Poetry Birds

by Joni WallacePoetry Birds 4

Joni Wallace's poetry collection Blinking Ephemeral Valentine was selected by Mary Jo Bang for the 2009 Levis Prize and is forthcoming from Four Way Books (March, 2011). Her poems have been published in Boston Review, Barrow Street, Blue Mesa Review, Conduit, Cutbank, Forklift, Ohio, Laurel Review and have been featured in Connotations Press, An Online Artifact. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana. Joni is also a musician and co-founder, with poet Ann Dernier, of Poets' Studio.

"These are the poetry birds, Mom," says my beaming five-year-old, presenting me with her drawing. "And...they are famous."  For the last two years these birds have graced the wall in the room where I write. If they had a song, it would be  "attention, pay attention."  And they remind of something Dean Young wrote of poets: we are trying to make birds, not birdhouses.  This same "birdness" is what Richard Shelton calls "claritas:" those moments of clairvoyant transcendence that come through poems when poems work.  

Presented with the opportunity to teach a workshop at the Poetry Center this summer, I asked myself "what is it you want to be part of?"  Busy with work and small children, I crave those fleeting hours of artistic immersion where nothing else matters. I want to engage fully in the act of making those birds with words on a page. Birdhouses, well, those too I want to make when I have that luxury, those beautiful places which contain and inform the physical poem, giving it the "thingness" of my daughter's emerald birds sparkling from the wall as I write.

I called the workshop Eclipses and Shadow Puppets after a poem I had written, a breakthrough poem for me. The poem consists of six sections and six lines.  Perhaps it isn't a great poem, but it is definitely a bird.  Rooted in an event, it quickly flew away on its own and as if pulling a string of yarn, it unraveled the poetic sweater I had been knitting since graduate school.  The white page spoke.  The narrative fragmented.  The poem gathered and cast its shadows. And it informed and brought cinematic and musical movement to a body of work behind and before it, a new aesthetic and what feels to me like clarity.            

I designed the workshop to map some of the ways I walked toward and through that poem.   I wanted to collectively talk about the "post post-modern poem," what some call the "elliptical" poem.  I wanted to reach beyond the labels and try to figure out what makes "that kind" of poem - when it works - a bird.  A lot of experimenting, some chance, cross-genre and cross-disciplinary fertilization, a quieting of the voice that demands too soon "what does it mean, what does it mean" and careful attention to the ear that knows meaning comes in many dimensions, that it lives beyond linear thought.  That's what I wanted the workshop to approach.  Young children work this way and their poems never fail to amaze me.  It is harder for the rest of us.

Like the six sections of my Eclipse poem, the workshop met for six days. I started with something I learned from Neil Young. Young was playing a benefit in Red Rocks following a long line of musicians. He came out unannounced and mostly unrecognized with another guy and an electric guitar.  They played ten minutes of distortion, hit the ghost notes, and disappeared. When he finally came back with his band, the amphitheatre had been transformed. The air was empty, soundless, everything that came before gone.

In homage to Young's apt erasures that day, I asked everyone to bring a finished poem to class. Then I handed out scissors. We cut the poems apart.  We reassembled some of the cut-ups quickly on white paper. These are the poems we read to each other. Liberating for some, disconcerting for others, the process was important.  We had both deconstructed and constructed the field from which we would work, from which we could "make it new."

Poetry Birds 1That night we started with a modified form of automatic writing, collecting images from memory. Mutable as it is, memory has important messages. From this writing we culled and sculpted the best pieces. We wrote them on strips like Chinese fortunes and strung them together - intuitively and literally. The tactile work informed the poetic work.  These fragments became central.

From there we leapt right into an exploration of memory and String Theory. The science haunted the next poems like tracks in snow. We were getting somewhere.  We kept working. We mined "shadow poems" by sanding words from board books, leaving only those we chose.

Poetry Birds 2Children's books evoke some of the richest parts of our creative lives.  We altered them with our adult sensibilities. For me, the results were stunning.

At the end of each session we wrote a "prompted" poem on a postcard, automatic but informed by the night's work. After class I dropped these at the Post Office on Speedway. Many of these found their way into the final chapbooks, fragmented and beautiful, as fresh as their USPS postmarks.  

By the fourth day, everyone began work on the birdhouse: a visual chapbook.  We used that project to inform the body of work we had been writing - more windows into and out of, more openings.  We spent the next to last afternoon intensely work-shopping poems.  We revised together but separately that same night.

Poetry Birds 3On the last day we made shadow puppets. These walked right out of the work. We flash-lit them. We placed them on the white page and wrote over them like bodies, our words repeating the phrase "this is not...  this is not...."  Kansas anymore?  It wasn't.

As we worked in the final hours, I watched the chapbooks emerge. Oddly cohesive, everyone's different, all remarkable.  The poetic work defied labels.  I would call it amazing, beautiful, startling.  I can't take credit for that. As we shared our work on the last day, a total solar eclipse darkened the sky in the South Pacific. I can't take credit for that either. The best part of the workshop is that I think we all stepped out onto a strange and evolving stage and came away with the kind of work that risks flight. And now my daughter's poetry birds -- well, they are at least a little famous.
Images from work by Elizabeth Falcon, Mary Myers and Mary Setliff.

Created on: 
Monday, September 27, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents