DISCOURSE as quilting

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remnant 73: “It’s not a place of measurement”

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On poetry: “It’s not a place of measurement.”

Naomi Shihab Nye: The Art of Teaching Poetry

Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change, Naomi Shihab Nye

Stars explode.
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.

“Excrement….We’re not laying pipe; we’re talking about poetry.”

Dead Poets Society

Paul Proteus to his wife Anita, Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut:

“No, no. You’ve got something the tests and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” (p. 178)

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut


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April 2, 2015 at 2:24 pm

remnant 56: “thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness”

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Writing about Franz Kafka, Bob Blaisdell explores Kafka’s relationship with writing:

As he told Felice, one of his fiancees (he would remain a bachelor): “My mode of life is devised solely for writing, and if there are any changes, then only for the sake of perhaps fitting in better with my writing; for time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers. The satisfaction gained by maneuvering one’s timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say.” This last sentence is part of Kafka’s thinking about the unavoidable self-revelation of writing. How often we read work whose loudest message is “I wish I were doing anything but writing.” Kafka had poor health; he needed to conserve all his energy and attention for writing. Writing did not give him vitality; it certainly did not give him money or fame in his lifetime. It was a compulsion, a habit, a refuge. It made life possible and purposeful; it sometimes, not always, gave him peace of mind. Sometimes it brought him to despair over its difficulty, or it exposed his weaknesses to the light, but he also noticed how sometimes, in the midst of that despair, writing gave him distance from (and thus rescued him from) that despair:

I have never understood how it is possible for almost everyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them; thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness, in all likelihood with my head still smarting from unhappiness, sit down and write to someone: I am unhappy. Yes, I can even go beyond that and with as many flourishes as I have the talent for, all of which seem to have nothing to do with my unhappiness, ring simple, or contrapuntal, or a whole orchestration of changes on my theme. And it is not a lie, and it does not still my pain; it is simply a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being and plainly exhausted all my strength.

As a young man firmly in the grasp of the compulsion to write, struggling with what that meant, floundering with the evil twin of wanting to be published, I read, re-read, marked in, and carried around (also compulsively) a copy of The Basic Kafka.

The Basic Kafka

The mid-term assignment I now use in my first year seminar that is writing intensive invites students to interview professors, academics, or writers about their lives as writers; one of the questions I recommend they ask is about what compels them to write. Many students are surprised to find that so many who write have extremely conflicted relationships with needing to write, wanting to write, or being compelled to write (and that many academics dislike writing, dread it).

I have many writer-Selves, and I share that with students.

The writer-Self for me most like what Kafka details in his journal is my poet-Self.

In all writing contexts—poetry, blogging, scholarly work—I am compelled; these are not things I choose to do. But the poetry is the most beyond my conscious control.

For lack of a better way to explain it (odd, yes, for someone who calls himself a writer: as Kafka also warned, words tend to fail us), poems simply come to me.

And therein is the problem.

With blogs and scholarly work, there is certainly inspired writing. And with all my writing, the moment I finish a piece I am immediately petrified I’ll never again have anything to write. This is what being a writer is.

But the great bulk of prose writing allows me to make some decisions, step back, reject ideas, experience fits and starts, and sometimes abandoning all together.

To ignore a poem is like turning your back on a child.

So recently I felt moved—in other words, these poems called out to me to write them—to write poems about the shooting of Jordan Davis, poems that feel akin to poems written about Trayvon Martin: Four Poems: For Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin.

criminal acts (black&white)” came first and then “misfire (trigger warning).”

The latter represents the most difficult part of being a poet—being compelled to write poetry—for me.

I was (I am) petrified by the piece. The topic is hard, the language walks a thin line of confrontation and offense, and the act of writing poetry about other people’s tragedies feels invasive.

Writing is necessarily and simultaneously two contradictory things: intensely solitary and private as well as nakedly public, communal.

One aspect of the communal element of writing is that many writers thrive on collaboration—the most important of which is an editor or readers who see drafts before a wider public reads the work.

Scholarly work often goes through several drafts and editors before publication.

My blogs and poetry, however, tend to reach readers after having passed only my eyes and mind, and there is a terror to that, a terror that suggests that only those compelled to write would continue to go through the process.

