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Poets on Craft: Lauren Scharhag and 신 선 영 辛善英 Sun Yung Shin

For this seventy-eighth post in our Poets on Craft series, we have Lauren Scharhag and 신 선 영 辛善英 Sun Yung Shin.

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.

Color photo of poet Lauren Scharhag. She has shoulder-length brown curly hair and she's smiling at the camera. Behind her is a beige wall.

Lauren Scharhag (she/her) is an associate editor for GLEAM: Journal of the Cadralor, and the author of thirteen books, including Requiem for a Robot Dog (Cajun Mutt Press) and Languages, First and Last (Cyberwit Press). Her work has appeared in over 150 literary venues around the world. Recent honors include the Seamus Burns Creative Writing Prize and multiple Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in Kansas City, MO.

A cadralor, for those who don’t know, is a new poetic form. (You can learn about its structure at www.gleampoets.org.) One of the big things that attracted me to writing cadralore is that it’s basically five short poems in one, and I’ve spent the last few years writing a lot of short poems. I’ve always been a big fan of short poems—haiku, of course, but just really impactful work that can say a lot in a few lines. I started out by joining the writing community on Instagram. Because Instagram is image-based, you want to try to post a poem that can fit into a single, small image. I use daily writing prompts on Twitter to inspire me. I regard this as practice—to me, being a writer is like being an athlete. You have to train every day if you want to build up those muscles. Short poems are ideal for that—it teaches you to be choosy with your images, to cut away anything extraneous, to maximize the impact of each word.

With cadralore, I start with the individual stanzas. At first, I usually don’t have any idea where the poem is going. I don’t think I’ve ever started one with the magical fifth stanza—that usually comes to me later. I look through my short poems to see if I have some good cadralor material there. I start arranging them, like a collage, a series of snapshots. Sometimes, I brainstorm new stanzas—seven to ten at a time, just riffing, to see what comes out. Then I take a step back. When a theme emerges, it always surprises and delights me, because it’s never planned. Over the past few years, I have found that my poetry is profoundly spiritual. I was raised Catholic. My mother’s family is from Mexico and my great-great-grandmother was a santera, so I’ve had a lifelong interest in the supernatural and the occult. So most of my poems are my way of seeking a connection with the universe. Cadralore give you the space needed to be expansive, so I am able to capture the different traditions I’ve been exposed to—Catholicism, Santeria, Wicca, Vodun, shamanism, mythology. I think that’s the other reason cadralore appeal to me so much—Lori Howe, one of the creators of the form, has said that writing cadralore is akin to spiritual possession, and it really is. Once the theme emerges, you feel seized, swept along to the inevitable conclusion. It’s hard to think about anything else until the cadralor is done. Finding the fifth stanza always feels like a mystical event.

Conversely, cadralore help me to write when I am feeling stuck. I’ve never been into writing structured poetry before because it felt constricting, but cadralore are liberating. It’s not about rhyme scheme or meter, it’s about concepts. Like jazz, it forces your brain into new thought patterns. Since it’s made up of five stanzas, I think about things that come in fives—the five senses, the five knightly virtues, the five classical elements, things like that, and I use that as a starting point. Moving from one line to the next should be organic—you are trying to capture the image that anchors each stanza. When you’re finished, you should be able to see the subtle thread linking everything together, the unity revealing itself in the fifth. You’ll know it’s over because you feel exhausted and hollowed-out, but satisfied. You have just performed a holy work. You are clean.

Color photo of Korean-American poet Sun Yung Shin. She has long black hair combed to her left. She looks directly at her camera; she's smiling.

신 선 영 辛善英 Sun Yung Shin is a Korean-born writer based in Minneapolis and is the author of poetry books The Wet Hex; Unbearable Splendor (winner of a Minnesota Book Award); Rough, and Savage; and Skirt Full of Black (winner of an Asian American Literary Award). She is also the editor of two anthologies of essays: What We Hunger For: Refugee and Immigrant Stories about Food & Family and A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota; and is a co-editor of the anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption. She is the author of illustrated children’s book Cooper’s Lesson and a co-author of the forthcoming illustrated children’s book Where We Come From (2022). (Photo by David Boyer)

I have to follow my obsessions. For better or worse, I have a lot of them. They often have to do with some kind of force, and with language itself. Sometimes it’s like performing ritualistic autopsies on words and phrases that are used by the powerful to bind the less powerful, to persuade us to participate in our own and others’ defilement and destruction.

Poets are well positioned to slow down words and create friction around them so we can actually understand what is being done to us, and what we are doing to others, what we do to ourselves.

I usually start a poem when I have kind of an out-of-body feeling about something, when I can feel in my body that some object or event has much more what I think of as “density” than has been hinted at, or in other explanations or writing about it. That there’s more mystery there, more meaning, more empty space, more danger, more menace, more beauty, more strangeness.

For example, I am thinking about working on a poem or poems about a particular assassination attempt in South Korea. I’ve been thinking about it for years. Why am I obsessed with it? What does it mean to me? Why does it make me feel haunted? I want to discover what is most strange about it, what hasn’t been explored about it (through poetry), and what is most personal for me.

I won’t know if something is personal until I feel some strong emotions or bodily sensations, which include sensations in my brain.

I often do a lot of reading about the thing I’m writing about, I just follow my curiosity. I feel through slowly and wait until my imagination and my feelings snag on something. I want to be surprised, I want to have my understanding of the universe, and of humans, expanded, and complicated.

If I’m writing about something historical, I often find myself interested in the details that are not listed in newspaper articles and other sources. So for this particular assassination attempt, I find myself curious small, tactile things, such as, what kind of wood was the podium made of, what kind of shoes was the target’s wife wearing (she died in the crossfire and her shoes fell off her feet as she was being carried off the stage where she was shot), etc.

I generally approach the poem composition process a bit like a quilter, and I piece things together. I think about the tone and the mood, what kind of emotions I would like to bring the reader through, what kind of mystery, what kind of structure. I think of myself like a tour guide, maybe. But I’m also on the tour.

Sometimes I think of the title first and try to get the title to do some of the work that I don’t want to do in the poem. Perhaps the title will have facts in it that I don’t want to explain later. So the title might be long and prosaic, and then I will feel more free to be more allusive and playful in the actual poem.


(Featured image by Alexis Rhone Fancher)


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