Featured Writer Gail Goepfert

Thinking about Process:  Planting or Planning

How do we come to a poem, to any writing really. Simply stated, writers need foodstuff—something to feed and inform our writing. The process of generating a poem and the practices used to power that process have always intrigued me. As someone who reads thousands of poems a year as one of the editors of RHINO Poetry journal, I am both charmed and stunned by the variety of topics, poems with titles like “Rules for Gravel Boys,” “The Ex-Rower’s Middle-aged Knees,” “Black Bubbles,” or “Hot Coffin Girls.” I think about the people and the minds behind the poems, but I am equally captivated by the poetic process—the act of inspiration that streams words on a page.

Novelist George R. R. Martin has said,

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time . . . They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run . . . They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

Poets are no different from novelists or playwrights, biographers or essayists—there are the planters and the planners. Among writers in my poet community whose work I read regularly, the approaches to process vary dramatically, but they seem to be, in part, gardeners or architects, and both styles can result in a sense of immediacy in the experience of a literary form.

When Patrice Boyer Claeys felt stuck for a long time—believing her voice was absent, AWOL as it were, she collected hundreds of lines of found language in a spiral notebook and then wove those lines together to write one arresting poem after the other using the words of others but arranging them into poems of her own—the cento method. Basically, poets interwine lines from other authors’ writings into a new poem. The original lines remain intact; the main interventions come in arrangement or form and content. Typically, the authors of each line are credited with the poem when it’s published. The lines that follow, borrowed from Tim Seibles, Mitch Sisskind, Anne Marie Rooney, Jessie Milner, Ed Ochester, Andrei Codrescu, J. Allyn Rosser, and Emma Trelles respectively, come from one of her poems, and they are shaped into the first two stanzas of a new piece, “Remembering Love at First Sight at the Adoption Agency.”

Your eyes all mine. My heart nearly
fluttering, flickering, and then fully ablaze
like glass fired to gold before it breaks.
I remember the colors.
I can hear laughter in the background,
expansive song.
Intro to happiness—
everything from you.

I find the work of “cento-ing” to be satisfying—the result is fresh language and perspective using mingled voices, voices that receive credit in this process of re-creation. Out of silence or darkness, or the desire to embrace and integrate the words of another, connection arises. There’s an initial alliance with text that works as inspiration in the process. According to an article that appeared in Lantern Review, “Ausonius, the Roman originator of the form, stipulated that the cento-writer could lift entire verses from another work of poetry or splice verses from separate poems together, but never use two consecutive verses from a poem, nor to extract any less than half a verse from an outside poetic text.” Poets today abide by rules or break them, but it seems like Boyer Claeys used these “borrowed” lines as an intermediary until she regained her poetic voice. Her “seeds” mature.

Found poetry is also fruitful for a poetic gardener. During National Poetry Month a few years back, I participated with the Found Poetry Review’s 30 poems in 30 days project by using prompts suggested for participants. I loved both the challenge and the play. Editor-in-Chief, Jenni B. Baker, linked to sites where digital generators take wordplay to a new level. One of the websites recommended for text manipulation is Language is a virus where technology’s employed to compose a Shakespearean sonnet, weave text, play with MadLibs or a haiku discombobulator, some of the many options invigorating one’s writing; I’m drawn to gimmicky and clever at times, and I found this form of invention provocative. I came to admire the writers of the Trader Joe’s newsletter, Fearless Flyer, when I dissected an issue to write a loosely Dadist poem by clipping out words and phrases and collaging them. That prompt was to find a text and to use the “borrowed” phrases in the order in which they appeared. It’s not something I’ve tried since, but I loved the cut-and-paste process and the unanticipated outcome. The poem begins:

The Daffodil Effect

Be prepared to be amazed.

.            Spring signals new blooms
.                                   or bunny rabbits .            mellows into subtle sweetness

                                 sitting pretty      cute little green “sticks”
.                                      perch tight,     waiting to-bloom buds

          fantasy-        fulfilling results every time

.                                   delivering good vibes

Musician, author, and teacher, Barbara Kreader Skalinder, writes poetry from a sonic background. She begins her writing with the “containers” of other poets—considering and imitating line lengths, beats or syllables, and rhythm. This is her beginning—not the idea necessarily. She settles on the rhythm but not the words. At different stages of revision, she may depart from her pattern; this often frees her, keeps her from hemming herself in—by abandoning the architecture, she creates a new arch and rhythm. As an example, Kreader Skalinder commences her practice with a poem by Anita Barrows, poet and psychologist.

