friday roundup: opening, payoff, and back to opening

Excuse me, but don't I know you from somewhere?

Excuse me, but don’t I know you from somewhere?

Hello, Reader. Since the last roundup there has been one finger that probably needed stitches but is healing well enough, seventeen butterfly band-aids, two pounds of bacon cooked for the Brownie campout, one drive up a mountain in the rain, four Brownies in the back seats, one drive back down the mountain, four trips to the pharmacy (now known at the Wee, Small house as “the pharmacy vortex”), one lost “Madeleine at the Eiffel Tower” video, one ink pen that went through the wash with my best sheets, and five interlibrary loan books ritually de-flagged and returned to the library (*wiping away stray tears).

There have also been five mornings of writing time at my desk, with tea, in a quiet house, mostly dark. Happiness. Now on to this week’s roundup:

opening  Before I returned this amazing book, I took some notes on the author’s wisdom regarding how to open a piece of writing. Priscilla Long says:

“A great opening works like a Baked Alaska: The server lights a match and it bursts into flame. It’s mesmerizing, and when the flame dies down, you are ready to eat.”

She says,

“Spend your capital — fast.”

About openings, poets are used to hearing things like: don’t give too much away, don’t summarize, no throat-clearing (technical term), don’t put expository information in the first line (better to put it in the title), begin in the concrete, etc. It’s interesting that Long’s specific suggestions for opening a piece seem contrary, in some ways, to this conventional wisdom about poetic openings:

  • “Often a good opening consist of a small sentence that concentrates… the essence of what follows.”
  • “Begin with an aphorism.”
  • “What is the central question of the piece? Ask the question in the first sentence.”
  • “…state directly what a piece (whether short or book-length) is about.”
  • “Rely on the reliable What? When? Where? Why? Who?”

Long’s chapter on openings does seem more geared to prose writing, and yet, I’ve been thinking about it in terms of poetry, too, because sometimes I think it’s interesting to turn the usual advice on its head. Sometimes when we break the rules, interesting things happen. I think it’s worth playing with openings during revision — running them through a list of tries, seeing what happens.

Still, when it comes to thinking about beginning a poem, I am head over heels for Jessica Greenbaum’s examination of poetic openings, which you can read in her article, “Where Shall I Begin?”

payoff  Yesterday I spent most of the day at the allergy clinic with one of my offspring. You can bet I was trying to cram poetry into the cracks and crevices of that day, and one of the things I did was to brainstorm a lexicon of girlhood words. This was some of that word work that Priscilla Long writes about in The Writer’s Portable Mentor — this was taking some real time to work with our writer’s medium: words.

I had to convince myself to do it. I thought I might better work on revisions or submissions. But I believe in words, so I did it. And it paid off. I now have a list of 240 girlhood words. One word led to another, which led to another. Words that *absolutely* belong in my girlhood lexicon hid from me until late in this exercise (“drop-off”, for example, which maybe should’ve been the first word in my girlhood lexicon). Not only that, but working with these words in particular helped me enormously with one revision I’ve been struggling with, and reminded me of a poem I’d completely forgotten I’d written (how does that happen? but it does) and which probably belongs in the manuscript I’m compiling.

So, I’m just saying: doing all the things we do as writers that may not feel like writing per se pays off.

back to opening Speaking of openings (we were,weren’t we?), I’m about to link to a poem of sheer genius when it comes to openings. This poem borrows from several famous poetic openings, and somehow manages to also include a spatula, The Beverly Hillbillies, and war. You’re right if you’re thinking to yourself, It has to be Kim Addonizio.

<warning> This poem not to be read with children looking over shoulder. And also, sorry Mom 🙂  </warning>

Here’s the poem of sheer genius. And as for its borrowings, I’m finding:

And I may be missing some because there are holes in my poetry education.

Happy Friday, happy writing, thanks for reading!



6 thoughts on “friday roundup: opening, payoff, and back to opening

  1. Oh, how I loved this about the openings. I find them most brutal and when I come across a great one, there’s an audible intake of breath. You know who does particularly great ones, too? Francesca Bell. Wonderful.

    • Perhaps we should have Francesca give a workshop on opening lines. I loved the essay, too — right up there in all time favorites.

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