Abstract Language

Abstract Language! When I revise I look at what sections of my poem are too abstract and try to come up with some way to replace the section with figurative language without losing to much of the meaning. You don’t want your poem to be predictable, but you don’t want it to be indecipherable either.  This is especially important with a spoken word piece. Your audience needs to be able to understand what you are talking about. It’s a fine line to walk.

Abstractions are not always evil, just mostly evil. If you are using the abstraction in a new and unique way it probably is fine to keep it the way it is. In some ways poetry is a way of viewing abstractions in new and unique ways. A love poem helps us see love in a new and personal light. The same is true with poems about death etc. So maybe the abstraction works. Use your best judgment, if you can’t decide err on scratching the abstraction. Lets look at a bad poem I am working on:

Mother’s milk laps upon the sheets

While we are all greeted by infinities <—-  this looks like an abstraction that needs to be removed and explored through concrete language.

Hear the call of primordial streets

Our places of learning are factories,

I a product without purpose

An order lying on a shelf

All my metaphors commodify

Reduce my worth to wealth <—-  I think this abstraction is a keeper. Maybe its cliché. What do you think?

We yoked ourselves to agriculture, <—– I think this one is OK as well.

Multiplied and made peace with the sword

Civilization is a vulture,

 That shits pop rocks, pizza, and soft porn. <—– This last part is just bad and I will rewrite it till I like it

Check out this link for more info on abstract language



Is it Poetry?

Academic Poets often criticize spoken word. They say that the reason why spoken word is not really poetry (or not as good as academic poetry) is because the emphasis is on performance. So the argument goes that since the performers are concentrating on delivery it must mean that they spend less time on their poetry. As if there was some finite amount of effort that you could put into your work. As if spending time working on the performance means that you don’t spend time on your poems. As if the audiences that judge a poems worth at poetry slam are somehow less intelligent or discerning then those people (all five of them) who buy modern poetry.

This is the pompousness of academia at its worst. The Academic bemoans the death of poetry, wondering if poetry will ever again be relevant to the cultural landscape, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy and artistic value of Spoken Word, marginalizing it as something less then true poetry.

Granted there are some Spoken Word pieces that drop elements of modern poetic language such as complicated metaphors and word play, because using an oral medium does not allow the audience the leisure time to deconstruct the work the printed page does.  To illustrate my point here is a poem by Taylor Mali entitled: What Teachers Make.

It has plenty of similes but not a single metaphor. The similes are simple, to the point, and effective.  If mark twain was right when he said “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” How can we find fault with Taylor Mali’s word choices. His poem is relevant to our times in a way that Chaucer and Dante are not. The same way that Walt Whitman was relevant for his time and place, despite what the critics of his day thought of his poetry. If Taylor is not your cup of tea, and you believe that his piece is more akin to a speech then a poem. I would like to submit for your consideration the work of Andrea Gibson a poet from Boulder, Colorado. Her poems are rich with language and symbolism and more importantly passion. You would be hard pressed to find an Academic to argue that Spoken Word is not poetry after being exposed to this amazing artist.


Show It

Delivery, Delivery, Delivery! I have mentioned before that I have been required to attend a number of school sponsored Creative fiction readings. Sometimes regardless of the quality of the poem, I just cannot appreciate it the way I would like to. Why? Because of the poets delivery. Let me remind you dear watcher that  one the foundations of rhetoric is audience! Delivery is Important. Let me paint a picture for you. Let’s say that you are in a MFA graduate program. you have decided that your life’s work will be poetry. You painstakingly learn your craft. You have spent years dedicated to this pursuit. You have spent months writing and re-writing the same poem making sure that every line, every word is perfect. You get invited or are required to share this work at a MFA reading sponsored by your school. Why would you stand in front of your peers and read your poem off of a sheet of paper. If you spent so much time, blood, sweat and tears to perfect your poetry would you neglect your audience and read from a piece of paper. now I know what you are thinking, I am a poet not a performer. I would argue that the nature of poetry, the cadence, the rhythm, the passion that you have invested deserves better. You don’t have to be perfect, but you should at least memorize your work. Slam poets know this. They don’t submit their work to academics lifeless on the page . They perform in front of real people, a real audience, that judges their work immediately. They are in touch with their audience intimately. I don’t understand how any MFA program could graduate a poet that didn’t at least commit their poem to memory. I would like to thank the artists who’s videos I pilfered from YouTube. Both of the poets and their poems are wonderful. Thank you Nazelah and Jody Rampo.