Water Song
–after Anita Barrows

If fire approaches,
step into this water

cool relief

from incisions
from sutures
from prick of needles
that shoot chemicals through veins
wash the diseased, the excised spaces.

And the original poem by Anita Barrows


As noon approaches
water it as shield

against too much light

against wind
against sand
against dust from roads
travelled by Jeeps, tractors, bulldozers
cover with this the frayed, the broken places

The roads travelled are distinctly different; Barrows poem is not “form” but free verse that speaks musically, rhythmically to Kreader Skalinder who begins with architecture, a plan, and uses that as her initial blueprint.

Writing “between the lines” is another generative act used frequently by Catherine Ruffing Drotleff. First, she selects a poem that moves her, composes a line under each line of that poem in response to that line, and then she extracts and rearranges her response lines into an early draft. It’s likely she will prune and fertilize from these early “seeds.” In the following example of her process, she began with Limon’s “The Carrying” from Limon’s recent book The Carrying. I’ve juxtaposed lines in Ruffing Drotleff’s poem with Limon’s (indented and italicized).

The Carrying
                        —with Ada Limon by Catherine Ruffing Drotleff

The air is dark and blue and sweet
.                    The sky’s white with November’s teeth,

fogging my vision even from here,
.                    and the air is ash and woodsmoke.

gusts blow up from the lake
                  A flush of color from the dying tree,

white caps split on icy shores.
.                    a cargo train speeding through, and there,

Grasses and shoots, now browning,
.                    that’s me, standing in the wintering

burrow back into earth—
.                    grass watching the dog suffer the cold

Ruffing Drotleff’s diction is reminiscent of Limon’s, but the imagery paints a different setting. The “with” poem uses couplets to allow the reader to linger in this scene. There’s a single figure yearning in both poems, though the “she” of Ruffing Drotleff’s poem is more distant from the reader than the “I” of Limon’s, something this excerpt does not reveal fully. I have not tried this strategy, but it seems like a viable way both to pay homage to a source and to legitimately “scavenge.”  It begins with architecture as its seeds.

In recent years, I have shaped my poetry almost exclusively by selecting words from varied texts; for instance, I may acquire a new collection of poems or pick up a book I’m reading for tutoring high schoolers. I scour for words that seem ripe or energetic—not part of my spontaneous vocabulary. At times I have a very specific idea for a poem, and then I dovetail my selection of words with that leaning in mind. From that catalogued list of words my poems evolve. Essentially, I have gathered my “seeds—ready to garden. One particular unexpected source was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury which I was rereading with a student. Unlike the cento process which generally employs whole lines from others’ poems, mine assimilates a list of individual words. The following poem from a manuscript I’m finishing about Frida Kahlo began with a list of unrelated words except for their context in Bradbury’s book and a vague idea for a poem. Words like kerosene, ignite, praying mantis, gullet, and ricochet shine in an unexpected context.

When her body stamps its foot
–after Valerie Wallace for Frida Kahlo

When a warped leg and gnarled spine hide under cotton
When nerves ricochet in waves from traps to glutes to occiput
When an enamelled mask is the face she bares
When her head swivels like a praying mantis but her body cannot move
When reckless sex ignites the dragon of pain
When her gullet swallows a kerosene-grief
When paint on canvas will not muzzle her reality
When grit and gnash unswallow hope
When her body broken persists in oil
When her chin’s tipped up to the moonstone sky

By contrast, Bradbury’s fiction reads: “Kerosene,” he said, because the silence had lengthened, “is nothing but perfume to me.” A second passage employs the word gullet: “. . . one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet.”  The distance travelled from fiction diction to poem is vast.