Many writes have confronted all this, possibly few better than Kafka.

So key moments sustain the writer (and I would argue all artists)—and the writer above all else needs sustenance; and therefore, it is no surprise Kafka wrote again and again about hunger and starving (see A Hunger Artist).

One moment is the kind reader. The “I like this piece” or the truly wonderful “I love this piece.”

The other moment is selfish and comes also in that solitary state.

You revisit a piece, possibly one you barely recall. And you think “I’m glad I wrote that.”

And then being a writer creeps across your skin as you are immediately petrified that you’ll never again write anything that good.

Sometimes we get a second or two, but rarely more…

And so we steel ourselves against the insecurities of being a writer, the fears that threaten to paralyze. We recall and imagine the kind reader, and then we move on, feeding the beast within us. It is ravenous and self-consuming, yes.

But there are days, quite by chance, that we read ourselves and find peace in our own words, a peace we feel thousands of times in the words of others. And we smile:

layers (stranger in my own dreams)


Written by plthomasedd

February 23, 2014 at 3:50 pm

remnant 12: “my fingers touch your blood,” Frida Kahlo

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I woke with the opening lines to a poem and then an image, but couldn’t really piece it all together in terms of what I was exploring until I coincidentally came across a post at Brain Pickings on Frida Kahlo’s letters to her lover, Diego Rivera:


Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.


My new poem (revised):

“impressions (hints of you)” (click below for larger image)


Written by plthomasedd

April 21, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Frida Kahlo, poetry, remnant 12

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remnant 11: poetry of social consciousness, personal experience

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My poet Self is in many ways the real me, but distinct from my social and professional personas.

People who “know” me in my many roles in daily life often find my poetry unlike what they would have expected (in part, not expecting me to be a poet at all, and more significantly, not expecting so much “love” poetry).

Yet, the real me, and often closeted me, is he who sits on the couch alone and watches Notting Hill as often as possible, somewhat to laugh, but mainly to cry. On my iPod tour this morning driving into work, I listened to “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (spectacular opening lines) and then “She” by Elvis Costello. It is the kind of stuff I wish I had written.

A tremendous part of my poet Self is one who writes from inspiration. Poems come to me; I do not write poems by choice, and I certainly don’t write poems from any prompting. [This fact has greatly informed who I have become as a writing teacher—recognizing the failure of prompting others to write.]

Thus, although my scholarly and teacher Selves are driven primarily by a pursuit of social justice, few of my poems are social consciousness pieces; most of my poetry is very much personal experience explorations.

Yet, after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I was compelled by the phrase “they ran.”

When I saw the video of the explosion, I was struck and then haunted by how many people ran toward the blast, the debris and smoke.

As I watched the news coverage and listened to radio coverage, I again was struck with how many people noticed the running toward.

And from that came this:

“they ran (15 April 2013)”

they ran

they ran to win
they ran to be fast
they ran to chase personal bests
they ran to honor
they ran to survive
they ran to raise money for others
they ran to finish

and then the explosion
followed by another

they fell
they stumbled
they ducked their heads
they turned to look

they ran toward the billowing smoke
they ran toward the debris
they ran toward the screams
they ran toward the crying
they ran toward the bleeding

they ran


The poetic heritage of this piece can be traced to Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” a brilliant crafting of poetic expression, deft lination, and deceptively simple language.

For me, as well, the poetry of social consciousness and the poetry of personal experience share a place in the heart, feeling something so deeply at the core of being human that it rises above us, out of us, expands us, and moves us.

The events captured in the Boston Marathon explosion video moved me to tears, and at least one person reading my poem shared with me on Facebook that at the “turn” moment of the poem, she was moved to tears.

I suppose in the end, I am compelled to argue that the poetry of social consciousness is the poetry of personal experience, the poetry of personal experience is the poetry of social consciousness.

They are both of the human heart.

Since they are rare, here are a few more of my social consciousness poems:

“calculating (the erased)”

“choice (Vote!)”


