Kim Triedman

poems & other disasters

Posts Tagged ‘writers’


Tracing the Line Between Poetry and Prose


(This post was published this past April by Beyond The Margins)

It’s national poetry month, and the dogs are intoxicated.  These two things are not totally unrelated, or at least not in my universe.  After a too-long winter, April means I finally get to write my poetry out on the front stoop while my dogs get to hurtle and root and plow their noses into the softening earth.  It’s a trade-off: I let them dig, they let me write.  If we’re lucky, I’ll end up with a serviceable poem; they’ll wind up with dirty snouts and a mouthful of grubs.

It’s a win-win situation.

As both a novelist and a poet, and most recently a prose poet, I think a lot about what defines poetry and what distinguishes it from its first-cousin prose.  In some sense, it matters to me very little: more and more, I find myself writing without intention – without any definable form in mind.  But I also recognize that I seem to know poetry when I write it, and when I hear it, no matter how innovative or well-disguised; and I wonder at just what it is I am responding to, because poetry communicates on so many different levels that it’s often hard to unpack just what and why a poem is.  So in honor of National Poetry Month, and because I need to figure some things out for myself, I’m presenting here just a few of my own impromptu thoughts on what makes a poem a poem…

The answer that occurs to me first and foremost is music.  For me, writing and reading poetry is a thoroughly musical experience.  Sentences and phrases announce themselves in cadence, phrasing and meter; words arrive as much for their mouth-feel as for their meanings.  When I write poetry, I’m completely tuned in to the sounds and the textures of language.  My internal ear determines where specifically it wants some beats emphasized over others, or when it requires a pause rather than a full stop, or whether it is more suited to a meandering or more rapid-fire pace.  I need to hear the sounds in my head in order to write them, and in hearing them I hear their own particular music.  It needn’t be beautiful or even appealing, but it is there.  Every sentence or phrase is its own composition.  Every word that fits into that composition must bring to it so many things: rhythm and repetition and rhyme (or slant rhyme), its own specific constellation of beats and stops and syllables.

Another defining ingredient is metaphor.  Poetry is first and foremost about making connections, and these can work in ways both small and large within a poem.  I think it’s just the way the poet’s mind works: seeking to clarify things – to pin them down precisely – by finding the perfect analogy.  To both the reader and writer these connections surprise and delight, offering a kind of deep resonance that feels both more simple and more elegant than any lengthy explanation could possibly provide.  This is one of the things I love most about poetry: the way it reduces and enlarges at the same time, reaches and flies and leaps, pulling disparate things together in ways that make a kind of perfect and exquisite sense.

Distillation is also key.  Writing poetry is a process of natural selection – of identifying only what is absolutely essential and letting go of everything else.  While poetic forms and styles vary dramatically, I’d venture to say that every successful poem does a heroic job of identifying itself as much by what it leaves out as what it includes.  In poetry there is never the imperative to tell the full story – only to create something exalted out of details and sounds and rhythms and well-chosen breaks, the building blocks that send a poem soaring.

The last item on my short-list would have to include discovery.  I often find when writing poetry that I uncover things I’ve been thinking or feeling or muddling without even being aware of it.  When I begin a poem, I rarely have anything more than the first few words in my head.  By some ineffable magic, those first words lead me tripping down this ladder of other words until I find myself at the bottom of the poem — the very last line like an answer to a question I hadn’t even known I was asking.  I never fully understand why I have to write a particular poem until I finish it.  Only then does it expose itself — an image revealed by the final puzzle piece.  So I think for me the process is about discovery, and self-awareness – about processing the world so that it makes some kind of cosmic sense.  This is also also my experience of reading poetry: before it can be fully comprehensible – and fully evocative — a poem must be experienced as its own whole thing.  Its beauty lies in its gestalt – the fact that it is its own best description of itself.

These are just my own musings on my own experience of poetry – both written and read.  I’d love to hear how others experience it — what makes a poem a poem — and where you see the line falling between poetry and prose.  Certainly the membrane is fluid and porous: all of these qualities figure themselves into other forms of writing, although I would argue that they are not definitive in quite the same way.  A successful novel can be written with or without musicality – or even metaphor – but a poem that doesn’t sing and dance, that doesn’t make compelling demands of those precious words it chooses to bring in, that doesn’t discover itself in its wholeness, is not a poem, not in my universe.

