Trying to make a poetry school that's for everybody.

I'm Hannah Lee Jones and I began Primal School as a space to document my journey as a student of poetry independent from a graduate path in English lit or creative writing. I also wanted to leave a resource others can use: book recommendations, articles, posts on what I'm reading or learning, and most importantly, interviews with poets exploring the craft of poetry itself. Whether your path includes an MFA or not, my hope is that the knowledge that gets shared on here will help you find your own way. Learn more, or if you're interested in my writing visit the news page  

 

 

"eternal graffiti 

written in the heart of everyone" 

- Lawrence Ferlinghetti's definition of poetry

 


 




Thursday
May122016

Humans and Nature, Page versus Stage, and Poems as Animals: Kelly Weber on Her Poem "The Field Guide to Small Dead Things"

Kelly Weber

I was a bleary-eyed and fast-fading bookfair exhibitor on day two of AWP when Kelly Weber approached the Primal School table and nearly made me spill my coffee by mentioning “the democratization of poetry education." Two possibilities occurred to me; she’d either read my mind or my personal slogan for this blog wasn’t so unique after all – a recognition that was hugely liberating. Here's what became evident to me during our interview: her love of sound and audience and language, her patience for knowing every frontier of creative possibility in a poem’s writing, a bone-deep enjoyment of the teaching process, and perhaps above all else, her reverence for the wild world. – HLJ

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I've been spending a bit of time with your poems and fiction and am inspired by a thematic through-line in your writing, this occupation with the natural world. In writing your poem "The Field Guide to Small Dead Things," was there a specific trigger or memory? How did this poem come to you, or how did you come to this poem?  

There’s definitely an ecological streak to my poetry and fiction. I don't write a ton of fiction because my brain seems to groove on poetry, and so even my fiction emerges with a strongly poetic bent...but the predominant theme of animals makes its way into both, certainly. Because I discovered the same wild streak surfacing repeatedly in my poems, I decided to make that the focus of my unpublished thesis collection, "The Field Guide to Small Dead Things". On a broad scale, this group of poems focuses on the day-to-day encounter of humans with animals. What small things do we humans take for granted? What power do we assume over small things like bugs or snakes that make its way into "our" spaces: homes, garages, etc.? I think there's a lot of room to look at our faults and weaknesses when meditating on an animal or wild thing, and also when we talk about our stories and interactions. That's been the broad theme of the thesis.

So with the poetry – and major thanks to Gravel  for publishing this poem – I've been submitting my work here and there. There were actually two sources of inspiration for "Field Guide”. The first was an experience I’d had as a seventh-grader when our teacher led us through the woods, over a period of months, to record what we saw. We actually got to walk in the woods behind our school, which was a nice change from being in the classroom, but at one point we hit a creek and the teacher asked everyone to jump over it. I took one look at it and thought, "Yeah...no." I can't swim, and it was winter and I was pretty sure I'd slip on the ice, so I stayed behind and just tried to jot down what I could. All these years later that incident seems so emblematic of my life: I wanted to be a bio major, but I wanted to sit and observe things more than I wanted to cross the creek.

So this incident kept resurfacing in my daily freewriting and in the notes I took here and there, and two things emerged: that image of the other students fading away from me, leaving my English/biologist-wanna-be self behind, and not knowing what to do with it beyond that. When I finally put the thesis together, I had the idea for a collection with the name "The Field Guide to Small Dead Things", but didn't have the title poem written yet. It finally occurred to me to try combining those two orphaned threads of thought, and I think it ignited them both. The poem had an end and the collection had a piece that I felt captured what I was trying to do in all the poems, which was record the small and dead or harmed and wild things in our lives – while also honoring those things through poetry and careful observation of the world around us. Which I think is its own way of honoring all life.

===

THE FIELD GUIDE TO SMALL DEAD THINGS

We chart our course west across field
and tail our seventh grade teacher
from brick-scalloped science room
to woods beyond the school,
spiral-bound notebooks in hand
to practice our powers
of observation: wind, weather, February sun.
 
At the chain-link fence
woven into diamonds,
he slips a key into the padlock
and unhooks the magical silver stirrup
to lead us through the border
from school to woods beyond.
We crush monochrome-crusted grass
and trace the runic grooves
of haw bark, sap asleep
as filaments in unlit bulbs.
The forest teethed with silver
and carbon, where leaves
of seasons past clot beneath our feet.
 
