DISCOURSE as quilting

Welcome to the intersection of P. L. Thomas writing about his writing and other writers' writing to explore discourse as quilting.

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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

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Written by plthomasedd

March 24, 2013 at 1:31 pm