Poem as Suitcase—What to Pack, What to Leave Behind

Rebecca Irene'

The following is a guest post by Rebecca Irene, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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After writing initial drafts in longhand, I’m ready to start typing a poem out on my computer. I begin in optimism—sit down at my desk, stare at some inspiring quotes on my corkboard. Encouraging and antagonistic alike (A word after a word after a word is power-Atwood/ The first draft of everything is shit-Hemingway), these mantras remind me to just begin, but dear reader, is there any despair deeper than a winking cursor and the looming void of a new file? Actually, yes, ok, plenty, but the stark white rectangle gets me every time. Numerous authors have shared about the terrors encountered along the way to a decent first draft. Not many promise that it gets any easier. For those of us who must write, we find ways to navigate the revision labyrinth. Since I frequently moved growing up, and still love to travel, sometimes it helps me to think of each poem as essential luggage for a particular journey.

Luggage: Form. Where does the poem want to go? Just as you wouldn’t pack a purse for a ten-day trip to the Arctic, you probably shouldn’t try to force a natural haiku into a crown of sonnets. Choose an appropriate bag (form) for possibility & intention of the specific poem. Denise Levertov reminds— form is never more than a revelation of content. The initial form may eventually change during the revision process, but at least you have gotten started! When choosing syntax/enjambment, ask what kind of movement the lines might take for their particular voyage. I often think of villanelles and sestinas as steamer trunks, apologias tend to be old leather suitcases, sonnets—vintage hat boxes. My free verse regularly gets stuffed into backpacks, and canvas duffels tend to carry odes about my obsessions: cicadas, cattails, and moths.

Clothing: Tone. What kind of tone (apparel) is appropriate for the poem? Just as you wouldn’t advise a friend to wear a bathing suit to their child’s preschool meet and greet, you probably shouldn’t include clipped accusations when writing a love poem. For example, if my poem is a sonnet, I play with musicality (silk scarves) and varied rhymes (hats of assorted color & shape). Have fun thinking of each line as a favorite pair of blue jeans or velvet dress, linen tunic or wool shirt. Sometimes, I even imagine every stanza as an outfit. Do the lines (pieces of clothing) all work together? (There should be some surprise here. I once knew a woman who wore the same outfit for six months, and I have written drafts that remind me of her.) Once the poem’s tone is exciting & authentic, experiment with mood and texture.

It’s true—I can get carried away with this process. (I’ll spare you a diatribe about Accessories: Punctuation until another time.) However, I like to believe that every poem that eventually resonates with a reader remains with them on their life’s journey. You know, like a piece of luggage carefully checked and shelved, permanently stored in the astonishing baggage-claim of the mind. Who knows what circumstance or conversation will be a catalyst to retrieve the contents, only that they will be needed for the voyage ahead.

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Rebecca Irene’s poems are published or forthcoming in RHINO, Carve Magazine, Juked, Atlanta Review, Pidgeonholes, and elsewhere. She was recently named the 2020 Monson Arts: MWPA Poetry Fellow, and has received residencies from Norton Island, SAFTA, and Hewnoaks. Poetry Editor for The Maine Review, Rebecca holds an MFA from VCFA, and lives in Portland, Maine, where she supports her word-addiction by waitressing. Find her tweeting @cicadacomplex.

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