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Friday, January 28, 2011

What Lang-uage Can Do (in northSight)

 The "Obligatory Sex" Poem in northSight

One of the goals I have for my poetry is to challenge the contemporary poetic aesthetic. I want to push the borders and boundaries of what poetry is and can be. I want poetry to be "bigger." I believe poetry has the power to shape perceptions: that makes poetry a powerful force in the world. And, I believe, that is a great responsibility for the poet.

However, I must confess, I do not consider my "Obligatory Sex" poem in northSight to be a poem "about"  morality or immorality. It is not a poem "about" sex and/or sexuality. It is, for me, a poem "about" something much more powerful.  It is, for me,  is a poem about imagination and perception.

The structure of the poem "Obligatory Sex"(in northSight) is based on grammar.

This is what Lewis Turco had to say about this poem in a review he wrote and  published in the Hollins Critic (Dec. 2006). (To read the entire review, please go to the "Review" link listed on this page.)

...And that's not all. She is no kind of metrician, but she has such an ear, and such a solid grasp of what the language can do that her experiments are sometimes amazing, like "Obligatory Sex," which doesn't have a sentence in it, just words: verbs in the first triplet; nouns in the second; adverbs in the third; nouns again in the fourth, adverbs and adjectives to end it, but it's one of the sexiest (maybe even one of the dirtiest) poems I've ever read. I suppose a teacher would have to tell students not to try to write like this, because the odds against its working are vast, but on the other hand we will be glad that Roma-Deeley probably never had a teacher who'd point that out to her.

Ultimately, this poem is meant to challenge our perceptions of sex and sexuality. The reader's imagination "fills in the gaps" of  the "plot" of the poem as he or she make the imaginative connections between and among the various parts of grammar. The form of the poem is really an "exo-skeleton,” the form and meaning being created by the prose form, white space and use of the virgule. (/////////)

The making of a poem, a poem's content and its ultimate "meaning" are often--for poet and reader-- separate entities and end up being greater than the sum of their parts. These elements can conspire to create a poem which is the summation of  happy coincidences. The writing of "Obligatory Sex " happened something like this.

While working on northSight, I had a sabbatical year in which I read well over 50-75 books of contemporary poetry. As I am particularly interested in poetry written by contemporary women poets, I had quite a collection sitting on my shelves. The stack of poetry books was so large that I decided to organize them--and then read them--in alphabetical order. Every morning--when my eyesight is at its best--I took a book down from the shelf and read until I finished it. Then, somewhere between the poets whose names began with "D" and those whose names begin with "H," I began to see at least one pattern emerge.

Every one of these books had a poem about sex.

No matter the subject of the collection, there always seemed to be a poem about sex. Indeed, no volume seemed complete unless it included an obligatory sex poem.

Suddenly I realized--and forgive my pun here--my body of work decidedly did not include such a poem. Not a one.

And I wanted such a poem!

Was I not--I reasoned--a contemporary woman poet too? Should I not have such a poem to prove my worth as a woman and as a poet? Was I not daring and gritty too?

At that time, I had also been reading various experimental poetry. Those works which included lots of )))))))))))))))))) and :::::::::::::: and ;;;;;;;;;; aNd interESTing uSE of PunCTuATION  to mitigate the flow of form and content. To challenge the reader.

It was then I decided that  I too would write my obligatory sex poem AND play with the use of lang-uage.

First, I devised rules for doing so. I would  avoid any vulgarities, as that would be "cheating"--certain  words  and phrases command immediate, thoughtless, reactions. To my mind, vulgarities take the reader out of the poem.  I wanted my reader to participate in the making of my poem not in creating his or her own overreactions.

I saw the "Obligatory Sex " poem as a word/imagination puzzle--a game of ideas whose sole object was to allow the reader to connect the dots and arrive at his or her own conclusions.

Then,  mid-way through the writing of this poem, I ran out of words!

After all---and perhaps this is no excuse but here it is anyway--I was brought up in a conservative Italian-American home.  Language of this nature was not used, ever. And, in my grown-up personal life, I tend to be shy about such things. It appears I am bereft of a certain kind of street education which some might feel  hinders me poetically.

Yet, as I was writing this poem, there on my shelf--  somewhere between The Complete Rhymingg Dictionary and A Dictionary of Symbols --was the book Our Bodies, Our Selves. And in this book, which is intended to inform and educate women --in a medical way--about their bodies, I found more than enough words for male and female body parts.  Now I could continue and finish my poem!

I had great fun writing this poem. However, after publication of the collection I was--I am-- surprised--and often embarrassed--when the others see this poem in purely sexual terms.

Yet it proves my mother was right when she said: "Sex is in the mind."


karmenghia said...

I'm still checking on you Lois and I have to say, I can't think of anymore homework assignments to give you. Okay, give me a few days and I can come up with something...the site looks great, keep it up!

Lois Roma-Deeley said...

Thanks! I think I need checking on!