Barbara Claire Freeman, Jenny Drai, Gillian Hamel, Elizabeth Robinson and Brian Teare read on December 2nd at Studio One Art Center at 7:30 pm.
We consider how composing with the phrase as the basic measure differs from composing by sentence, how it is or offers a different compositional field, why one chooses it…
Barbara Claire Freeman: Taking the phrase, rather than the clause or sentence, as the measure for a poem is something I find both occasionally necessary and utterly mysterious. There's a certain kind of "landscape" (both internal and external, musical and syntactical) that demands the phrase, the white spaces between phrases, no punctuation or capitalization—a landscape for which the sentence, no matter how devious or disjunctive, isn't appropriate. (Of course the reverse is also true: certain "landscapes" demand sentences of various kinds.) Composing by phrase allows a certain kind of quietness and an accentuation of the pauses and silences that accrue around and within and between the linked phrasal units. I find that I compose-by-phrase especially when I want to write an exceptionally stripped, bare, slowed-down poem. And would love to know more about how/when/why others employ this form(?)
Elizabeth Robinson: I feel a great deal of affinity for the way Barbara articulates this. To me, the landscape of the sentence is more assertional. It says of itself, "I am complete. I state something incontrovertible." As Barbara says, there are poetic sites where one wants that. To me, the phrase is more lyric, less assertive. Maybe it's kind of a foreground/background thing: the sentence surges to the foreground. The phrase is attentive to its larger context. In that way, it measures sound and idea differently, more gesturally. In relation to the phrase, I think of Barbara Guest's idea that every poem carries within it, ghostlike, all the decisions that the poet didn't make but could have. That might be the the mysteriousness that Barbara cites: the phrase remains open to other possibilities/articulations that the poem accepts as present but doesn't necessarily need to fulfill.
Jenny Drai: I can relate to both Barbara and Elizabeth's responses and especially to the idea from Barbara Guest. Also, at some point I think the phrase/fragment allows for the espousal of an idea in lyric language even as it maintains a certain sort of hiding place, a site for the shifting and cloaking of ideas that float more freely than they ever could if they were tethered to the construct of the sentence. To add to that, I can say for myself that (I think) when I write in sentences, it is because I have something very definitive to say, whereas when I compose in a more fragmented form, I am exploring an idea of which I am still discovering the shape.
Gillian Hamel: I particularly like Elizabeth's idea: 'the phrase is attentive to its larger context.' To me, the sentence's completeness creates a kind of idiosyncrasy as well, a couching in personal terms and the perspectival logic of the subject-verb-object construction—there is always a centering, particular view woven into the syntax of a full sentence. Conversely, the phrase becomes more public, collective—the ownership of the language recedes and the language becomes its own subject and object. In this sense I also relate very much to Jenny's idea of the phrase as something more exploratory—the openness of the phrase invites the questions and the plurality of voices that are always present at the borders of the poem, absently suggested but never explicitly permitted by the singularity of the subject-driven sentence.
Brian Teare: So much of what has been said echoes my own experience of working in and with fragment. So rather than reiterate, I'd like to pick up something Jenny said—about working with fragment as an exploratory mode—and embellish it. Though for me as a thinker and believer the fragment is deeply epistemological (i.e. suggests that our mode of knowing is always already incomplete), for me as a working writer it is primarily prosodic. Its prosody has less allegiance to logos and more allegiance to melos, by which I mean the fragment supplies a more flexible, improvisatory compositional frame, one in which I follow ear/err from sound to sound, tracking suggestive and gestural noise associatively. It's a lyric logic, one with much room for stutter and gap.
Sara Mumolo: At a work related event today a woman on a panel said: “Everything we encounter is an argument.” Considering the resonance of this declaration, I feel grateful for the occurrence of this thread, awaiting me through the day’s arguments.
Poetry activates a space where we can depart from the inundation of arguments, if we choose to enter it. Barbara Guest says, in her talk at Buffalo from the early nineties, “Getting out of Poetry and into Prose”: "The poem is our act of special beneficence, and the Poet is rewarded the halo. The Poet is unaware of the halo, just as in the painting the persons are unaware of the halo, but it’s there as a reward for a particular unconscious state of imminence.” This quality of being ‘about to occur’ is where the phrase enters into the compositional field for my phrasal poems, some of which appear in the chapbook. It allows space, as Barbara Freeman mentioned, where the poems appear stripped down, and I find it essential that this mode not sculpt but rather, that the poems indicate a bareness.
For example, the sentence offers the argument and, as Gillian pointed out, the logic of a complete thought. Yet, the explicitness and possible arrogance of such completeness was not a consideration when engaging the subject of the nude—and all that she carries in the landscape of the painting. Rather, the phrase occurred instinctually, as a mode I only came to understand while it was occurring. That’s when that busted version of a halo, that “particular unconscious state of imminence” empowers the phrasal mode. The complete thought became more important to poem as a whole, the sequence as an entity, rather than the line or sentence.
Like Jenny, the sentence appears most attractive to employ when I have something definitive to say, or argue. Composing in the phrasal mode lifts me upward in some way, allowing me to write in altered states of being, states that more properly engage visceral realities (the sound in the body/bodies)—not that of social media, police and news reports, emails, bills… Each of those things works by creating space, multiple barricades, between the viewer and the painting, the user and the network. With the phrase, I can exhibit a space less ornamented, one like Brian mentions when he writes that our mode of knowing is always already incomplete. This incompleteness suggests absence, especially as confusion around our lack of being present in a space mutates. The occupation movement argues against these barricades between people and wealth, through what initially was a guttural-response-mode in its attempts to be present, to occupy. Phrasal composition could offer recognition for spiritual or empowering spaces we occupy.
