Gwen Benaway is of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. Her first collection of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead, was published in 2013, and her second, Passage, is forthcoming from Kegedonce Press in Fall 2016. As an emerging Two-Spirited poet, she has been described as the spiritual love child of Thompson Highway and Truman Capote. In 2015, she was the recipient of the inaugural Speaker’s Award for a Young Author from the Speaker of the House for the Ontario Legislative. Her work has been published and anthologized internationally, and she stopped by the BWS Blog ahead of her July 13 appearance–our annual Queer Night, co-presented with Plenitude Magazine–with some tips for beginning poets.
Ways to Strengthen Poetry: Embodying the Moment
I do not have a MFA. I did not major in English Literature in university. I do not consider myself well read in terms of poetry and I lack a command of the technical theory which underpins it. My approach is instinctive, driven by what I love and the poetry I connect with. I often pick out poetry books based on their covers and quick scans of their line breaks. I try to school myself in the proper poets, reading the “greats” and my contemporary Canadian peers, but I often default to poetry books written by women with birds on the cover. You might be surprised by the number of Canadian poetry books written by women with birds on the cover. I think it is its own sub-genre.
Caveats aside, I thought it useful to provide some advice to new poets in this post. I haven’t written on this topic before, and despite my lack of professional qualification, I think I can offer some basic advice. Some of it comes from other poets/writers; much of it comes from my writing practice, the muscles that develop from the everyday work of writing poetry. Take everything with a grain of salt. Poetry is a very technical craft but it is also a medium carried by voice. If your voice is powerful, the technique can always be improved, but the emotional resonance of your poetry will carry through.
1: Write from Memory
When I was 15, I attended a week-long program for young writers in London, Ontario. My instructor was George Elliott Clarke and he gave us a writing exercise that I have used ever since. I’m sure there are innumerable versions of the exercise but whenever I think of it, I hear the instructions in his voice and recall him bobbing back and forth in his chair when he taught us. It is a simple exercise to build poetic practice around. You start with the phrase “I remember” and follow the thread of your writing along. Try to write for 20 minutes. Prose writers try to “free write” and not edit until the end. As a poet, I think it is helpful if you edit as you go, cutting and pressing the words together until they assemble an interesting shape. Stay within the body of the one poem for the 20 minutes and try to inhabit one memory. The magic of this exercise is how it forces you to embody a single moment, which is where poetry begins.
2. Be Specific
Poetry wallows in the vague and general, but finds strength in detail and specific imagery. If you are writing about the rain, figure out what kind it was (light, heavy, city rain, summer rain— the options are endless!) and describe what element of it is significant. Think in terms of your senses. There aren’t only five senses open to a poet: for example, you could add temperature or pressure to smell, sound, sight, touch and taste. Work through your body towards the specific details of a moment.
If it is a poem drawn from life, name the details that frame it. I want to read poetry which is about real places, people, and experiences. I often hear new poets trying to make a poem’s meaning as mysterious as possible. This does not have the intended effect of making the poem sound more artistic or profound. A vague or muddled poem tells me the poet hasn’t done the work to make their work accessible. Specific writing will help you avoid this fatal mistake. Yes, John Ashbery is a profound exception, but I’m not as talented as John Ashbery and odds are, neither are you.
3. Be Brave
One of the important questions to ask when writing a poem is “what am I communicating”? If you are writing about how a new lover touches you and using an elaborate metaphor to describe it, consider speaking plainly. Good poetry can be profound while being simple. Describe how they touch you. Speak in specifics. What about their body or touch interests you? Find the details and expand them. Inhabit the moment. Communicate clearly.
For most new poets, communicating clearly requires a level of honesty which is terrifying at first. One of the reasons I think people are drawn to writing poetry is because it seems to cloak the truth in imagery and second-hand meanings. Poetry that is not clear is bad poetry. It can be challenging and filled with rich meanings, but your audience should walk away from a poem with some sense of what it is about. Writing about your lost love? The death of a parent? Your menstrual cycle? Say it, no matter how uncomfortable you feel. Be brave and follow the poetry home.
Left to my devices without the intrusion of work, publishing, or time, I would edit my poetry for eternity. Editing poetry is my favourite part of writing it. The first pass at any poem is rarely the final piece. I revise every poem at least 4 times but there are poems I have rewritten more than 10 times. You should develop a similar perspective on editing poetry. Read poetry out loud to yourself. If you have trouble saying a stanza, edit it. If you get bored, edit it. If any part of the poem feels rough in your voice, edit it.
5: Believe It
If you are going to write poetry, believe in poetry. Read poetry. Take it seriously. Don’t treat it as a stepping stone to writing prose: the skills are different and will not translate well. Use poetry in your everyday life. Collect poets you love and follow their origins to the poets that inspired them. Listen to diverse poets from around the globe. Look for technique in every poem you read. Do not apologize for reading, writing, or loving poetry. Believe in poetry and commit to it.
Historically, poetry comes from prayer and oral storytelling. It is a profound and powerful human medium. The novel is a very young art form compared to the long-form poem; human beings have been codifying worldviews and culture into poetry for much longer than they have been making short story collections. This doesn’t take away from the importance of prose and its current favoured forms, but it should remind you that poetry is hardwired into human experience. It is one of the most intimate forms because it mirrors thought and speaks through the immediacy of the body.
6. Love It
My final advice about writing poetry is simple. You have to love poetry in order to write it. If you are writing to impress strangers, win acclaim, or devastate your enemies, your poetry will falter and fail. Poetry is a long walk alone up a tall mountain in a Canadian snowstorm, chasing tiny fragments of words. If you make it to the top you will have handfuls of words which may mean something to you and nothing to everyone else. Love for your craft is the only reward which makes the struggle of poetry worth it.
At my core, I’m convinced a poet is a person who has a profound love of the world. A poet is open and embraces all experience. A poet is obsessed with the colour of the sky above their hometown. A poet walks the city streets to follow the rhythm of life and ends up in unexpected destinations. A poet works tirelessly at a small and intricate task with little hope of any return or reward. Above all else, a poet loves with an intense and persistent fierceness, storing up memory and place inside their cells to transmit across bodies through language.
Gwen Benaway visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 13, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Kumasi Jay Gwynne, Matthew R. Loney, Yaya Yao and a special guest talk by reviews editor Rachna Contractor of Plenitude Magazine, co-presenter of this month’s event!