Reading Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing by Les Edgerton reminded me how to be attentive to the variety of creative decisions that determine the voice of a work. How they can be interpreted, improved and evolved from different experiential exercises. The book contains focus on various voices – pulpy, sardonic, confessional, etc. – along with “before and after” changes. Theres illustrate how a few different decisions can radically alter the ease and enjoyment level of the reading. Some of the various traps to watch out for that Edgerton cites are the “beige voice” as well as talking up or down to the reader. As all of the fictive dream – the neurological firings in your brain that are activated during the process of readings words on page or screen- occur as the results of words, best get them right. Right?!
There are, additionally, exercises contained within for identifying the ways in which honing in on voice in specific passages can radically improve the experience of the reader and how some choices can lead to it “going wrong” in one’s writing. For instance, say one wanted to get the reader to slow down. Not to scan the text; as so many are apt now to do. Well, the solution is simple. Place a number of shorter sentences back to back. This is a particularly effective practice following longer expository passages. Explaining difficult things, after all, requires the combination of lots of pieces. Much as in the same way that sentence variation forces the reader out of the simplistic subject verb object constructions.
The book is for both writers of fiction and non-fiction and addresses something that is very important as it relates to today’s media landscape – talking up, down and beigley to the reader. Explaining every and all thing can cause passages to drag on and o n. If they are known by the reader, it’s a bore, and leads to mental lagging. A good writer, Hemingway and others have stated, leaves something for the reader to want to discover. Writing in too high of a voice is the struggle that I’ve had, having an advanced academic background I can sometimes lapse into uncommon terms that are, nevertheless, quite useful for understanding today’s world. But this isn’t all about me. This is not purple prose, either, which I’ve only found in contemporary Latin American literature, is not gone in to but that’s just because it’s so rare in American fictional and non-fictional works that get published.
Edgerton’s colloquialisms, and the linguistic playfulness of the text was, I thought, a little corny at first. However it did grow on me. Plus, I recognized what he was doing with it. Not only was he describing insights into what makes a well crafted writers voice; but he was also demonstrating it! By sharing this, as well as the hat of instructor, he’s helping to show one of the Walt Whitman quotes about – I’m stacatato-cattically summarizing her : “there being multitudes that exist within each of us”. It’s true. There are!
Les’ lessons are follower by exercises to either read, write or re-write. The book is an attempt at a comprehensive attempt to teach the craft of good writing, plot, etc. but just focus on narrative voice and the voice of characters. He lists a large number of books that go into these other areas, and it’s clear with his familiar with them that a lot of experience and time went into the formation of this book.
I finished the book not only informed but also interested in seeing the dynamic that exists in his writing workshops. Having attended several writing workshops as an undergraduate at Florida Atlantic University and in Prauge, Czech republic as part of a University of Michigan program – not to mention other informal gatherings – I’ve always found workshops a productive place where people provide new eyes to help you see things you may not be aware of because you’re too close to the work, or wasn’t aware of some insight or whatever other reason that shows up when people gather with strategic and creative intentions.
I like how following this book one can apply like dissection tools onto the writings of your favorite writers in order to better place their style in history rather than a burden. Stealing can always be great art, but only if it’s great art does it get called great art – not just because it’s just an iteration of the same efforts. That last quote, ya, that’s me. Put that on a goddamn site so i can get me da stats higher.
Niina: Okay, so there is this weird place in Brooklyn called Dead Horse Bay, which is down in South Brooklyn kind of near the Verrazano Bridge. The reason for its name was that it used to be surrounded by glue factories, where the carriage horses would go get processed.
Ariel: Oh, wow.
Niina: Yeah, it is kinda grim. Especially after the automobile took over New York City, the carriage horse thing was no longer lucrative, so they made it a dump. Even better, right? And, so, it went from a glue factory to a dump. But then they were like, oh crap, we shouldn’t have a dump this close to the city. So they capped it and sealed it, and then the cap at some point later burst. So, now when you go to Dead Horse Bay, you find horse bone shards and fifties-era garbage, like weird bottles and shoes and things. And so it’s a very weird experience to go there. Like, you can actually take the bus and disembark and go through some hedges and then you’re on the beach filled with garbage. It smells weird, like chemicals. At low tide you find horseshoe crab corpses and it feels very much like, not a part of New York City. While, definitely very much being a part of New York City.
Ariel: Still goth and somewhat obsessed with death after all these years! [laughter] I love it!
Niina: Yeah, I know. I almost like to talk about it, because once I find a place that talks to me, I kind of think of it as mine. You know?
