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Melissa Broder

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Grand Theft Poetics

Posted: 10/21/10 06:21 PM ET

I am a hoarder, a hoarder of nouns. Lately I've been pilfering nouns from 1970s fantasy novels. Words like zenith and demon, vortex and unicorn would likely never come on my radar otherwise. And they're dynamite words. They lend poems leap and tilt by getting me out of my conscious narrative and into the id.

The subconscious is where the real creative alchemy occurs. When I write from the subconscious, I access a power deeper than my ego and put things on the page I didn't know I knew. It's a trippy, non-linear realm; but that doesn't mean getting there has to be chaotic. I don't like to leave the journey up to chance. I prefer a good map.

I rely on three roadmaps to the subconscious -- all using word banks comprised of stolen nouns.

The first map revolves around music. If I'm writing about a person, and he or she is passionate about Elliott Smith, I will look up the lyrics to albums like Roman Candle and XO. I will then kidnap 100 to 200 nouns and use them to choose from as the building blocks of a poem. The stolen nouns help channel a person's essence in a way that's not solely about my perspective. The same goes for a retrospective poem, in which I want to channel a particular era. What's more, musical nouns infuse poetics with a flavor not typically associated with poetry. I've lifted from Dr. Dre, The Ramones, The Stooges and The Sex Pistols. I've lifted from Biggie.

Poet Richard Hugo said:

"When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult..."

While Hugo's "music" refers to words and cadence (and not the Dead Kennedys) he reminds us to let language dictate narrative.

Another roadmap I use is that of the random noun pairing. When I don't have a particular idea in mind for a poem, I'll extract a few hundred nouns from a text (or a combination of texts) and write them down in columns. The seemingly random juxtaposition of words usually generates a few starting lines for a poem. I may scrap them later, but the lines inform me as to the direction I am to take -- even if I don't know what a poem is about. In fact, I may never entirely know what a poem is about. Maybe that's better. It's a direct wire to the subconscious, a semantic rorschach.

Jackson Mac Low, the big daddy of chance poetics, said:

"...language has value as a being that one should be able to participate in more directly than by using it as a means of expressing thoughts, feelings, or whatever."

Some noun boutiques I've successfully robbed for pairings recently include Natalie Lyalin's Pink and Hot Pink Habitat, Rachel B. Glaser's Pee on Water, and Blake Butler's Scorch Atlas. I recommend visiting these swanky noun shops, even if you're not a klepto like me.

Noun road #3 involves dreams. One might think that a poem drawn from a dream is as boring as hearing the blow-by-blow of a co-worker's dream. But a noun bank serves to derail the accuracy of the re-telling that can make listening to another person's dream so arduous. Additionally, nouns drawn from non-dreamy texts really ground out the process.

What I like to do is use nouns pilfered from a seemingly non-poetic source text -- this can be People Magazine (fabulous contemporary noun mall) or an internet article on hydroponics -- to explore a dream. Usually, I'll just use the tip of the dream and not the whole massive sequence. No need to be a literalist, even in matters of the subconscious.

For those of you who say you don't have dreams, let it be known that everyone has dreams. It's the recall that's the practice. You have to jot those buggers down soon after waking, or they disappear.

I have a section of my Blackberry notes that serves as a personal dream library, and I fill it in on my morning commute. These stories promise to be more exciting than anything else between Hoyt Street and Hudson Street.

 

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