We all get stuck in ruts. From our social activities to our jobs to our reading habits. I recently felt such a rut coming on in the poetry bookclub that I lead. Let me first say that I LOVE the bookclub. It is so refreshing and enlightening to get together with a group of intelligent, insightful poetry readers and share our impressions, disagree completely, and always leave with a deeper appreciation for the book and/or poet. That said, we know what we like. We all tend toward fairly narrative, somewhat traditional, metaphor-driven, lyrical poetry. I sensed the rut when recently discussing U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan's work, which was deemed "out there." Anyone who achieves the position of Poet Laureate is guaranteed to have a pretty widely accessible style, so I thought a sense of perspective might be gained from breaking free from our usual lineup and trying a so-called "experimental" poet.
We are very lucky to have a wide selection of poets living in the area, so when we chose to read Body Clock by Eleni Sikelianos, we thought it would be wonderful to invite her to join our discussion and help to ease us into this unfamiliar way of reading.
We got way more than we bargained for.
In our discussion before Eleni joined us, we were all able to find things we appreciated in the book--certain phrases, perhaps, or a general sense of letting go to try something new--but it was still unanimously agreed that we were totally lost. Our questions for her were very pointed and specific: "Who do you perceive as your audience?" "Where does your inspiration come from?" "What is your writing process?" But we did not receive the specific, easily-clarifying answers we anticipated.
Eleni's responses and discussion of her poetry were eloquent and showed her to be widely read. We found that her inspiration comes not so much from reading other poets as from reading scientists and treatises on time and the universe. She described her process as improvisational, more instinctual than deliberate. She called language "a wild proliferation." These were not the answers we expected nor the practices we were used to.
Still, when asked about how the concept of her audience influenced her writing, she said "I trust you guys [the audience]." She said she'll never reach as many people as who watch Lost, and wouldn't want to. Rather, poetry comes in a variety of different packages--some are already unwrapped for you, and some are much more difficult to get into. Some people will never access her poetry, and that's okay, too. There was then much discussion of meaning and from what it is derived. She said we need to let go of how we perceive meaning being made. Meaning can come from tone, rhythm, or color. It came be made syntactically rather than semantically. She also discussed trying to achieve a "simultaneity of language" through her use of the page. This is difficult since language is in essence sequential.
One of the many great metaphors that came from bookclub members was a comparison to dancing, where you learn all the technique first, then you have to learn to abandon it completely in order to improvise. This is exactly what our bookclub did. We were very familiar with the traditional styles, and Eleni's more "experimental" style was just what we needed to break free of our rut, and to improvise in the way we see, appreciate, and interpret poetry.
We all left vowing to re-read the book, and our perspectives on poetry and meaning were certainly expanded.
And so I urge all of you readers out there: try something new this summer! Pick up a book from different genre, an author you've been timid to try! It's never too late to redefine your bookshelf! :)
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