Poetically Speaking with Rachel Hartman

poeticallyspeaking2Rachel Hartman is the New York Times Bestselling author of Seraphina (winner of the 2012 Cybils Award in Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction and the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award) and Shadow Scale, the highly anticipated sequel to Seraphina, which published in March 2015. Rachel is also a delightful person to follow on Twitter and one of the first authors to sign on as a contributor to this series.

Today Rachel is here today to talk about the joys of writing poetry and using poetry to cope with life.

I have always loved poetry, from Green Eggs and Ham to Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes. When I needed a comfort-read my first semester of college, I bought a big fat poetry anthology because I knew that was what would make me feel better. But even more than reading it, I enjoy writing poetry. I won’t pretend it’s all been good, or that I am exceptionally talented at it; certainly when I was a teen, much of it was what my best friend Greg and I called “falling-into-the-abyss poetry.” I suspect lots of people dabble in this particular genre as teens, and then they get self-conscious about it and stop.

I never stopped. Or rather, I never stopped using poetry to cope with life, even if I don’t tend to fall into the abyss quite as hard anymore.

Poetry, to me, was always first and foremost a verb, even before I knew the roots of the word. It comes straight from ancient Greek, from ποιέω, meaning “to make.” That means poets are makers, creators of images, meaning, rhythms and rhymes – maybe even of the world itself. Poetry is not merely something to read or listen to or consume; it’s something to make, and it’s worth making even if you never let anyone else read it. The value is in the action itself, in taking a small handful of words and making them into a little vessel to fill with thought or feeling, or ideally both. It doesn’t have to be brilliant to serve an important purpose.

As the artist Carla Speed McNeil once wrote: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Those are words I try to live by.

Sharing poetry comes with a lot of baggage; I think there’s a pervasive attitude (like there is with music) that nobody but professionals ought to be doing this, let alone imposing their noise on other people’s delicate ears. I’m going to share a few poems I’ve written, therefore, not because they’re awesome but because it’s a scary thing to do. I write the stuff, but even I am not immune from anxiety at revealing my imperfect creations. Please do feel free to laugh; we’ll have a nice chuckle together.

The poetry I make most often is song lyrics. I’ve done lyrics with no specific tune in mind; my first novel, Seraphina, is full of those. Creating new lyrics to existing songs is a little more challenging. Rhyming is not always required (though certainly a bonus), but rhythm is crucial. There’s nothing more awkward than too many syllables per note; it’s like singing with your mouth full of pebbles.

My son’s early childhood was a very fruitful time for rewriting songs. When he was doing all the normal toddler things – throwing tantrums, being contrary, all the classics – one way I kept my cool was to rework the lyrics of classic rock songs like “Psycho Toddler” and “Don’t Fear the Shrieker.” (Are those not the original titles? Hm) One of my favourites dates from when he was still a baby, a new arrangement of the folk song “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which alas my baby was at the time:

I am the man of constant teething.
I been fussy all my days.

I’ve bid farewell to Pennsylvania,
The place where I was born, not raised.

For six long months I have been gnawing
No respite here from pain I’ve found.

O, my gums are swollen, I have a headache,
There’s no chew toy can help me now.

It’s fare ye well my toothless grinning,
I never expect to see you again.

My cruel Ma will take a toothbrush to me,
She don’t respect a man in pain.

Maybe your friends think I’m just a wailer,
Who needs no excuse to cry.

But if they felt my pain, you tell them Mama,
There’d not be one with eyes left dry.

Child-rearing is not the only thing that brings out the wild filker in me, of course. Writing novels is its own special flavour of difficult sometimes, but rewriting song lyrics is enough of a change of pace that it doesn’t contribute to my writing stress. Here’s one I did while in the throes of novel revisions, to the tune of “Roll with the Changes” by REO Speedwagon (I know, I know, super dorky. Revel in it).

As soon as you are able, writer I am willing
To let you know your book could use some rewrites.
Notebook’s on the table, and the red ink’s spilling.
You’ve got plot-holes that ought to keep you up nights.

I get so tired of the same old story.
I think you need to cut some pages.
I will be here when you are ready,
To write me some changes — yeah!

