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.

The Neverending Conversation

In a recent exchange with my mentor, he wrote about poetry not as an end product (the poem) but a process (the series of revisions that lead to the poem).   Sometimes at workshops or in my reading, I find myself more interested in the process than the poem; I want the story behind the poem .

Recently, I looked at the workshop packet I submitted my first semester in my MFA program and my latest draft of my final manuscript for the program.  It was much like reading diaries from high school.  I was naive, audacious in my ignorance.  It was pleasing to see that, despite the recent feelings of inertia, I am indeed in flux, in progress.   I patted my now wiser self on the head.

In the same email, my mentor commented on the “stigma” of publishing revisions of poems already published, questioning if there was not such a stigma would more poets do it?   We as a culture, as a society, perhaps as humans, like to know where things are, like definitions, like everything outside ourselves to be predictable.  I talk about this with my student when teaching about stereotyping because I want them to feel safe in exploring and recognizing their own stereotypes.  We all do it or have done it at some point.  So, with writing, it is not surprising that once a poem is published we would not want to stumble upon a new version of that poem a year or five years later,  particularly if you have that poem in a book (books aren’t supposed to change), memorized it, or cherish the poem like a friend who helped you through one of the pesky unpredictable moments in life.   It’d be as if the poet came back to say, “eh, that was OK, but now here is the what the poem really should be like,” or, “this is really what I wanted to say in the poem.”

As I delve into new territories as a writer, I keep going back to poems that I was sure are done and revising.  Drastically.  I could conceivably write and rewrite this manuscript for yeas to come.

I started a new poem today (in my head).  This was exciting as I have not written much new stuff lately.  It was disheartening as it involved one of my two recurring themes in my poetry:  my mother and a past lover.   (No, I am not going to confess which one it was).  My first thought was “Damn, I thought I was finished with THAT.”

My second thought was this is writing. Do love songs every lose popularity?  Do humans ever reconcile the love and loss of a mother?   I am pretty sure there is a quote about storytelling and how writers just tell the same story over and over.  Am I  just writing the same poem over and over, only my perspective has changed so drastically that the poem is unrecognizable as the same poem, or at least passable as a new poem?   (This feeds my also recurring existential crisis as a writer.)   I want to think maybe it just makes writing easier since I can just keep revising what I once said because this is what writing is, why people write:  to work out what ever holds our obsession, to find our lessons (though this is the primary criticism against confessional poetry).   Or maybe it is like the ideal conversation where I can keep refining what I say until I am as clear as I long to be, until I change my mind again.