“on imprisonment and freedom”

“the consumers (crimes against the market)”

“the world (frantic)”

Written by plthomasedd

April 17, 2013 at 3:02 pm

remnant 9: Thoreau on poetry

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From Henry David Thoreau’s Journals:

Poetry — No definition of poetry is adequate unless it be poetry itself. The most accurate analysis by the rarest wisdom is yet insufficient, and the poet will instantly prove it false by setting aside its requisitions. It is indeed all that we do not know. The poet does not need to see how meadows are something else than earth, grass, and water, but how they are thus much. He does not need discover that potato blows are as beautiful as violets, as the farmer thinks, but only how good potato blows are. The poem is drawn out from under the feet of the poet, his whole weight has rested on this ground. It has a logic more severe than the logician’s. You might as well think to go in pursuit of the rainbow, and embrace it on the next hill, as to embrace the whole of poetry even in thought.

January 26, 1840


Ars Poetica

by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

remnant 8: what makes poetry, poetry?

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In an effort to create meaning out of the symmetry of life and death found in Kurt Vonnegut being born November 11 (1922) and dying April 11 (2007)—eleven to eleven, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as it were—I posted a poem of mine about the sadness, and even tears, I experienced at Vonnegut’s death and then again as I read a biography of him:

reading a biography (in the absence of you)

The poem is a musing about absence and loss, and I also Tweeted the poem as a nod to National Poetry Month, and my own experiences with how life and art merge and intersect to spur my own attempts at art.

And then all of that leads to this, a brief post about raising a piece of writing to the level of poetry—since I have for many years worked with people of all ages themselves on a journey to write poetry.


In my sincere but flawed larva years of teaching, I spent a tremendous amount of poorly invested energy telling students what poetry is as well as what poems mean and how to mine that meaning.

With age and experience came wisdom, of sorts, a wisdom that grew from my own evolution as a teacher and writer/poet.

Instead of telling students this or that about poetry (all of which was so much hokum), I allowed our poetry unit to revolve around a question: What makes poetry, poetry?

And the answer we came back to again and again is so simple it seems simplistic, but it is instead enduring: Poetry primarily comes from a purposefulness of language committed to shaping a piece of writing around the format of lines and stanzas (as distinct from sentences and paragraphs).

While I have found nothing better than this explanation, I also know that it contributes almost nothing to anyone writing poetry or reading poetry. It is both nearly perfect as an explanation and nearly completely useless in any practical sense.

My poetry unit always weaved the songs and lyrics of R.E.M. with poems, and the process allowed us to consider each poem for its poetic qualities—always asking, What makes this poem a poem?

A few cautions I offered about song lyrics and poetry, however, include that they are distinct—song lyrics conform to some conventional and genre/medium conventions absent in poetry, although poetry often remains an oral form of text. As I’ve noted before, my poetry rests on an Imagist tradition that highlights another distinction about lination and stanza formation, typically less important or absent in lyrics.

A common response I make when someone new to writing poetry shows me a poem for my feedback is, “This is a good idea for a poem, but it hasn’t yet been lifted to the level of poetry.” This alone isn’t much help, but I do follow up, and here are some of my usual recommendations:

• Form lines and stanzas with purpose; seek some pattern, some guiding structure. Traditional guides include meter and/or syllable count, but thousands of mechanisms can guide line and stanza formation. The key is purpose—having, discovering, and then remaining faithful to that purpose.

• Identify and decrease the use of abstract words (love, hope, etc.); identify and increase the use of concrete words. For a lyric example, consider the power of the concrete in The National’s “Demons”: “crying underwater,” “drowning friends,” “buzzards,” “Alligators in the sewers,” “huddle,” “drink the blood and hang the palms,” “pythons.” These are all concrete, vivid, and provocative, and they help create and expand motifs. For a poem example, read carefully “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theordore Roethke.

• Draft, revise, reshape, and allow the poem to lead you as you reshape it. Discover what you are chasing, and then help breath life into those motifs and ideas by the craft of language—sound devices (alliteration, assonance, rhyme), imagery, metaphor/simile, parallelism, grammar and mechanics (both conforming to and stepping beyond conventions)…

Let me turn to speaking directly about “the economy of mix tapes (bygone),” a recent poem of mine.

This poem began as two lines that simply came to me: “you taught me how to say ‘i love you'” and “a certain concision of mix tapes.”

