// Randall Williams



11 Poetic Forms I use For Political Reasons



1. Non sequiturs

There are these moments when I interrupt the flow of a poem to cite a violence I have recently seen (black teenage boys being kicked out of Duke’s library while checking their e-mail, security guards looking for minorities in inexpensive cars, etc). This is a trend I embrace because, to speak broadly, we’ll never have equality unless we allow our condemnations of oppression to be non sequiturs.

The designated spaces in which we talk about justice—classrooms, courtrooms and debates—are insufficient. Minority movements have to be able to enter and stop the ordinary procession of things. We are all responsible for calling out instances of oppression, even if and especially when the context is inappropriate.

2. Subversion of personal sentences

Recently I grew frightened after I wrote a sentence that was very personal and I allowed it to be recontextualized by a line that I pulled, via random process, from a nearby book. It was a moment when I realized how much the poem is its own system, independent from me and capable of radically reconstituting me. As a result, I have been including these personal sentences with the intention of letting them get redefined.

3. Private signifiers

I am confounded by the following things about my neighbors:

    1. How Bill B’s belly can be so rotund and firm at the same time;
    2. Why the people across the street wrote “Posted” on multiple boards and nailed them to trees. Why didn’t they just write, “No Trespassing”? When they say “Posted” do they mean it like fence posting, as if I’m supposed to envision posts lining their property? Are they appealing to my imagination? Are most boundaries objects of the imagination?
    3. Why John seems to be obsessed with not only grass, but kinds of grass. He is a meek, homely man who wears sunglasses, a mask and a sombrero when he weed-eats the ditch between our yards. He mows a section of my property because he “likes to have it look clean when he pulls into his driveway.”
    4. Who threw a 25-yard slow fire pistol target in my yard.
    5. How the deer that nibbles under the persimmon tree got its rear left leg broken;
    6. Why the guy who put up “God’s Country” on a street sign, in front of his house, also arranges four plastic lawn chairs around a flag pole in different patterns every week. (This week the chairs have their backs to the pole.)
    7. Why Mrs. Mack clusters her yard art (Jesus, a frog and a flamingo) together under a birdbath.

I don’t expect my neighbors to understand my queer anti-war ways either. When we talk, we try to communicate clearly but there are also all of these other signs going on—gestures that I can’t necessarily make sense of. It’s a confusing, beautiful and horrifying jumble.

I think through poems. I might start with a topic, but only as a debarking point. I am interested in documenting my experiences and thoughts and then seeing how those details can be manipulated to offer enlivening textual experiences. An audience comes to mind toward the end of that process.

While I am in whatever frame of mind I am when I write (irreverent, ruthless, playful, hyper-sensitive to sound, contradictory, breaking apart, etc.) I imagine an interlocutor. Then I try to make the poem into the most honest utterance possible. It comes out cryptic and interpretable because my language, with which I play and explore (statecraft = helicopter; My Public Container; signifier/signified) is both idiosyncratic and social. My poems are testaments to how I think through a problem (usually only to find multiple new questions).

The debate about accessibility presumes that poetry is a form of communication between the poet and the reader. The reader “gets” the poet's message in the poem, as if it were a letter or, as Chris Vitiello has joked, a food that requires unwrapping.

I don't buy this relationship because (1) it institutionally locks me in a more powerful position than someone else; (2) why would I obscure a process of inquiry?; (3) my assertions usually crumble under skepticism; (4) my questioning, not my conclusion, is what I am most excited to share; (5) the message structure can be easily co-opted by people who want to show my artifact as if it is a locked door to which they hold the key; (6) meaning that the reader generates while working with text is more relevant to her than anything I could say; (7) the message theory parallels the passivity through which commercial art and, more importantly, political structures, benefit.

I don't mind sharing what I'm doing in the same way that, if a neighbor stopped by and spotted me building a totem in the yard, he'd probably ask what's going on. I'd tell him to the best of my ability (in our shared language). He'd probably think it was strange, but hopefully he'd recognize that I was trying to say something, or at least was engaged in a resonantly personal process of inquiry.

4. Exposing reader process

I am interested in constructing poems that elucidate the fact that people make choices while reading. One way to do this is to use a word in such a way as to evoke two or more mutually exclusive but equally viable meanings. “They knelt around the candle as if the light would not work.” Here, I mean both the light of the candle and the light of the room. The “as if” breaks the duplicitous scene into a quadrant of possibilities: Does the light work or are the characters merely imagining that it doesn't?

I'm even more interested in how a fragmented and spatial layout can show the reader that she is choosing her way through the poem. Is the poem her line of attention? Are interpretations adjacent like thoughts in a crowded room? What are the rules of reading? What meanings do they create/exclude? Why do we follow these rules? Spatial layout, I hope, shows the reader that interpretation is an active process constructed by choice.

5. Modes of thought

Capitalism, castes and (sometimes) academia benefit from partitioning thoughts into types. In the footsteps of the earlier feminist project to expose the fact that we associate values with entire categories of things (work/domestic, art/decoration, mind/body), I am interested in showing how modes of thought (logic/observations, symbolic/nonsymbolic, banal/heightened, questions/answers) also come with associative values.

Because poems have this way of making positive value claims about items on the page, I try to build them with a mix of the banal, intellectual, domestic, academic, non-symbolic, etc. What sometimes happens, then, is that the reader is forced to process domestic content while in an intellectual mode of thought, symbolic statements as facts, facts as symbolic statements, etc. Hopefully, at some point, the categorization begins to break down. And, ideally, the reader can see how modes of thought bleed or predetermine interpretations on content.