Ahead, the creek zinced with ice
has thawed a little, burbles
raw live iron. One by one
the teacher helps us step across.
I sway over white-ringed stones
moss-slick and treacherous
and I refuse.
The other students move on,
their blue and green coats recede
and I linger on the other side.
 
While they crouch over handprints
of mysteries, what’s crossed at night
unseen so close to learning’s doorstep,
I—as fearful
of poor grades as drowning— 
fill my notebook with everything
they don’t see, not worth noticing:
rock and clay water’s chewed away,
branch-rattled cold,
all things blued and breathing
left in quiet after children
migrate toward what’s pointed out.
Another world beneath this ochre one
lidded and stirring.
 
And by April’s time, I’ve trained this eye
with each month’s trip, each stop
at the river’s line, I’ve twirled
the pencil’s rule and covered pages
in graphite. At deadline,
I type my log of small descriptions
and names to hand
to the teacher sailing rows.
 
To our mutual amazement,
he thumbs it to reveal tables
pegged and socketed with tracks,
snapped twigs, sky deceased
the common thousands
and common millions
I recorded in wire spirals.

Window after window
opens to kestrel chests
and finches plucking seed, gold—
somehow, in creating
the field guide to small dead things
I’ve catalogued the coming of the spring.

===

I was just thinking about your other poem  “Yes” that was published in Bird’s Thumb…the one about the dragonfly. it grapples so deeply and darkly (and I think humorously) with life and death, and the human/civilized relationship to nature and the exercise of power that comes with it. In the initial writing of this poem, how did you arrive at its structure? And perhaps tell us a bit about your relationship with the poetic line.

“Yes” was actually the first poem of the collection and inspired the rest, so it's fitting that you'd mention it. Unfortunately, one way we exercise human power is by turning animals into art – whether it's a cave painting we’re making or a carving on a wooden box. So really, writing a collection about that topic just reinforces the ethical wrongness of it; continues what it rails against and ultimately suggests some failure.

The line length matches much of the collection, a lot of which has a sort of formal sound or diction, and it also matches the unit of breath the past six years of training have instilled in me. When I started out, I really loved long lines, but most of the time I couldn't make them work – people ran out of breath reading them and there was no obvious benefit like there would be to, say, Whitman's lines. Most of my lines are longer in early drafts, but I tighten them as I revise to "rough up" the language (draw greater attention to the line as a unit of meaning by itself, creating a little bit of ambiguity before moving to the next line), and to emphasize the final words of each line. So "ice," "eye," "handprints," and "burble" get highlighted, in addition to the reader having a chance to sort of process each image before moving on to the next one. In a way, the lines mirror the small boxes you might see in a logbook: image, image, and image, all set next to each other.

That's an excellent segue into my next question about how you write as a slam poet. The YouTube video recording of you reading "Attack of the 50' Uterus" had me in stitches – a very different poem from this one in both energy and tone. Do you write poems for slam differently than you write for the page? Do you separate slam poems from your other poems, or are you including them all together in this collection?

Ha, yes! I was just thinking of that, actually, because short lines are MUCH easier for breath-work when reading or performing for a slam. They make memorization easier, too, because images broken into lines or stanzas just map more easily onto the mind. But to be fair, I've only performed one poem completely memorized. Yes, my slam work is very different. I would almost consider it something entirely separate from poetry. Poetry derives from song, of course, or at least falls somewhere between everyday speech and song, but slam feels more like song to me in that I can "lay it out there", saying what I want to say directly instead of implying it. It also enables me to grab or combine multiple stories instead of focusing on a few.

One poem in my collection originated as a slam poem, but the "page" version is extremely different in that I've pared it down to just a few of the original images, with long lines and none of the original tone. I actually prefer the slam version, but the looseness and self-indulgence of the slam version didn't seem to work with either the page or the collection. Navigating "page vs. stage" is still really hard for me, and if I ever decided to write a blog, it would just be about trying to figure that out! I love slam, but in the end, a slam poem feels like "cool talk" that allows me to get intimate with the audience in ways I can’t always do with my page poems. Gosh, it's so confusing to even talk about. I've thought about trying to slam more because I love it when I'm in it, but it’s just a fact that not all of my poems would work as slam.

Kelly's work area. "Yes, a good portion of my desk is taken up by a cat cylinder."

