What's in a Story? #13

By Mirabel

Published: 2020-11-25

If poetry can teach you one thing about storytelling, it’s the art of interruption.

In journalism, there is one golden rule about writing a good news story: don’t bury the lede. A lede is jargon for the essence of the story. What, when, where. Tell it all to the reader by the first paragraph. Tell it how you would tell it to a friend.

Poetry is different. For me, journalism is breathlessly concise, but poetry takes its time. So what makes for a good story in poetry?

In the Primer for Readers and Writers of Poetry, Gregory Orr compares narrative poems with lyrics. Orr says that lyrics do not focus on a narrative. Instead, they are guided by imagery and evocative language, with the plot appearing as a “ghost narrative” – a background character, if you will.

Can a story be more than its narrative, the set of actions which unfold? I believe so.

In fact, I derive a thrill from writing poetry which is missing in any other genre. Here I turn to the Romantics, and their insistence on emotions over thought.

A story isn’t just its narrative. A story is more than thoughts organized by an ego.

A story is more than what happened, or what we thought of it.

Instead, a story shows how what happened changes the characters, and elaborates on why these changes are worth acknowledging at all.

In telling stories through poetry, the writer arguably has a freedom unique to the genre. A poem is not bound to the action of the verb: what happened, when it happened, how it happened (if anything).

What is the truth value of a poem? Can a poem be false?

I know these questions may seem strange. Unfamiliar.

It’s like drawing a circle, and then asking: what is the truth value of the center? Can a center be false?

The more you lean into this kind of questioning, the more you realize the abstractness of the poetic form.

In poetry, you are not bound to truth, nor are you born to any truth. I would argue that poets often waive the right to fictionality (though a niche genre of sci-fi poetry continues to exist). I would argue that stories, as found in poems, are a-fictional, even those with a clear plot.

Because the essence of a poem involves a transformation, and it is the writer’s responsibility to carve the space for such a transformation from the abstract space of unthought thoughts.

And all good stories involve tangents. But these tangents tend to complement the emotional center which the poem aches for. As the author, you have to sometimes pretend to lose track of your thoughts. Like a wise teacher, you have to feign unfamiliarity, put on the fresh eyes of your students.

A strong example of feigning naivety is Maggie Smith’s poem Good Bones, first published in Waxwing Quarterly.

The narrative is clear: a mother says she hides the shortness of life from her children.

But the story is a combination of opposites. Tit for tat: “for every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.” The imagery becomes more graphic, but still proceeds in a set of opposites: “for every loved child, a child broken, bagged, / sunk in a lake.”

If we think of the poem as a set of oppositions, next we need to know – how does Smith’s speaker feel about these opposing realities? Why are these realities being pointed out, instead of others?

Smith’s speaker is, well, ambivalent about the world. She is lecturing about its harms, but only in her mind. She is frightened for her children, yet she is “trying to sell [them] the world.”

In Good Bones, Smith doesn’t simply just add up a list of co-existing facts about the world. She focuses in on the dualities most sensitive to a speaker with maternal responsibilities.

Why does it matter? A mother is concerned for her children – the world is full of them. What makes the reader shift?

I would argue it is the startling comparison which concludes the poem, when the maternal figure is likened to a decent realtor:

Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

In these lines, Smith makes a comparison so unusual, so profane, the reader’s expectations are interrupted.

The interruption is the site of transformation: the mother is no longer cooing her children, too cowardly to speak the truth. In fact, she is tired – and just doing her job.

If poetry can teach you one thing about story-telling, it’s the art of interruption.

Each reader has an ego. Each reader has an inner narrative.

A good story interrupts.

1. What does the word “artist” mean to you and is that how you identify? Did it take you time to adopt that identity?

To me, being an artist means having a handle on your intuition and the work ethic to express its complexities in the medium that you work with. My medium is poetry. For some time, I hesitated to identify as an artist, because the word can come with unwanted connotations – think egoistic hipsters who are detached from the sociopolitical realities of their environment. But ultimately, I found that the word best described the experiences I have in common with creative individuals working on music and visual arts. It is a helpful umbrella term which captures the capacity of the human mind to express itself in a myriad of ways. I began identifying as an artist once I realized the art we produce can speak for itself and powerfully cancel the stereotypes of what people imagine artists to be.

2. What does the word “technology” mean to you?

A tool made up of numbers, algorithms, and computational processing which helps humans interact with each other.

3. What role does technology play in your art?

A significant role. My debut collection, DREAM FRAGMENTS, was released in October 2020, when vaccines were on the horizon, but not arriving anytime soon. Through technology, I was able to perform at reading series across Canada, with readers from provinces I have never been to (yet). This spring, I was able to present at the Russian American Student Art Conference, with audience members from the U.S. and Russia. I would never have been able to convey my words to such a diverse group of readers if we did not have the technology that we have today.

4. What role do you see art having on present global culture?

For me, the most exciting part about art is how it conveys emotions we might never get to experience on our own. In a world reeling with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, art is a pathway to learning from the lived experiences of distinct populations, like asylum seekers and diasporic members. I agree with Audre Lorde in that poetry is not a luxury.

5. In your opinion, can you separate art as distinct from artist? From the environment in which it was created? From its societal era? Why or why not?

I think separating art from the environment it was created does a disservice to the art object. As an artist, I know firsthand just how much my day-to-day life, from social interactions to places I visit, influence my art. I am a fan of closely reading and examining art on its own, but I don’t think that precludes holding artists accountable for their actions. When I was a literature student, I would often learn contextual information, like a writer’s political leanings and their informal relationships with other artists, only in office hours. I wish we would discuss the sociopolitical and personal backgrounds of an artist more openly.


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