Jenny Drai: "Poetry activates a space where we can depart from the inundation of arguments, if we choose to enter it. " I like this statement from Sara's response as well as the idea that there may be some arrogance attached to the sentence. I will add that the main problem I have
had in the past with the standard, straightforwardly correct sentence is that it takes its grammar for granted. Before the fragmentation I employed in the poem sequence from which the pieces in the anthology were chosen, I wrote in sentences, but disjunctive ones. So in their
own way, they were also full of 'stutter and gap' (Brian). I thought it was necessary to show a rupture within that otherwise apparently seamless entity, to show the work involved, to show that someone had been there, had constructed. Now, with the fragment mode, with this idea that the reader can engage with what might be 'about to occur,' (also Gillian's statement that "the phrase becomes more public, collective") I concede that now any reader can construct alongside the author. So maybe the fragment mode could in some ways be construed as an at least somewhat democratic mode of poetry—remaining authorial in the sense of setting theme, diction, etcetera, but always opening, opening, opening to the reader... I almost want to say that some of this sounds similar to the ideas behind L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, but my knowledge of poetic movements in this country is decidedly lacking. I would argue that maybe while I don't necessarily feel as if I compose what I write from some deep collective well of language (too stubborn for that!), I am really learning from this thread that writing in the fragment mode allows me to be read individually, idiosyncratically, and (therefore, in a weird way, and perhaps paradoxically) collectively. What do others think?
Gillian Hamel: This idea of reading collectively, of viewing social movement and conversation through the lens of the poetic mode (and vice versa) really resonates with me and seems particularly important to the construction and logic of the fragment. Careful of being swept up in the adrenaline of a political movement—of letting my poetics succumb to the argument, to use Sara's logic, the phrasal/fragmented composition becomes a way for me to mediate the plurality of perspectives, problems, narratives engaging my perception of the political moment. A way to really engage 'diversity of tactics' where news reports and editorials and general assembly proposals fall short—where the argument of the sentence fails and must be transcended. This also makes me think of the role of poetry in politics (not in the perversion of detached politicians wearing suits and waving proposals, but in the real sense of the polis, the endlessly transformative and exploratory sense of the people trying to coexist pragmatically) and vice versa. Poetry is often a negotiation of great spatial collectivity (drawing on the deep well of language, which I agree with Jenny is impersonal and unappealing) and aggressive intimacy. Exploring and engaging the pieces and particulars of speech is a part of this—writing toward, as opposed to from, a collectivity. In this sense, the fragment becomes a way to engage the rupture, the 'stutter and gap,' which frees it from personal argument while creating the awareness of speech as intimate as the individual; bodies standing together in the streets, rather than arguing on the internet.
Elizabeth Robinson: Thanks for this, Gillian. I'm having several feelings and thoughts that I'll try to state here, but they are not full thoughts yet (fragments, I guess). The piece I wrote for the anthology had to do with an epidemic of bat deaths across the country—the threat to that population. In the moment, I wasn't writing a poem to raise awareness of this phenomenon. I was responding with sadness. The fragment as a tonal signal or gesture. I'm not sure I can relate this to what I'm seeing in the news or online, but the violence against peaceful protesters is impacting me somewhat the same way. In 1980-1981, I was a student at UC Davis and during the Whole Earth Festival, on the same quad where a policeman sprayed pepper spray into the faces of students who were merely sitting, I served on the "Karma Patrol." I can't help remarking the contrast. We just wore green t-shirts and were supposed to wander around making sure that people were okay. There was a playfulness to the role even though the responsibilities were earnest. I had a corresponding feeling when I saw footage of the students who returned to Sproul Plaza after police brutality: sailing tents filled with helium balloons. I felt moved by it and happy. Obviously, as a political gesture it wasn't determinative, but, again, the sense of playfulness resurgent after something really ugly felt very hopeful to me. So again, fragment, gesture as tonal, and tone as something that is more important than commonly think it to be.
Brian Teare: I really like how we seem to have moved from a consideration of the fragment as a lyric mode to a consideration of the fragment as a way to engage the social differently. It seems that many of us view the fragment as a way to avoid falling into the trap of pure discursion while also subverting the bad politics of traditional grammar that many feminist and queer theorists and writers have objected to: subject-fucks-object. Am I hearing/reading this the right way? If so, it makes sense that the poetic fragment could make possible different kinds of social relation with the reader through language, ones less hierarchical and more relational. In Gillian's account, it is as though the speech-based poetic fragment were a phenomenological extension of bodies, a way to possibly encounter and experience significant otherness. I like this, and I like Elizabeth's tonal gesture, and they make me think about the fragment-based lyric as a somatic space of potential encounters—yes, a kind of collectivity, though perhaps different than the one Jenny writes about. What if the lyric fragment is a form that mimics the body-mind in relationship to its environment? Anyone or anything might enter through the doors of perception and begin to talk or to provoke sensation, which is why this mode strikes me as vulnerable to meaning: it is so open and multiple.