What Sparks Poetry

Reading Prose

In our series Reading Prose, we’ve asked poets to write about how the experience of reading prose, fiction, non-fiction, criticism, theory, has sparked the writing of poetry or affected how they read poetry.

“Explore What Sparks Poetry” is made possible with funding from The Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Liza Katz Duncan on “The Uncles”

“The Uncles” are not actual people but attempts to personalize the tragedy of Superstorm Sandy through memories, anecdotes I had heard from neighbors and read in the news, bits of conversation, and places and images that continue to haunt me to this day. I chose the sestina’s six ending words to drive home exactly what was being lost, and what we continue to lose, both concrete (bay, fence, birds) and abstract (home, ways of knowing). I wanted the reader to experience the same constant presences, the places and events that had become a part of my daily life, over and over again.

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I also knew that self-reflexivity is a mode thrust upon certain artists more than others, primarily those who are forced to constantly position themselves in response to the real and imagined ways that their identities are questioned and codified. Every Native writer I talk to fears being perceived as, or labeled, fraudulent. We all question whether, or how, we are enough. These fears lead, at best, to a care around identity and claim-laying, and, at worst, to a paralysis that constitutes self-colonization. Self-consciousness may be a first step to developing a more expansive, collective consciousness, but to sit in it too long only reifies the structures of governance.  

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In my “Eternity,” poetry attempts to overcome itself as language to arrive at language, using metaphor (as the prerequisite of that visual allegorical rendering of the body) not as trope, but as epistemology and ethics, a fleshy ethics and epistemology never abstracted from the corporeal.

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Everything in this poem is true, or happened, or some things are, or would it be better to say they are real, remembered, factual, “the case”? I am troubled by the relationship between poetry and our world. Poems come to us from their world. They address us from behind a shimmering screen like aliens or hierophants. This is so, I think, even for poems that address lived experience (individual or communal) in a frank manner. If it weren’t, we could stick with personal essays.

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Together, bound by our bodies and being with each other as bodies, there might be something better than “the fibrous needs of the heavens.” Perhaps, out here, in beetle mouth, amoeba, in the sugar water suckle of a hummingbird. A bruised blue so beautiful, and dusted.

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The bowl she fills in the wake of his failure is an artifact fused with hurt and irony. The rose petals—perennial symbols of love and romance—obscure a collection of dead pollinators: no honey is about to be made by this meeting of flower and bee, at this hive of an art colony. As with most arresting images, the arrival of the bowl re-angles how I consider parts of the poem already read: in this case, setting, which is now made ironic: art colonies intend cross-pollination, fertilization, and bloom, not sting and death. The bowl of rose-covered dead bees is a clear, precise expression of rebuke delivered straight to the composer’s front door: intimate and elegant, a painter’s speech-without-saying.

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