You can’t be taught by someone you won’t let presume upon you.
To understand poetry one must understand the shore. The shore is a line with only one side; that is, what the shore is is not the water.
This alone is not enough to understand poetry. For instance, the poet must ask, “Now that I’ve found the shore, can it be killed?”
In any case, poetry sucks, and all the graduate degrees in the world won’t save us from the flood. Instead of writing poems, let’s give up all hope and suck ourselves dry.
This textbook will teach you how to understand poems, participate in intelligent conversations about poetry, and write poems significantly better than you do now. It is not a replacement for an MFA because it doesn’t pay you to teach composition or lead a poetry workshop, but these are both things you can do on your own if you want to.
Poetry is not made by humans—everybody knows this—it’s only enabled.
When you read a poem, you’re not trying to “figure out” what the “author” is “trying to say”. You’re reading a poem.
When you write a poem, like really Write a Poem, you’ll know not to take credit for much besides making yourself available for it. Being just how you were at that particular space/time.
The Number One skill for a reader of poetry to possess is clearing one’s mind of any knowledge about poetry.
The Number One skill for a writer of poetry to possess is making time for writing poetry.
What is a poem?
A poem is something that is not any other thing. Poems often include parts of other things, sometimes other things whole. There are poems that look like essays, for instance, but a poem is not an essay, and an essay, however poetic it might be, is not a poem. Mapping the shore of poetry is the same as mapping the physical shores, the mathematical shores, the shores of history, etc.. Anyways, by the time one has asked, “What is a poem?” one’s already kinda missing the point. And if you really want to know the answer to that question, you will find it impossible to write a poem at all.
If you find it impossible to write poems—that is, if all your attempts at poems leave you with a bunch of words that your teachers tell you are excellent poems, and they give you “A”s, if they’re those kind of teachers, ask yourself these questions:
Does what I’m writing mean anything to me at all?
If you mean anything of what you’re writing before you’ve written it, you’re already kinda missing the point.
Am I aspiring to write a poem that has already been written?
As we’ve already discussed, a poem is something that is not any other thing. This includes other poems. Also, don’t try to write poems in a certain “style”. There’s no such thing.
Do I have a reason to write a poem?
If you’re writing a poem to get a good grade, or praise, or laid, that poem won’t be a poem, however much it might work for your purpose. In fact, writing a poem for any reason at all will prevent you from writing a poem.
Does my poem have craft?
Should I change these line breaks?
Should I just destroy this and write a new poem?
If there’s any question, the answer is yes.
Have I read everything I’ve written recently out loud?
If you haven’t, you’re too obsessed with books to write a poem.
He allowed me to eat much of Donald’s heart before he revealed to me what it was. I realized he wasn’t lying; he’s not smart enough to lie. “Do you feel like a barbarian,” he asked, “knowing that you’ve eaten the flesh of your lover?”
But I didn’t. Almost immediately—I had already begun to feel it, my husband only finally gave it a name—I could feel Donald’s blood mix in with mine, instruct my cells. And I could feel that although I was surely unclean by anyone’s measure, I was no longer measurable as myself.
Naturally, I finished the plate as my husband sat paralyzed across from me.
He had imagined me crying out, flinging the plate, tearing my hair. He had imagined being able to glimpse some sense of guilt in my eyes, and though, he surely imagined, I would certainly kill myself in short order, at least I would know, however I’d try to hide it even from myself, what wrong I had done. Instead, what he saw, glowing there as plain as the sun, was Donald in my eyes and all around me forever.
I set the fork down. I dabbed my napkin on my mouth, letting Donald feel my lips under it with my fingertips. My husband was still caught there, leaning forward, elbows on the table and hands interwoven. He hadn’t even thought. He could never have thought.
So say you have three teeth left, and your dog has fifty teeth, and your dog puts his fifty teeth under my pillow. Or say that instead of teeth, it’s fifty whole corpses with a varying number of teeth—how would you go about identifying cancer on your skin? What if the dermatologist is one of the corpses? What if the dentists take the dental records with them, into the flames?
Now, a poem should be enough for most prosecutors to want to see you burn.
If you’re chummy with the executioner, use his trust against him. Let him lead you back to his nest.
Poetry wants to be born, and to find a body first it’s got to eat some people.
Let’s say you write a poem about when I write a poem about eating my way out of oblivion. How do you pick a title for your poem?
One method is to pick a word or phrase from the body of the poem, and promote that to title. Often, this will give the poem a subdermal forehead implant. This, obviously, can off-balance the poem. I mean, sometimes it works, and your poem stumbles and trips its way off the tracks just before the train comes. Mostly, though, this method just produces a lot of cancer.
Another method is to voice it up with something long and rhetorical. This method is especially popular on the internet, which is the future, so this is probably an excellent method.
Sometimes, poets will pick titles based not so much on the poems themselves, but on the themes of the manuscript the poems are included in. This will often cause a poet to be perceived as a lot more pretentious than they actually are, and is another reason nobody buys albums anymore, just downloads mixtapes.
It used to be, in the 1990’s especially, you didn’t have to title shit at all ever. Or you could title something “Ampersand” or “Fragment”. Nowadays, you’re much better off titling something “Ampersand pound-sign star star star” or “Frag”. Why? Everyone from the 1990’s is dead, and we’re all figments of the fifty-year-olds who’ll bury us.
How do I become a poet?
As soon as you’ve finally written a poem, you’re going to want to turn it into a project, or at least a series of poems. You’ll have all these ideas about how the next poems will grow, who they’ll marry, how they’ll marry, all the things they’ll do and will never do.
Perhaps you’ll keep a page clear in your notebook or pulled up in a background window for possible titles?
And if somehow you get through four or five poems, you’re going to start looking for a publisher.
Many poets will tell you, “Don’t do this! Any of this!” but they can’t stop you. Really, it just depends on what you want to do: if you want to write poems, write poems; if you want to make projects, make projects; if you want to send out poems, send out poems. But none of these things actually make you anything. Writing poems does not make you a poet. Making projects does not make you a poet. Sending out poems for sure does not make you a poet. Getting poems published, too, does not make you a poet. Doing all these things for many years might make you a poet.
Donald Dunbar lives in Portland, Oregon, and helps run If Not For Kidnap. His book Eyelid Lick won the 2012 Fence Modern Poets Prize, and his chapbook Slow Motion German Adjectives is out from Mammoth Editions. He teaches at Oregon Culinary Institute.