SLAMCRAFT: Flow

Have you ever found yourself completely immersed in some activity, so deeply absorbed that time seemed to disappear? You might have described that experience as being ‘in the flow’. Have you thought a poem ‘flowed beautifully’, or heard about a rapper with excellent ‘flow’?

The concept of flow is important to spoken-word poetry, but it is difficult to define. Flow is based on the sound of a poem passing in time (one of the conditions of spoken word). Many ‘traditional’ poets and poetry academics would dismiss ‘flow’, although it bears a strong resemblance to other familiar poetry terms, such as meter. The reason I think ‘flow’ is the right term, and worthy of discussion, is that it is more than just a technical device: it also encompasses a desired effect on writer and listener, and intertwines poetry with creativity in our daily lives.

In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on three aspects of flow:

  1. The act of writing as a flow state
  2. The act of listening as a flow state
  3. Flow as a poetic technique.

Writing as a flow state

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the pioneers of the scientific study of happiness, coined the term ‘flow’ to describe an optimal experience. Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”[1]

concentration
Concentration‘ by heydere CC BY-NC 2.0

It’s a state that’s familiar to writers, athletes, chess players – in fact, anyone who becomes deeply immersed in some task. As a teacher, I see it most frequently in the visual arts classroom, where a rare atmosphere of  quiet sometimes reigns while students are absorbed in their work. Opportunities to ‘get in the flow’ are increasingly valuable, given our modern environments are increasingly characterised by disruption, multi-tasking and instant gratification.

For obvious reasons, a flow state is ideal for writing. Neuroscientists have linked it to a process called transient hypofrontality, which triggers a loss of the ‘inner-critic’ which can impede our creative processes. We don’t need to wait for inspiration to strike in order to access a flow state; we can encourage it at any time using a few simple strategies. A focus on quantity, not quality can trigger it: set yourself a time limit (10 minutes) or a page limit (3 pages) and simply write anything that comes to you, without stopping, until you reach your target. You should also remove any rules or expectations that hinder your creativity – spelling and grammar, for example. Some people like to write to music or with a sensory stimulation they can return to, like a scented candle or a set of rosary beads.

While writing as a flow state is by no means unique to spoken-word poets, I do believe that flow is uniquely embodied when poets perform their work. Because every performance is a deliberate remembering of the writing process, spoken-word poets engage their listeners in their own sense of urgency, determination or excitement as the words emerge. It might be the hundredth time for the poet and the first time for the audience, but both are intimately connected through the experience of flow.

Listening as a flow state

The experience of listening to a spoken-word poem can also be described as a flow state. As listeners, we surrender to the flow of words in the moment. A page poem is made to happen by the reader, but a spoken poem happens to the listener. This condition has been described as “getting lost in language that surges forward, allowing the mind to wander in the presence of words”[2]. There’s a beautiful interplay as the mind falls open and receives the words, while paradoxically becoming more aware of its own thoughts and movements in response.

listening
‘Listening‘ by scottgunn modified CC BY-NC 2.0

The moment of intense engagement with a live poet is one that many people, in my experience, find moving and transformative when they first encounter it. It’s described perfectly by Luka Lesson in his poem “Moment to Moment”:

And I’ve realized that I’m not longer writing poetry I’m setting up good silences

I’m leaving space for you to fill in the gaps

There are many ways that the audience-poet connection of live performance shapes the craft of spoken-word. As well as helping us tell the truth, a live audience also reminds us of the intense pleasures of the act of listening.

Flow as a poetic technique

Finally, flow can also be seen as a technical device used in spoken-word poetry. There’s a strong connection between the history of spoken-word poetry and hip-hop music, which share many of the same roots. In hip-hop, ‘flow’ describes the way words are constructed over a beat using patterns of stressed syllables. Because hip-hop uses the voice to create rhythm, which is usually left to percussive instruments in other music genres, a rapper with strong rhythmic cadence is said to have good flow. While the beat is absent in spoken-word poetry, many poets create flow in their use of rhythm and careful construction of cadence, which engages the listener expressively and aesthetically, as well as aiding in memorisation and performance.