I’d like to think that my dogs might agree, if only they’d pull their noses out of the dirt.



Serious Sex! How to Prep Your Loved Ones.

(First published by Beyond the Margins (, June 26, 2013)

grandma1The countdown to launch has begun – your first novel! – and everyone around you, from your hair-stylist to your therapist to your Zumba instructor, is hopped up and ready. Your kids are actually telling you how proud they are of you(!), and people you haven’t seen since childhood are suddenly friend-ing you on Facebook. The principal from your old high school just called: he’d like you to come give next year’s commencement address.

And your parents! Oh, God, your parents are kvelling. The Amazon page is up. They’ve pre-ordered 30 copies and invited both the family Rabbi and Great Aunt Ida to the launch. Their daughter, the poet, has finally written something their friends will actually read! It’s everything an author could hope for: the buzz, the goodwill, the respect from friends and colleagues far and wide – that sense of having finally reached some long-elusive station in life…

And yet…

“So, there’s this little scene on page 45,” you stammer.

Your father says he knows the owner of a local TV station.

“You know, the book may not be for everyone.”

He smiles, hard and bright. “We’ve scheduled a small party for you at the club.”

“I mean, there’s some serious… sex in it.”

Still with the smile, but just a heartbeat too long.

So. There’s sex and then there’s sex. We all know this. There’s the quiet grazing of a moonlit breast and then there’s the—

Well, we don’t have to go there.

But the point is, many of us do go there, at least in our novels, and it’s often so counter to what our friends and loved ones may be expecting from us that dread can appropriately be added to the long list of pre-debut emotions. But isn’t that what story-telling is all about? – that freedom to imagine ourselves into anything, or anyone, or any situation. It affords us the opportunity to expand our own physical/emotional boundaries, combine one truth with another, take the measure of what we are and what we know and jumble it all up like so many Sunday casseroles. Take your sexual inhibitions, add a little of his passive-aggressiveness and her flat feet, throw in my tattoo. Toss them all together and what you come up with is someone authentically other, behaving – and canoodling – in ways that only this new individual can behave.

Admittedly, it’s hard for readers not to impose their own knowledge of a writer on the reading of his/her work. How many people are able to read Sylvia Plath without bringing her tragic life-story to the task? And the closer the relationship with the writer, the trickier it gets. When the writer happens to be you and the readers some of your nearest and dearest, the dynamic can be downright explosive. There will be those who automatically equate your narrator’s voice with your own and those who see themselves in what you’ve written. Still others may feel scandalized by your character’s behaviors or hurt by their words. Imagine, for example, that you’ve chosen to read a passage about a character’s nasty break-up with her husband and your newly (messily) divorced neighbor happens to be at your reading. Or your main character has an affair with his hot-looking sister-in-law and your hot-looking sister-in-law’s husband shows up?

I’m just sayin’. There’s plenty of room for simmering indignation. People will take umbrage at things you never even imagined could be offensive. Your agent will quietly bristle at the way you describe the inner workings of the publishing world. Your neighbor will take offense at the ugly living room furniture you describe, recognizing it – correctly or incorrectly – as her own. Your sister will assume that all the emotional dysfunction you’ve heaped on the fictional sister in your book is your way of getting back at her for being the free-loader in the family.

Your husband may want a divorce.

The thing is: fiction liberates us to be NOT who-we-are. Or to be who we might be if only our hair was red or our mother was an opera star or the chickens were dying of swollen head syndrome…if our guilt wasn’t crippling or our cancer had metastasized…if our father was Haitian or our house was condemned or our sinuses blocked. In other words, fiction invites us to step away from our earthbound selves and take flight – in the bedroom or on the soccer field or at the top of the Empire State Building. And while there’s no way to side-step all of the misunderstandings and misapprehensions that may arise, it’s helpful to remember that nobody but you – and sometimes not even you – will ever know for sure just whose bad breath has been paired with whose overbearing boss.

So go ahead – read that sex scene. Read it loud and clear. Read it ’til you blush and your audience starts to look at their shoes. But when the Q&A comes around, do yourself a favor. Ask yourself your own first question – How do I come up with my characters? – and then answer it!