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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Stacey Lynn Brown, Finding Form

A couple of days ago, I flew down to Atlanta to visit Karen Head's class on Southern Poetry at Georgia Tech. As an institute of technology, Georgia Tech is a gathering ground of mathematically-inclined geniuses who study Aeronautical Engineering and the like. Not much room for poetry, one would think. But one would be wrong: Karen Head is planting seeds of poetry down there, sowing wispy stems of art that shoot up unexpectedly between concrete slabs of science and math. And their approach is phenomenal.

I walked into the room of twelve students who were almost equally divided along gender lines—
also a rarity for Tech, which notoriously has more men than women. Desks in a circle, each student with a copy of my book in hand, they dove right in, asking some of the most intelligent questions I've ever heard asked of a poet, or of poetry.

Maybe it's the difference between left and right brain thinking, but these students of engineering, math, and science approached the poems and the words on the page in an analytical style that defied (and, in my mind, surpassed) the rhetorical strategies of conventional literature classes. They drew connections in an almost formulaic way, analyzing the relationships between words, ideas, and biography as if it were something quantifiable, which made me wonder: is it? Does free verse, which I always considered to be freewheeling and high spirited, actually consist of mappable equations? Does this mean that math is relevant after all? Does it apply to the arrangement of words on the page, to my choices regarding form, or the lack thereof?

As I explained to the students, I write primarily in free verse because I want the poems to find their own forms rather than having me superimpose form over them. When I write in a form with rhyme, for example, my effort to get to the required sound at the end of the line ends up steering the poem's direction rather than allowing it to take its own path and shape. They seemed surprised, on some level, that I would resist a formula. Wouldn't a formula make it easier? Weren't there discernible formulas in my first book? Didn't I see them? (It's a question I'm still thinking about. I wish I'd asked them to map it out for me, Will Hunting style.)

These students were on to something, something I'm just beginning to be able to articulate and understand myself. My longstanding insistence that form hinders content has been turned on its head recently by my second manuscript, The Shallows, which is structured around the title poem—a poem that has declared itself in no uncertain terms to be a crown of sonnets. This was not my idea. In this case, the content truly dictated the form, and I had no choice but follow it.

My father suffered a massive stroke in the spring of 2008, and no matter how much I fought against the idea of writing about it, the poems came—and continue to come. As I began to sketch and shape the manuscript, I kept coming back again and again to the Gulf of Mexico and the trips that our family took together every year. From my childhood days of bobbing in my father's arms to our swims together as adults, it was a constant in our lives. And one specific image kept haunting me: on what would be our last trip to the beach together, my husband and I sat on the balcony and watched my father as he walked into the ocean for what would be his last swim. The line came to me: My father, wading out into the sea. I scanned it. Iambic pentameter. Uh oh. It seemed like the beginning of a sonnet, felt like one. But that line didn't want to just happen once. It wanted to both begin and end something; it wanted to be a part of something larger that brought experiences together and contained ideas and lines that overlapped and led one into the next. It insisted upon being the first and last line of a crown of sonnets,
interwoven ideas and images coming full circle back again to the image that haunted me most, that stood for so much: the venturing out into an uncertainty, the journey away, the return to something so primordial.

As I began to work on it, each individual poem in the sequence became an opportunity to explore and encapsulate a different time period in that ocean, different contexts for growth and the changes in a relationship between father and daughter. For once, the idea of form didn't feel limiting but instead became expansive, ripe with possibilities. It was a house with seven rooms that I could decorate however I wanted to, each room echoing and reverberating against the next and last. I suddenly got it: what once had seemed so limiting was actually one of the most liberating approaches to writing poetry that I had ever found. I already knew the structure of each poem, so I could actually focus even more on the content itself. Form was fun.

This approach to poetry—as something structured in a quantifiable way, as a series of relationships with variables and valuations—was completely new to me but was the cornerstone of how the students at Tech approached it, instinctively. In our discussion, I learned a great deal about how I might find patterns and significance in aspects of poetry I used to just see as being intuitive. They taught me this. They also reminded me, in their computational wisdom, that my crown would need a total of at least 49 rhymes. Thanks for that reminder, guys. Math rocks.

Stacey Lynn Brown was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and studied at Emory University, Oxford University, and The University of Oregon, where she received her MFA. A poet, playwright, and essayist, her work has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, including Crab Orchard Review, Poetry Daily, Copper Nickel, and The Rumpus. Her book-length poem in sections, Cradle Song, was published by C&R Press in 2009. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, where she lives with her husband, poet Adrian Matejka, and their daughter.

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