All poetry is really connected to the body and the breath, because it's literally your breath captured as a text on the page, and it's YOUR breath putting those words out where people can hear them on stage. However, slam feels like a more direct way to do that. There's time to infer and insinuate and give people layers to ponder over in a text poem. A performed piece needs to grab an audience immediately. Imagery is my go-to for that, in addition to frequently shifting the emotional balance of a piece – from funny to serious and back. I want to get their attention, make them buy in and be surprised. That moment of surprise, or "the turn” – the VOLTA, as the Italians called it in sonnet form back in the day – is key to me in a slam piece. The breath is different, too, because I feel like I'm having a conversation with the audience but grabbing interesting words and images to do it. In a way, it's like giving a speech. People buy into the fact that you're talking to them as a person but using something that's already prepared. Spontaneous, authentic, and prepared all at once. And the breath is different because I'm nervous and have to focus on speaking slowly and in the tone that I want. The audience is only going to get this message once!

I guess when I'm playing with an idea, I give it room to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. If it's walking around on two legs, getting in my face and yanking at the end of the leash, I try it as a slam. If it's a quieter, wilder thing, working through implication, I let it be a poem. But I'm never afraid to try it multiple ways. And sometimes I just have a feeling it wouldn't work as a slam. A poem about a tree would have to be hopping around pretty energetically for me to feel like it could be a slam thing instead.

I’m laughing; this all feels so true. And thanks for throwing in that fun little term, "volta”. Seems that every poem, slam or page, lives or dies by that turn, or by multiple turns, even if the two are different species. Going back to your “Field Guide” poem, there’s a meditative quality to it, yes? And that the beating heart of it is the hiddenness of things...as in that gorgeous line, “what’s crossed at night / unseen so close to learning’s doorstep". Did you arrive at this revelatory moment in the process of writing and revising, or was it already in you from the outset? Was there an "aha" or turning point as you reflected on this memory and what it meant to you as an adult looking back on it?

Thank you for that. I think the "aha" moment was connecting it with the title and the theme of the whole collection. It allowed me to frame the poem in a way that revealed what Richard Hugo calls the "second subject" of the poem, or what it's really about. So much of the thesis is about how the structured learning that happens in conventional schooling can be so damaging not just to students, but to our environment – kids miss the wild things and learn to see only what the teacher points out, and simultaneously, wild things are destroyed for study in biology, which to me is the weirdest paradox ever. When I looked back through the rough draft of this poem, I see that line wasn't originally there.

"Aha" moments come to me when I take time away from a draft and then return to it with fresh eyes – those moments where I say, "Oh my God, that's it, THAT'S what I'm really getting at with this!" They also come from playing with sound and syllables. It’s how those lines became iambs: "what's CROSSED at NIGHT/unSEEN so CLOSE to LEARNing's DOORstep" – and paying attention to the sounds that crop up in a poem, how rhythm pulls me towards the poem's hidden heart or subject. So in this case, and I would say in almost all cases of my work, it's a moment I eventually reach. The original version, without the meshing of the title, was too static – it was obvious; I already knew I felt left behind as an English major with the biologists moving on. The title allowed me to see that the narrative truth of this moment was really deeper, and was about finding the biologist's capacity for appreciating life as an outsider.

The source for the “second subject”, by the way, is from Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. 

It's one of my favorite books on poetry. Sound and syllable definitely carry their own answers to the mysterious questions we bring to the writing of a poem. Which also leads me to how you dig up specific words...was it Vonnegut who said that a single wrong word is like bleach in a bucket in how it can contaminate an entire manuscript? Anyway, your word choice is startling in this poem: "the creek zinced with ice"; "all things blued and breathing." Did you find these images and words any place specific? Say, do you keep a notebook? Or do they strike from elsewhere?

Ha! I'd never heard the bleach metaphor, but it's so true. I'll maybe share little on my process: when I do a rough draft, I’m pretty much going for “this happened and then this happened and this is what I'm getting at I think, um, okay I’m done." Then I go back and really start looking at the language. To do that, I usually play with SYNTAX – how I grammatically arrange what I'm saying or just play with the weirdness – right below the original typewritten draft. My stuff in the beginning tends to sound pretty prosy and loose, so first I play with diction and word choice, and then I start to "break open" the poem by just casting it in as many different sentence structures as I can – short, long, appositives, verbals, simple, complex, prepositional phrases, etc. I also try to use words as abnormal parts of speech (adjectives as nouns, for instance). Then I give the piece some sit time and return to the draft to start pulling it all together. I pick out what I feel works best for the piece, try out some phrasing to highlight the sound, and make sure everything fits together.

