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Thoughts on a lecture: Risk

I attended a poetry lecture this past Friday which ended my ten month lecture drought. When you finish school, you start realize just how precious it is to learn new things. For me, this is especially true for poetry. Erin Adair-Hodges, an accomplished poet, professor, and editor herself, had many fine things to say about poetry. She had even better things to say about risk.


She brought along some examples to dissect: the inimitable Mary Ruefle, the knockout Jennifer Chang, and the new-to-me Richard Siken. Even just reading these wonderful poems would’ve been enough, but she brought so much more.


Erin discussed how risk functions in poetry: how poets appear risky, perform risk, and hit the same risk button over and over. She doesn’t delve into content, but rather, the less obvious syntax. We see how Ruefle travels across worlds in under sixteen lines. We see Chang subvert all expectations. We see Siken hold his long poem together through redefinition. She delivers all of this with an air of expertise and admiration. You can visit the poems we looked at by clicking on the author's names.


This lecture on risk has finally given me the means to understand what I’ve been struggling with for years. I’m a creature of habit. I write short poems. I write poems with generally straightforward narratives and images. I generally use simple words. I am good at these poems. My friends like them. My poetic peers like them. My professors like them.


But these poems risk nothing, or at least very little. They are short because I don’t want people to get bored and stop reading. They are centralized so that they do not get confused. They use simple words so not to exclude anyone from reading. What they do risk, frankly, is being boring.


I like reading risk. I like being wowed and surprised. I also don’t like risk when it goes too far and when I don’t understand, in particular, when it is opaque for the sake of being opaque. I’ve read many an experimental poem and thought I wish I could do that. I’ve written beneath and alongside them. I try some myself and then the doubts come in: too long, too abstract, too out there.


One question I had a couple days after this lecture was about how risk functions in the academic workshop. After many years of study, a common complaint while editing poems was about needing more clarity, more centrality. I remember a professor literally crossing out flowery adjectives. I quickly learned that what is not needed should not be in the poem. I thus learned to write only what is necessary. But is this mentality breeding out risk? If risky student drafts are immediately shut down and crossed out, what will happen to that poem other risky poems after it?


I am committed to more risk. I am committed to write without journal editors in mind. I want more interesting forms, leaps, syntax, subject matter, and styles. When I lived in the UK, I gradually learned to adopt less straightforward language and form, but I am still far from risky. I am currently working on a poem about my grandmother which is an already emotionally risky subject. The draft began very plain: stating obvious images from my limited perspective, working in tight 4–line stanzas, avoiding anything truly vulnerable. Before this lecture, I thought maybe this draft was okay. And then I went back. I allowed myself to leap through time and rely more heavily on sound. It is by no means done yet, but it is moving in a better, more interesting direction.


A big thank you for the organizations who made this lecture possible, WSU’s EGSA and Mikrokosmos, and Erin Adair-Hodges for visiting!

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