Regarding craft issues, I’ve been working lately on crafting poetry manuscripts that revolve around a single theme (albeit loosely). This is new for me. In the past, I’d write and write and write without manuscript in mind, then choose poems that seem to go together. But lately, I’ve been submerging myself in a thematic world, living there (sometimes to my detriment, and to my wife’s), as if I were working on a novel, not resurfacing to write other kinds of poetry (and this is not forced, but natural at the time), until I have that—what?—sixty-four or so workable pages. Then I can breathe that sigh of relief and move on to other kinds of writing, other styles of poem.
When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the badass winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus that, upon researching old newspaper articles, I found were often the site for violent crime, or a dumping ground for bodies. It’s now a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that, um, discrepancy, consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. I had to temper a lot of the darkness by reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s AT THE DRIVE-IN VOLCANO that winter.
I did the same sort of thing with my travels to South Africa (my wife’s home country), beginning with the ways in which the South African art museums changed in landscape and content after the fall of apartheid in 1994. That led to a series of poems that engaged other topics while dealing with similar themes. It was the rare case when my travel writing took poetic form over prose form, though I’m working—slowly and sporadically—on a series of creative nonfiction essays about South Africa too. Then it was a series of sonnets about childhood—real ugly stuff, so I was glad to come out of that one too. Then, it was ekphrastic poetry engaging the works of Italian-Jewish artists. Lots of those were written in the Grand Rapids community garden on Lyon Street, well before tomato season, with the giant sunflowers desiccated.
Now, I’m working on a series that involves, as I mentioned earlier, my love of bad jokes. It’s so much fun wrapping these bad jokes in poetry, and seeing what happens. Adding poetry to the bad joke seems like one of the only ways to rescue it from pure badness, to elevate it, to get away with something. It’s a blast. I’m thinking of calling the manuscript (which is still in its infancy), YOUR MOTHER. But I don’t know how much longer this practice this will go on, or how good it is for me as a writer. Encased in theme, am I oblivious to the “anywhere art” that Cohen was talking about? I’m not sure.