Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Everything you need to write a poem (and how it can save a life) | Daniel Tysdal

Everything you need to write a poem (and how it can save a life) | Daniel Tysdal
Everything you need to write a poem
Martina CavalloReviewer: Peter van de Ven Let's begin with an icebreaker. It's called think-pair-share. The instructions are really simple. First, think. Begin with a moment of reflection. Close your eyes,and recall a very personal secret.

Preferably, one you have never sharedwith anyone, not ever. Second, pair. Choose a partner. Ideally, someone you do not knowor have just met. And finally, share. Share your very personal secretwith your partner. Sharers, use specific,preferably sordid details to really bring the experience to life. And listeners, listen close. 

Your next step will be to roleplay and replay the scenein front of the audience for catharsis and,of course, entertainment. (Laughter) Are you ready? Okay, I don't really want youto think-pair-share. (Laughter) And thank you for notimmediately fleeing for the exits. (Laughter) I begin with this icebreaker because I want to show two thingsthat connect all of us: the experience of lifethrowing us off balance and the need to communicatethese experiences. 

I threw you off balance with my terrible,probably stomach-turning request. And had I actually proceededwith the think-pair-share, you would have later felt the needto communicate this experience, whether when a friend asked you,"What was the worst part of TEDxUTSC?" (Laughter) or in an angry e-mail to the organizersabout letting a maniac on stage. 

I'm a poet and a poetry teacher, so I spend my timethinking about these experiences that knock us off balance. 

Both the good: love, birth, joy; and the devastating: loss, death and pain. I explore how we poets give formto these experiences with our poetic tools utilizing poetry's precision,vision and play to move, console and inspire. 

One of the lessonsthat teaching has taught me is that not only are we all linked by these experiencesthat knock us off balance but we're also linked by the fact that we could all explorethese experiences in poetry and gain from our poetic explorations. 

The first half of the title of my talk is"Everything you need to write a poem" because the goal of my talk is to show you that you already have everythingyou need to write a poem. The experiences of love and loss,of joy and pain, and the tools. To put a twist on one of the world'smost famous poems, you're a poet and I'm about to show it. 

How do I know you're a poet? I know this because I knowyou use language the way poets do. To express sensory experience,to make comparisons and to sound good. This is what we poets do when we create with imagery,metaphor and music. I want to give youa deeper grasp of these tools so that you can employ themmore self-consciously, the way a poet does. To stir our senses, move our emotionsand lead us to share in your world and see our own in the new way. 

Since poetry is such a hands-on process, I will introduce you to the toolsthrough the process, both my own and yours. 

In order to do this,I first need to introduce my friend. This is Blair. This picture was takenon my parents' farm where Blair and I performed songsfor family and friends. I first met Blair in 1992when we started high school together. 

We formed a strong and enduring friendshiparound the creative life. Together we performed in playsand improv games, we wrote and made movies, and we learned coversand composed original songs. This, to give you a senseof the weird stuff we made, is a picture of me, in makeup, as the villain of the not-yet-releasedPlastic Face 4: Plastic Faces Revenge. We wrote, shot and editedthe short horror film in two days. 

We actually hadn't madePlastic Face 1 through 3, we just thought it'd be awesometo skip straight to the later sequel. (Laughter) In January of 2009,Blair took his own life. Beyond the life and art,Blair and I had shared something else, a struggle with mental illness.

A struggle that brought us closer together but also had the power to push us apart. I think about him and miss him every day; which means I write about him,and to him, and because of him often. To go along with the eulogy poemsand novel I've written for Blair, I've written a two-line poemas a part of this talk. I will walk you through my processas a way of introducing you to the process and, I hope, power of poetry. The power to help usremember, grieve and celebrate. 

Before doing so though, I want youto join me in this writing process and take a momentto remember someone you have lost. This might be someonewho passed away recently or long ago. This might be someoneyou've lost touch with or broken from. 

Take a moment to remember. Now, throughout the remainder of my talk,I invite you to write down your lines or compose in your mind as we share this process of writing,remembrance and revelation together. So, one of the first things I think ofwhen I think of Blair is his laugh. 

