The Footnote Reading

Today I gave my first speech for Toastmasters.

I kind of cheated.  I wrote a speech in the form of a poem that contained a poem.

The assigned speech was the “icebreaker” speech.  Everyone said it is the easiest as you just talk about yourself.  As any poet knows, this is the most difficult thing to do directly.  The self, when presented to the public and through words, requires crafting and revision.

The poem, “Sunday School Lessons in Four Part (dis)Harmony,” is one of my more lengthy poems with three languages and extensive footnotes.   Since it was a speech and not a poetry reading (and I was already cheating), I did not fret over how to read the footnotes:  I simply didn’t, except for the epigraph, which I explained before I started reading the poem.

The footnotes pertain mostly to biblical references and lines in other languages.  The other languages, in the written version, have footnotes as the ‘sound’ may be lost on the reader so I thought some explanation would be appreciated.  However, I never translate in the footnotes, only site the references.  This would be disruptive and strange in the reading.  Instead, read aloud, they serve to give music and atmosphere to the loose narrative and the intended emotion or experience of the poem attempts to convey.

To add to this, I added back in lines from Hungarian folksongs.  Unlike the Latin and Spanish, the Hungarian is not as familiar and the pronunciations would be unmusical by non-Hungarian speakers, so I took them out (though a few Hungarian words remain in the poem).  However, while rehearsing the poem, I spontaneously sang these songs from my childhood as they were referenced.   I kept that in tonight’s presentation of the speech to my club.

Often I have discussed with poets about how, for instance, would one read aloud a poem like “The Waste Land” or one of the many footnoted poems in Sherman Alexie’s Face.  Today, being the poet and having the ‘authority’ to aurally present my footnotes (or in this case not) as I like, I found that I have two poems:  the page poem where the footnotes are needed to guide readers through the unfamiliar and the aural poem that may dwell in the universality of the music of language outside of literal comprehension.

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Jumping someone else’s poem?

Ever have that poem that just comes to you in a first draft, almost complete?  I could credit this rare, very rare, experience to the creative rush from the Antioch creative writing residency or, more likely, to poetic delusion.   I was so proud of this poem.

Though really, it is flash prose, the topic of the workshop I attended this morning.  I loved the workshop and enjoyed tricking my brain into writing poetry without criticism because we were writing ‘flash prose;’ it is not my genre, so I was off the hook if it sucked.  I played along and wrote my one sentence story.  In fact, I wrote three.  Then I chose one and expanded it into flash prose.  I utilized the tools we just studied of repetition, of focusing on the specificity of action over character (that is, no names).   I used short, at times truncated and fragmented sentences.  I read it aloud and was satisfied with the poetic sounds, the rhythms, the story that was told through negation.   The responses were few:  “confusing” and “intriguing.”  I could work with that.

A few hours later, over dinner and mojitos with a fellow poet, I recounted the workshop, all I learned, and boasted about my poem.  I read it to her from the trunk of my car, where I had left the journal between class and dinner, and we were proud.   We joked how ironic it would be if this, not the poems I’ve been working on for years, were to be published first.  Oh the frustrating joy I’d have to endure.

And now home, I thought I would type up my little gem, polish its rough edges before I let it sit a week and then, maybe, actually see, on a whim or a dare, if I could get it published.  Yet, as I read the poem, I realized it is not my story at all.   It is the story of someone very dear to me.  It is a story that this person trusted me to tell.  He is not a poet or a writer who seeks to have his story told to the world of obscure journal readers, to any world.  Except for mine and his, as small and tenuous as that world may be.  He told it to me, which is what the poem is about.  This story that he told me.  He is not oppressed and in need of a voice or of me to tell his story.  I through I was writing about what I want this story to mean and make it my poem.  It is a well wrought poem, but, I could never show him this poem and claim I care for him.  It would be a betrayal.  I could change the name of a city, I could say he told me about bananas rather than apples, but he would still know and I would still know that this poem, while dear to my poet-ego-heart, would be a betrayal of trust that is even more rare than a good first draft of a poem.

Writers, how do you tell the stories entrusted to you and do you ever bury them away unsure if you have the right to reveal what was entrusted to you?    I have never encountered this before, though I write about my parents, my family history, my former lovers, but this, when I looked at it away from the rush of creative pride, when I imagined the poem in its gloriously ironic publication being read by others, maybe even the person whose story it is, I felt a bit ashamed, guilty.   Therefore, this poem will remain where it started, in a place where trust is safe, in my journal.