Dispatches, No. 5: Kary Wayson on Poems as Rooms

Posted Wed, 12/17/2014 - 5:13pm by  |  Category:

Dispatches Series GraphicDispatches is a new series on our blog in which our writers-in-residence, Joan Leegant and Kary Wayson, discuss topics that come up often during their office hours. As a bonus, the posts will end with a prompt that addresses the topic at hand. Want to make an appointment with Kary? Simply email her: kary@hugohouse.org.

A Poem is a Room We Enter
by Kary Wayson

As a writer-in-residence at the Hugo House, students come to me with all manner of questions about poetry’s busywork. They ask for help with the ordering of their manuscripts for MFA programs, with the wording of their cover letters and artist statements for grant applications; they ask for letters of recommendation and for my ideas about where to submit their work for publication. This is help I’m happy to give— and do. What I love best, though, and the help I feel best-equipped to give, is that of a close reader with a critical eye of their (your!) work. The question here is always: is it finished? And if not (as if often the case), what can be done?

My answers are always suggestions. As the writer and reviser of my own poems, I know my suggestions may or may not work. But think of it like this: a poem is a room we enter. Each object is deliberately placed. We put the wooden bird on the top shelf of a strange set of built-ins we find in the kitchen. We put the huge lamp in the corner. We feel accomplished for a minute: now we can sit inside and feel the room a kind of home. Happily, we brush our hands and turn from it (the room that our poem has made, the poem we made of a room) and go about the rest of our day (for what is a home but the place we leave? What is a home to come to?). The next day we go into the room again, and doesn’t the bird still look so nice on the high shelf? But that lamp is ridiculous in the corner, and now we have to get a couch. A couch, a couch, a couch, a couch. We cannot rest until we get the couch. And on and on until the room is “finished.” This is a way of making a poem.

Think, for instance, of Stevens’s famous “jar in Tennessee,” another deliberately placed object which, once placed, exerts a powerful continuous dominion over the (be)wilderness that surrounds it. Then think of yourself placing a bright vase of daisies in the very center of a dusty cluttered table: doesn’t that make you want, for the sake of the vase and those flowers, to clean the table—and change the whole house, and your life(!) stanza by stanza, room by room?

Another thing: There’s an anecdote buried deep inside the writer Eileen Myles’s prose – maybe inside Inferno? It’s a part where she talks about Ted Berrigan leading a workshop, talking about poems in just this same sort of way, suggesting to someone that their poem needed some trees in it. As if he were some kind of an interior designer!

But Virginia Woolf says what I am trying to say here best in The Waves—a kind of novel as poem—“There is a square; there is an oblong. The players take the square and place it on the oblong. They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling-place. Very little is left outside. The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here stated; we are not so various or so mean; we have made oblongs and stood them upon squares. This is our triumph; this is our consolation.” Writer, at that point, the poem is finished.

To make a writer-in-residence appointment with Kary, email her at kary@hugohouse.org.