This is no. 67 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
What is “craft” anyway? Google says: an activity involving skill or technique in making things. If the activity is poetry, you might think about how you deploy figurative language, the choices you make around form and structure, and so on. But because I come out of a tradition that orients me as a trickster to the status quo, I often avoid formal craft “rules” and rely mostly on instinct when drafting a poem. I wrote poetry before I encountered “formal” craft techniques, and in this “amateur hour” period of poetry writing, in this private activity, I developed these instincts about what sounded good or what worked. “The objective is not to transmit my tricks to you, it’s for you to become the trick factory for yourself,” says my friend, poet and educator Tongo Eisen-Martin. Sure, you can sometimes borrow a trick factory—like that used clarinet workbook you checked out for a semester in middle school band, until you could play the basic tunes—but eventually you have to build your own oeuvre.
For the most part, I’m not conscious of my trick factory until the revision stage, and I mostly focus my technique on the line: What can I fit onto a single line? Where to break? What can I juxtapose on the same line to suggest, like a subliminal layer, the revelation of the poem? When I went to put together my debut collection, Horsepower, I realized I had yet to develop a trick factory for this level of the process—curating an entire collection. Before you put together a collection, craft is something that happens at the level of a single poem. What is best for that poem? What does that poem need or what is it trying to do? When revising your manuscript, however, you begin to think about the poems not as individual units but as part of a larger work. How do you order the poems in a way that constructs a cohesive whole? How does a single poem need to be revised to serve the arc of the collection?
My teacher Nikky Finney had to prompt me to consider formal craft at this level and stage of revision: “What tense is this?” she asked spreading the pages of a few carefully selected poems from the collection across her office table. “Future perfect?” When I went back to look at the organizing tense in each poem, I realized I had made these choices intuitively, and now they appeared to be rendered in an arbitrary manner—too arbitrary. Nikky suggested that I try revising all the poems set in the speaker’s childhood in the same tense in order to create a reliable system that signaled to the reader where they were in the story.
As I worked on this system and began to order the poems, the formation of a nonlinear narrative materialized, a cinematic experience. I began to think of curating the collection like one would a film, splicing and cutting, pasting scenes together, camera cutaways and zoom-ins. I’d been reading Kara Keeling’s The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, The Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Duke University Press, 2007), and I’d fallen in love with the concept of the Black Femme figure—where she might appear or, commonly, be overlooked in mainstream frames. Could my poems be scenes? Frames in which the Black girl-child appeared, rescued from the margins? A collection of preservation and survival, a way to honor Black childhood?
Nikky’s suggestion to focus on tense helped me begin to see how I could build this cinematic experience within the collection. But I also quickly noticed that there was more than tense at play. The nonlinear narrative arc of these poems was also informed by point of view and address—a whole complex of narrative elements. I realized that I could select from this complex in order to strategically release information—important information about the passage of time, the relationship between the physical setting and the speaker’s emotional state, and the relationship between the adult speaker and her child self.
To give an example of this complex of narrative elements: I realized that the several poems Nikky had isolated were all narrated by a child speaker in present tense, but with omniscient foresight. The effect is the speaker speaking as her child self in first-person “I,” but with details for the reader that the child could not know in the moment the memory captures.
In the middle of the title poem, “Horsepower,” the speaker tells us:
Beyond the spires
is a larger world I do not know
exists. A mile West, in my line
of vision, is a family
I do not know
The child speaker in this memory cannot know that this family existed at the time of this setting. In fact, she tells you she doesn’t know. What this communicates to us is that it is actually the adult speaker talking, in a kind of omniscient first-person as her child-self. The poem could’ve easily been: “Beyond the spires / is a larger world she does not know exists...a family / she does not know / she has,”—a close third-person narrator, typical of fiction.
In another poem rendered in this way, the speaker recalls her own birth: “I am born in the season of color-blocking and crack, / in the dawn of the Reagan era.” I am rather than I was. Such a configuration—first-person present tense—puts the reader or listener, to whom the story is addressed, immediately down into the scene, making the layer of memory—explicitly pronounced in first-person past tense—indetectable. Via this complex, the speaker is also able to slip in important assessments and analyses of the sociopolitical elements of the setting—something that might feel inauthentic in a young child’s voice.
In understanding how these omniscient child poems were working, and the patterns that some of the other poems obeyed, I developed my own technique, or to borrow Eisen-Martin’s metaphor: I developed my own trick—the cinema factory by which the collection ran.
What craft elements will you use to assemble your poetry collection? What tools will you use to inform the narrative? Will you move along a progressive line, or will there be alternate paths, cutaways and flashes, trick mirrors?
Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.Thumbnail: Jeremy Yap