As you can see, the first line survived as the first line of the poem, but as I drafted, “concision” (which I wanted to stress that making a mix tape was like writing a poem, and that one of the key aspects of what makes poetry, poetry is concision) gave way to “economy.”

As I played with the mix tape idea, I recognized the poem seeking a way to explore doing things for and with someone you love, and ultimately someone you love but from whom you are now separated or distant.

That led to the shower scene that attempts to blur memory, dream, and regret.

Many of my poems come back to and repeat exact lines and stanzas (like song lyrics/refrains), but repeating a line/stanza later in a poem is never exactly the same because it has space to breath and grow from what has come in between.

The odd part of composing for me is how the world begins to reach in. I drove to Subway for lunch while still thinking about the draft, and as I switched on my iPod in the car, I thought about a song named “Regret”—initially in error thinking it was a song by The National. Back home, I searched iTunes and found the Fiona Apple song, and included a few lines (although the tones and situations of her song and my poem are quiet different).

Still not sure about the draft, I read further into Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart and was really thrown by the baptism passage, also a motif of my poem.

With the misremembering of the “Regret” song attributed to The National, I later could not get “Everything I can remember/I remember wrong” out of my mind—also another idea my poem is exploring.

A few elements that came late in the drafting but contributed (I think) to lifting the draft to the level of poetry include:

• Playing with words—”bygone” began to nag at me and it remains such an odd word in the way it looks and its grammar of “let bygones be bygones”; the odd plural and the concept of being a bygone both disorient me.

• Seeking simple but vivid images, I added the walking on eggshells motif.

• The armband tattoo image/motif was maybe the last revision that really engages me because the tattoo itself is technically both finite and infinite.

It may seem odd to someone not a poet, or not yet a poet, but the drafting phase of a poem is long and tedious. For me, it involves 5 or 6 hours mixed with washing and drying clothes, washing dishes, reading, listening to songs, writing other pieces—and it is often spawned from dreams or sudden lines coming to me or lingering in my mind for days.

So I’ll end with a poem I just posted: “tears remain tears (time travel pt. 2).”

After a night of a very vivid and long dreams, I was haunted by the act at the center of the poem, the brief hooking of a person’s hand to get someone’s attention, the seed of affection that would bloom. My habit of the parenthetical addition to many of my titles here helps connect this poem with another time travel piece, although the two exist in parallel but different universes, “time travel (in this time after the End).” I also include The National lyrics that prompted me seeing the image of a person sitting at the bottom of the pool, crying to hide.

What makes poetry, poetry?

Written by plthomasedd

April 12, 2013 at 5:40 pm

remnant 3: it started with a cup of coffee

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It started with a cup of coffee. Literally.

Yesterday morning as I put honey in my morning coffee, two phrases came to mind: “I have set aside crystalline sugar,” followed by “this quest for sweetness.”

Several hours later—maybe 8 or 10 hours, in fact—I had my newest poem, “this quest for sweetness.”

A few years back, a colleague, Sean O’Rourke, and I were discussing the writing of Op-Eds, commentaries for the popular press. Commentaries usually are about 750 words, and Sean and I agreed that writing an Op-Ed is a great deal like writing a poem; they are both about an economy of language, a quest for the vivid, the accurate, and the concise.

The why and how of writing are too little examined, I think—especially for and with students and developing writers. Here, I want to tease out briefly the writing of my newest poem against the poor reputation poetry receives in school and the very real and enduring power of poetry, as expressed by James Dickey:

The more your encounter with poetry deepens, the more your experience of your own life will deepen, and you will begin to see things by means of words, and words by means of things.

You will come to understand the world as it interacts with words, as it can be re-created by words, by rhythms and by images.

You’ll understand that this condition is one charged with vital possibilities. You will pick up meaning more quickly — and you will create meaning, too, for yourself and others.

All genres, forms, media, and modes of writing exist because of a combination of inspiration/motivation and craft. These two aspects of composing are not necessarily sequential; in other words, inspiration/motivation does not always precede craft. But they are inseparable, the one feeding the other and the other feeding the one.

My poet self is quite distinct from my Op-Ed self, and both of these are distinct from my long-form self. But as a professional writer (as distinguished from a student writer), in almost all of my writing, I am allowed to compose from my own inspiration/motivation. Occasionally, I am invited to write to a prompt of some sort, but even then, I am at liberty to decline.