You can see how a background in hip-hop helps poets develop a mastery of flow, in this example from Luka Lesson’s “May Your Pen Grace the Page”. He personifies the ‘pen’ as a ‘she’, while shifting into a continuous rapid flow:

Lesson-MayYourPenGracethePage-Meter analysis

All I’ve done here is marked out the stressed and unstressed syllables using a traditional analysis of poetic meter: U = unstressed and / = stressed. You can see that a continuous pattern emerges, made of a repeating 4-syllable motif: / U U U. Perhaps most impressive, this whole section spins off the natural rhythm of the word “potentially”.  Although they break across the lines on the page, these motifs form a compelling rhythm when we hear the poem. The flow is emphasised by the repeated “o” sound of “coffee”, “rocking”, “rolling” and “uncontrollably”. As a poetic technique, this particular flow is a great choice for Lesson’s comparison of the act of writing with the act of lovemaking; which is also best when we’re in the flow! Here’s the full poem live:

This example illustrates an extended, continuous flow. Spoken-word poets also break, alter, and complicate the flow for effect. Unlike hip-hop emcees, poets are relieved of the expectation to keep the beat going, so there is room for flexibility in the choice to follow or depart from any established flow.

Now I’ll show you how I’ve used flow in one of my pieces:

In my poem, “Sleeping Beauty“, I used short, sharp phrasing with a driving beat to convey the  message concisely. Sometimes it’s useful to think of poetry as music. If you listen closely, you can hear a 4/4 beat created by the pattern of stressed syllables, even though the meter changes:

Sleeping Beauty beat1

The 4/4 beat helps to drive the poem forward with greater urgency than I could create with, say, the more traditional iambic pentameter. But at certain moments, I wanted to arrest this movement so that the words would hit home more forcefully. In the chorus, I built up a semi-regular motif of  3 unstressed syllables after a stressed: / UUU. Because it’s still following a beat, the extra syllables crammed in also increase the pace and heighten tension:

Sleeping Beauty meter shift

When I break the pattern by landing awkwardly on “she wasn’t” U / U, it almost feels like a stumble, and stops the flow. It’s followed by a pause of a full beat to allow that revelation to skin in. Flow establishes expectations in the listener. When we hear a pattern we expect it to continue, so breaking that pattern can cause a powerful shift which enhances meaning.

How have you used flow in your writing? What’s your favourite poetry or music for listening in flow? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. You can always contact me with your ideas too.

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Exercises

3 pens on a composition book
Leslie Richards, 3 pens on a composition book.
  1. If you want to delve more deeply into flow, print some lyrics from your favourite poets, listen along, and mark up the text with beats or stressed and unstressed syllables. You might find some interesting patterns.
  2. Practice freewriting to music. Make sure it’s flowing enough to be in the background and there are no lyrics.
  3. Take one of your own poems and mark the meter. Are there patterns, suggestions of rhythms or beats?
  4. Note places where you want the poem to ‘flow’, and where you might want it to ‘break’ in order to create impact. Play around with different flow at these points.
  5. Reflect: how does your own personal poetic language emerge? Do you start with rhythm or words?
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References:

[1] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

[2] Charles Bernstein, introduction to Close Listening, p7.

 

*Featured image: ‘woman : motion’ by craig Cloutier licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

The Image

My most exciting find this week was hearing Lynda Barry talk about the “image”. Not just visual images, or imagery in poems, but the image which is ‘contained by a form’ in any kind of artwork. To me, this is exciting because it makes sense of what goes on in the process of trying to make a poem or anything creative: we are trying to find a form, or make a home, for an image.

For Barry, the key question is, “What is an image?” She says an image is the thing that is contained by anything that we call art. An image is something spontaneous, it’s alive, it’s private, and it’s specific; as she explains:

So this kind of explained something weird that keeps happening for me recently. I have trouble sleeping, and just as I’m trying to drift off, I’ll get an idea for a poem. It feels like a really good idea; I can see the poem; I can feel the concept, shimmering in its beautifully balanced and energetic articulation. I have to get up with my notebook and write it down. But there is nothing to write! It’s a poem that doesn’t have any words yet. This sounded so mad in my head that I didn’t tell anyone about it for a long while. I assumed it just meant that I’m a really crap poet.

But listening to Lynda Barry, I started to see it differently. It’s true that my poem-making skills are not up to scratch when it comes to finding poetic forms in which to house my ideas. But that feeling of being struck by something spontaneous, private, and alive, might be a fairly common experience of ‘the image’.

