Cait Johnson raised some eyebrows and made a roomful of writers blush when she talked about orgasms. According to Cait, a Stonecoast faculty, the best orgasms happen when two people are vulnerable and intimate with each other.
To hear her tell it, that same intensity’s achieved when writers engage in other genres. Cait’s wise words resonated with both students and colleagues during her presentation Passionate Bedfellows: What Poets and CNF [Creative Nonfiction] Writers Offer Each Other.
For starters, poetry offers the magic of words.
“Writers are magicians,” Cait said. “Words are magic.” And part of that magic are the imagery and rhythms that affect people physiologically. “Writing poetry itself is a healing,” the multi-genre instructor added. “I believe we are a culture suffering from disconnection.”
What makes creative nonfiction significant is its knack for smoothly incorporating research information into prose. “That’s what’s going to help your poetry,” Cait said, “if you can ground it in something real and something juicy.”
Cait’s presentation fell on the second day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency, where I’m starting my third semester. The previous semester, I had a wonderful time working with Joy Harjo as my mentor. During our time together, I produced new poems, including the imitations that accompanied my annotations.
Through Joy’s guidance, I strengthened those poems through revision. Joy and I also took a deeper look at T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song for Prufrock” and other poems, and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency.
I remembered telling Joy that after reading Eliot’s poems, I saw how rich his poems are with details, how they felt complete without giving too much away to the reader.
That was my takeaway: to write complete, detail-rich poems that are open enough for the reader to come to their own conclusions or discoveries.
What I discovered, going through Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency and looking at what changed in between the first and last collections included in that volume, was a shift in his influences.
Baraka’s early collections seemed informed by his personal life, while current events–both domestic and abroad–inspired his poems half way through Transbluesency. The jazz music and musicians influenced Baraka’s later poems in the volume. And that’s how my twice-a-month phone conversations with Joy went during my second semester.
The first night of the residency, I was glad that Joy, despite the airline losing her bags, made it in time to present at the Flash Faculty Reading that included Tony Barnstone, Sarah Braunstein, Annie Finch, Nancy Holder, Cait Johnson, James Patrick Kelly, and Debra Marquart (who, with Alexs Pate, is teaching the Writing About Race and Difference workshop that I’m in for the first part of the residency).
Joy read an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, which she noted took her 14 years to write. “I kept running away from it,” she told the audience during her reading. She repeated it to me and Amanda Johnston, my Cave Canem sister who is starting her first semester in the Stonecoast MFA program.
It was good to see Joy. I made her laugh when I told Amanda that, in terms of my poems, Joy was my fitness instructor during the second semester. Joy’s feedback on my poems was helpful. Because of her suggestions, I now consider various levels on which my poems work. I also include more details and I’m not afraid to write long poems.
Joy laughed when I said her suggestions have my poems posing like bodybuilders, showing off their new muscles. She laughed louder when I told Amanda that the entire second semester Joy forced my poems to do extra bench presses despite them being tired and wanting to relax.
(PHOTO: Courtesy) Cait Johnson
Cait Johnson pushed us just as hard during her presentation, when she paired up students in creative nonfiction with those in poetry.
The added advantage of both genres is that poetry’s a shortcut to empathy, while creative nonfiction teaches poets how to tell detailed and engaging stories.
The class exercise involved poets finding a story line in their poems and turning it into prose, while creative nonfiction writers wrote a poem describing a character or setting from their pieces.
“That’s what this presentation’s about—lighting things up,” Cait said, before turning to Mary Karr and Li-Young Lee, two writers who’ve successfully used elements from both genres to light things up in their work.
In Viper Rum, Karr’s creative nonfiction influences are in the autobiographic subject matter she tackles in her poetry collection. Each poem’s a revelation of Karr’s demons such as alcoholism and her suicidal thoughts.
Karr’s blending of the techniques paid off, according to a reviewer at goodreads.com. “Fierce, brilliant work here. Like exploring an open wound,” the reviewer wrote. “Not for those unwilling nor unable to explore…go outside the bounds of textbook time-lines.”
Li-Young Lee went outside the bounds with his memoir The Winged Seed, what an amazon.com reviewer called “part poem, part waking dream, part remembrance.” What makes this memoir unconventional is its beautifully crafted lines.
“He takes us on a journey to his psyche,” Cait said. “He makes us feel, with him, the immense experience from the inside.” Lee’s blending of both poetry and creative nonfiction grounds his lyrical Winged Seed in the stories of real people.
Though Lee’s mostly known for his poetry, his memoir is an example of what Cait said happens when creative nonfiction students experiment with poems while working on their memoirs: they come back with “a mother lode” of imagery to bring back to their creative nonfiction.
Of Li-Young Lee, Cait concluded, “He’s writing about writing; he’s writing about memoir, and he found his way in.”