A sampler of Jane Wong’s upcoming class, “The Poetry of Memoir,” beginning May 13.
1. An example of what we will be reading:
We will read a multitude of different approaches to memoir in verse, including Eduardo C. Corral and Jack Gilbert. Many of the readings will be excerpts from longer collections. Each writer leaving this course will have a diverse reading list of memoirs to spend time with! We will engage poems from collections such as Kimiko Hahn’s The Unbearable Heart, which won the American Book Award. The book, which centers around the death of Hahn’s mother, is particularly striking as a memoir of mourning through innovative form. A short poem entitled “The Stray” reads:
“Father, Tomie and I stand at the hospital window
to look beyond our lives without mother
and see a stray calico dart into rubbish
There is something there it wants.”
2. An example exercise:
Poetry allows the reader to feel and see our stories through visceral imagery, sound, and rhythm. Where prose wants us to tell the story, poetry wants us to feel the story. In one exercise, we will create distilled images that attempt to capture an emotional state. We will head back into our memories and generate sensory images using sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Everything will come flooding back – but without the sense-making “bridge” work of prose. Another exercise will be more tangible: creating a “map” or outline plan for your poetry book or chapbook. What forms will return and what forms will change? For instance, in my own work, I use age as a reoccurring title for my memoir about my mother (“Twenty-Five”). We will help each other craft our memoir-in-verse vision!
3. A moment of advice:
Everyone has a unique history – these stories impact our sense of the world. Writing is not just a way to address those stories, but also a way to share them – the reader is important too. Poetry is not about a story; rather, poetry moves us through a story. I’m excited to experience and listen to your stories in May!
4. What to expect from the class:
To discover new poets who engage the memoir form in verse; to consider the unique opportunities poetry (vs. prose) offers for memoir; to experiment with formal strategies to reflect our content; to craft a tangible vision for our memoir in verse; to write about memory with fresh eyes; and, as Joan Didion writes, to “tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
To begin, here is a thoughtful essay by Jill Bialosky on poetry and memoir in The Kenyon Review. I look forward to more writing and discussion in May!