I like the term ‘image’ better than ‘idea’. An idea suggests something that can be articulated or communicated; an image often can’t. It hangs around, waiting for you to find somewhere good enough for it to live, some form that fits. It is specific, and it is picky. Interestingly, I still have images in my mind for poems I’ve already written, and I know the image is not fully realised by the form I’ve given it.

Apparently, this is not an uncommon experience of the creative process. And if we want to make a poem, an artwork, an object, or anything, the gap between image and realisation is an inevitability we just have to live with.

“For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. […] This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the colour, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”

Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Hence, we get the sage advice, ‘kill your darlings‘. It’s the only way to get anything done.

For Ben Lerner, however, there is something extra problematic about poetry as opposed to other forms of art. In his excellent essay, “The Hatred of Poetry“, Lerner argues that poetry holds a special place in humankind’s tendency to idealise what we can’t realise, precisely because, as he bluntly reminds us, most people hate poetry. In fact, “many more people agree that they dislike poetry than agree on what poetry is”. The poem is always an attempt to meet that ‘transcendent impulse’ that calls upon us to sing; but the actual song is always compromised, always limited, never fully realised; like a dream upon waking. And because poetry dares to tread this territory, attempting to say the unsayable, it is always haunted by imperfection. We can imagine, behind every imperfect poem, the ‘ideal poem’, which does not exist, and never will.

So the ‘ideal poem’ to me sounds a little like ‘the image’. The ‘image’ seems to be something that artists experience, and audiences can also see when the art is doing its job well. On the other hand, Lerner’s ‘ideal poem’ seems to be something that audiences perceive as overshadowing the actual poem, whether the poem is great or terrible. There is resentment for what we cannot grasp, even while we praise the poet for pointing us in that direction. I wonder if the ‘ideal poem’ is the side we struggle with, while the ‘image’ is the thing that drives us to make a poem in the first place.

 

*Image ‘eyes in an abstract……2017-06-19‘ by wintersoul1 licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

 

 

SLAMCRAFT: Take in the view

In the Slamcraft series, I’m passing on some of what I’ve learned about Slam poetry (or any poetry which is performed live). Today I’m inviting you to consider the form that we’ve chosen to work in, and try to figure out where it is positioned in relation to other literary forms and movements. In straightforward terms: stick your head out of the box; have a look at what’s around you; take in the view.

2854076494_dcfdf09bbb_o
Little boxes‘ by Roland Skof-Peschetz licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

Since the 1950s, innovative poetic practices have flourished. In his introduction to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, Paul Hoover discusses the various avant-garde movements which have aimed to renew poetry through strategies which are initially shocking, but eventually replace mainstream approaches and become ‘normal’. Apprehending this pattern in the influence of the Beat poets, the New York School, Black Mountain poets and aleatory poetics, Hoover reasons that the recent “performance poetry and language poetry will influence mainstream practice in the coming decades”. [1]

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, another innovative practice has emerged in the form of spoken-word poetry. Spoken-word is a double agent, which simultaneously presents itself as an avant-garde movement and a nostalgic reclamation of ancient oral traditions. On the one hand, it presents a challenge to the academy: it exists outside the limitations of traditional print media, sidesteps editorial selection and evaluation processes, shoots straight for popularity and sometimes exceeds the reach of its print counterparts through new publishing avenues (Abe Nouk’s performance on The Australian Poetry Slam channel has over 33K views – what publisher wouldn’t be pleased with so many ‘reads’?). On the other hand, the materials of spoken-word poetry are as old as the hills, such that anyone and everyone can ostensibly engage with it. Some poets make explicit this project of reviving orality as a form of self-expression that they think modern society sorely needs, taking on the role of bardic storyteller, epic poet (as in Kate Tempest), or Carribean-influenced ‘toaster‘.

With its demotic culture appealing to mass audiences, spoken-word poetry has either been ignored or heavily criticised by academics. Consequently, we have a developing or partial academic vocabulary at best, with which to discuss it. One of my aims as an honours student in 2006, and as an emerging poet now, is to develop a more complete poetics of spoken-word. I am interested in the conditions, techniques and poetic devices of spoken-word poetry, which I often find to be intriguingly different from the page-oriented approaches which have dominated scholarship. We cannot come to an understanding of the significance of spoken-word poetry, in relation to contemporary movements, without the critical tools to apprehend it.