The punch of the sudden burstfollowed by a rapid rippling, often with a wheezer too, as he had to toss back his grinning faceor curled it forward. 

There was a real materiality to it. You could feel his laugh in your body,both the physical vibration and the joy, as you inevitably started laughing too. This description of my friend's laughterbrings us to our first tool, imagery, and our first step, compose an imagewith a word, phrase or line. Imagery is languagethat represents sensory experience and in turn stimulatesthe senses of the reader. This is one of the core powers of poetry: to preserve and sharethis sensory experience. 

There are many types of imagery:sight, sound, smell, taste, touch; and more internal sensations,such as hunger or movement in the joints. Let's take a momentto explore imagery together with the writing exercise promotedby the comics artist Lynda Barry. I will ask a few questions to prompt you, and I invite you to write down your linesor compose in your mind. 

When you remember the person you lost,what sights and sounds come to mind? What smell do you associate with them? What food or drinkdid they most love to taste? What was the feel of their touch? In composing your image, one of the most fertile approachesis to ask yourself a simple question: what about this individualdo you miss the most? I miss Blair's laughter; the sweetness of the decadent lattes we treated ourselves toat the cafe where we wrote; the burn of cigars on poker night; and the chords we struckwhen we rehearsed and recorded. 

You may also consider giving formto the unexpected sensations you miss. The odd sight, weird smellor strange sound. 

For an example of the unexpected touch, I can return to the dayBlair and I filmed Plastic Face 4. During a fight scene, he hit me so hardright here with a plastic gun that I nearly passed out. And this goose egg was so bigthat I basically looked like a unicorn. Of course, we had to keepthe shot in the movie so viewers would understand why my character had suddenly growna throbbing third eye. Alternately, you may writeabout more serious ideas and emotions through the absence of sensory experience. I say this because what I ammost ashamed of in relation to my friend, what brings me the most pain,is characterized by this absence. 

The silence of his phone. The silence of his phoneafter he last called me and I didn't call him back. I will take this lack of soundas my opening image: "Your silent phonewhen I did not return your last call." When I asked youto remember the person you lost, what sight, sound, smell, taste or touchreturned to you the strongest? If you haven't already,I encourage you again to write it down in a word, phrase or line. 

Other powers of poetry are the capacity to reveal truth,give form to the unseen and stir wonder. One of the main ways poets accomplish thisis through comparison; whether through a simile,a comparison that uses "like" or "as," or a metaphor, a more direct comparisonthat doesn't use "like" or "as." In his poem Fork,Charles Simic receives the fork as "the strange thingthat must have crept right out of hell a bird's foot hungaround a cannibal's neck." Langston Hughes in his poem Harlem uses simile to meditateupon his opening question. "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it fester like a soreand then run?" Thylias Moss employs metaphorto powerfully and painfully describe the transition from youth to adulthood as "the arrival of knowledgethat eyes are birds with clipped wings." For your poem, you can makeyour comparison to your image. 

Your image is or is like blank. And to fill this blank,you may draw on anything from nature's animals,plants and environments to humankind's creations,communities and environs. Though you may wish to focus on materialthat relates to the person you lost, whether occupations, hobbies,passions or dreams. The act of actually creatingyour simile or metaphor, though, is really this simple. Compare. Connect. 

For example, the microphoneis a blank page; the room lifts like a balloon; the mind is a dam that stillsthe raging river of the world; or the mind is a raging river that bursts every damthe world builds to stop it. 

A good simile or metaphor will possesssome combination of surprise and aptness, of trueness and newness. However, the key to beginning is not worrying about the qualityof the end result. Just write and letyour imagination move freely. 

Let's take a momentto explore this together. Return to the imageyou wrote for the person you lost and expand itwith a simile or a metaphor. I will again aska few questions to prompt you and I want you to write downor reflect on your answers without judging what arises. 

Which animal is your image similar to? Which season is it most like? If your image were a sport or a game,which would it be? When undertaking this exercise alone, choose a simile or metaphorfrom the list you brainstormed and expand the comparisonby answering the questions "why" or "how": Why is this image like this season?How is this image like this game? For example, I could compareBlair's silent phone to winter. This connection to the cold lack of growthexpresses my internal feeling. 

