There is no way for me to hide the fact that I am a rookie when it comes to reading, as well as to writing, poetry. To be honest, had it not been for Patti Digh’s online VerbTribe writing classes that I happily submerged myself in these past few months, I’m certain I wouldn’t even be able to claim the title of rookie.
It’s really not due to a lack of appreciation for poetry, nor a disinterest in it, that I’ve shied away from it for four-and-a-half decades. I simply find it intimidating. Especially when it comes to reading comprehension.
I unexpectedly came face-to-face with that fear on Day 2 of my first VerbTribe class. One of our assignments for the day was to read, as well as to rewrite in longhand, Mark Doty’s “Robert Harms Paints the Surface of Little Fresh Pond.” For those who are unfamiliar with the poem, it reads as follows.
Surface the action of the day,
a means of tracing the dynamic,
so that a jitter of blue’s
sparked by little coals,
sun a glimmer
of the day’s intent. He knows
to trace an alphabet written on water
is to surface the action of the day,
a way of proceeding,
entering into the never-
a way of reading
a nearly infinite variety of gestures
legible only to one versed
in surface, the action of the day.
When my eye nearly failed –
the frail foil-back torn,
wild profusion of smoke-curls,
what I saw was just this:
what he sees on and in water,
by his hand
the action of surface notated,
the rhythm of things
discerned and ridden.
As the final part of our assignment, we were asked to answer the question, “What stood out for you in this exercise?” My reply, which in hindsight now sounds pathetically whining, was at least candid.
“Being honest here…no matter how many times I read this, I kept hearing my own personal Negative Nelly whispering in my ear, “You SUCK at stuff like this!” This one truly had my head spinning, even AFTER I rewrote it in longhand. Some of the phrases just left me wondering what he was trying to convey. I was so desperate to figure it out that I Googled it. I found a video of a guy reading it…THAT didn’t help. Then I actually found Mark Doty’s blog that had a post about when he went to an art gallery show that featured work by Robert Harms. Then – and only then – did I “get it.” Or at least I then understood half of what he wrote. Instead of telling myself I can never be a decent writer unless I can understand ALL forms of writing, I’m just going to cut myself some slack and assume that there are others out there that don’t always “get” every word found in works like this. (…slinking off to the back of the class now, feeling somewhat inadequate…)”
Patti, in her infinite teaching wisdom (and concise writing style), simply replied, “I wonder what would happen if there were no right answer.” Well DAMN! What if? That was quite a foreign concept for a perfectionistic, control-freak Virgo such as myself, but there really was no way for me to argue with it. Touché! One writing (and reading) dragon slain on Day 2!
Just a few days later, I surprised myself by purchasing several “generic” and beginner’s level poetry books at a local library sale. My husband almost fainted when he saw them, as he knew I was venturing into a land I had long avoided. Feeling more comfortable after greedily ingesting verse after verse, I decided to go all out and try my hand at deciphering Anis Mojgani’s, The Feather Room.
The only reason I use the term decipher is that, even when Mojgani himself – an international award-winning poet, perhaps best known for his poetry slam presentations (you can view one of his readings below) – is asked to classify his genre of poetry with an original name, his reply is simply, “I wouldn’t want to define a specific genre for this. I just write poems.”
The summary for The Feather Room refers to it as being “storytelling in poetic form while traveling farther down the path of magic realism.” I’m torn between calling it a verse novel or a collection of nearly-narrative poems. Whatever it is, it truly is mind-expanding. Or at least it was for me.
The book is broken into three sections, based on the opening prose that describes three “off limit” rooms a young man ventures into. The first room features a yellow wooden door and a young girl sitting amongst a pile of bicycle parts; a room depicting where the man once was and the girl someone he loved. The second room has a red stone door and a crying elderly man who is trying to encourage a plethora of featherless, screeching birds to leave via an open window. This room symbolizes where the young man currently is, as well as sadness he is “holding on to something long gone and broke.” A blue glass door protects the final room – one simply overflowing with feathers and representative of where the man is going.
I would be lying if I said I understood and liked every single one of the sixty-nine poems in this book, the longest comprising nine pages and the shortest a mere eleven words. In fact, some of the titles even left me slightly confused. Such was definitely the case with “Call it magic call it fish eye call it fish lung call you magic pocket of science.” Kudos for such a creative title though!
Although I wasn’t able to follow every single step along the journey, the path kept beckoning me to continue onwards with luscious lines like those below. (Please forgive me if “luscious” is an inappropriate term to describe poetry – I tried to warn you that I was at the beginning of the learning curve.)
“…the geese…balancing the moon on their backs.”
“…ceiling fans worshipping my skin…”
“Everything has a ghost. The measuring cups my mama used.”
“…the telephone poles do not speak as loudly as they once did.”
“This is what the walls taste like. Cucumbers sliced and salted. Dill growing in the window. The smell of coffee. Lick the wall.”
“March is a long month…Sometimes it stretches through the following winters.”
Would I recommend this book to other rookie poets? I actually would. It’s not overloaded with unfamiliar words or difficult rhythms; it’s simply one that needs to be read slowly – savoring every word to understand its significance to the overall story. I guess that could be said for most poems though.
I personally will gladly be revisiting The Feather Room – perhaps quite often. I have a feeling I’ll discover something new each time. To me, that’s the truest definition of quality poetry. But who am I to say? I’m still just a rookie working on obtaining my junior appreciation status. For today, that’s good enough, especially considering how far I’ve come in just the last few months.
And now I’d love to know…who or what are some of your favorite poets or poems? This newbie would really appreciate any and all suggestions of where to venture next on this odyssey.
Addendum: For those who might be interested, Anis Mojgani’s next book, Songs From Under the River: Early and New Work, is due to be released on March 15, 2013. I foresee it gracing my shelves some day soon thereafter.