In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 130.
In March of 2020, I got very sick. The doctor I consulted at CityMD here in New York City told me it was “a flu that’s been going around” and sent me home. I could barely get out of bed for two weeks, then developed what was likely pneumonia. I say “likely” because by that point hospitals were so full that there was no way I could get into one or see a doctor. I say “I got sick” because at that point it was difficult to get a diagnosis for what I’m now fairly certain I had: COVID-19.
As I recovered over the next year (and the next; I am still recovering as I write this) I simultaneously felt the desire to write and was utterly overwhelmed by the prospect. I was having difficulty focusing on any one task and felt like the life I was living in quarantine wasn’t worth writing about. Even so, I wanted to write. So I decided to experiment by creating a set of parameters to guide my writing.
I had done something similar with my first book, [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), which includes a series of poems based on the major arcana cards of the tarot. Because the major arcana comprises twenty-two cards, I wrote twenty-two poems of twenty-two lines each. Those parameters gave me a confined space in which to work and, paradoxically, actually freed me up as a writer: By removing the variable of a poem’s length from my writing process, I found I could better focus on the language I would use to fill those twenty-two lines. It surprised me that something as simple, arbitrary even, as a set number of lines did so much to allow me to write.
I thought a similarly prescriptive process could help me write through the difficult period of my COVID-19 recovery. As my main struggle was coming up with my own language, I thought working with preexisting text seemed like a good option. But I knew I didn’t want to use erasure as a method, given how politically complex it can be, as Solmaz Sharif so thoughtfully articulates in a 2013 essay in the Volta. Instead, I wanted to see if I could keep all the language in a preexisting text on the page, using the language, quite literally, as material. At the time, I’d been enjoying the New York Times Spelling Bee, an anagram-style game in which players are given seven letters from which to make as many English words as they can. So I thought anagramming seemed promising as a poetic process. In this case, I would repurpose every letter in each line of the original poem to create the corresponding line in my own poem of the same length. I explicitly aimed to use the pool of letters in each line to form words that didn’t exist in the original line.
Having established my method, I implemented another parameter: to work with language from poems that wouldn’t be overshadowed by my interaction with them. I knew I didn’t want to anagram the work of a living poet. Manipulating the work of the living can be a brutal gesture, even when well-intentioned, and must be handled with great care. For the most part I just wanted to be playful with language by using this method, so I looked to the canon because, frankly, I think it’s fine to mess with the canon—biased, white supremacist, and classist as it so often is. I decided on Shakespeare’s sonnets because they were easily accessible online, well known in their own right, and, to be honest, there were a lot of them to choose from. So it was decided: I would take a Shakespearan sonnet and—using the first line as the title of my new poem—write my own “anagram sonnets.”
This process helped me in several ways. First, it radically expanded my syntactical and lexical range. It also allowed me to discover, in an organic way, a thematic thread of queer desire, kink, and pagan imagery that unfurled as I went, following my own interests as a writer. And it produced some solid poems. After completing five or so of these anagram sonnets, I could see a full project forming. With encouragement from a trusted writing friend, a lot of research, some amazing fellowship opportunities, a year or two of writing, and a well-timed query letter, these sonnets (all 154 of them) were accepted by Wesleyan University Press in the form of my second full-length poetry collection, The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, which will be released next year.
At a time when writing can seem so small an act, and speaking up feels so essential, I hope that sharing my truly desperate attempt to find some way (any way) back into writing—some way to say something when it felt impossible—has encouraged you somehow. By breaking down a larger project into a series of smaller projects with distinct, prescriptive parameters, I was able to write again, to cut through the knot forming my writer’s block with the swift blade of process. And even if this particular experiment hadn’t led to a book—if it had only led to me writing those five original sonnets and putting them in a drawer—it proved valuable for enabling me to write again at a time when I was afraid I’d lost the ability to do it at all. And that, too, would have been a success.
Trevor Ketner is the author of The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2023, and [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), selected as the winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series by Forrest Gander.Art: Mel Poole