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Poets on Craft: Christina Xiong and Yeva Johnson

For this eighty-first post in our Poets on Craft series, we have Christina Xiong and Yeva Johnson.

Poets on Craft is a cyberspace for contemporary poets to share their thoughts and ideas on the process of poetry and for students to discover new ways of approaching the writing of poetry. In the face of a pandemic that is both viral and political, it is a resource for strength and creativity, friendship and beauty, love and rejuvenation. It is thus a celebration of the beautiful and eclectic minds of contemporary poets.

The format is as follows. I emailed poets these questions: “Generally speaking, how do you build a poem? How do you start a poem? How do you move from one line to the next? How do you know when to end a poem?”

With the exception of length requirement, poets are free to respond in whatever manner they find appropriate to their styles and concerns.

Access to Poets on Craft is democratic. Generally speaking, anyone can have free access to these posts. With that said, please consider supporting our poets by clicking on the links in their bios and purchasing their work.

This series is intended for educational purposes only.

Photo of poet Christina Xiong. She looks serenely at the camera, happy. She seems to be sitting inside a home, possibly hers. There is an intimacy and honesty in this photo.

Christina Xiong is the author of Ghost Monogamies  (Ghost City Press 2019) and The Gathering Song (Finishing Line Press 2018). Christina’s work has appeared in Versification, Poke, Cotton Xenomorph, Brave Voices Magazine, and others. She’s a freelance editor and collage artist, often working with found objects to create tactile art. 

In the beginning of my process, I build a poem with an image, event, or place which evokes distilled emotion. I attempt my own translation of a sensation, moment, or object into a poem. Often connections form within a poem’s narrative, and I try to interweave those connections into a cohesive pattern.

Of course we all have personal cheat codes for when ideas are sluggish. Sometimes I begin with form as a container, shaping a poem’s narrative. Writing a sestina, I’ll request six words from six people and allow my imagination to concoct a fitting scenario. I use repetition, sound schemes, pauses, and rhythm to propel the poem forward. Even if it’s only used as a writing exercise, it’s a helpful part of my creative process.

Recently, some of my poems about generational addiction have come to me as prose poems, almost like microflash Creative Nonfiction. As a poet who has spent much of the past two years experimenting with prose, I often see unintentional poetic devices creep out in my short stories and novel drafts. Weeding out accidental sound schemes or leaving them is part of my revision process, for now, as I continue writing prose.

Beginning a poem means thinking about something witnessed, an event, or feeling, mentally marinating in that instance until other images are drawn into the piece. Drafting the poem never feels like the beginning part of my creative process. The drafting process requires a certain freedom for me, an absence of audience, sometimes an absence of form.

Writing longhand is convenient for first drafts because everything spills out, then the poem reveals itself from the hunk of granite which is the draft. CA Conrad is a huge influence and I always imagine them saying “take the notes for the poem,” following a somatic ritual. Their shard poems are super distilled, concise, sharp and filled with powerful tension.

Revision, for me, is best done with objectivity, maybe even in the presence of some well-honed internal critics. I strive for clarity, sense, meaning, and sensitivity. Recently, after a dry spell, I brought multiple readers to some frequently-rejected works. It was a good change for my revision process to have feedback from writer friends, a professional editor, and my local writing group brought together by fellow North Carolina poet, Scott Owens.

Moving from line to line within a poem, I’m working with the reader’s breath, pacing, and tension in the story structure. Wordplay can be fun, heavy enjambment can pull the reader through a poem with greater momentum than end-stopped lines. There is power in pauses, in caesura, and in blank spaces. I know how hard it is for a poem to keep me reading and engrossed: a brutal truth I admit to myself while editing my own work.

The poem’s ending has to have an impact. Even if one chooses a fragment to end the poem, the language needs to reach a closure. Something is revealed in the final lines, the true meaning of the poem or an emotion brought to the surface, a moment crystallized. How it’s revealed, whether through concrete imagery or abstract language is generally a matter of preference.

Once a piece is released into the world, I may continue to edit it, but it may be out of my hands at that point. There aren’t many published pieces I would return to for that sort of re-imagining, but I’ve spent almost a decade working on an unpublished piece before it felt complete.

Photo of poet Yeva Johnson. She's outside, probably on a desk. There's a railing and trees in the background. She has short hair, with glasses, and a big bright beautiful smile.

Yeva Johnson, a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and musician, whose work appears in Bellingham Review, Essential Truths: The Bay Area in Color Anthology, Sinister Wisdom, Yemassee, and elsewhere, explores interlocking caste systems and possibilities for human co-existence in our biosphere. She has been a featured poet for the Museum of the African Diaspora, Cultivating Voices Live Poetry, and the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. Yeva is a past Show Us Your Spines Artist-in-Residence (RADAR Productions/SF Public Library), winner of the 2020 Mostly Water Art & Poetry Splash Contest, and poet in QTPOC4SHO, a San Francisco Bay Area artists’ collective. Yeva’s first chapbook, Analog Poet Blues, will be published by Nomadic Press in 2023.

I have had a practice of writing a poem every day for most of the last 8 years. Some days I forget and I don’t realize it until the next day, so I invariably write a “guilt” extra poem the next day to make up for it. I really dislike those “guilt” poems, so generally, I write a poem after some minutes of meditation in the morning, but before breakfast and I really enjoy eating.  I eat breakfast every day, so I write a poem every day. Because I am doing this every day, I allow myself to be free to write whatever comes, if it’s not good, there’s always another poem tomorrow. Sometimes people have asked me to write poems for a project or special occasion and I spend a lot of time mulling over the topic and the request and it takes a while before I can even write a word and I often choose a form and then get to writing. I also enjoy writing poems in groups, like with the BIPOC Writing Community in which a teacher/leader will share a prompt and then we all write and share together. I have written some of my favorite poems with others. It always amazes me how different and how beautiful and varied poems and writings can be even from the same prompt.

I particularly like what I call “recipe poems” in which the poet develops lists of topics, colors, feelings, or other categories and then mixes and matches from the list to respond to a prompt question or challenge. For my usual daily poems, I just open the next blank page and start writing. I often find that the actual poem starts somewhere in the midst of what I have written and I go back and find it in the editing process. I have also realized that I need a blank book in my bedside table because sometimes the best poems or the best lines or phrases come at two or three in the morning and if I don’t write them down at that moment, they are lost in the morning when I wake up.

I write all my poems in long hand, so I used to just move to the next line based on the size of the blank books I had bought. Once I bought a blank book with a beautiful lavender color, but it was small and that really messed up my lines. Patricia Smith taught me to pay as much attention to the end of lines as to the beginning. How I move from one line to the next depends on the rhythm of the poem, the shape of the poem, the form and the tone of the poem. Now I rearrange the lines after I type my long hand poems and play with that.

I don’t always know when to end a poem, but often when the idea that has propelled the birth of the poem is spent, I end it. Sometimes I try not to waste paper and get to the end of a poem by the end of the page. I have a full-time day job, so there’s always pressure to end poems quickly because I don’t have a lot of time. Often it is only after reading my poems aloud that I can hear the ending or hear that an ending is missing. Endings are difficult for me, but there’s such a satisfaction for the poems with solid endings that signal, done, enough said.

 

(Featured image by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

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