To return to Hoover, I do not believe that spoken-word, if it is a new and innovative form of poetry, poses any threat of eventually replacing ‘mainstream’ approaches. However, I do think it has the potential to enter and enhance the existing schools of poetics, which are already so varied in Australia. Spoken-word deserves a legitimate place alongside other contemporary movements, if not merely for its popularity, then for its fascinating combination of the ancient with the avant-garde.

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[1] Paul Hoover, introduction to Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994, pxxv.

Title image: “microphone” by TOM81115 is licensed under (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Text added.

On using the word “C***” in a poem

It’s a word that’s always controversial. It’s a word that appears briefly in my latest poem, except I’m really not sure it can stay there. It’s a word that I would only use around adults. It’s powerful. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a taboo, an expletive, a badge of feminist pride, a verbal assault, an honorific, an accurate anatomical term. It is some or all of these things to me at the same time.

This word is hotly contested territory.

At one time I would never have considered using this word as part of a poetic lexicon, not least because it has never really been part of my everyday vocab. Like most people, I’m comfortable with casual swearing in close circles of friends, but this particular word always seemed a step too far. So ugly. So insulting. So bad.

But it’s recently gained a place in my heart, and in my language, and its aura of nastiness (though never truly expelled) has been replaced by a dawning respect, even a sense of wanting to treasure and nurture this word.

You see, I love words. I love words that are powerful, words that are precise, words that allow us to comprehend and convey our human experience.

1902553113_125ee7a45b_z.jpg
woman‘ by asia doro licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For example, the experience of one’s biology, of gender identity, of being woman in a slowly evolving society, of containing sexual and sensual currents within one’s being. Experiences of menstruation, attraction, childbirth, sex, coming of age. Experiences of abuse, dehumanisation, pain, and laughter. This word just carries so much weight. It allows us to converse about so many things.

I’m currently involved in a performance called The Vagina Conversations, held on V-Day each year, a wonderful local re-invention of the work that started with Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. In it, women perform honest stories (or poems, songs, theatre pieces, comedy, whatever) about anything vagina-related. And it inevitably brings into question the very language we use when referring to that particular part of the female body.

I was inspired by Laura-Doe’s reclamation of the word ‘cunt’ at this event two years ago. I often found myself recalling her advice: Think, ‘Queen’ while you say, ‘Cunt’.  

Do poets have a certain responsibility to language? Is it our job to tend it, nurturing new words, eradicating unhelpful ones? I believe we should, as much as possible, be truthful, which is not exactly the same as being accurate. But if there is inaccuracy inherent in our common lexicon, and it serves to silence other kinds of truth, then we should seek to replace it with something better.

The words society has used to name – or to suggest, to avoid, to erase – certain parts of a woman, reveal a deeply damaging kind of inaccuracy.

Many argue that the word ‘vagina’ is itself a misnomer: it simply means ‘sheath’. It does not include the clitoris or labia, and thus ignores the visual and pleasure-giving parts of a woman’s anatomy, focusing instead on male pleasure and penetration. We find many vagina-owners are uncomfortable with the word ‘vagina’ for all sorts of reasons; it doesn’t seem to fit, it sounds icky, it’s too sterile. Ensler has it spot on in my reckoning:

“It’s a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word. If you use it during sex, trying to be politically correct– “Darling, could you stroke my vagina?”– you kill the act right there. I’m worried about vaginas, what we call them and don’t call them.”
Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues

So if you can’t call it a vagina, what can you call it? Anatomical terms break it down into component parts: ‘vulva’, ‘clitoris ‘ (internal and external), ‘pudenda’ – none of which encompass the totality.  Colloquialisms and slang terms are usually tainted by prior usage as insults, such as ‘pussy’, ‘twat’, or ‘hole’. Not to mention the downright horrifying: ‘axe-wound’, ‘meat-flaps’ etc. Words which make our anatomy into expletives transform the body parts themselves into areas which are unspeakable, shameful, abhorrent, and censored.

In the face of such alternatives, “cunt” begins to reveal some advantages. It encompasses holistically all the various parts we are talking about. It isn’t sterile or medical, and might be used in a sexy context without ruining the mood. Most of all, though, it comes complete with the unusual power of referring to female anatomy accurately, explicitly, and without shame.

In fact, I think the aura of taboo and offensiveness surrounding this word only serves to give it more power in the hands of women. When we use it to reclaim our bodies, we turn all of that power that has been used against us to our advantage. What we wield cannot be used to bring us down.