The next step is to tease outthe similarity with greater specificity. 

I could explore how his silent phone islike a blizzard glacier or frozen lake, or I could comparehis silent phone to poker, our favorite game to play together, and expand this further by writing,"Your silent phone is a game of poker in which the cards are glued to the tableand I cannot pick them up." Or I could combine winter and poker, return to my original imageand revise it simply like so, "Your silent phoneis a poker game played in a blizzard." Once again -if you haven't already - I encourage you to expand your imagewith a simile or metaphor. 

Your image is or is like blank. Our final power of poetry is its capacity to rouse pleasureand stir emotions with its music. The most obvious way poets do this,of course, is through rhyme. Here's a prime examplefrom Jay Electronica's Exhibit C. "You either build or destroy,where you come from? The Magnolia projectsin the 3rd Ward slum. Hum, it's quite amazingthat you rhyme how you do and that you shinelike you grew up in a shrine in Peru." The power here arises not onlyfrom that marvelous bounty of rhymes but also from their placement. 

For example, beginning a line "hum" with what had been the end rhyme"from" and "slum" or the wonderful internal rhyme "you grew"tucked between "you do" and "Peru." Even in poetry that doesn't rhyme, poets still often workto make their words sing. Two means of accomplishing thisare alliteration and assonance. 

Alliteration is characterized by the repetition of consonant sounds, as in "termite tract trees"or "birds in berry bunches." Assonance, by contrast, is characterizedby the repetition of vowel sounds, as in "the breeze is fleet and brief"or "a day of rain." Take for example William Wordsworth's Reflections upon Naturea Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. 

In nature, he hears "oftentimesthe still sad music of humanity nor harsh nor grading,though of ample power to chasten and subdue." Note the musical centering he buildswith the repetition of "s" sounds, "Oftentimes the still sad music." And note, too, how he employs assonanceto create a sonic connection between lines via "sad" and "ample,"and "grading" and "chasten." We can return to our own two lines then and revise them to heighten the musicthrough alliteration, assonance and rhyme. 

Alternately, you may workto diminish the music if it better suits your desired effect. Here once again is my developing poem. "Your silent phoneis a poker game played in a blizzard." And here are my linesrevised to heighten the music. "Your telephone's silence is poker playedwith invisible cards in a blizzard." Note how I addedthe striking alliterative "s" by changing "silent phone"to "telephone silence" and heighten the alliterationof "poker played" by cutting the word "game." I also added assonancethrough "invisible" and "blizzard," and with this addition, more effectivelycommunicated my helplessness. 

Not only are the cards concealedby the snowy storm but they're also impossible to see. This, then, is my two-line poem for Blair. I'll give it a title, Last Call, and I invite you to do the samewith your poem when you finish it. 

In sharing my processand inviting you to write, I hope I've demonstrated,as the first half of my title promised, that you already possesseverything you need to write a poem. The experiences to explore and the tools of imagery,metaphor and music to do so. I also hope you see the truthof the second half of my title. How poetry can save a life. 

What I mean is that even though I can neversave my friend's life in the way I feel I should have, I can at least write a poemthat preserves his life and saves me from slippinginto the abyss of my failure. And importantly, I can keep writingand aiming to save. 

I can build these two linesinto a longer poem, and in this poem I can transformthe frozen phone into a fiery megaphone, a blazing thing that calls out,in the memory of my good friend, to all those who need it; creating a real icebreaker,a true think-pair-share. And in this icebreaker, I can ask you to close your eyesand think about it. 

The ice inside you. Think about that massive block of ice, that unskateable surfaceor unscalable glacier made of what is missingor of anxiety and dread or of the voice that destortsand demeans. And pair up with the makerinside yourself, the one who listens, crafts,questions and explores. And share with your inner makerthe work of encountering the ice, the work of chipping it away,or the work of scaling the glacier or navigating the expanseof the frozen lake. And when you inevitably fallinto those frigid waters, know that as your out-of-balance bodychurns under the surface, your lungs aflame with held breath; that it will be the hands of this maker that break through the iceand take hold of you and pull you back through. (Applause)