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Stepping Up to the Plate, Part 9

Go here to see what I'm doing and why. All readers are invited, encouraged, and begged to respond. The purpose of this experiment is to engage in discussion.

"The White Doe of Nara" by Joshua Gage

I was extremely proud when I wrote this piece, and promoted the heck out of it for the "Preditors & Editors" award, which it won. Now, looking back, after having read through a few dozen speculative poems, I'm not sure it's working. For me, it is immediately too ekphrastic. I'm not sure this piece makes much sense without the accompanying art. I'm not sure that this means it fails as a work, but certainly discounts it as a "best of the best" in an anthology, especially when that anthology will not contain the art piece which inspired this poem.  Also, I'm wondering if this is a bit too dependent on the Galvin poem from which I took the form and syntax. This may or may not be something to worry about, but I don't know if I've added anything new. Also, as it's presented, some of the lines are off. Particularly "When I leave/I know" which is actually one line, not two; in a reprint, these lines will seem abitrarily broken. In addition, I'm not sure the imagery has the weight which it might for a different audience. For example, knowing that "oranges and evergreen branches" are part of Buddhist purification rituals adds a layer to this poem. Without that knowledge, the image doesn't add anything to the poem, and seems random. There's too much that isn't working here to be a "best of" piece.

"The Dispossessed" by Lyn C. A. Gardner

This is a very interesting poem, and one that carries a lot of weight, packing stanza by stanza another horror to the point that the reader is on the verge of shuddering by the end of the poem. A lot of the images are really working here--"And that shadow stretching out behind each one—/Brothers whose hearts soon fail,/Sisters who succumb to disease"--and carry a lot of power. At times, there are no images, but the psychological coldness of the statements--"Failed bodies, not human at all,/Never were, never will be—/In order to continue,/We must insist the courts define those dross./They are abortions, allowed, just fit for study."--simply adds to the horror of the speaker's psychology, and the world view they are promoting. There is a lot happening in this piece, and some powerful statements on human rights, cloning, women's rights, the nature of life, scientific ethics, etc. This is a really haunting piece, and one working on many levels. "The Dispossessed" certainly will be one to consider for Rhysling voting.

"Hungry: Some Ghost Stories" by Samantha Henderson

This is completely a personal thing, and one I've wrestled with for years, but I really don't believe in the concept of "prose poetry". Here's my logic--the essential unit of poetry is the line, the essential unit of prose is the sentence. If there are no lines, but sentences and sentence fragments, then it's prose. It may be prose which is informed by the lyric sensibilities of poetry, which challenges and breaks the normal narrative arch of traditional story telling, but it's still prose. So, for me "Hungry: Some Ghost Stories" is not a poem. These are rich vignettes, and there is a lot working here. The circular form works, and the questions at the end echo ideas of haunting and/or seances. I think this is a really, really successful piece, but I don't read it as poetry. Again, completely a personal opinion, and one worth discussing or debating, so to readers for whom this piece works as a poem, I ask "Why? What makes this a poem, not a prose piece?" This might open up the definition of prose poetry a bit more.

"Search" by Geoffrey A. Landis

For me, this has a lot working for it. First off, there is some hard science fiction. Lines like "Writing a new algorithm to implement frequency-domain filtering/Sorting out a tiny signal of intelligence" add a real, tangible science to this science fiction. However, this is tempered with hints of pop culture, even humor--"(He doesn't look anything like Jodie Foster)/He's not listening to the telescope - his headphones are blasting Queen" or  "He has a beard like Moses/Glasses like Jerry Garcia/A bald head like Jesse Ventura". This balance works, and is more balanced by lines like "His fingertips are doing the search" or "Patience like Job" or even "If only his filtering algorithms were more incisive." which add a depth to the character of Jeremiah. The idea, two groups of intelligent beings sending signals back and forth, and simply waiting to connect, perhaps even missing each other across the void is simple, but one that, explored in this way, creates an ache and longing in the reader. This is a straight forward piece, but one that has a lingering tone, and should be considered for voting.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 16th, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC)
Just a data point -- when I sent "Hungry" to Eric at LSS, I left it to him to determine if it was a story or a poem. Perhaps he'll weigh in on why he thought so (I did not disagree with him).
Apr. 16th, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting this. I think it's an important point. It would be excellent if Eric would post. I am glad to see a few editors posting their responses, so I hope other editors do the same! Ultimately, what they accept or reject is the first determining factor of the Rhysling, and what they look for in terms of craft and content is certainly important and needs to be discussed.
Apr. 16th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
To a great extent editorial choice (and, I think, criticism) determines definitions. Witness the number of mainstream books with speculative elements that are not marketed or criticized as genre. Often the (mainstream) critical take on them is that they simply use the tropes of genre -- others would say that automatically makes them genre.

For me personally -- my emotional state is different when I write a poem, as opposed to when I write what I would consider prose/fiction -- it's far more intense, less rational. I would define "Hungry" as a poem sinmply becaus I was in that state when I wrote it, but that's a personal definition, not necessarily useful to criticism.
Apr. 16th, 2009 07:03 pm (UTC)
But it certainly could be used to defend your position of the piece as "poetry," from an artistic standpoint. Simply knowing that you were in a certain "poetic" mindset when you wrote it can add something to my reading of it, even if I see that as influence the prose of the piece.

