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Experiments In New Formalism

I am not good with rigidity when it comes to writing.  I like to write on my own schedule, about whatever emerges when my pen hits the page.  I can’t be bothered with memorizing metrical patterns or when lines should repeat, so I am famously bad at form poems.  I signed up for a form slam once and nearly withdrew from the competition out of sheer embarrassment when my sestinas and villanelles turned out less than pleasant to listen to.

Last week I mentioned that Dana Gioia’s essay on New Formalism really got under my skin when he asserted that contemporary poetry has no idea how or when to employ form, and therefore has no ear for language.  It made me want to, in spite of my deep and serious aversion, write a form poem, and not only do it right, but do it well.  Easily said, but pretty difficult to execute.  Unless you have the right tools, of course.  (Here’s where it gets weird.)

image from Biography.com

image from Biography.com

I’ve been itching to write a poem about Danny Williams, tragically disappeared filmmaker and Warhol lover, ever since I first saw the documentary A Walk Into The Sea for the first time a handful of years ago.  (If you’ve never heard of the movie, you’re not alone.  But it is available for instant viewing on Netflix and very worth it, so go!  See!)  In fact, after seeing the film, I’ve been thinking about writing a series of poems about the revolving cast of characters in Warhol’s Factory, but I could never figure out where to begin.  So much about everyone of that specific cultural moment is myth or hearsay, and writing about people I have no personal connection to is rather difficult for me unless I can find an access point.  So the Warhol poems got shelved indefinitely.

Until Monday night, when I decided it was finally time to write Danny Williams a poem.  I cued up the movie and took notes from start to finish, filling four pages of my notebook; you can see the distilled version of those noteshere.  Initially, my idea was to write a found poem, using only dialogue from the first person interviews.  But as I scrawled away and then typed up the quotes, I realized how repetitive the information was.  How many people uttered some iteration of, “I don’t remember Danny Williams,” and then revised their statements, the truth building on the initial lie until something completely new and very real had come from the original obfuscation.

It seemed the perfect opportunity to write in form.  The repetition was already there, it was simply my job to shape that repetition.  Working from my notes, I started building a pantoum using the documentary dialogues.  Words were tweaked here and there, but the final product is almost entirely composed of found text from the film.  When starting a poem from scratch, form intimidates me.  But with all the raw material laid out in front of me, it helped to organize all that talk into a compact, evocative story.  Where normally it’s difficult for me to write about strangers, the form became my access point for speaking comfortably about someone I can never meet.  It imposed a distance from the subject that made it easier to pick out which pieces of information were important enough to present to a reader multiple times, while reminding of the way the layered truth comes about in the documentary.

Repetitive forms lend themselves especially to this layered version of the truth.  Check out contributor to our up-coming art issue Cassandra de Alba’s sestina, “Tchaikovsky, 1944,” in this month’s issue of Printer’s Devil Review for an example of contemporary formalism gone incredibly right.  Contributor to our Gender, Sex, and Sexuality issue and Side B‘s representative in the BILiNE anthology, Sean Patrick Mulroy, has a poem called“wight,” that consists of two blank sonnets based on some pretty upsetting footage of Brittany Murphy from her last public appearance before her death.  Amy Newman’s poem, “The Letting Go,” is another bit of neo-formalist excellence, and her book Dear Editor invents something of a new form by collecting cover letters as poems in their own right.  And though there are plenty of literary journals that may turn up their nose at such formal experiments, online lit mag Radius solicits submissions of invented forms with instructions, seeking poets who are not only willing formalists, but inventors as well as authors.