Those of us teaching writing must always be aware that students are disproportionately compelled externally to write, and the quality of their writing tends to be negatively impacted by that external compulsion.

For me, poetry specifically comes to me, unbidden. I would classify my poetry as inspired, but I do not discount that these sudden flashes of “see[ing] things by means of words, and words by means of things,” as Dickey explains, are the result of being deeply immersed in some rich artistic and life experiences. The quilting of my poetry often comes in the form of reading a wonderful new novel, listening to a new CD, or watching a beautiful, powerful film.

Art and life push words into my brain; thus, “I have set aside crystalline sugar” and “this quest for sweetness.”

My influences are external, but my compulsion is somewhere deep inside, and it is cumulative.

For example, I was driving down the interstate several weeks ago and the word “crinoline” came to me. To be honest, I wasn’t sure it was a word, and I was even uncertain what I thought it meant (I assumed correctly it was a type of fabric, but didn’t understand its full meaning until I researched the term), but it came and it nagged.

A poem, “crinoline (&),” soon emerged once I did some google searching, and then I felt threads merging with Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (a story about quilting as art or for utility I taught for years in A.P. English) and Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” (a chance connection spurred by a Tweet).

My public commentary and scholarly work require a great deal of research, but poems such as “crinoline (&)” do as well since I tend to explore and study what words mean, how they are derived, what their histories entail. I came to see that “crinoline” has gender inextricably weaved in the fabric of the word.

And that leads me to craft.

Even very brief poems of mine—like “this quest for sweetness,” “in case you ever wonder,” or “a short poem about a hollow object”—consume hours of craft, generally layered with reading, working on other pieces, listening to music, or washing clothes and dishes.

Poetic craft, for me, tends to involve some key patterns: images (I am committed to the concrete tradition of Imagist poets such as e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams), word choice and word etymology, and grammar. To be honest, most of my poetry disguises word play with the mask of love poetry. Both matter to me, but my word fetish is at least as powerful as my effort to say something.

In “this quest for sweetness,” the title came quickly and stayed, as did the opening two-line stanza (generally the stanza/line formations of a poem come to me along with the words, but occasionally, as I draft, the poetic form reshapes itself, a further reflection of my Imagist foundation, my concern for how a poem looks and sounds).

Below is the original draft, and notice a few areas of fretting:

  • I thought of “crystalline” initially but late in the draft worried that I should use “granular,” opting to stay with the original mainly for the sound.
  • The second stanza changed significantly and suddenly just as I thought I was finished, although I never wanted to use “sweetness” twice. “Drizzle” became “drizzled,” and moved, while “lacing” came to mind and really helped clarify for me deeper and fuller images for the brief poem (I still cannot get molasses out of my mind and fought the urge to change to that because of the distinct flavor).
  • Most of my poems “tell” me the title somewhere in a line or phrase of the poem; in this case, the title came almost immediately, but I still had to discover where it fit in the flow.
  • The last stanza was the hardest and initially least fulfilling, but it represents well how craft matters in ways to writers that may be lost on those who do not write. I wrestled with “sugarcane” or “sugar cane” (google shows both); with “grove,” “orchard,” or “field” (likely settling on “field” for the “l” of “lips” and “lost”); and with prepositions—”among,” against,” “in.”

Poems such as “this quest for sweetness” and “crinoline (&)” highlight discourse as quilting as well as the discursive and cross-pollinating relationship between inspiration/motivation and craft. The “sweetness” motif of the first and the “fabric” motif of the second provided me as a writer a foundation upon which to stand as words, ideas, and images swirled around me.

Poetry is evidence that discourse is quilting, as Dickey adds, “Connections between things will exist for you in ways that they never did before. They will shine with unexpectedness, wide-openness, and you will go toward them, on your own path.”

[original draft]

this quest for sweetness
i have set aside

crystalline [granular?] sugar
for the golden drizzle

stickiness [sweetness] of honey
but this quest for sweetness

can never bear the fruit
of my lips lost once again

among [against]  your sugarcane grove

Written by plthomasedd

March 24, 2013 at 1:31 pm