On the Poetry Foundation blog, Craig Santos Perez has conducted a great interview with John Murillo, who is the author of Up Jump the Boogie, newly released by Cypher Books, whose growing catalog I’ve really been enjoying. Here is a noteworthy excerpt from the interview:
There are several formal poems in your book, and I was especially interested in your sestinas. What draws you to this form?
… In general, form is a way for me to learn. Each form has the potential to teach something about composing that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Sonnets, for instance, teach you how to pace, how to turn and pivot, set up and reveal, an argument or narrative. You learn about line and compression and waste when you have only a few syllables to work with. A set meter. Haiku teaches compression as well, integrity of image. Pantoums and villanelles teach you to respect the line as unit–if you write one bad line, it’ll come back at least once to bite you in the ass–and so on. Finally, I consider it part of the necessary apprenticeship one must serve–that one should feel honored to serve–in order to enter into this guild. I really do consider this a sacred tradition, this being a poet. One should want to study.
These were the kinds of conversations I had with my Mills College students in Creative Writing class. I am glad my students were convinced from the onset; the entire course was dedicated to poetic forms, what specific cultural contexts do specific forms arise in, what forms fit what types of narratives (or is it vice versa). I liken poetic forms to tools. The right tool for the right job, a specific tool for a specific job (If you always use duct tape to hold shit together…).
Another thing I made sure to do for that class was to present very diverse poets writing in form: ghazals by Justin Chin and Agha Shahid Ali, pantoums by Nellie Wong and France Chung, sestinas by Bao Phi and Daphne Gottlieb, sonnets by Jack Agüeros and Claude McKay, haiku by Adrian Castro and Bino A. Realuyo, heroic couplets by Rhina P. Espaillat and Thom Gunn, and so on. I also made sure to discuss both closed and open forms — sonnet, pantoum, ghazal, villanelle, forms with specific formalistic constraints; and then aubade, ode, pastoral, elegy, in which the restrictions are in tone, subject matter, etc. There was never any argument or resistance from my students; the fact is that people of color have written and continue to write in poetic forms. Moreover, poetic forms come from cultures all over the world, and not just from white people.
What I did not discuss in this course, because it didn’t fit in my syllabus, was that some poetic forms are considered “high culture,” to be sung and recited in churches, and some are considered “low culture,” in which “low culture” means of the “common folk,” the kind of bawdy verse you sing in pubs with rounds of whiskey or ale (think of the limerick, for example). And apparently, some of these “low culture” verse forms were appropriated by those of the “high culture,” in order to lure the common folk to church.
At AWP, Tara Betts spoke as a panelist on the Afro American Formalism panel; from the get-go, she and her fellow panelists engaged in debunking the myth that people of color do not write in poetic form, that somehow our experiences as people of color in the USA necessitate the writing of poems solely in free verse. Tara spoke at length about African American poets who have written in poetic form. For example, activist poet June Jordan, taking on the Chinese tang poem, which contains no tenses, pronouns, prepositions — one challenge here becomes how to discuss human relationships, love, power. Who is doing or saying what to whom? How do we do this? As poets, we find a way for the form to work to our advantage. We stretch what we can do with language, with the meanings and sounds of words and the images they elicit, with lines, line breaks, music. As poets, we should welcome these challenges. Tara also spoke of African American poets who have invented poetic forms, such as the bop and the kwansaba. So that’s another thing we are free to do — take on the challenge of creating traditions.
Where did these ideas originate, that poetic form was somehow the tool of the white male hetero oppressor, and that our experiences as people of color could only be communicated in free verse? That if we choose to write in poetic form, we are somehow turning our backs on our own communities, precisely because poetic form and structured verse are too frequently considered white, academic, and archaic (hence, irrelevant to our contemporary experiences). So I refer back to Craig’s interview with John Murillo:
Like a lot of inner city kids, my first experiences with poetry were aural. And the first poets I listened to were rappers. Years of listening to such artists as Big Daddy Kane, Black Thought, Bahamadia, and Big Pun, just to name a few, will do wonders for your ear.
So when I got to poetry proper, I had a long foreground, much exposure to such sound devices as rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, meter. I was also familiar with–before I had vocabulary for them–such things as metaphor and simile, narrative arc and lyric epiphany.
Credit the battle rhymers.