The Intersection of Poetry and Memoir

How many times have you heard someone say  When I write my memoir……  It seems that everyone has stories that are important to their identity and that have shaped who they are. It’s a natural, human desire to share stories with one another and probably one of the oldest rituals that we have as humans. We seems to instinctively shape our conversations in the form of a story. But shape our story in the form of a poem?  Now that’s where most people pause and back away.

Until you really consider how we remember things–in fragments and slivers, in glimpses of scenes. We remember some of an event but not all of the details. Maybe we need to reconstruct a conversation, maybe we’re not 100% sure of the year, but we know approximately how old we were.  It’s the emotion that we remember and the emotion that helps us to build the story. And nothing is better for conveying emotion than a poem.

My friend Barbara Morrison and I have given several presentations on the intersection of poetry and memoir. Barbara has a wonderful image that she borrows from a friend of hers who is also a writer. She talks about the “colander of memory” that works by holding little strands of memory, the ones that get caught when you tip the colander over. Those strands are the ones that you can immediately recall and offer you an easy entree into beginning your memoir.

And poetry acts in a similar fashion to a colander–capturing images, snippets of memory, and glimpses of feelings. The short lines of a poem may be the perfect vehicle to help you retell an important moment in your life. And once you capture the images in a poem, more memories will begin to flow, as if you have primed the pump. You may have a waterfall of memory and detail all triggered by a poem.

One of my favorite memoir poems is by Edward Hirsch. He tells the story of being a little boy and spending the night with his grandmother. Hirsch conveys the pure joy and surprise of a small child discovering the mystery of his grand mother’s apartment. I hope you enjoy the poem and will try your hand at one of your won.

My Grandmother’s Bed~from The Night Parade, 1989

How she pulled it out of the wall
To my amazement. How it rattled and
Creaked, how it sagged in the middle
And smelled like a used-clothing store.
I was ecstatic to be sleeping on wheels!

It rolled when I moved; it trembled
When she climbed under the covers
In her flannel nightgown, kissing me
Softly on the head, turning her back.
Soon I could hear her snoring next to me–

Her clogged breath roaring in my ears,
Filling her tiny apartment like the ocean
Until I, too, finally swayed and slept
While a radiator hissed in the corner
And traffic droned on Lawrence Avenue. . . .

I woke up to the color of light pouring
Through the windows, the odor of soup
Simmering in the kitchen, my grandmother’s
Face. It felt good to be ashore again
After sleeping on rocky, unfamiliar waves.
I loved to help her straighten the sheets
And lift the Murphy back into the wall.
It was like putting the night away
When we closed the wooden doors again
And her bed disappeared without a trace.

Need a Poetry Jumpstart?

I’m sitting in my office on a cold February afternoon, thinking about writing a poem. Not that I am writing one—I am only trying to find my way in. My usual tricks aren’t working—the ten random words, the visual journaling, the inspiring quotes. Nothing quite aligns with my mood. Has that ever happened to you as a writer? I know we all have our bag of tricks, our fail-safe techniques to deal with the blank page. But what do you do when nothing works in the moment you want to write?I remember when I first began offering writing workshops. I collected several books of writing exercises that I could try and eventually adapt to offer in my classes. But there is one book I always go back to for ideas: The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. What I love about Behn and Twichell’s book is that they asked actual poets for their best writing exercises and then collected the exercises in a concise handbook arranged by themes such as “Ladders to the Dark: the unconscious as goldmine”, “Who’s Talking and Why: the self and its subjects”, and “The Things of This World: image and metaphor”. All of these areas—the unconscious, the self, and image and metaphor—serve as familiar pillars to good poetry. We return to these areas again and again, always aiming higher, always in need of refinement.

The Gift of Hands
The Gift of Hands

Much as in learning to paint, one copies the work of Da Vinci and Rothko, in poetry, one looks to the work of Elizabeth Spires, Edward Hirsch, and Rita Dove. The exercise I have chosen to offer in today’s blog comes from poet Richard Jackson, author of Worlds Apart and Alive All Day. I chose this exercise because of the way it leads you into the subject layer by layer— beginning with describing something and then walking you through the prompt so that you can achieve a narrative while exploring something as ordinary as a pair of hands.

I’m going to try this exercise as well and I’ll post my poem in a few weeks. In the meantime, give this exercise a try—I’d love to see your results. Please send your poems and I can post them in a future blog for everyone to enjoy.

“Five Easy Pieces by Richard Jackson”

Begin by visualizing a person you know well, or inventing a new person. Then imagine where you might find this person. Now you’re ready to write!

Write one sentence about each statement below:

  • Describe the person’s hands.
  • Describe something he or she is doing with the hands.
  • Use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place.
  • Mention what you would ask the person in the context of 2 and 3, above.
  • The person looks up towards you, notices you are there, gives an answer that suggests he or she only gets part of what you asked. (taken from pg. 40, The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach)

Now that you have five sentences, go deeper. Try expanding each sentence into a stanza. Let the emotions and the exotic place take you somewhere new. You can reveal stories, use dialog. Most of all, enjoy the sojourn into your creative side.