Sunday, January 5, 2014

What Makes a Poem?

While my own personal writers residency has been extremely productive (yesterday I wrote two poems, two flash fiction pieces, and kept editing/rewriting parts of my novel, not to mention reading, not to mention working out, not to mention writing a blog entry), I do feel like I might be losing my mind. Do you ever get that feeling, when you're working hard intellectually, like your brain might overheat? Or like how your muscles feel after you've lifted several heavy boxes up a flight of stairs? It feels good, but at the same time it makes me feel tired. Not tired, exactly, but like I'm in some kind of mental fog generated by thinking too much. Anyway, Joe asked if I could pick him up from the airport yesterday and I was SO EXCITED to leave my apartment and just drive around for a little while. Slow, therapeutic airport circles.

After I posted my blog entry on Facebook yesterday, a long, fascinating discussion ensued about prose poems vs. flash fiction, what makes a poem a poem and prose prose, and why it matters. It gave me a lot to think about. I'll sort of continue that discussion here, with my next poem.

This poem was inspired by a flash fiction piece I wrote that will appear Tuesday for the grand re-launch of All Together Now, the tangent-based fiction blog I started with Leta and Gena. (Shameless plug.) Actually, I can't really say it's a fiction blog. It's mostly fiction, but there's poetry and experimental forms on there, too. So I took the story that I wrote for Tuesday and arranged it as I imagine it might be arranged if it were a poem:

Grounds for Divorce

bad breath
television
washing-machined bras, warped

personalities, lifted from
fiction
pornography--together, apart

cats
allergies

old mattress
relatives
weight watchers, always watching

credit card debt, a newfound interest in religion
hamburger helper, conflicting astrological signs

The final stanza is copied verbatim from my flash fiction piece, except that it's arranged as a stanza as opposed to a paragraph. (Hey Zach--I finally wrote one without sentences!) Now, the first thing I noticed--and you'll have to take my word for it, as you don't get to read the story until Tuesday--is that the story is sort of darkly funny, whereas this poem is sad.

Why did the poem turn out sad, but the story turned out funny? I wrote them both, they're based off the same idea.  If I wanted to, I'm sure I could write the story as sad using prose. The story is written in an off-the-cuff, spoken manner, like a one-sided conversation. Does that make a difference? The titles are different. Does that make a difference? Would it make a difference if I wrote the story as a list?

Grounds for Divorce
  • Bad breath
  • Unchanged toilet paper rolls
  • Television
  • Washing machine-warped bras
  • Fake
  • Watching porn with me
  • Watching porn without me
  • Cats--scratching, allergies
  • Old mattress
  • Relatives
  • Weight watchers
  • Credit card debt
  • Newfound interest in religion
  • Hamburger Helper
  • Conflicting astrological signs
This, to me, seems funnier again. Maybe the idea that someone would literally make a list about something so serious is funny.

Conclusion: form matters. I'm at a loss, though--I'm confused as to how I'd make the poem funny. (I don't consider the list a poem. I write list stories all the time. But maybe somebody else does consider it a poem.) Poems can obviously be funny. I've read funny poems. Maybe this story just does not make for a funny poem. Maybe this story isn't a story when it's in the form of a poem--maybe the poem is just a written picture of something more static, a single situation, and the situation is sad, even if you tell it in a funny way. Or something. Thoughts?

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