Ken Rumble has said mixing modes of thought is political because we can supply each other with tools of thought and a dexterity of mind. I thought about his point, recently, while flying home from Sarasota. After the plane took off, televisions dropped from the ceiling. The screen's content was a mix of facts (“What is the length of home plate? 17 inches.”) and commercials (“EuroCar is the cheapest rental service on the continent”). Whereas I am trying to break the system of valuation down, advertisers are trying to get people to interpret products through the lens of facts, romance, etc. I therefore try to convey to readers that modes of thought are evoked, chosen and ultimately problematic.

6. Multi-gendered characters and speakers

Both my gender and sexuality seem pretty fluid and temporal. The presumption of static identities can only be embraced if one doesn't accept how radically altering chance, history, choice and daily life can be. Having witnessed multiple friends transition from females to males, I am especially confused about what a man or woman is. Personally, the only thing that seems static is this changing list of permissions and prohibitions that I carry along. Often I try to convey this confusion in how I present characters and narrators. Is he a she, she a he, male or female? I switch it up. It's a wonderful crisis to put the reader into and one psychic way to gender bend.

7. References to a local community

I started to seriously write poetry a year ago this past August because I was frustrated with the limitations of my previous form-- literary journalism. In it, I was spending too much time writing cover letters, negotiating with editors and cutting experimental nuance. I wanted my work, which was really an artifact of inquiry, to take priority. In short, I felt like I was compromising my curiosity and beloved writing-time in order to get published.

Imagine my surprise when many elements of the poetry-writing world seemed to operate like an industry. I got the sense that there is this real question whether or not we are operating in a community and/or a market.

In my experience, systems have a way about justifying themselves via whatever modes of communication are subsumed within them. Right now, for example, lamp light bouncing on the underside of the tin roof above me casts a red glow over my desk. It would be different if, say, the inside roof were green. Poems written in a market-context similarly justify the market/context in which they appear.

I'm in favor of consciously moving away from the poetry market. I try not to eschew the market's dialogue, however, because, well, I find it interesting and, reacting against it is a recognition of its power. Therefore, I just write about whatever seems interesting. My preferred way of shunning the poetry market is to integrate my local community into my work. I mention folks who influence me first, because I am indebted, and second, because I want to make a statement about the role that such communities play in constructing the content of art. Art doesn't come from the market, as so much as small communities that unnecessarily work within it.

8. Transformations not epiphanies

One critique of epiphany is, simply, that the form presumes a stasis or an “Ah, that's it!” moment that doesn't seem truthful. What realization hasn't been problematized, localized and proven imperfect? What seems to actually occur is an endless array of shifting, or a series of temporarily useful collapses. It seems more utilitarian to relate to the process of change than mythic plateaus.

In a certain way, poetry's emphasis on epiphany has derailed its commitments to social movements. Many folks identify the “Ah, that's it!” moment with poetry, as if the latter were a vehicle to the former. Although it appears like the writer seems to be learning something about himself, and changing, the epiphany explodes in an orgasmic finitude. “Ah, back to normal!” The poem then seems to be this exercise in identifying, articulating and squelching identic challenges.

I say, enjoy the disbanding and hasten the collapse. Notions of solid identities have so many prejudices and privileges built into them that the whole world would benefit from more of our self-skepticism. (Perhaps this is most importantly a U.S. white male's project…)

And this epiphany model is so dominant that many readers enter a poem looking for it, as if it were a punch line. How are they suppose to value the preceding lines? It's a tired structure that just doesn't disorient or provoke wonder.

9. Exposing labor

One of the most irksome tendencies of my poetry professors was that they often presented writers as if they were geniuses. Did we do more asshole-smoke-blowing or learning? The notion of genius is so incredibly intimidating. If a young writer thinks being a genius is a prerequisite for art-making, then more often than not he or she will drop out. It ends up being this weird star system that lends itself to the selling of products or services to people who have suppressed their own art-making.

Interestingly, there is this evocative parallel between the idea of genius and the fact that the market presents products to us as if they magically appear. There is, in capitalism, a deliberate obscuring of labor. Among other things, this is so we won't see that oppression is actually made up of our own sweat and choice.

In order not be cast into this system, as an artisan, I try to build into my poems evidence of my labor and, also, a sequence of doubts and choices. Poems are made by meager humans, and are not divinely dropped on the shelf as if oracles.

10. Play

In her 1977 essay When We Dead Reawaken, Adrienne Rich argues that imaginative play is a prerequisite for political liberation. It is a process, she says, with which we can envision ourselves in different circumstances. Especially now, as fundamentalist forces bear down on our basic rights, we have to engage in intense fight and play. The fight, of course, is to beat back the mother fuckers in the physical world. The play, though, is to keep ourselves from becoming fundamentalists.

Subverting language is an exercise for irreverently subverting rules in the world. Chris Vitiello has said that writing poems can alter the way one lives her life, and I think he's right. Lifting my head, fresh from a poem, the world's circumstances seem, for a minute at least, equally unfixed.

11. Allowing contradiction

Having graduated from college in 2000, I have been thoroughly saturated with notions of “deconstructing texts.” What at first was Derrida's point about language's instability quickly became a market-driven way scholars tore into anonymous colleagues (and got tenure as a result). It's hard, now, for me to read my own work without seeking contradictions that undermine apparent points.

Realizing that that is merely one mode of reading was tremendously freeing. I conceptualize my project as something wholly different. I am not looking for a logically pure place. On the contrary, I am pleased to find circumstances in which I am contradictorily committed.



Randall Williams is an artist living outside Durham, North Carolina. He is currently reading Kristine Stiles's Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art and Lyn Hejinian's The Language of Inquiry. He is a member of the Lucifer Poetics Group.

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