That’s a mixing bowl.
I’m teaching an online class on writing science fiction and fantasy poetry on June 30 at 9:30-11:30 PDT. It’s a fun class because it draws people from many different backgrounds with many different goals. Some are dedicated poets, looking to sharpen their edge or find inspiration. Others are prose writers who’ve barely touched poetry before, trying something new, or hoping to pick up a trick or two to bring back to their novels and short stories.
As I prepare for the class, I’ve been going over some of my own poetry, thinking about how I wrote it, and what inspired it, and that kind of thing. I wrote “Inside Her Heart” while I was in graduate school, and although the poem is ostensibly about the mother’s loneliness, I think the emotion I was tapping was my own homesickness, living halfway across the country from my parents and my (then to-be) husband.
Inside Her Heart
by Rachel Swirsky
leaves for college,
my wife sits down
in the breakfast nook.
“I’m done being a woman,”
she says. “I’m going to try
being a house.”
She draws a sweater
over her chest like
curtains, a wide hat
like a roof perched
atop her head. Weeds
spread across the linoleum
at her feet, littered
and matchbox cars.
She moves from
the chair by the stove
to one near the window.
At night, she
opens her mouth.
Lights pour out,
and scratchy music
like old records.
She beckons me
parting the curtains
so I can press my ear
to her heart and hear
tiny people’s footsteps
inside her, dancing
I wrote a lot of poetry in graduate school. I always joked that I was writing poetry because I was in a fiction program–I knew I couldn’t turn it in for class, so it was lower pressure than writing something that I knew would be subjected to many brilliant-but-critical glares. I say it was a joke, but it was probably also true.
Poems are an appealing form because you can write them so rapidly in comparison to stories. You can start one in the morning, retype and revise it thirty times, and still send it to an editor in the afternoon if you’re feeling confident.
Well, sort of. First of all, I suspect the fact that I write poems (relatively) quickly stems from the fact that I don’t make my living on poetry. Just as they were low-pressure in grad school, they’re low-pressure now. I write something; it’s fun; I hope someone enjoys it; I earn enough money for something between a cup of coffee and a nice dinner. (At least I usually get paid — I’ve heard people refer to poetry as a “gift economy,” which is nice, but I like coffee and nice dinners and paid power bills.) Poets can treat their poems with every bit as much perfectionism as I treat my short stories. Poems can live on hard drives for decades, enduring a tweak or two every month when their file gets dredged up.
There’s also a lot of work that goes into writing a poem outside of the actual drafting, fingers-to-keyboard time. For me, sometimes that work happens before the poem is completed. It can arise as a kind of insistent, inchoate pressure that forms during my day-to-day experiences, from something as mundane as the ticking in my mind while sitting on a subway, to the whooshing blur of a dance floor–or, often, something shivery I’ve found in a book.
Sometimes, I spend the hours in revision, obsessing over where a comma goes and where it doesn’t. I do the same thing with my fiction–which I don’t necessarily recommend; there are diminishing returns on this kind of thing. Take it out, put it in. Take it out, put it in. Sometimes I can never really decide, and whether it’s there or not depends sheerly on whether I stop revising on an even pass or an odd pass.
Sometimes I hardly even notice the work I’m putting in. It seems invisible. A poem can seem to be begun and completed within hours. This poem felt like that–like something that just emerged. Of course, it didn’t–nothing does–I couldn’t have done it without years of reading and writing poetry.
The real work, though, was in my life–in the homesick experience of living alone in Iowa. Sometimes living is the work of poetry. Letting yourself feel, deeply. Truly engaging with the world and with yourself. Poetry begins with the examined life.
Consider this your invitation: start (or continue) to Break the Rules with me in less than three days! After Daylight Savings Time is over and the clock falls back, I hope you’ll spend some time with Cat Rambo, me and your writing this Sunday, November 5th at 9:30am PST
Register by mailing Cat Rambo at cat AT catrambo.com and specifying whether you would prefer to pay by Paypal or by check.
The cost for a single session live workshop is $99 for new students; $79 for students who have formerly taken a class with Cat (or Rachel). Classes are taught via Google Hangouts; all you need is a computer with a microphone and reliable Internet connection, but a webcam is suggested.