And then I take it out for a run.

I also brainstorm a lot of words. They could be words that are related by sound, like "eyes," "ice," and "zinc" all play with variations of the "i" sound – and also by using words incorrectly on purpose. "Zinced" can't be a past participle, something that happened or a way of describing something, but I made it that way because I wanted the woods to become an increasingly startling and alien place. Ditto with "blued." I also like to look at words I can't fit in anywhere or attach to anything specific – I get a very "blue" feeling from winter objects, but there wasn't anything specifically I could point to in this – and I try to use them to describe intangible things or things that don't belong; defamiliarize the conditions of things just enough that they’re not alien, but still weird. Which is what both a good poem and nature feel like to me. I do keep a list of interesting words in a file, and sometimes I'll use random word generators, but most of the time I build from the DNA of the poem first by just riffing on sounds and associations.

These are clearly approaches born of a love of the building blocks of language. Since we’re winding down here, let's get to the standard questions: since vulnerability after all lies at the core of good poetry...tell me one thing that scares you in the writing of a poem.

Oh, goodness. Well, I would say I'm usually scared of all the alternatives a poem COULD be. Have I really found the right form for it? Is this the poem that captures what I think this experience is? I usually remind myself that it's okay to feel this way, and it's also okay to come back to a poem or an experience again later and do something different with it. As a teacher and a writer, I say, "Take another run at it, if you want. Play with it. No worries." That helps.

Great advice. And as a teacher, any additional words you would offer to practicing poets outside of the MFA system? And is there any homework you would like to assign our readers?  

Here’s my advice: in the writing of a poem, take as many runs at an experience or subject as you want. Take as many angles and approaches as you can to the big subjects – you know the ones: the hunting trip when you had to follow the deer you wounded but failed to kill in one shot, the glimpse of your father with another woman through the window, the first time you let your hands fill with rain, that moment when you stood in your very own apartment and let your chest fill with the sensation of being just yourself, in walls that contain only you and maybe a cat and some boxes. The core stuff. The stuff you return to over and over again. 

As for homework: freewrite everything you can think of and remember or feel or wanna say about a big subject, a real subject, the one you really want to write about but are afraid you aren't ready to write, because you can't do it justice yet. That's okay. Yammer on about it for ten minutes or ten hours and then take a break, pet your cat, and forget about it. Then, after ten more minutes or hours or months, come back, and start turning it into as many different poems as you can. Think of it as that Greek god Proteus who could turn into a dolphin or a rock or a lightning bolt at any moment. Try it as a personal narrative, as a lyric, as a meditation on an object, as a third-person story, as a haiku, whatever. Just let it BE. And then when you're done, take some more time away from it. Then revisit it and see if there's anything in there you might want to turn into a poem. By then you will feel like you've really tried out a lot of different ways to turn this into a poem. Certain pieces will call to you organically for their forms, and other pieces won't, each according to their nature. And that's okay, too. But give yourself time and space to feel like you've really EXPLORED something before you make choices.

And remember: you can always come back to the poem or the raw material or experience and do something different with it in ten years. It's totally cool. You'll be a different poet and make different choices, so it'll be a different poem. That's why I always say, just blabber first. You’ve got to get your thoughts on the paper before you decide what to do with them. No censoring allowed, at least at first.

Yes! Tell us a poem you love. Any poem at all, and why.

I LOVE Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish". I think it’s been the guiding force behind a lot of my recent poems. It's a great description of a transcendent moment with an animal, and simultaneously, it presents what we were talking about earlier: a human wielding power over an animal and using that power to free it. We can honor and respect animals as fellow beings and let them go their own way. And I mean, look at her description of the fish itself. How is that not spine-melting amazing? 

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KELLY WEBER’s fiction has appeared Rose Red Review, and her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including GravelAvatar ReviewAleola, Bird’s ThumbAgave, and The Judas Goat, where she has also published fiction and been the recipient of the 2012-2013 Aletha Acers Steel Burgess Poetry Prize Scholarship. Her chapbook ALL MY VALENTINE’S DAYS ARE WEIRD was recently published by Pseudo Poseur Press. In 2015, Kelly was the recipient of the Jerry Bradley Award for Creative Writing at the 36th Annual Southwest American/Popular Culture Conference, and she has served as an artist-in-residence at Cedar Point Biological Station. She has taught composition and poetry at Wayne State College. More about her work can be found at kellymweber.com.

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