Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Voracity, Veracity

Did you spend hours as a child reading the encyclopedia or the dictionary? Do you love watching documentaries on TV, nature or science or history? Do you get a little thrill from guidebooks and almanacs and all manner of reference materials?

Yeah, I thought so. Me too.

At my poetry group's reading last month, I read a new poem called "Sleeping in Space." It's about an astronaut trying to sleep on the space shuttle as it orbits the planet, and in it I use terms like "orbital sunrise" and "apogee" and "capcom." I've been fascinated by the space program for many years, I admit, going back to the Apollo moon-landing days; but this particular poem came about after having watched about fifteen or twenty hours of NASA TV over the course of several days. A couple of the members of my poetry group expressed some kind of surprise that I knew all these facts about what astronauts do, and asked where I'd learned this stuff. But how, I wonder, can you not? If you're a poet (or, probably, any other kind of writer), I think you owe it to yourself and to your art to be fascinated by the things of this world, to read and watch and listen voraciously, to learn and learn and learn.

They used to say, "write what you know." But I think what's important is to know what you write: to immerse yourself in a world and its language, then write from that place. When I put a po'ouli in my poem "A Field Guide, A Map," I probably spent an hour looking up stuff about that particular species of bird, what it looks like, how it's studied, where it lives (or lived; the poor thing may be extinct by now). Is all that in the poem? No, I really just mention the bird's name. But by learning more about the bird, that name seems now to belong to a real thing, something that I can feel certain belongs in the poem . There's a reason it isn't a dodo or a hummingbird. It has to be a po'ouli.

Some people call this immersion obsession, and say that you have to write about what you are obsessed with. Fair enough. I can be obsessed with something for an hour, write one poem about it, and leave it behind. Or I can learn its language for weeks, months, years. This kind of obsession, or learning, or research (yes, I'm gonna sneak librarians in here in a minute!) is what gives poems a language and a context. A linguistic texture. It's one thing to write about a whale, but quite another to make it a minke whale, to see its baleen and the gleaming white bands around its pectoral fins, to know that the exhalation of a minke whale -- its blow -- is, unlike that of the humpback or the blue whale, practically invisible. Now isn't that way more interesting and resonant than just to say "hey, a whale"?

So if I ever teach a poetry class, here is what I'm going to make them do. I'm going to send them to the reference department of a library, and I'm going to ask them to research some body of knowledge that they aren't already terribly familiar with. I don't care if it's oncology, cloud formations, the history of Barbie dolls, Greek mythology, or auto repair. I'm going to ask them to find twenty vocabulary words that are unique and/or specific to that field, and turn in the list of those words complete with definitions. Not just brief dictionary definitions, but a bit about what the terms mean and a bit about their context within the field of study. They can start with Wikipedia or something, but I want them to find at least an introductory text or guidebook and spend some time with it. They don't have to come away feeling like an expert in the field, but they need to immerse themselves, at least a bit. Then (you see this coming, right?) they're going to write a poem using that vocabulary -- and, of course, mining it for emotional resonance, not just writing a poem about "how to repair a car" or whatever.

This is what poets and librarians have in common. We love facts, names, specificity. We know all kinds of weird, unexpected stuff. Or we should, anyway. My friends who write SF/F and historical fiction don't have a monopoly on doing research! And that's the way I like it. (Of course, I freely admit to being a big old nerd.)

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On a completely unrelated note, This Is Broken had me laughing at my desk today till tears ran down my cheeks. "Please notify the United States Postal Service to notify the United States Postal Service that the recipient has a new address." Hee hoo ha!


Lyle Daggett said...

Fun to read this post. Made me think of the time many years ago when I went digging in the local branch library, and came up with a book titled "Invertebrate Zoology," more or less a textbook with good brief descriptions and clear hand-drawn illustrations. I was researching for a poem I was working on about walking along the beach on the Puget sound -- I needed to know if jellyfish have eyes. (Turns out they don't. They do however have mouths.)

Pamela said...

Jellyfish has one "i". LOL. I am exactly like that. Now that I know they are eyeless, I can finish my poem about the eyeball, jellyfish and Cyclops. Thanks, Lyle.

Anne--great idea for students. I use the "vocabulary sssignment" when I teach English 102/intro to reasearch or process analysis paper, but I never thought about applying it to a "process poem." May I steal this?

I always try to work in language specific to my profession (transcription) into poetry, but no one ever likes those poems at all, except for, ironically, a friend of mine who's a physician.

Trista said...

One of my professors used to have a standard poetry assignment -- we had to write a poem about science. Some aspect of science. And, of course, that meant most of us had to truck off to reference books since, as poets and English Majors, a good many of us had never really thought about science in a way close enough to write.

I took class from her twice (once as an undergrad and once as a grad) and those were my favorite assignments...

Radish King said...

Yum, you just gave me an assignment idea for my workshop!


jenni said...

Good assignment! I agree, know what you write, or know that you don't know it, a fish out of water can make for interesting perspectives too.

Peter said...

Thanks for the link to This Is Broken. I made my day.

Anne said...

Lyle: Yes, exactly! Sometimes I do research like that too, and sometimes I do the research before I know I'm even going to write the poem. Any excuse to read books about weird stuff...

Pamela: One "i" -- smartass! *grin* Of course, steal all you want.

Trista: Fabulous assignment! I wish someone would have given me that one. They always tried to make us write about mythological characters. Ho hum.

Rebecca: Yay! I hope it gets good results.

Jenni: Sure, the fish out of water thing can be good too, looking at something as if you've never seen it before. Although I think you still need to pay close attention to the details, of course.

Peter: glad you enjoyed!