But this is all a bit simplistic, isn’t it? Even if I decide to use “cunt” in a poem, for all these reasons, I still run a huge risk that listeners will not understand or appreciate the intention behind it. Language is never a one-way transaction. And I will constantly need to adapt and censor the work for my audience: sensitivity to younger listeners and different values are entirely appropriate; and I’m a performance poet, so there is always a social context to consider.

This raises another question:

Is it the poet’s job to push the barriers of language, whether audiences are ready or not?

Allen Ginsberg was known to a generation of mainstream America as someone who ‘shocked’ society and overturned normal rules of propriety. I believe that his intent was never merely to shock, but to speak the truth in an honest, uncompromising way. He summed up the question in a coherent and compelling manner on national television after being asked by the producer not to say any ‘dirty words’:

Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. Credit Associated Press .jpg
Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. Credit Associated Press

“the language we use should reflect our inner worlds. When you censor me (on TV) there is a problem with our language… this is censorship of the spontaneity and delight of poetic language… If you are creating art from a genuine, not constructed consciousness, (the sensory field or “mind-images”), the language of consciousness enters into that. Those are the building blocks of art… Right now, you are being denied my actual words.”

Ginsberg has simplified the question of which words we should use to describe our bodies. To him, the language we use in public should be true to our inner worlds. So here’s a question that actually floored me for a bit:

When you think of your ‘ladyparts’, your actual spontaneous experience of your body, which word does your inner voice use?

Honestly, my first answer was, “nothing.” Now that is a little weird, when I consider that my inner voice has no trouble labelling my elbow, nose, or thumb. But that place which draws my inner attention frequently, which hums and sings and desires and brings pleasure, that place is a confused linguistic blank. Where is the ‘spontaneity and delight of poetic language’ in that?

This makes me feel that it is even more important, then, to consciously choose the words we wish to know ourselves by. If I choose a word of power, even with its negative associations, I feel like it serves us better than something which only hints at and diminishes the thing it points to. Although sometimes a blank can move the conversation forward just as powerfully, as Lisa Williams did in this poem.

What every poem is implicitly saying is this:

This is the best word to name that experience, the most important word; this is the word that deserves a place in our language.

For now, I’m standing by my word.

 

 

What to do with an idea

Some ideas take longer than others. The idea for my next performance poem has been 5 years in the making… that’s a long wait. So I wanted to share some thoughts on the process before I enter FREAK OUT stage – which is due any day!

According to my highly scientific calculations, I am now at peak re-write time (4 weeks prior to performance, right on schedule). The poem is 95% written, my voice likes it, my unfailingly committed poetry focus group (i.e. husband) likes it, tickets to the show are selling, and everything seems to be coming together.

The idea is in the right place at the right time.

But when it first came to me 5 years ago – no wait, more like 7 years ago – the idea was in the right place at the wrong time. I had an intense feeling of being trapped, with no creative outlets, and the feeling resonated deeply with traditional fairytales I was studying at the time – particularly Rapunzel, the tale of the girl locked away in a tower. I set out to re-tell the Rapunzel story from my own experience. It didn’t work. Maybe because I was still in that experience, without enough distance to see it clearly, the story became tangled and shuddered to a halt. My first attempt to perform it for a live audience was an epic fail: blank faces everywhere.

We need to put some distance, or some time, between ourselves and the experience in order to write about it clearly. In the time between my first attempt at the Rapunzel story and re-writing it now for my upcoming performance, the idea has had a good 5 years to rest, recover, and find its true shape. Even ignoring an idea can sometimes be the best way to deal with it, as long as you’re ready to pay attention when it speaks up again.

Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.

In his Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth articulated the habits of mind he felt were most conducive to writing about our inner lives. I’m going to share the full quote because he describes so beautifully the whole process of what to do with an idea:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment. (p26, Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, online source accessed 17 Jan 2018.)

For all its highs and lows, writing a new piece is certainly a process of enjoyment. Not only do we get to live through the emotion twice, appreciating the fullness of our experience and how it makes us greater human beings, we also have the pleasure of letting the mind do its work in peace. In my case, coming back to the idea years later has meant that I can see clearly where its significance lies in many other contexts beyond my own life, and that conversation with the world is one of the greatest pleasures of all.

So wish me luck at the show on February 14-15 at Byron Theatre, and grab a ticket if you’re in the Northern Rivers. Sign up to this blog below to hear more about how I re-wrote the Rapunzel story as a slam poem; writing tips, creative life, and more.