Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.
Rhetorical poetry in the U.S. becomes common during periods of social unrest and comes from poets standing (for the duration of the poem) for some sort of movement or viewpoint. I am a rhetorical poet. Usually in school we say "Oh it's political poetry, we don't like that." We are taught to say that there are three kinds of poetry: Lyric, narrative and epic. They forgot "rhetorical." Because we don't name rhetorical poetry, we can't see it, although when you read or teach Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son," or Robert Pinsky's "The Shirt," a rhetorical poem is what you've got. It's there but unnamed. It's like eating grilled cheese and a pickle for lunch and not realizing it was a vegetarian meal.
Rhetorical poetry is not simply writing a poem about the cause of the month. Carolyn Forche said, "To become a political poet, change your obsessions." You have to have something to say, feel it deeply, and take a stand on an issue. It helps if you're a good writer. It helps if you're part of a "we." "We" makes a poem political.
Here are some of my favorite knockout books of rhetorical poetry:
The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forche (about the U.S. in El Salvador; a highly honored book for good reason)
Power Politics, Margaret Atwood (sexual politics)
Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner (by U.S. soldier back from Iraq; Publisher's Weekly review begins, "The verse in this book is not good, but....timely"; sorry, PW: It's good.)
"A Woman is Talking to Death," by Judy Grahn (a single, powerful long poem, one of the great underground poems; collected in the book The Work of a Common Woman)
Crime Against Nature, Minnie Bruce Pratt (about how the poet lost custody of her sons because she's a lesbian; a book that richly deserved the award it won)
Dangerous Life, Lucia Perillo (about the threat of violence in women's lives)
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen (soldier killed in World War I)
And many, many more. Yes, such poems have lyric and narrative elements. But they're also rhetorical poems. Don't leave home without them!
How'd I get to be a tenant in a log cabin in the woods? By luck, and picturing what I wanted, and enjoying the noises of mice in the attic and raccoons snarling and fighting outside all night. I save a lot of money by not having to go to B&Bs, apply to writers' colonies, on camping trips to get back to nature, and other getaways.
It wasn't published by a university press, but it's the kind of thing that might have been if it hadn't had that incendiary title. We are now given to understand that university presses are a luxury. Even before "academic" was a rude word, very few people bought and read university press books: They are about ideas, history, culture, science, and so on, from highly specialized or unique points of view. It is easily if wrongly said that university press books are published primarily for their authors and their small academic circles. Yes, it's for their CVs, but it was also about getting air time, even a little, for facts and concepts just as valuable as any others -- some of them with the potential to explode the entire culture or a generation's thought patterns. Sure, scholarship is "heavy" reading. It does heavy lifting! Sometimes these very few readers, also teachers and/or writers, funnelled these ideas into the culture at large, down to the street level, and changed our conceptual thinking, whether the ideas themselves were right or not: Feminism. Literary theory. Gender studies. Biblical exegesis. Afrocentrism. Philosophy of language. Particle physics. That National Geographic had a political agenda. And so on. (P.S. Sexual Politics has been kept in print since the year 2000 by the University of Illinois Press.)
So a university press might look to a cost-cutter like a great luxury, although the University of Missouri Press, publishing between 25 and 50 books per year with a staff of 10 on a budget of around $400,000, was a miracle of cost-effectiveness. If they published each year only one idea or one fact that got out and got traction in our minds, an idea that got lived in, that's more than $400,000 worth of most anything else on campus will accomplish.
It went well. This entry is not about the work or how it was received (just fine!) but on the exceptional demands that "blue" material makes on the speaker. First I had to slenderize the poems so none of them sounded blue for blue's sake, making sure each line carried genuine content. At Chance Operations delivery really counts: Entertainment is valued. And real entertainers don't falter, shuffle through papers, get self-conscious, apologize for their material, mumble or mess up, and they care about timing and shadings in volume, speed and tone. They can't be worried about their clothes or looks, so I wore the simplest possible thing. I wanted first to have no patter at all before and between poems but saw I needed to give context at least twice but kept it very short. While rehearsing I kept revising, so the poems were not completed until the day of the reading. It was evening and I knew I would be physically tired before I even started, so I asked to "go first" and carefully geared myself up with a cup of coffee and protein, and sat alone to get focused and centered. It was going to take enormous confidence. I have never disciplined myself so severely for a poetry reading. The preparation paid off, though. Entertaining is no joke!
