The kind of poetry I write

Over at Harriet, Rachel Zucker wrote a post noting that it’s important for poets to define the kind of poetry we write. She then did a two-part post (Part One here; Part Two here) in which various poets described (or attempted to describe, because it’s difficult) their kind of poetry. Because I believe this is a fruitful exercise, I decided to try to define my own work, and I’ve been pondering it all weekend.

First, I started with what I don’t write about: current events and politics. Which, admittedly, I sometimes feel guilty about. Why aren’t I using my words as sources of protest, to inspire change? Should my work be so disconnected from the world. Except that I’m not an especially political person. Whatever activist impulses I have, I’d rather not channel them through poetry. If I did, poetry would become less enjoyable for me. Also, although I have been dancing for twenty years (longer than I’ve been writing!), for whatever reason, I don’t write poems about dance. I really don’t know why.

From there, it was pretty easy to come up with the themes that recur in my poems: landscape and geography (especially Texas); travel (related to landscape and geography, but different enough that I consider it a separate theme); the interplay between agápe, éros, and philia (I distinguish between these three words because I think the term “love” is too generic and ambiguous); and family (both biological and chosen). I’ve also been writing poems about math and physics lately, but it’s too soon to tell whether these will become enduring themes. I’d say of the themes, travel is the most common, though the others definitely pull their weight.

But I also wanted to see if I could condense it further. And after much consideration, I think the kind of poetry I write is poetry of ambivalence. Even when I’m writing about things I love, ambivalence and conflict show up. I was at a reading in Houston in September, and realized that none of the poems I considered my best were unilaterally unambivalent. I’ve written reams about Texas, a state I adore, but nothing completely flattering. The one love poem that made it into my chapbook manuscript has enough juxtaposition in it that there are undercurrents of ambivalence. And ultimately, that’s because I don’t like writing poems that are simply positive or negative. That’s not as fun. That’s not as challenging. I can write a sonnet skewering something that annoys me, or I can write a laudatory ode, but as a poet, I prefer to write pieces that can’t help but find the negative and positive coexisting. I like to write poems that can’t have blinders.

It will be interesting to revisit this idea every couple of years. The poetry I write now isn’t necessarily going to be the same ten years down the line. These themes and ideas seem very essential to me now, but I imagine that sooner or later, I might be done talking about them. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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