A Tiny, Eternal Continent

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Swift , Jacquelyn
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School of Letters , School of Letters Thesis 2019 , University of the South , Poems , Writing
My collection of poems discusses the process of growing, grieving, and the desire to come of age gracefully even as life changes. In some poems the growth process takes the form of learning to mourn and overcome obstacles that would otherwise seem insurmountable. Other poems are both emotional and critical in discussing topics of blackness, feminism, identity, and marriage. Although the range of growth takes on a variety of forms in my collection, it is the tone of pessimism in juxtaposition with the fierce need to “make lemons into lemonade” that anchors these poems to a common thread throughout these pages. What I am most proud of when it comes to the writing process is what I’ve learned from an ultimate failure I experienced almost immediately after writing what I thought would be the first successful poem of my thesis work. It was called “Florida Authorities Consider Possibility of Super Snake in Everglades.” This was a novelty poem that was supposed to examine feminism with a warning of women rising up against oppression in an organized way that would reproduce itself from generation to generation of women. I had been inspired by an interesting news article about snakes and I made the best connections I thought possible between one and the other. This poem failed because it was not specific and grounded enough into its emotional truth. It was a political poem that was trying to be too abstract instead of bringing it home to specific examples of what I was criticizing in a misogynistic society. I have a habit of flooding poems like these with sensory detail and abstraction in place of narrative and concrete specifics. What made matters worse with this poem was that I was already into a heavy extended metaphor that used the “Super-snake” (the product of procreating Burmese and Indian Pythons) who’d been expected to viciously eat its way through the Everglades, as women who are tired of being mistreated in society. These women would “eat” their way through the patriarchal nonsense. A metaphor like this needs to be supported by concrete specifics more than abstracted lyric. I was not telling my truth or a truth I had come to know intimately enough to write effectively about. I realized this only after I looked at my poetry as if I were seeing it for the first time. Would I care about what this poet has to say on this topic? Does this poem hold a universal emotional truth that helps me understand myself, my situation, and my world better? Even though I am the writer, my answer to both of these questions was no. In the first stage of my writing process, I used my earliest poems to test the emotional core and the honesty of my new poems. If I saw I was hitting ineffective notes I stopped. I reevaluated the subject matter, asked myself why I cared about it, and began piecing together the message I was trying to bring to the surface through the vessel of that poem. Specifically, the biggest change was understanding each poem’s unique conceit and writing carefully towards it. In poems like “Crisis at a Poetry Slam,” I was expressing the shame the speaker felt when surrounded by performance poets who had pieces that were more “important” than hers. This poem challenges the conception that it doesn’t matter what you write about on open mic night as long as you share. I am highlighting what it feels to like to be the only one in the room with a love poem in the midst of all the political poetry. The speaker demonstrates her awareness of “larger” issues while holding on to the fact that she has no immediate urge to write about these things, and that makes her feel like less of a poet. Earlier versions of this poem fell flat in communicating this in a plainspoken way that would help readers relate to this sentiment. There were four poets I consistently looked to for a push of inspiration as well as different approaches on finding my way into a poem. Ocean Vuong’s collection of poetry, The Night Sky with Exit Wounds, informed the experimental forms I used to work my way into the section of my book that deals with death and sickness. Like Vuong’s poem “The Seventh Circle of Earth” my poem, “Pancreas and the Brick Duplex on Bonny Oaks Drive,” plays with the different ways a narrative can be stated clearly in a poem without losing the music or lyrical quality. I use footnotes to tell the story that the poem on the main portion of the page merely elevated. This experiment with form was helpful in my struggles with marrying narrative to abstraction. When writing about death, I am concerned about being able to stay close and courageous enough to look my subject in its face and do it justice. Vuong’s poems similarly handle topics dealing with loss, coming of age as a gay male, and processing hate. I studied how he refused to let his readers look away from any of his subject matter. iii From harvesting his sexual freedom from the “wet grass of the baseball field behind the dugout” to the plainspoken confessional quality his work brings with every piece, I learned so much about how to keep my eyes open even as I submerge myself beneath tears, blood, spit, or any other fluid with which these poems brim with. I still have room to get uglier and to dig further into these wounds. My next stage of revisions will be dedicated to cutting everything open even more. Patricia Smith, Caludia Rankine, and Danez Smith all contributed to helping me learn to write my blackness in a way that felt as authentic to me as wearing my own skin. I always get self-conscious in how to occupy literary spaces with the right amount of blackness and the right amount of womanhood. The notion that a choice must be made has been an ongoing struggle for me as well as its own inspiration source. Citizen, Incendiary Art, and Don’t Call Us Dead demonstrated to me how to write about myself as if I am my own story. I learned that my life, my skin, and even my smallest interactions/occurrences are often deeply connected to a larger dialogue that I can engage in, make sense of, and help other readers (especially those that have similar experiences) do the same. I wrote this journey in “Mama Used to Tell Me.” As I was revising this one, I thought about the conversational micro-aggressions I experienced when going relaxerfree in 2010. Most of these interactions were small, but heavy with a larger conversation about black womanhood and feminism. The revision for this poem involved unpacking this dialogue. Understanding conceptual/word association and interconnectivity was the most important part of gaining perspective on how to get into a poem, learn what it wants to say, and get out of it gracefully. Classroom experience at Sewanee was instrumental in my understanding of the revision process. In Chris Bachelder’s Forms of Fiction class and Kelly Carlisle’s Non-Fiction workshop, we read samples of original texts and compared them to their revised versions. This gave me insight on how to shave down and only keep what is absolutely necessary in my poetry, making every word count. In Jamie Quatro’s fiction workshop, we discussed how to carve our stories out of all the fluff by doing imitations from the fiction in literary journals and understanding how they work in their concise forms. In Nickole Brown’s two poetry workshops everything came together for me. She developed a list of ten poetry guidelines to use during the revision stage. It was a reminder to check my poem’s title, shape, linebreaks, verbs, point-of- view, tone, punctuation, economy of language, emotional core, and solidified ending before calling it finished. Each of these poems are only the best possible lines from a slew of sloppy earlier versions of themselves.