My co-readers on that evening were Eileen G'Sell and Gabriel Fried. The photo was taken by Tony Renner. Thanks to Chance Operations for the chance!
Like everything else in publishing, terminology changes. One's manuscript was either accepted or rejected. Now, with writing contests so pervasive, if one finishes out of the money, one at least might "win" publication. It's really very nice of this contest to offer publication to nine -- a large number -- of also-rans. With a prize of publication they will surely feel like winners.
A truth is going bald here. "Winning" and "losing" was how writers always took the matter spiritually, although we said "acceptance" or "rejection." I am first to agree that "rejected" is a horrible name for the fact that an editor did not select my manuscript out of the 3,000 he received. But I'd rather my manuscript be "rejected" than have it labeled "a loser."
Do you prefer that too? You can still publish in periodicals without entering their contests. Publishers still accept "submissions"!
As human rights diminish, the power of poetry increases. The most oppressed people depend the most on metaphor; that is, on poetry. I believe we are looking here at a version of our own future. Perhaps mass illiteracy will mean poems are called in to somebody who's literate. Perhaps we will even bypass the writing of poems and record them ourselves, and pass the recordings on to a middleman who can keep us anonymous yet get them disseminated; or we will just stand outside of our dwellings and speak our poems and people will gather around to hear the one who dares to speak.
Poetry is serious business!
- Over-explanation. This includes prologues. "Prologues are never needed. You can usually throw them in the garbage. They're usually put on as a patch."
- Too much data. "You're trying to seduce your reader, not burden them," Friedman said.
- Over-writing, or "trying too hard." "We think the more description we add, the more vivid it will be; but we don't want to be distracted from the story" we open the book for.
- Beginning the novel with an interior monologue or reflection. Usually this is written as the thoughts of a character who is sitting alone, musing and thinking back on a story. Just start with the story.
- Beginning the novel with a flashback. Friedman isn't entirely anti-flashback, but the novel's opening page is the wrong place for one.
- Beginning a novel with the "waking up sequence" of a character waking, getting out of bed, putting on slippers, heading for the kitchen and coffee...a cliche
- Related cliche: beginning the novel with an alarm clock or a ringing phone
- Starting out with an "ordinary day's routine" for the main character
- She sees a lot of manuscripts beginning with "crisis moments" that aren't unique: "When the doctor said 'malignant,' my life changed forever..." or "The day my father left us I was seven years old..."
- Don't start with a dialogue that doesn't have any context. Building characterization through dialogue is okay anywhere else but there.
- Starting with backstory, or "going back, then going forward."
- Info dump. More formally called "exposition."
- Character dump, which is four or more characters on the first page.
And, Friedman said, the "biggest bad advice" about opening a novel is "Start with action." She said she thinks, "But I haven't been made to care about these characters yet." Ideally, the first page introduces a character the reader feels he or she knows and understands.
- The difference between poetry and prose is silence.
- Every poem is written on a backdrop of silence.
- The poem is packaged in silence.
- Rap is poetry that is afraid of silence.
- Silence is not monolithic; there are different kinds.
- Between every written word there is silence.
- Learning how to break lines is learning how to handle silence.
For a long time I kept writing ideas for poems on passing scraps of paper, would lose them, and then lose the chance to write the poem, because the moment of conception, if not captured, never returns. I have actually gotten out of the shower to write down a fleeting idea, or stopped in the middle of a block, put down my things and got out some paper and a pen, and recommend this -- taking your ideas THIS seriously. respecting them THIS much -- to everyone who writes. I've written ideas on post-its and the backs of business cards and the strangest paper scraps. And when I want an idea I go to the idea box and poke around. Today's scrap, a recently inscribed one, said "Polite Applause." So I drafted a poem about polite applause. Yesterday's pick from the idea box was "Hostas." I got partway through it and finished it today. There's a scrap in there that says "Diana Cancer," as in "Her mother's Diana Cancer," and that idea needs to be thought out, but I think it's a good one. Oh, these scraps say all sorts of things, such as "A dinosaur bit me" and "bare metal." They needn't make sense. They're seeds of a poem. The idea box is my best way to keep intact ideas that need to wait.