Show time!

a drawing of a guy reading poetry

Show Time

Today I want to give you some tips on the art of reciting poetry. Whenever I go to a Poetry recital, usually the poet is not reciting at all he is simply reading his poem from the paper. When you do that you are concentrating on the text and not on your audience. You also are not giving yourself the opportunity to pick out where and when you will put emphasis on a line, or the tone and timber of your voice as you recite the text. These are all things that you should be considering as you commit your poem to memory and prepare for recital.

All poetry has a natural cadence to it. However that cadence is not enough. Actors spend hours trying to get to know there characters, practicing important lines and working on the proper delivery for those lines. Get in the habit of saying your lines out loud and looking for the perfect way to deliver. This will not only help with your recital but help you shape the spacing of your lines and where you put your breaks in the future.

Picture in your head the white strips. A band composed of a drummer and a guitar. If you shifted your focus from the individual sounds of the instruments, you can hear two distinct sounds become one, the harmony of two instruments becoming one. You should think of your delivery along the same lines. The cadence and the sounds of the words are one instrument the way you shape those syllables and emphasis certain words is the other. Strive for harmony between the two parts. No matter how well you have memorized your lines always, always, always have a copy of your poem on you. You never know how you are going to react when you are preforming in front of an audience. Actors forget their lines all of the time, they commonly take the liberty of ad lib it when this happens. You unfortunately do not have this luxury because every single word in your poem is irreplaceable.

Make sure you are speaking from your diaphragm so that your voice is rich and carries. This is what singers typically do. If you feel like you are speaking from the back of your throat you are doing it wrong. This will also help your elocution.

Cracker The third.

animal crackers

Do you practice condensation or concision when you revise your poetry? Find out if you fit into one of these two camps, or none of the above at this thoughtful post by poet Scott Edward Anderson (That includes a great poem)  here.

Today we are finally going to get into editing and improving trouble lines. By that I mean those pesky lines that derail the flow of your poem. After the revisions that I have made I feel that this poem is getting close to the point where I would feel comfortable sharing it with an audience at my local slam. Please comment on the changes and let me know if you think that the new revision is better or worse than the last and tell me why (I know it’s a lot to ask for on these internets).

Let’s get down to the nity grity! I made a rather critical post last week about the conventions that are taught as gospel on college campuses concerning creative writing. Today I am going to have to eat some of those words (without invalidating my argument by the way), because I feel that there is too much abstraction at the beginning of my poem. So I have exercised the line “I, the product of white flight” and replaced it with the more concrete image of “I, my White folks beat feet” which I feel is more lyrical and concrete. Even though I love the phrase “White Flight” for its inherent Poetry I feel that the new line is better for the reasons described above.

The next lines I looked at were “pure intention” and “poorly chosen words”. These lines are simple straight to the point and maybe worth keeping, but for this revision I opted for more figurative language so they are now replaced with: “intentions like water” “but words that burn”.

Gash has a connotation that I don’t want anywhere near my poem and I could not find a suitable replacement so that bit has been removed entirely.

This concludes my commentary about the bulk of the changes that I have made. I have been thinking about adding more biblical imagery which led to the new lines concerning Passover.

Lastly I still need to come up with a more effective creation to replace “smiling at dark faces” and “still singles out race” because the message is good, yet to literal for maximum impact. Maybe my hand full of readers might be kind enough to help me brainstorm some ideas.

Finally I am proud to present the new re-envisioning of Cracker


I, my white folks beat feet

He, the product of able bodies

Me, my name is Cobb

He, his name was Cobbs

My intentions like water

But with words that burn

Shed light on ignorance

Reopen old wounds

Wounds that pass-over, yet passed on to sacrificial children

Wounds that over-look the shades of sharecroppers’ fields

Feels, now my tongue now the lash

A rash, realization

Of past realities is robbing me of the breath that my name betrayed.