However, like you said, a lot of this is arbitrary based on the response of editors, critics and, I would add, academics (which are basically critics with fancy letters at the end of their name) and the tenuous definitions they come up with to define groups of pieces.
Apr. 17th, 2009 06:53 pm (UTC)
Hmm. Sam let me know that this issue arose, and I frankly don't remember what made me decide to categorize her piece as a prose poem, other than the fact that I found that it read as a poem, rather than as a story. I know that's not very helpful, but you're not going to get much help from me when it comes to the reasoning behind my editorial decisions. If something I read works for me, it works for me, and I don't concern myself with determining why. (I've read Sam's comments below regarding her writing of the piece in a poetic state, and perhaps I picked up on that.)
Apr. 17th, 2009 07:44 pm (UTC)
That's cool. Some editors are less conscious or attentive to why things work than others, and simply know that they do. I was just wondering what made this a poem for you. If it 'just is," that's probably as good a reason as any. I've heard the phrase "A poem is what anyone calls a poem." from various students and teachers, and while I think it's a bit too general and near mystical for me, there is a point. Sometimes you just know something is poetry, even if you can't explain why.
Apr. 20th, 2009 12:06 am (UTC)
I often read and hear "poems" that I would consider prose, political speeches, etc. rather than poetry. And, I've written pieces myself that I would consider "prose with line breaks" which have accepted and published as poetry.

On the other hand, there are prose publications (Catherynne M. Valente's books "The Grass-Cutting Sword" and "Yumi No Hon: The Book of Dreams" come immediately to mind) that I view as falling firmly into the poetry category.

I think that the line between prose and poetry is much more difficult to define than one might think. And, contrary to what I would expect, the more I learn the more difficult a clear definition seems to become.

In a similar discussion of what constitutes "science fiction," someone, I forget who, once said that "if a science fiction editor accepts it, then it's science fiction." I know it sounds like a cop-out (and that people will continue to debate whether a particular piece should be classified as prose or poetry) but maybe "it just is" is the best answer.

Apr. 20th, 2009 04:41 am (UTC)
Curious: have you read Toby Barlow's "Sharp Teeth"?
Which is a novel-length poem.
Apr. 17th, 2009 05:39 am (UTC)
Josh - regarding your poem...I think you're over-analyzing it. The poem works.

I didn't see the illustration until after I read the poem, so I don't think it's too dependent on the art.

Also, I enjoy poems with layers. I don't have to understand them all, but I sense them and it gives me something to go back to, to take a second look at.
Apr. 18th, 2009 06:09 pm (UTC)
I think the poem works just fine on its own.

In fact, my initial reaction when I saw the artwork was disappointment. Don't misunderstand. The artwork is amazing. It just didn't match the "White Doe" that I had pictured in my imagination as I read the poem. Both the poem and artwork are great, but I like them much better separately than in conjunction with each other.

Whatever the source for the syntax, that works too, especially the couplets beginning with the repeated "I am the white doe of Nara" which give the piece a haunting quality.

Certainly, a poem that I feel is worthy of serious consideration by the voters.


(Deleted comment)
Apr. 18th, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC)
One definition that I've heard that made a little bit of sense to me was the idea of narrative vs. non-narrative. A piece of "poetic prose," my friend argued, would have more of a narrative arc than a "prose poem." I'm not sure I completely agree, but it did have a sense of logic to it.
May. 22nd, 2009 12:47 am (UTC)
white doe of nara
I just discovered "The White Doe of Nara" on Goblin Fruit. It was one of my favorite pieces there. I'd like to compare it to Kipling, who I was reminded of while reading. In Kipling's poetry, the unfamiliar names, places and customs have never detracted from my reading experience. They add to the atmosphere. I will admit I wondered at first if the speaker was a literal doe, a sacred animal, though after I read the stanza about the "lover" and the "black hair" I realized that was an incorrect assumption. However, I didn't feel that I needed any other information to enjoy the poem. I realized it was about a fallen or rejected deity. The emotions were accessible, and the "I am the white doe of Nara" refrain was very powerful.
I think the poem's power lies in its suggestiveness. I liked it that I had to read it several times to fully understand what was going on. I liked the uncertainty and open-endedness. For me, that made it believable. Instead of sounding like a lecture on unfamiliar customs for an ignorant western audience, it was an impassioned plea coming straight from the mouth of an otherly creature. I liked it that the white doe didn't assume her listeners needed a cultural lesson but just gave her story. This fit the innocent, naive narrator as I imagined her.
That's my personal testimony, for what it's worth. I read the poem about five times. It really resonated with me and made me want to dash off and write my own poetry.
May. 22nd, 2009 12:50 am (UTC)
Re: white doe of nara
I thank you for your comments. It is nice to know when a piece works for another reader and writer. I am glad it resonated with you.

Thank you.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


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