Niina: But of course, thousands of people go there all the time. It’s not a beautiful beach, but if you’re into the decay of cities, it’s a really cool place to visit. And so, and then there’s of course, like the idea of beating a dead horse and how much that kind of sounds like it’s about the body. As you know there’s a lot about the body in the collection, so that title seemed fitting. Plus my editor pointed out that I use a lot of single-syllable, elemental words, and the title is just like that. You know, the thing down to its essence, basically.
Ariel: So, Carl Phillips has said that poetry is more of a transformation of experience, rather than a transcription of it. What do you think about that?
Niina: I think all good literature is a transformation of experience. Poetry can perhaps be more obviously that because people expect poetry to take certain cognitive leaps. It’s not as specifically straightforward as an art form. As the sort of the weird cousin of prose, it doesn’t always make sense. So, in that way it allows you to be very transformative. You can hop from one thing to another, subject matter-wise, a lot faster and with greater ease that you could in prose. With prose you’re almost forced to explain your thought process and connections more. I think readers of poetry allow themselves to make connections more intuitively. In poetry, readers don’t necessarily expect you to do that, so that’s the great part.
At the same time, though, I’ve gotten a lot of comments about being very clear and straightforward in my own poetics, in terms of like what I write. People are always coming up to me and saying “Oh I’m not usually a poetry person, but…” and then they go on to say that they enjoyed it, or got something out of it, or bought my book. I think that is really cool too. But although I try to keep my language clear and essential, I still expect my readers to get weird with me.
Ariel: Speaking of clarity, I wanted to ask you how important accessibility of meaning is to poetry? Put another way, should one have to work hard to solve a poem?
Niina: Of course it’s wonderful if a poem talks to a lot of people. And when I edit, I really want things to be clear. But a poem takes its own life once it’s out in the world. It gathers its own momentum and it doesn’t always do what you meant for it to do. I think if your poem’s meaning is accessible to people, that’s amazing. But if you’re trying to intentionally obscure or hide your meaning, or make yourself seem smarter by being needlessly complicated, I think that’s where poetry really gets a bad rep. I can’t stand overly academic writing, period. That goes for poetry and prose and everything in between. I just think that you should know what you’re saying. Have enough control over your language to guide the reader, but leave some room for them to be surprised.
Ariel: Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. I can’t stand obtuse poetry. When I took poetry workshops with Susan Mitchell at FAU she had us read a lot of language poets, because that’s what she was into and I just couldn’t stand it. And then there’s what’s published in, say, the New Yorker, which for me is sometimes hit, mostly miss.
Niina: Yeah, language poetry is not necessarily for me either. I need to have something tangible in the world. I need to be grounded in reality, at least part of the way. Even when some of your content is impossible or implausible or surreal, there needs to be something that keeps you oriented or grounded within the framework of the poem. In that book, for me, the tangible thing was often a sense of place.
Ariel: Oh, yeah, I agree and I think Dead Horse does exactly that. I even said in my review there was only one part that I found myself, like unsure of, and the rest I was like, yeah I get this. This is, this is comprehensible and that was great.
Niina: When you’re reading something and you understand the location or the premise or you understand something fundamental about it, it allows you to get at the subtleties of it and that that allows the complicated stuff to sneak up on you. Then you’re not flailing to understand the mechanics of it.
Ariel: Yeah, once you get the, have the general focus, you can start looking at the little pieces and maybe like, play around with them.
Niina: Oh yeah. So, I found myself listening to Born To Die and thinking a lot about it and not quite being able to grasp why I liked it so much. Some of the lyrics are kind of basic and it’s not that’s it’s musically that complicated. The album wasn’t even that well produced in some parts. But something about the persona that she adopted – the absolute certainty with which she talks about her devotion to the darkness of love, made it rattle around in my brain. And so, I slowly wrote the poems while listening to particular songs, like on repeat, until I got some lines down. There is something about her that I can’t get over, but that project helped me a lot with my obsession around that album. It helped me put the album away a little bit.
Ariel: I know how you feel. She’s easily one of my most listened to artists in the past five years. When I saw her play live a few months ago I didn’t even care about the lackluster stage show just because I was so caught up in the lyrics music. Anyway. Shift of topic. I know you attend a lot of poetry readings and even host your own, Popsickle. I’m curious how has the Internet informed and contributed to the well-being of poetry in your mind?
Niina: Quite a lot. It makes sense to poets. I think poetry benefits from the immediacy of Internet because it reduces the turnaround time on publishing in journals, or in any form of print really, and I feel that poetry works best when it’s reactive to the zeitgeist. When there’s a faster cycle between writing and publishing it, it’s good for the medium. It’s also easier to reach more people than a print subscription to a journal would. Not that print is not valuable, of course it is, but it’s just like more, it’s got a wider reach and more tentacles, you know.