I knew you couldn’t end it, knew you’d pull your punches,
I’m thinking that a monkey taught you grammar.
This trope, you can’t defend it. There are no free lunches.
Get right back in there with a saw and hammer.

Chorus [ad nauseum]

If you sing those lyrics (c’mon, you know you want to), you’ll notice a couple rough spots where I’ve given you too big a mouthful of words. I’m sort of itching to smooth those out, but that’s not the point of this exercise. The point is that back when I was feeling anxious about getting notes from my editor, rewriting these lyrics kept me productively occupied and made me feel better. It was an intellectual puzzle: how could I fit everything I wanted to say into a very specific tune-space? How could I keep the meter even while making the rhymes resonant (in more than one sense of the word)? Some people work crosswords or sudokus to blow off steam; I move words around.

I love the challenge of even tighter spaces with more rigid rules, such as sonnets or haiku. Some people scorn rules for poetry — which is fine, you can do that in art — but I like restricting boundaries. They serve a poem the way a frame serves a picture. The edges define the painting. The same (to my mind) goes for poetry.

I often find sonnets the perfect size for expression. I prefer the English rhyme scheme, as it lets you elaborate on an idea and then sum it up neatly at the end. My favourite of the sonnets I’ve written is about Grandma Mary, my paternal grandmother; she was herself a tidy, small woman, and I think she fit the stanzas perfectly. I never felt I knew her that well, but she loved to write and I inherited that from her:

My grandma wrote a memoir in our bones:
We are her book, her legacy, her art.
We are her garden, raised from soil and stones,
The world she made, the nation of her heart.
She was not grandiose, so let me be:
Though we roamed far, she drew us back again,
Back to the center – kindly gravity!
A comet’s return journey to the sun.
Quiet though she was, let’s be her voice
And echo on through ages yet to come.
Modest though she was, let us rejoice
In all her works: love, family, and home.
O steady anchor! Life is never long,
But ripples travel outward, on and on.

I read this at the funeral in front of my enormous extended family. It’s about them almost as much as about Grandma, and it was a lovely moment of unity, all of us seeing ourselves as ripples she’d set in motion. So there’s a case where my poem served a purpose beyond just making me feel better, and I’m glad I was able to accomplish that.

I also wrote a poem for my other grandmother’s funeral, which I unfortunately could not attend (I lost them both the same year, alas). It began life as a sonnet, and you can see traces of it still in the early lines, but she didn’t fit in that space quite so perfectly. I knew Grandma Laura better, having lived with her for a year right after college. My musical inclinations come from her; she was a pianist and organist when she was young. At the end of her life, she suffered from dementia, and I think that’s why her poem took off in a non-sonnet direction. She required something less structured than those Elizabethan confines. The rules of poetry are voluntary, after all; they apply if they’re useful for keeping you focused and challenged. Sometimes they only exist so you can break them.

My grandma’s hands were strong and sure
When she played piano. I remember her
Taming the stately organ, seated erect,
Her hands’ commanding, masterly effect.

She watched the evening news, sitting curled,
Training her hawk’s eye on the world,
As if she kept the peace in distant lands,
As if the fate of all was in her hands.

And yet as ages passed, she aged,
Into a minuscule, bony sage.
Her hands grew frail, she rocked and sang
Of man and God and back again.
She could not carry all the world;
It took its turn at carrying her.
She’d nothing left but faith and song,
An open question, all along:
Where did the one begin, the other end?
Is time an enemy, or friend?
I could not tell, our voices raised in song,
Which one of us was old, and which one young.

So there you go: a few of the poems I’ve made, a little of the context in which I’ve made them. I’m always working on something, to be honest. Most are never polished to such a fine finish, but that’s not really the point, for me. Words are to me like paint to a painter; I get great joy out of juxtapositions and contradictions. Sometimes my poems are two or three words, encountered together by accident, that make me laugh. I shuffle words around and leave half-built piles of them all over.

Writing is never wasted. A poem doesn’t have to be a diamond. It only has to be yours.

Thank you again to Rachel for this lovely post and for sharing some of her poems.

If you’d like to learn more about Rachel and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://rachelhartmanbooks.com

You can also find my reviews of Seraphina and Shadow Scale (and my interview with Rachel) here on the blog.