Dodge Poetry Fest Panel – Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant

Posted: October 24, 2010 in Events
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Panelists: Bob Hicok, Dunya Mikhail, Rigoberto González

There is a form of review called autobiographical analysis that I abhorred while in college and still do today to a certain extent. The practice in and of itself – using facts about the author’s life to read into the meanings of his/her work – is fine and a good exercise for thought, but since poems can be fiction just as easily as they can be fact (as well as everything in-between), more speculation can come from this particular form of analysis compared to other forms that strictly compare content between known facts about language’s historic and current affiliations. Arguably, poetry has become so ambiguous that it has started to alienate its would-be readers. So does poetry need the added hurdles of trying to figure out if what was said in a poem actually happened or how much of it didn’t. Does it matter? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks? In essence, that was what Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant set out to answer.

Bob Hicok started things off rather majestically, calling slantnss “a veil we wear when using language.” He said there is an inherent meaninglessness, as ideas in and unto themselves appear unclear. Writers revere slantness advocated by language, he continued, because it affords multiple ways to get at the truth of ideas.

Dunya Mikhail, who comes from a country (Iraq) where she could not speak any way except metaphorically to avoid persecution, stated proudly, “I write exactly what I mean.” She continued to say that metaphors are used to hide true meaning, and that she was not happy with having had to do so. While writing covertly serves poetry competently, Mikhail said (with a chuckle) that she now writes more plainly, and her friends complain that her poetry has suffered because of it.

Rigoberto González equated writing slant to the use of point of view and perspective. As an example, he said he uses family stories for material and that use of first person perspective can lead to inventive characters. Adopting the role of observer/witness, González said, poets don’t need the entire story. They just need to internalize a portion that can serve as a seed for a story all its own.

Q&A started off with “When working into slants, how does one know when it’s done or what you’re getting at?” Hicok said that any choosing of style brings about feelings of being lost, and the writer might never know. Taking a different stance to the question, Mikhail said everything is autobiographical because it comes from the author, who acts as a filter via his/her own sentimentality. In the end, she said, poetry is about one who senses and turns feeling into art. Combining the first two opinions, González likened writing a poem to creating a persona and added confessional poetry doesn’t ignore device or craft.

When asked how censorship changes the way a poet might approach the writing of a poem, Mikail said that when there are restrictions to what’s appropriate, imagery and mythology can be used to say truths without directly saying them. She added that a writer’s job is to get into things or subject matter that interests them. González quoted Annie Dillard, saying “Writing is an art, not a martial art.” He expounded on the quote, saying that there is an innate humanity and integrity to writing. Poets must tap into anxieties, turning internal into external. He also added a warning to those digging deep within themselves. Like words revealed to Dante as inscribed over a portal, Rigoberto said it is necessary to ask oneself: are you ready to deal with something that is only inside yourself as something outside yourself, because both incarnations are entirely different beasts.

A question was posed that inquired if there was a physical process for writing slant? Hicok said there was a smell, a feel of something’s weight, that comes from repetition. Thinking further, he expanded that something appears to be finished when it hangs together well. It’s easier to identify when something is complete simply because it’s harder to explain when it isn’t. He also added that pushing poems to completion repetitively is what creates the sense of completion. So everything is a construction: the poem, the practice, the poet.

The panelists were then asked to contemplate the definition of humour as one that closely defines art. In response, Hicok said that humour is a kind of side-stepping to slant and is more often than not looked at as uncomplicated, especially in America where humourous poets are often discounted. Everyone begged Bob to read a poem of his, agreeing that he was the humourist of the group, and he reluctantly agreed…reading two. Both used levity as masks for strife, pointing out gross missteps that, while dramatic, were given a humourous light to exploit the nature of the circumstance at hand.

Lastly, a question was asked regarding the depth of truth in metaphor. “All language and meaning is metaphorical,” Hicok commented. There is no truth for anything, and that makes for an internal struggle of expression. And even if that expression fails, it accomplishes something because it can be read and interpreted by whoever is reading it. He ended by saying, “even the most beloved poem is full of failure. But what it does, it does beautifully.” Mikhail seconded Hicok’s second sentiment, claiming that there is no true or false…only the reader’s/writer’s truth. Taking a more direct approach, González said that depth of metaphor comes from a “universal identifiability,” universal connections via common images that rely on the context of the story at particular moment.

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