In Get Up Said the World, a forthcoming book that, I wrote poems triggered by a single word and its definition; I’m a bit of a logophile. For instance, one poem that began with an interest in the idea of “élan vital” and its definition resulted in a poem titled “What Keats Knew.”  The intent of the entire book is to use a poem and its title and a word with its definition to loop back to each another—to have a conversation on the page.

There are risks in many of these methods, whether planning or planting. One is plagiarism. Recently there has been a stir on social media about poetic plagiarism—claims by Claudia Cortese who created a 13-year-old character named Lucy to embody a series of poems that have been published widely. A number of years later, Lisa Low began writing poems with a 13-year-old character named Ruby, poems that began receiving publication and acclaim by prestigious journals. Both the Lucy and Ruby poems speak to whiteness, body image, conflict with a mother, and the diction and details down to the use of the same images–nearly identical. For instance, both characters eat or chew scabs. Lisa Low does credit Cortese with “After Claudia Cortese,” but the fact that several journals recently pulled the Low poems indicates that this is more an issue of plagiarism than “aftering.” Another young poet, Ailey O’Toole, landed herself in Twitter Hell when a Pushcart-nominated poem of hers, “Gun Metal” was questioned vehemently by Rachel McKibbens, one of the writers she plagiarized. Belatedly, O’Toole apologizes, and she claims she was paraphrasing. According to an article that appeared in Vulture in early December, 2018, O’Toole’s poem is a “bizarrely brazen act of plagiarism — stealing lines, phrases, and structural elements from the work of at least three other writers.”  These instances seem to go far beyond “after” or “with” poems or poems that “scavenge” for foodstuff and give credit where credit is due.

Another risk is mixed metaphors–when “borrowing” lines in a cento or even when working with a list of words that are often image-based, it is easy to mix metaphors in a less effective way, especially if the focus is solely on the process of absorbing and employing words. In an early draft of a poem, I wrote the line “She does not fog / her image behind a scrim of muslin.” Throughout the poem, I refer to “fabric” in multiple ways. Thanks to a close reader, the line now reads, “She does not veil / her image behind a scrim of muslin.” Shakespeare, on the other hand, actually manages to mix metaphors quite successfully; sometimes it works.

As part of an effort to bring poetry into the new media and to set down best practices in poetry, representatives from The Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, The Center for Social Media, and the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, met and wrote an extensive report in 2011 funded by The Poetry Foundation that includes content about best practices for fair use.

Part of that report stated:

What is now called remixing is a contemporary version of allusion or pastiche and has long been an important part of poetic practice. In general, it takes existing poetry (or literary prose) as its point of reference. In some cases, however, the stuff of poetic remix may come from other sources, including (but not limited to) advertising copy and ephemeral journalism. Members of the poetry community also recognize that technology has extended the range of techniques by which language from a range of sources may be reprocessed as new creative work.

I think it’s essential to remember that many types of “collaging” happen in poetry and elsewhere. Obviously, it’s imperative to credit sources. Maura Snell writes on her blog on Tishman Review, “For artists the world over, and dare I say poets especially, emulation, reiteration, or imitation of those we admire is a connective tissue, medium, and fodder. It’s a necessary extension of the conversation in which art and artists ask for and need to know they’ve been experienced.”

As writers we want to avoid the risk of too much “crutching” or “ghosting”—identity theft, which is different from the emulation, reiteration, or imitation that Snell mentions. Depending on others’ writing to the extent that one denies or evades one’s own voice or never defines one’s own language, form, or style can be both ineffective and improper, but all of these processes—centos, found poetry including erasures, writing between the lines, launching with the architecture of another’s work or its sonic or rhythmic qualities—inform the writer in the same way that the image of a boiling tea kettle or the suggestion of a suicide note in a novel or the event of a friend’s real-life mastectomy might elicit a response from both writer and reader. Ultimately, writing is a practice that needs planting or planning or both—seed ripening or triggering architecture.


About the writer:
Gail Goepfert is a poet and photographer and a teacher. She’s an associate editor at RHINO Poetry. Her books include A Mind on Pain, 2015 and Tapping Roots, 2018, and a third, Get Up Said the World, released in early 2019 by Červená Barva Press.

Image: Portrait photograph courtesy of Gail Goepfert.