It starts with the blood. Like verse from the book. That speaks of the sin which our fathers partook.

Now stains the hands of the son.

The mark of Cain cannot be whitewashed…

Our intentions are in question

Smiling cause they’re dark

Perpetuate crimes through kindness

Seldom, letting dark souls just be soul

Lord knows, my ignorance and stupidity has often come back to label me, cracker.

And I say “god”.

If I’m a cracker

I want to be an animal cracker

Oh yes Jesus

Make me a cookie

You see, cookies only have wet backs when you lick them. Colors mean flavors and nothing more. Parents don’t care if you love the dark ones.

The many sizes and shapes are all sweet and you never have to worry about the macaroons attacking the pecan-sandies for their shelf space.

I wonder can you be institutionalized for expressing a desire to be snack food?

If that’s the greater absurdity

Then I confess my insanity

Because I never want to relive the shame I felt when I learned why you never call a black man boy.

I am creative and special just like everyone else.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my creative writing class. Our instructor has entered the murky grounds of trying to identify what a poem is. What is poetry? I think that this question is about as subjective as subjective gets. My instructor however did not belabor that point. On the contrary, he stated in class (I am summarizing to an extent) that poetry is using words in a creative fashion to revitalize and explore the meaning of words in a new way, In other words to freshen up and rejuvenate the English language. In creative writing classes across the country in one breath they say that poetry is subjective and in the next they give you there definition as if it were the gospel truth.

We have also been discussing the value of concrete language over abstraction. Which is very useful and something I have been looking at for this week’s revision; but when I read Byron and some of my favorite poets they make very good use of abstraction. Like this one. If I listened to my instructor however I could never write a poem like Inscription on the Monument of a Newfoundland Dog because of two pieces of instruction:

  1. Avoid abstraction at all costs
  2. Never sit down to write a poem with a predefined message

The later he explains will make your poem seem forced. I can see the wisdom in that. I have been dealing with that in my revision process with Cracker, however if you only allow for your sub conscious to imbue your poetry with meaning while you sit around and play with the language, while avoiding abstraction at all costs, you have severely limited yourself and your poetry.

I have gone to a number of university sanctioned poetry readings and have seen a number of young, soon to be MFA graduates recite there poetry, some of them published. I have noticed that although the imagery is vivid, the cadence is spot on, and the word play is sophisticated and inspired, the poem seems soulless. It falls flat; it carries no passion and reveals nothing about life. It is the opposite of insightful. It’s like a tall glass of your favorite microbrew served flat and warm. It’s like opening the prettiest, most carefully wrapped present on Christmas only to find a pair of socks. In this way even though all of the poems are unique, fundamentally they are the same pretty yet vapid, just like the girl I took to homecoming. It’s the antitheses of what I love about poetry. I fear that the formulaic way that academia teaches poetry, with its one size fits all approach is only serving to standardize what a poem should be and not exploring what a poem can be. I don’t want to be the product of a creative writing assembly line.

This is not to say that my creative writing class or the creative writing program is useless. There is much to gain by learning the tricks of the trade, what is commonly referred to as craft. I will however have to tread carefully. I will have to meet the standards set in class, writing what they want me to write in the way they want me to write it. All the while I must do my best not to internalize anything no matter how mundane, until I have carefully considered and explored how it might affect my thinking process and my creative work. I will also have to continue to expose myself to other schools of thought. The way that poetry is being taught in my current class subscribes heavily to the imagist philosophy but I am sure that there are other opinions out there.  Perhaps I am being paranoid but I have seen how a hive mentality and strict standards and practices can have a negative effect on creativity. I was in the military for nine years after all. What good does it do to be a poet, if you are a poet who writes like everyone else who graduated from your program.

Update: Long time no type!

It has been two weeks since I have posted last. Midterms were a nightmare and that was followed by spring break. So I apologize to my few followers for a lack of content. I also have some good news! My creative writing class is finally working on poetry. I cannot post poetry that I am working on in that class to this blog because the university is concerned about me plagiarizing myself. Yes, you read that right. However I will be incorporating and commenting about some of the instruction that I will be receiving.