Ariel: Cool. What books in print are you reading right now?
Niina: Right now I’m reading Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair, and Green Girl by Kate Zambreno.
Niina: Actually that sounds extremely interesting. I’m working on a little bit of prose which takes place in Florida. So I was just reading about Everglades draining, which is another smart idea Florida had.
Ariel: Yeah, Florida’s land developers haven’t always been bright, but they’ve always known how to sell the idea of a potential that on closer observation is detrimental to everything that made it in the first place. I took a Florida History class at FAU and the professor had said about how it’s this underserved niche in the field.
Niina: I think Florida’s a really interesting state because of it’s heterogeneity in population and it’s proximity to different areas of the Americas and of the world. And because, it’s the place sketchy people go to disappear for many reasons.
Niina: There’s also its various environmental issues. There’s just so much to say about it, and it should be taken seriously, but like, Florida’s sort of the crazy bitch of America, right? Everyone’s like, “Oh Florida, there it goes again!”
Ariel: “Florida man does something unusual and awful again.”
Niina: Exactly. I wanted to start a Twitter account for like heroic Florida Man stories that were like “Good job Florida man!”, or something. That stuff happens too it just doesn’t get as much circulation.
Ariel: Yeah. We’re not all dying from eating too many roaches.
Ariel: Haha! And of course that happens in my hometown of Jupiter, way to go Florida Man!
Niina: I know! That made me laugh so much when I read it.
Ariel: Yeah, all my friends were sharing that too. Almost as a counterweight to that kind of notion I’ve been reading a lot of works by Florida authors lately. I just finished a collection of short stories by Jennine Capó Crucet about like Cuban life in Hialeah. Then there’s Paul Kwiatkowski, who wrote Every Day Was Overcast. Weird coincidence, but after I interviewed him a couple of months ago, I’ve since found out that I have three mutual friends with him.
Niina: That’s awesome. Karen Russell and Kent Russell both write about Florida too. And Sarah Gerard is publishing a collection of essays about Florida next year with Harper Perennial.
Ariel: Karen Russell wrote Swamplandia!, right? My eleventh grade students are reading that in their English class right now.
Niina: That’s awesome. Yeah, I love her. Her short story collection is really good.
Ariel: Yeah I want to read Swamplandia! too, but, like, I need to stop buying books for a little bit and finish reading all of what I have, so I don’t.
So now that we’re talking about all these books, I wonder how did your MFA influence your creative process?
Niina: If I could go back in time I would do a lot more research about MFA programs. The program I attended maybe wasn’t the one for me, because it was super narrative, and about as literal as poetry can be. But, the main way it influenced me was getting me to New York and, so you know, hooking me up with an initial community of people who were my first readers and all that stuff. And I still stay in touch with like a couple of the people and they’re critical in my process. So, that part, that part mostly, community I guess.
Ariel: I read this article in Jezebel that touches on some of the subject we’ve been talking about – the internet, reactivity and poetry communities – and was wondering if there was any overlaps with your experience.
Niina: I attended one of the schools where this particular “inappropriate literary man” taught, and although my personal experiences were different than the ones this article touches upon, I felt that the program’s atmosphere was very male somehow. Maybe it has to do with some old-school notion of the MFA program, but in retrospect it’s especially confusing to me at that school because the program was mostly non-men. That was ten years ago; it does feel like there’s a change in the air now. Voices that might have stayed silent even as recently as then aren’t staying silent anymore, and that’s a good thing.
Make sure to read my review of Dead Horse and then buy it of course! You can follow Niina’s website by going here. Also, as a special Halloween treat, dear reader, feast your eyes on this collaborative poem that Niina and I wrote when babies for duo-poetry performance: I present to you Degothalizer 2000!
An acquaintance recently posted the above video and I was a taken aback. I’m no specialist on Cuban history, but what was presented didn’t seem right to me as I knew many of claims he was making to be half-truths, not correctly contextualized or were outright lies.
Let just consider some of the claims made.
1) Matt Kibbe quotes Castro as saying that Rock and Roll was the “Music of the Enemy”. Well, if you are a nationalist that didn’t like the fact that United States capital was controlling the political situation in the country than it was. Following the Spanish-American war Cuba was no longer a Spanish colony but an American Protectorate. From 1898 to 1935
What was the Platt Amedment?
Cuba could not make any treaty with another nation that the U.S. did not agree to.
Cuba must allow the US to buy or lease a naval base.
S. had the right to intervene in Cuban conflict to protect it.
Cuba had to keep it’s debts low to prevent foreign countries from landing troops to enforce payment.
