For me, the persona poem was the gateway drug into writing a more mature form of poetry. It offered a distancing mechanism – the ability to project the personal onto the classical. Poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were hugely influential. And then there’s Louise Glück. Her sequence-length lyric, Meadowlands, which depicts her failed marriage as told through an Odyssean lens, continues to floor me after multiple reads. Over time, Glück’s work has become important to me in other ways. Her use of omission – the silences, that which is unsaid, but lurking in the white space – has lessened my need to overexpress, and has encouraged me to trust in the process and also the reader. A deceptively quiet line that lingers in the imagination is an incredibly powerful thing, and what I’m most drawn to in a poem.
I’m not sure I always believed this, but I do now, unequivocally – that reading poetry is essential to writing poetry. I like to know what’s out there, and more often than not, other poets’ work inspires me. When I think about poets whose work I continually engage with and return to in recent years, two poets immediately come to mind. Anna Journey is one of them. She lives in Los Angeles, my hometown, and now teaches at the University of Southern California, which is where I studied as an undergraduate. She would have been, without a doubt, on my fantasy league of poetry mentors, if such a thing were to exist (and it should!). Her poems are spellbinding and grotesque, spinning a mythology of family and place that links the American South with Southern California, and to the spectre of her Scandinavian genealogy. Particularly superb poems, and surprisingly sensual given their context are “Elegy: I pass by the Erotic Bakery,” an eerie reflection on her grandfather’s final moments, and “Article for the End Times: Gas-Mask Bra,” a love poem that takes place during a tragically romanticized apocalypse.
A very different poet to Journey, but one who I admire immensely, is Berlin-based American poet, Donna Stonecipher. Her fourth collection, Model City, is a conceptual triumph. The collection is composed of 72 prose poems all titled “Model City.” Each poem is divided into four block-like stanzas, homogenous in their formatting. Each section is composed of one sentence, which attempts to answer the question: What was it like? It is a stunning exploration of idealism, order, absence and decay. The poems avoid being contrived and laborious because the stanzas are constantly being rebuilt, changing course, through the language of repetition, repetition at a slightly different register from what came before. Repetition is incredibly difficult to pull off in a poem, and I think that some of my favourite poems are ones that are able to do this. Danez Smith’s cyclonic poem “crown” and Louis MacNeice’s haunting “Autobiography” also spring to mind as excellent examples.
Like so many poets, I’ve discovered that the personal space I usually cherish within the poem has suddenly become unbearably solitary, particularly in the context of social distancing and isolation – our new world, at least for now. Thankfully, collaboration has provided a much-needed social and creative lifeline – a way to cope with the uncertainty. I feel braver when working with other poets, and appreciate the kind of intimacy and trust this kind of artistic collaboration entails. I’ve come across lots of wonderful new poetry during these long weeks in lockdown. The Enemies Project, which supports collaboration across languages and nations, has been a revelation. I highly recommend bingeing the videos on their website.