Poets on Craft: Stephanie Parent and Rosemarie Dombrowski
For this seventy-ninth post in our Poets on Craft series, we have Stephanie Parent and Rosemarie Dombrowski.
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.
Stephanie Parent is a writer of poetry and prose and a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California. Her poetry has been published in Corvid Queen, Sledgehammer Lit, Olney Magazine, Crow & Cross Keys, and Outcast Press, and her poems have been nominated for a Rhysling Award and Best of the Net. For the latest updates on Stephanie’s poetry, visit her on Twitter at @SC_Parent.
I never set out to be a poet—and that fact lies behind my approach to writing poems.
I occasionally wrote poems for high-school and college creative writing classes, but the first time I felt like I was writing a real poem, one that expressed emotions I couldn’t get out in any other way, was in grad school. That poem came out in a rush of inspiration, with barely any revision necessary…and then I didn’t write what I considered a real, worthwhile poem again for almost ten years.
When writing came back to me as a deep desire to tell a story—a novel-length story—my mind opened up to the possibility of language, and the urge to write poetry came to me unbidden. I wrote my first poem in almost ten years after a hike through Malibu, where the haunting imagery of the trees scarred by a devastating fire led me to think about my own scars. The lines of the poem came to me without conscious effort, and I was compelled to write them down.
All this is to say: for me, the process of writing poetry, as opposed to other forms of writing, feels largely out of my control. If I sit down and force myself to write a poem without having any idea what I want to say, it will likely not be good. On the other hand, if I have that inspiration but can’t or choose not to write the poem quickly, it will fade within a few days.
I feel very lucky that, for me, poetry works this way. Poetry is my reprieve from more structured kinds of writing—poetry is my way to release emotions without being terribly attached to the outcome, at least in first drafts. My best poems feel channeled, as if my conscious self is not the one making decisions about where to start and stop.
This doesn’t mean I have no control over the poetic process—because once that burst of inspiration is over, that’s where revision comes in. Here I use my background in music to tighten the flow of language and rhythm. I love to use internal rhyme, playing with line breaks for emphasis and pauses. I look carefully at my words and ask whether each is the most precise choice. I try to get out of my head and consider what a reader who has not had my personal experiences will take from the words.
Because poems are shorter than most prose works, and because the language of a poem is so intrinsically tied to its impact and meaning, you need to get down to the minutiae to make the best poem.
Overall, I would summarize my poetry process this way:
I practice nonattachment during the first drafts, allowing my subconscious to take over as if I’m swirling paint across a canvas. Then, I whittle away at my words until I’ve gotten as close as I can to that subconscious vision, while also making it something readers can understand.
This process might not work for someone who wants to write, say, a poem every day. However, I find that practicing other kinds of writing, reading widely, and looking carefully at the world around me helps to open my brain, so to speak, so that poetic inspiration comes more frequently.
Becoming a poet is about listening—both to the voices within yourself and the ones in the world around you. I’m grateful to both read and write poetry, as doing so allows me to slow down, see, hear, and experience the world through new perspectives.
Rosemarie Dombrowski (RD) is the inaugural Poet Laureate of Phoenix, AZ, the founding editor of rinky dink press, and the founding director of Revisionary Arts, a nonprofit that facilitates therapeutic poetry workshops. She’s published three collections of poetry and is the recipient of an Arts Hero award, a Great 48 award, a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, and others. She teaches courses on women’s literature, medical poetry, and creative ethnography at Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus.
For the past couple of years, I’ve spent equal amounts of time in the college classroom and working as a poetic therapist in the community, so I write a lot on-the-fly, meaning when I give my students a prompt, I write with them, and when I give my therapeutic workshop participants a prompt, I write with them as well.
Sometimes, it’s a purely therapeutic exercise, but sometimes, there’s a sliver of magic in the mess, and it probably comes from the fact that those pieces are written in the most unselfconscious way—when I’m at my most vulnerable. When we all are. I like not worrying about “the poem” and then finding something really special in those organic and chaotic lines.
For the past couple of months, I’ve spent every Wednesday at a reentry center, which is essentially a treatment facility for men who are transitioning from prison back into the community. It’s hard for me to describe how much I grow and heal with them weekly. Not only do I write with them, but I come home and write about them, almost in a “captain’s log/teacher’s log” kind of way. They’re not like the lyrical poems I’m accustomed to writing. They’re born out of mental notes, snapshots I’ve taken throughout the day, so they have a choppy, narrative quality with a deep undercurrent of pain and self-realization.
I think my process has always been like this—born out of fieldnotes. I’ve been a medical poet for more than 20 years, navigating the landscape of my son’s nonverbal Autism, seizures, and other disabilities, and more recently, my own PTSD and depression. I’ve grown comfortable in medical and therapeutic environments. I appreciate every opportunity to observe and listen, to write fieldnotes like an anthropologist or ethnographer. Once I’m home, I transform my notes into poetry. I think this is both my process and how I navigate my worlds—like an anthropologist and poet.
Do I ever think anything is good enough? Sometimes, but maybe only because I’m starting to feel like I have more agency and control over what I write, but I’m also an everyday reader, writer, and editor of poetry. I don’t think a day goes by without me obsessing over a poem or two or three or four. Poetry, for me, is like a sacred scripture. It’s how I navigate life. It’s how I process trauma. It’s how I build community. It’s how I stay alive.
(Featured image 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
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