In early dimness,
a quiet, unmoving sky
chills, waiting for dusk.
In early dimness,
a quiet, unmoving sky
chills, waiting for dusk.
Dripping, drooping, weak.
The skin and the rain: both grey.
An unrestful sleep.
My online speculative poetry class, Verses of Sky & Stars, is coming up on June 9th! The class changes a little each time as the group composition does, but if you want to get a basic idea, I talk about why I like teaching it in this post from April:
As our understanding of the world grows to incorporate more science and technology, our metaphors grow to include them. The static human behavior of looking outside to understand ourselves combines with an evolving society to give us reference points that shift over time and cultures. … Science fiction wrestles with how to figure out the universe and our place in it. Poetry allows writers to focus on metaphors and internal states. Science fiction poetry can get straight to the point and ask, “What can we learn about ourselves from the world around us?”
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.
There is still time for you to join us next weekend. Enroll here at the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers
Time for another round-up of my recent haiku! (Here is an explanation about why I’ve been writing and posting haiku.)
A day for walking,
but I sit and try to work.
My thoughts are so slow.
Cats watch the birds cry.
A window divides their worlds,
but watching is fun.
Clouds whiten the sky,
swaddling snug and restrictive,
the arms of autumn.
Cold drives off the bugs.
We shiver, but no bug bites
afflict our bonfire.
Brisk air on my arms.
Colder days come, and the dark,
but this day: fresh, calm.
The chilly blue skies
make the world bright as summer.
Leaves, trees, flowers, friends.
Colder than it looks.
The wind sways me with the trees.
So hard to stay still.
The leaves keep blowing,
tethered to branches and trunk,
brought short by their leash.
Dry leaves, restless wind,
all these things I’ve seen before,
trapped in recurrence.
When I teach my speculative fiction class (there’s a section this weekend, by the way!), I like to talk to the students about the most popular varieties of speculative poetry. A lot of speculative poetry is narrative, or works with imagery from mythology and folk tales.
One of my favorite varieties is poetry that uses science as a metaphor for understanding the human condition. Using sciencey science–the kind we teach in the classroom–may be relatively recent in the scope of human history, but as far as I can tell, people have used elements of the natural world to describe their inner lives as far back as we can track.
Concrete descriptions of the external world provide a way of translating ineffable internal states into concrete, shared experiences. I may not be able to point to the sensation of happiness, but I can point to grass–or photosynthesis–as something that exists outside myself in the world we share.
As our understanding of the world grows to incorporate more science and technology, our metaphors grow to include them. The static human behavior of looking outside to understand ourselves combines with an evolving society to give us reference points that shift over time and cultures. I love the throughlines like this we can see through human history, the ways in which we stay the same and also become different.
Here’s a cool example–apparently when we’re trying to talk about the human brain (at least in Western culture over the past couple of centuries), we tend to analogize it to cutting edge new technology.
Right now, computers are a dominant metaphor. We might talk about broad anatomical restraints as being similar to hardware, while software installation represents training that occurs within the anatomical structure. We run various programs to accomplish various tasks–our email helps us communicate, our search functions help us shuffle through data recorded in our memory banks, etc.
Before computers, there were other ascendant technologies, such as trains. Instead of comparing mental functions to hardware and software, they’re described as engine parts, or infrastructure. The things that keep trains on track become metaphors for the things that keep the human brain ticking.
In some ways, these are useful, clarifying metaphors. In other ways, they elide the plasticity of the brain. To risk extending the computer metaphor in the wrong direction, our software changes our hardware and vice versa. If we think of ourselves too strictly as machines, we risk ignoring the many other ways in which humans are not predictable systems of inputs leading to outputs. Like all metaphors, brain-as-technology rides a line between clarifying and confusing.
Science fiction wrestles with how to figure out the universe and our place in it. Poetry allows writers to focus on metaphors and internal states. Science fiction poetry can get straight to the point and ask, “What can we learn about ourselves from the world around us?”
Here’s a poem I wrote using the moon as a metaphor:
Moon, part II
like the blankness
of a page.
whose optimism winnowed
into the finite.
against the stars
with no one to call,
no man, no lady, no rabbit,
only the footprints of men
who won’t return.
You can register for the class here: www.kittywumpus.net/blog/speculative-poetry-with-rachel-swirsky/
Patreon content for January has just been posted!
$1 and above patrons can read a piece from my recent found poetry kick based on google searches for emotions–in this case, “anxiety.”
$2 and above patrons get to see a sneak peek of a work in progress. This month’s came from a writing game I’m playing where we get various prompts to write a piece of flash fiction every week. This is from the prompt “describe an act of what looks like kindness, but is actually cruelty.”
And for $5 and above patrons, I reprinted my essay “Why We Tell the Story: The Political Nature of Narrative.” The essay first appeared in Timmi Duchamp’s collection Narrative Power, published by Aqueduct Press.
Thank you to all my supporters on Patreon! Your support makes a big difference in my life!
While I was having trouble writing fiction, a friend of mine showed me a haiku they’d been working on. I couldn’t manage something like a whole story, but writing seventeen syllables of poetry came easily, and felt right.
These are only sort of traditional haiku. For one thing, I used English syllables instead of trying to adapt English words to Japanese morae which are similar to syllables, but not the same. I did use a seasonal reference in the first line of each, but they aren’t necessarily the kind of seasonal imagery that would have been used in a traditional poem. Also, I talked a lot more directly about what I was feeling, instead of using the metaphors to convey it.
However, I did try to convey the moments as I experienced them in that transient moment. I also tried not to revise, to just let them be in the moment they were. I think I cheated a couple of times, though.
I’m going to send out a haiku every few days for a while, at least until I run out of haiku. (I also wrote a couple of cinquains.) They aren’t necessarily in order, and they’re from a bit ago, so they won’t be a read on my direct emotional state, but I hope the words mean something to you
Here are the first nine:
hours that won’t shape into days,
Night, that bit too hot.
He sweats and works and I don’t
know when night will cool.
Night is cooler now.
Restless nothings pace my mind,
private and anxious.
Bright green against blue.
Another day forthcoming.
I hope it stays bright.
Mimosa blooms fade.
I am content to watch them
this mild afternoon.
Berries dapple leaves.
They and I, windlessly still,
hope we are ripened.
White with slanted sun,
the too-bright sky is stolen
with painful glances.
Smoke taints blue-bellied sky.
All things contain their reverse.
No moment is pure.
School opens again.
I don’t know why I am sad.
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.