(At least a few secrets: If you register for this class, you’ll be able to learn from all of the other storytellers going first. If sign up for my newsletter, you can learn about when I’m teaching next. If you support my Patreon, you can learn what and where I’m writing first.)
I’m really excited about how well my novel project is going. I’m close to a third done which is a big marker for me. I though tit might be fun to post a couple excerpts from the first two chapters (they each have a different point of view character). I’ve put some up excerpts on my Patreon before (where you can get a new story or poem from me each month for as little as $1, plug over, thank you.) These are new excerpts.
Smog hovers over the mountains ringing the valley, grey underbelly lit orange by the last rays of sunrise. In winter, Marie’s garden is filled with pale color, splashed with infrequent dapples of red from dogwood and witch hazel. The woodchip path threads from the back porch through the flowerbeds, pausing to circle the wide-crowned whitebud tree. Droopy-headed snow drops and star-shaped glories of the snow drowse along the path, clustered close to the ground. Crocuses, violas, and camellias grow in higher beds, pastel blues and violets shimmering like chiffon.
Breeze shivers through the whitebud’s branches, tumbling a snowfall of tiny, bell-like white blossoms. It stirs the evergreen hedges encircling the garden, casting shifting shadows across green, white and brown. Lavender hellebore scales the leafy walls, its contrasting color creating the illusion of depth, as if the hedges could continue forever. Marie’s roses remain a few months from blooming. Their branches scratch bare and thorny against the dawn.
More kids arrived, and everything was glowy and strobey, and a bunch of people had put music on their phones and all the different genres rattled and clashed against each other, and some people asked if she wanted to buy something, which she did, but she didn’t have money. She set up singing near the front where there was better music, and some people stopped and told her she sounded like Beyonce, and a couple of guys told her she was a cunt, and someone else told them to fuck off.
So much spark. So much sizzle. Dancing wasn’t enough to get the lightning out of her fingers and her elbows and her toes. Her skull was full of electric fists that kept punching and punching and if she couldn’t break loose then they were going to hammer shards straight through her scalp and she needed to move, to move, to move.
Some guy danced with her and grabbed her tit, and she elbowed him in the ribs, but when another guy came up behind her later, she let him kiss her for a while until she got bored. There were other girls dancing and she watched them, the slither and sleek of their legs beneath their cut-offs, the chocolate dart of their eyes beneath jagged liner. She slipped between them and their bodies were close and press, and she licked the taller one’s neck, and her skin was salt and sweat, and Jamie was singing again, and someone’s hand was soft on the small of her back. There was so much smoke everywhere like haze, and people’s colored lights beaming through it and making everyone look pink and blue and weird and wonderful.
October 7, 2017 at 9:30am PST.
(Secret: If you join my newsletter, or sign up for my Patreon at $1 or more a month, you’ll get discounts.)
(It used to be called Retellings and Retaleings.)
Authors constantly draw on the stories that have preceded them, particularly folklore, mythology, and fables. What are the best methods for approaching such material and what are the possible pitfall? How does one achieve originality when working with such familiar stories? Lecture, in-class exercise, and discussion will build your proficiency when working with such stories.
Register by mailing Cat at cat AT catrambo.com and specifying whether you would prefer to pay by Paypal or by check. The cost for a single session live workshop is $99 for new students; $79 for students who have formerly taken a class with Cat (or me!). Classes are taught via Google Hangouts; all you need is a computer with a microphone and reliable Internet connection, but a webcam is suggested.
Can’t make it on the 7th? I have an on-demand version of Retelling and Re-Taleing: Old Stories Into New available online.
Come take my first ever speculative poetry class tomorrow!
Poetry requires intense linguistic control. Every word matters. Whether you’re a poet who wants to create fantastical verses, or a prose writer who wants to learn the finely tuned narrative power that poetry can teach, you’ll find something in this class.
Over the course of a few brief lectures, peppered with plenty of writing exercises, we’ll discuss some common forms of speculative poetry, and the challenges they represent. I’ll also send you home with market listings, and lists great authors, poems, and books to pick up to continue your journey.
Hope to see you there!