Here's a really big tip about how to interpret or rather not interpret writing, whether poetry or prose. It's more show than tell:
This past weekend I went to a musical event where students of the Peabody Conservatory of Music were singing - what turned out to be very dissonant singing. This is (for me) excruciating to listen to (no offense to those that sing or like hearing it) as it was comprised of very mediocre poetry set to music by contemporary classical composers. And I use the term 'set to music' lightly, as the music itself was nice, and the voices were outstanding, but the words didn't go well with either really, and there was absolutely no melody or real beauty to any of it (hence the term 'dissonant'). It was more like the recitation of a poem using exaggerated intonation in a sing-song way. In such a case, the poems themselves better be good. They weren't.
I could have chalked it up to a learning experience if it hadn't been for the raping of an Emily Dickinson poem (the one 'real' poem in the bunch) near the end. Here's the poem in question:
Bind me—I still can sing—
Strikes true within—
Slay—and my Soul shall rise
Chanting to Paradise—
This, in and of itself, is an appropriate poem for a song. It doesn't need a great deal of dramatic interpretation. But here's what the young woman singing it did: she walked down the aisle with her hands in prayer, then, once she reached the stage, ran about pulling at her hair, crying, wailing, crouching and cowering in various places with hands crossed as if bound, as she distorted (and I do mean distorted) the words. This was the greatest transgression:
my man strikes me, strikes me, my man strikes me
Um, isn't it mandolin? And it's "strikes true within", it's not a person actually being struck. The poet in me reeled. Nauseated. Betrayed. This "performance" dragged on and on and on, with hair flying and tears and clasped hands and fearful looks over the shoulder. The worst part: no one seemed to be as shocked as I was, or even mind at all, prompting me to ask, What are they teaching in schools these days? Or is it me? Of course, why didn't I see it - Emily Dickinson was writing about domestic violence! All these years of studying and writing poetry and I've learned nothing. I'm so embarrassed. Not.
Word to the wise: don't forget to take into account the life and themes of the poet or the writer when interpreting a work. You can't take a well known writer's piece and make it whatever you like just to be different. Different doesn't always equal profound, or even interesting. The piece wasn't created in a vacuum; it came from a person with values, beliefs and, in the case of Emily Dickinson - a very limited (and very "hands off") experience of men!
I know some theorists would say you can forget the poet/writer but, really, you can't. I'm telling you no. You're not allowed. It's just plain bad form, bad judgment, and disrespectful. The writer is the vessel through which the writing is produced and, as such, flavors and colors the piece with their individual, original, authentic self. That should always be honored. It is always a part of he/she that he/she is sharing with the world and it's our privilege to experience it.
Poor Emily. She deserved better. I should have stood up and yelled, "Fraud!" Or maybe, "Freud"?
THE THIRD ANNUAL NEW YORK ROUND TABLE WRITERS' CONFERENCE, APRIL 13 AND 14, FEATURES AN INTERVIEW WITH AWARD WINNING AUTHOR, RICHARD FORD.
The Small Press Center: The New York Center for Independent Publishing is sponsoring the Third Annual New York Round Table(R) Writers' Conference, to be held Friday, April 13 and Saturday, April 14 at 20 West 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues in midtown Manhattan, in the landmark building of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Among the featured writers taking part will be award-winning authors Richard Ford, who will be interviewed about his distinguished writing career on Saturday, April 14, and Colson Whitehead, who will be the keynote lunchtime speaker on Friday, April 13.
Focusing on the business and career of writing, the conference, now in its third year, has built up a considerable reputation for quality instruction from knowledgeable publishing insiders. The Conference features programming on a variety of literary and publishing topics, including workshops in online publishing, marketing, public relations, query letters, book proposals, the writing process, memoirs, and independent publishing. The Conference also provides an opportunity to meet top-notch editors and literary agents.
