I have a pet peeve I want to talk about for a minute. So often, especially on social media but also in other forums, I see people respond to poems whose subject touches on identity by calling them “raw” and “brave” and other adjectives which suggest that the poems are working primarily on the level of emotion. I believe the people who do this are coming from a good place—they’ve felt the power of a poem and don’t know quite how to respond to it, but want to. Perhaps it’s because the poem’s seeming subject is an experience outside their own and they’re worried that they lack the vocabulary or level of understanding to do a close reading and so they revert to emotion. It left them feeling raw, and so they ascribe that to the poem itself.
The problem is that for poems to have such an effect on a reader, they can’t just be pure emotion on the page. Craft is involved, and poets spend a lot of time and effort putting words and lines together to create that kind of emotional reaction in the reader. I bring this up because a number of the poems in torrin a. greathouse’s debut collection Wound from the Mouth of a Wound evoked pretty powerful emotions in me, not because the poems were raw but because greathouse put a lot of work into juxtaposing images and narrative action to jarring and evocative effect.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with torrin a. greathouse, you’ll need to subscribe by November 15!
Back to greathouse’s craft. Take, for example, the poem “Burning Haibun.” On the page, this poem looks like a prose paragraph at the top of the page with a blackout of the same paragraph below, with a blackout of that blackout beneath it, completing the poem. Each section is a reduction of the one above it, with the final one in the 5-7-5 syllable construction of haiku, and that’s what you’d expect from a haibun. The physical look on the page of the haibun makes the reader feel like the poem is narrowing to a point.
Because greathouse is using blackout to create this poem, that narrowing actually is taking place. She’s stripping the longer scene down, so that the lines “Once, my mother accused me of throwing alcohol & gasoline on my emotions. Once, my father’s breath was a guilty verdict. His ear curved inward like a palm, how it birthed him back as a fist & I became the bloody rise of crescent moons hidden inside” in the first section become “Once, my mother accused me of // my father’s breath // his // fist // hidden inside.” Both versions describe violence, physical and emotional. (I’m using the slashes here to show where the blackout marks appear. The spacing here doesn’t match up to the original.) And this kind of narrowing goes on throughout the poem, until the closing haiku reads this way:
father // hidden in
// erasure // of // me // each drink
mine // my // faggot // blood
And here’s where I want to return to my pet peeve, because personally, as a cis, straight, white male, there’s a word in that last line that could make me uncomfortable. It’s not mine to say, at the very least, but here it is in this poem, and because it might make me feel emotionally raw to see it in this context, I might be tempted to transfer that rawness to the poem itself. But this poem isn’t raw, whether I mean painful or uncooked. There’s pain in this poem, no doubt, but the poem itself isn’t an open wound, and no matter how we respond to it, there’s no legitimate way to suggest this poem isn’t the result of deliberate choices both on the formal and word levels.
This level of care and energy to the craft of poetry runs throughout Wound from the Mouth of Wound, and I’m looking forward to talking about these poems both with our members and with torrin a. greathouse in our exclusive author chat. If you subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by November 15, you’ll receive your early copy of Wound from the Mouth of a Wound and will be invited to take part in our online chat with torrin a. greathouse in early December. I hope you’ll join us!