This amendment was used multiple times in order to bolster different factions of the Cuban political elite that were protecting American investments in the sugar and railroad industries. At this time the Cuban elite – predominantly peninsulares and lighter skinned mulattoes – were exceptionally racist and prized American culture. In the period after the Platt Amendment’s repeal, despite the Good Neighbor policy much of the American extensions of power at times when U.S. capital was threatened remained the same. Consider the U.S. history in the Caribbean – even before the Cuban Revolution the U.S. had established a habit of propping up military dictators throughout Latin America for financial gain and 1961 Cuba’s neighbor, Dominican Republic, had over 20,000 US troops on the island that were fighting a Communist-inspired insurgency against American-backed rule!
2) Kibbe claims that Fidel Castro “banned rock music” in his country? A little research shows that while The Beatles were banned for two years, from 1964-1966, by 1974 the MNT (Nueva Tropa Movimiento) helped to end this often unenforced “ban” on certain musical acts playing in public.
3) Following the banned music claim, Matt Kibbe alleges that “you could be beaten, jailed or send to a work camp for having long hair.” The manner in which transitions to a 2008 example of this gives the impression that this has gone on continuously since that point. As the above has already shown, this is not true.
The example that Kibbe gives, is also more complex than he informs us. The names of the band (which Kibbe doesn’t cite) is Porno Para Ricardo. Readings this article for context, it becomes apparent that Matt is grossly misrepresenting both what happened to the band as well as the overall context. I recommend reading the whole article, but here’s an except from the close that does a good job summarizing the complexities of this.
“the band’s oppositional stance is complicated by the fact that Gorki’s pronouncements dovetail—at least in some aspects—with the rhetoric of the Miami right. For example, in interviews with the foreign media, Gorki has suggested that the Cuban government has purposefully caused food shortages and described the leadership as motivated by a desire to “humiliate” the people. Such statements are rarely heard on the island, despite the proliferation of other types of complaints and allegations, yet they are daily fare in Miami.
Although the band has no formal political affiliation and states that it has never accepted funds from abroad, the possibility of such a relationship is latent, as suggested by the Cuban American National Foundation’s immediate offer to provide legal assistance to Gorki.”
4) Haymarket. The Palmer Raids. Pinkertons. American Legion. Red Squads and Special Investigations Bureau’s committed to undermining radicals throughout every major city in the United States. The KKK’s mass entry into policing. Florida’s Johns Committee. Detroit’s Black Legion. New York’s Bureau of Special Services. Los Angeles’ Public Disorder Intelligence Division. Philadelphia’s Civil Defense Squad. Memphis’ Defense Intelligence Unit. McCarthyism. The FBI’s COINTELPRO. House Un-American Activities Committee. House Internal Security Committee. Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Internal Security. The corporate, extra-legal origins of the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit.The Tenney Committee. The assassination of the Black Panthers. The fracturing of the Students for a Democratic Society. The attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. The monitoring of anti-war groups.
These are important instances of American history to know when considering the binary the Kibbe is setting up with Socialism as Evil and Capitalism as Good. They are important as it they are all examples of times when the U.S. government spied on citizens, beat up activists, prevented mail that’s considered politically unsavory to those in power from being sent, assassinating activists, and all around having their lives interfered with by the U.S. state. This list isn’t even a comprehensive one of all of the examples of the massive state intervention in the political lives of Americans. So let’s not buy into this dichotomy of Socialism bad cause you can’t express yourself, cause it ain’t true.
5) If you are going to define any sort of large social operations, be it Capitalism or Socialism, any encapsulation of it to two words is a grave distortion of it. The two words that Kibbe uses is “plan” and “conformity”, which could equally be used to describe capitalism – owners create a “plan” for production based upon their market knowledge and capital and require workers to “conform” to their wishes through wage labor in order to produce. Socialism could be better stated as a system of political economy wherein workers own and direct the means of production through the state. This sort of faulty generalization allows him to replace what he is calling socialism with what is more properly called authoritarianism. What’s the difference? Check this video out for a brief primer: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwYmcbRYi1w)
6) Kibbe claims that with Socialism you can’t get no satisfaction, however there are many counterfactuals to prove this wrong – from the quasi-socialist Nordic countries having the highest rates of happiness to the nostalgia of people in the former Soviet Bloc for the stability offered by the government without it’s repressive aspects.
Matt Kibbe’s video presents the viewer with a false dilemma, it is either Capitalism and Freedom or Socialism and Repression. It furthermore distorts Cuban history prior to the revolution both as an official protectorate and as an unofficial one. Arthur Schelsinger, Jr reported about the country under Batista that: “The corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the government’s indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice … is an open invitation to revolution.” As this short article shows this is not the case and the claims he made are off for a number of reasons. I hope you found this article interesting and that you can gain greater media savvy as a result of it.