Last year's Writers' Conference was a vibrant and informative event that featured such authors, agents, editors and publishers as: Jonathan Ames, Greg Godek, Nuala O'Faolain, Sigrid Nunez, Denise Oswald (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Jennifer Robinson (Simon Spotlight Entertainment), Paul Slovak (Viking), Laurel Touby, Rachel Vater, Sean Wilsey, and Lou Young.
This year's Conference will again feature a host of authors, editors, publishers and literary agents who will be on hand to discuss publishing opportunities, and the craft and process of writing. Keynote speakers for the Conference include Colson Whitehead, author of The Intuitionist and John Henry Days, and Richard Ford, known for his critically acclaimed works The Sportswriter and its award-winning sequel Independence Day. His latest novel in this trilogy, The Lay of the Land (Knopf), was recently released.
Registration for the conference is now available online at writersconferencenyc.org . The cost of the conference is $250 for one day and $350 for both. There will be an early-bird discount until March 15: $225 for one day and $325 for both.
The Small Press Center: The New York Center for Independent Publishing was established in 1984 to help independent publishers reach a wider audience for their books, and to provide information and draw public awareness to the offerings of these presses. The Center encourages excellence and free expression in publishing through workshops, lectures, book fairs, exhibits, and it's Reference Center on Writing and Publishing.
The New York Round Table(R) Writers' Conference registered trademark of the Small Press Center, an educational program of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.
Poetry is a big, beautiful, complicated, sometimes daunting subject/task. When teaching a class, it's best to present some guiding principles - a philosophy even - to help direct the workshop participants and narrow the field a little so they are able to focus. For my current class at Creative Alliance, I'm asking people to consider the sacred and the profane as they write. For those of you writing poetry out there, here are my notes in case they can guide you:
Poetry is a mix of beauty, brutality, and basics. The basics – that’s craft – that’s (almost) the easy part. What you don’t know, I’ll teach you, what you do know, you’ll get better at and maybe see some things with new eyes.
The beauty and brutality – that’s the sacred and the profane. Let's define:
SACRED: dedicated to some purpose, person, or object, regarded with reverence. Synonyms: cherished, divine, pure, solemn, spiritual, venerable, blessed, revered. I want you to focus on two kinds of sacred and use whichever applies in the moment, in your poem – 1) the holy kind of sacred, with divine overtones, and 2) what is personally sacred to you. Again, keep in mind the definition – what is sacred to you in terms of a purpose (intention, a way of living, a way of dealing with others, a way of thinking, a philosophy, values), people, and objects.
PROFANE: not devoted to holy purpose; secular. Showing irreverence to God or sacred things. Synonyms: impure, temporal, transient, vulgar, wicked, worldly, crude, mundane, idolatrous. These are big serious words. What’s at the core of this is - mundane, worldly, crude (not just perhaps offensive, but something crudely made, without polish).
The existence of one makes the existence of the other possible. It is only through contrast that we truly value the range of emotions and experiences in life--for what they offer, for what they teach us, depending on where we are in our lives.
This, to me, is the core of poetry, whatever the experience – the push and pull between, not just the spiritual and the physical, the divine and the human, but what we have and what we want, what we lost and what we might have, between who we are and who we wish to be, between what we know and what we need to know. Who we love and -- you get the picture.
There are levels to the sacred and the profane. There are degrees. Show the degrees. For example – just because we love someone doesn’t mean we don’t hurt them, sometimes deliberately. Or just because we find an object or action or person repulsive, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have beauty or a kind of holiness inside of it. Look deeper. Between the sacred and the profane, one will naturally dominate, but show both for balance. The word balance is deceptive – it doesn’t mean that you show equal parts. They aren’t equal. As I said, one will dominate, but both are always present. Always. When I say balance I mean, both should be represented in some way.
Form, language, symbolism, allusion, all these technical elements of poetry are nothing without something to shape, to shine a light on, or to cover up. Keep your eye on both – the sacred and the profane.