Review by Karen Weyant
MAKING POEMS: FORTY POEMS WITH COMMENTARY BY THE POETS
by Eds. Todd Davis and Erin Murphy
State University of New York Press
22 Corporate Woods Boulevard, 3rd Floor
Albany, NY 12211-2504
2010, 218 pp., $23.95
As a writer, I know that inspiration for a poem often doesn’t come like a bright “ta da!” moment. There’s no glowing lightbulb that appears over a writer’s head. Instead, writing is often tedious, sometimes more of a chore than an interesting activity. The muse is elusive and sometimes even a bit of a tease. As someone who teaches creative writing, this concept is a hard idea to sell to my students, whose own work often eludes them because they believe “I wasn’t inspired.” This is where Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary edited by Todd Davis and Erin Murphy comes in as a handy tool for the creative writing classroom. Making Poems offers a selection of poems by contemporary poets who write brief essays explaining how their works came into being. As one can imagine, some poets are frank and honest, detailing their revision strategies while discussing real life roots of poems. Other poets, however, drift into more scholarly writing, explaining the influence of literary theories and histories. Whatever the birth of each poem, this anthology offers ideas for why the world of contemporary poetry is as varied as each published collection.
Some scholars believe that American poetry is often rooted in place, and thus, it should come as no surprise that many poets discuss sense of place in their individual works. Jim Daniels, for example, discusses his poem, “Factory Jungle” in the context of a job he once held at Ford Sterling Axle Plant. According to Daniels, “In a strange way, the whole landscape resembled the thick underbrush of a jungle.” This landscape is what represents the root of inspiration for his poem, and Daniels goes on to discuss his individual revision process, focusing on his exploration of the jungle as poetic metaphor. Another poet, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, uses place as a source of loss and displacement in her poem, “Leaving.” This work, says Wesley, was “like many other poems I have written, was inspired by the feeling of displacement, dislocation, and the search for home after the loss of one’s original homeland.” She then explains:
It is a poem taken out of real life, inspired, of course, by my son,
Gee, who was not excited about moving away to a new town
just after he settled in the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania.
He was beginning to connect, but the immigrants that we are,
we were still seeking a place where we would settle down as a family
having moved around for many years during the Liberian civil war
and after we arrived here in the United States.
It is apparent that Wesley does not find sense of place as a comfort in the turmoil of her life. The end of “Leaving” concludes “Someone once asked me why people like us/move around so much; why can’t be balance our feet between// the hills and the sloping crevasses of this new life, between/these old cliffs and valleys, and I say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Besides the exploration of place in poetry, memory and the idea of memory is another popular point of inspiration in much of today’s poetry. Julia Spicher Kasdorf wrestles with the tricky relationship between what an individual remembers and the written word. Her poem, “Double the Digits,” takes the reader to rural Pennsylvania, where the persona tells the story of a group of girls exploring both the open road and life. Her poem, Kasdorf explains, was based on real life antics of the past, of risks she and some friends took while driving the back roads. Yet, Kasdorf is not ready to say that the poem is 100 percent true; instead, explaining with original drafts, “I didn’t want to analyze or think too hard about if beforehand.” In her essay, “Memory and the Problem of What Really Happened” Kasdorf explains the following:
If you think about it, real life is not all that interesting,
filled as it is with tedious and pointless parts of routine;
even the details that may personally satisfying often carry
little meaning for anyone else. Most real life consists of
one dull thing or small thing after another, no narrative rise
and fall, no symbolic resonance or unity of effect. Life is not
Such words must especially hit home for those of us facing classes of teenagers who believe that they don’t have lives that are interesting enough for possible subject matter for their poetry.
Other poets take their cues from traumatic events that have happened in the world around us. For instance, Ann Hostetler explains that “Sonnets for the Amish Girls of Nickel Mines” comes from the Amish shooting tragedy on October 2, 2006. “My husband and I both have deep Amish roots,” explains Hostetler, “His family lives in Lancaster County and his parents helped found the Mennonite Church in Bart, Pennsylvania, which they still attend.” Hostetler goes on to explain that her sonnets were based mostly on the information she obtained from mass media, an ironic fact considering that Amish traditionally shun the public eye. Still, this poet knows this world and was able to write based on her knowledge of the intimate world of the shooting victims and their families.
Finally, some poets cite the importance of research in their work. In Greg Rappleye’s poem “Orpheus, Gathering the Trees” the poet explains that the genesis of his poem began with the general knowledge that most people know the story of Orpheus and his attempt to bring Eurydice back from the underworld. However, little has been said about what Orpheus’s life was like after this failed attempt. Rappleye searched scholarly literature, as well as field guides for his poem, in order to help search for the emotions of Orpheus. In many ways, the genesis for this poem is found in both research and Rappleye’s own observations of both life and nature. He explains that as he researched, he made lists of elements from the natural world: “As I winnowed my list, stopping now and again to leave my desk to look into the undergrowth, I saw that there were dead and empty places among the trees.” This observation is found in Rappleye’s poem which ends like this:
From the air he called the sparrows
and the varieties of wrens.
Then he sang for a bit of pestilence –
for the green caterpillars,
for the leaf worms and bark bettles.
Food to suit the flickers and the crows.
So that in the woodlot
there would always be empty places.
So he would still know loss.
What is most impressive about this anthology is the wide range of poetic works, both in theme and form. Furthermore, the writing process is varied–in their essays, some poets share drafts, some don’t. Some poets show the messiness of writing; others explain that sometimes inspiration does come in a quick, short burst, with little or no revision for a poem. All in all, this anthology is more about the process than the product, more about the messiness of writing than the clean hard copies we all read in print.
Karen J. Weyant’s chapbook Stealing Dust was published in 2009 by Finishing Line Press. Her most recent work can be seen in 5 AM, The Barn Owl Review, Copper Nickel, Harpur Palate, and Lake Effect. She lives in western Pennsylvania but teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. She blogs at www.thescrapperpoet.wordpress.com