first, testing them for heat or coolness. I imagine combinations of flavors, scents, and textures, staggered by the possibilities and the responsibility.

No wonder I get stuck. No matter: I head to the kitchen, and begin to bake.