Poets on Craft: Matthew Burns and Michael Bazzett
For this seventy-seventh post in our Poets on Craft series, we have Matthew Burns and Michael Bazzett.
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.
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Matthew Burns is an associate professor at SUNY Cobleskill where he teaches creative writing and literature courses. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous national and international journals, and his poem “Rhubarb” was the winner of the James Hearst prize from North American Review; others have been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net awards.
I wish I had a formula to get a poem going—some alchemy of place and atmosphere and inspiration—but it never happens that way. Even when I get on a hot streak and write every day, it amounts to just sitting down and doing it. That first line or phrase is either already there (like a lot of people, I have notes or potentials—ideas, lines, half-realized images, reminders about something I saw or heard, a quote or title—all over the place) or the ending is. Most of the time I either know where to begin or know where I want to end up. Rarely does it happen that I have both at the same time; more often than not it’s just a vague idea or a sudden trigger (something from those notes or a line from a song or even a general mood that I want to work with/in), and I see where it goes. Beginnings for me are more of a way to just get going and move toward figuring out what the poem really wants to be about.
Line breaks are a lot farther down in the process for me—something I begin thinking about only after I have a good chunk of material to work with. I’ve tried plenty of times to write line by line, but it really only works when I’m doing something formal, something where I absolutely NEED to break *RIGHT*NOW* in order to stay in the form. Those are few and far between (at least thus far), so I always seem to have a first draft that is just a block of text that essentially looks like a prose poem. Even if it’s something that feels like it’s trending toward a more abstract (or at least less narrative) piece, it almost always begins as that rectangular block. If there’s a section or spot somewhere in there that I absolutely know I want to sit on its own, I’ll break it out, but, again, kind of the exception that proves the rule for me.
Once that block’s down, I usually end up walking word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase to break on a good breath or to manage pacing—it helps me feel it out and work to match the voice I hear in my head come out on the page. But even then, those are just initial breaks to get further along. They’re almost always straight, left justified breaks—no playing around with indentation or anything—just something to get it “looking like a poem” so I can start processing each line individually. After that, it’s all a question of what the poem needs to do. I like to give myself a rule that every line should be able to exist on its own in some way—as an independent clause, a strong image, some interesting figurative move, or even just a cool sound. Anything I can do to get myself a little distance from the piece helps. Farther down in the process comes playing with that location-on-the-page and enjambment stuff, more for drama than anything. The “should be able to stand on its own” idea is about the only rule I have for it all.
Every few times, I have the end already in mind—or even written!—and just work to get there. Kind of like bushwhacking off-trail to get to some summit or vista: I have a general direction and I know what’s at the end of the trip. But more often it’s a wandering-around until it feels or sounds like a good spot to stop. What makes it “good” is tougher to say. When I was younger, I wanted everything to end on some telling image or lingering metaphor to really settle in a reader’s mind, but that can turn heavy-handed pretty fast. Now I find myself looking for something that rings, either sonically or emotionally. The first real poetry teacher I had as an undergrad always said, “Poems should begin with a truth,” but I feel like they should end that way—however you choose to label or build that truth and whatever it may be.
Michael Bazzett is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently The Echo Chamber (Milkweed, 2021). A recipient of awards from the Frost Place and the NEA, his poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Sun, The Nation, and Ploughshares. His verse translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh, (Milkweed, 2018) was named one of 2018’s best books of poetry by the NY Times. (Photo credit: Star Tribune).
I’d offer four points on craft, little sayings that I like to ponder and carry around in my head. They all have to do with listening to your own work, I think. And not imposing yourself too much.
1. A poem is a house made of breath. I say this to myself often, and it’s one thing that makes the poem the poem. Poems need to live in the chambers of the body. They are acoustic creatures. They hum and creak. They were originally designed to live in our bones and lungs. And so reading them aloud and listening to their music is a key component in the composition process. This doesn’t mean sound drives sense. It merely makes a place for it to reside. Stanza is Italian for “room.”
2. Poetry is a virus that makes us see ghosts. By this, I mean simply that poems are trying to get inside you to replicate the wonder of their making. Samuel Johnson, in his first dictionary, defined wonder as “a pause of reason.” So a poem is an attempt to get the reader to stop thinking. And start feeling or imagining. Reading a good poem is simultaneously a form of possession and transportation. And as such, poems need to hold the moment of their creation.
3. The quiet period that ends the sentence / can be just a dot or hold great violence. This is my reminder that poems are made of both lines and sentences, and my favorite poems often demonstrate an almost tactile understanding of the tension between these two vessels. As I revise, I constantly play with syntax, which in turns causes me to reconsider line breaks, which in turn causes me to rethink syntax. I love a head-fake enjambment as much as anyone, where the break creates a moment of meaning which is undercut or reversed when the syntax persists. i.e. “The boy with one leg / over the fence…” But such moves only really work when they make sense within the greater syntax of the sentence. And the poem.
4. The best words sharpen into silence. There’s a reason poetry has so much blank space on the page. I see this emptiness as a silence where the vibrations coming off the words can resonate. It’s like the hollowness in a bell. We might not normally think of it as a part of what makes the music, but it is a crucial part of the instrument. Generally speaking, the fewer words the better. And if occasionally you revise a poem so hard that it disappears—you’re probably on the right path.
(Featured photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bunkong Tuon is a Cambodian-American writer and critic. He is the author of Gruel, And So I Was Blessed (both published by NYQ Books), The Doctor Will Fix It (Shabda Press), and Dead Tongue (a chapbook with Joanna C. Valente, Yes Poetry). He teaches at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. He tweets @BunkongTuon