Prose from Poetry Magazine

panic stricken uncertainties & the business of writing

The you that reads this changes.

In the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties. Which is but another name for craft. In this field, where expertise invites doom, the notions of adolescence and maturity get mixed up, and panic is the most frequent state of mind. So I would be lying if I resorted to chronology or to anything that suggests a linear process. A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.
— From Less Than One by Joseph Brodsky

        * words & numbers

right before this, brodsky
discusses the difference between
authors & accountants 1 saying
while both can learn the necessary skills
to complete their jobs, accountants
come out of training with fewer questions unanswered
about the necessary components to succeed

accountants have this great thing in numbers:
numbers don’t change their meaning — 
a receipt for $400 is going to mean the same as another
there’s the question of context,
but the meaning is clear & quantifiable

words don’t work like numbers
each word has many meanings/connotations/denotations/nuances
its meaning is hardly ever clear & quantifiable
& the longer you work with words
the less certain you feel that you can
communicate any meaning exactly as planned 2

that’s what’s so great about writing
& what’s so awful:
people bring with them most
of what they’ll take away  3
so when i write about the blues
if the only blues you’ve known
comes from john belushi & dan aykroyd
singing “soul man,” you’re gonna come away
with something different than if you know
memphis minnie or a southern gospel choir
because what i write about the blues
has to filter through you4

        * maturity does not equal certainty

most people equate maturity with certainty
& adolescence with a lack thereof
which is not the case at all with authors
but the fact still remains that most people,
given a choice, would rather fly in an aircraft
piloted by a person with several years of experience

        * a school is a factory is a poem    ...    

brodsky manages in this last sentence
to do something huge:
produce a one-sentence explanation of ideological state apparatuses (isas):

isas are a reformatory
because their goal is
to keep relations of production secure
which equals boredom
      [caused by indoctrinated & alienating labor]
with flashes of panic — 
cause panic flows throughout all terms, all structures,
without any differentiation
because panic is a part of the world
a state/a place, a wavelength to tune into
& most authors know the frequency

~meaning, context, & coercion~

One cannot see the universe from the point of view of the universe (in the memorable phrase of the philosopher Henry Sidgwick); or, as another philosopher (Thomas Nagel) has put it, there is no such thing, where the encounter of human societies is concerned, as the view from nowhere.... There is also an inevitable ethnocentrism tied to the fact that we are obliged to see the world from the point of view of somewhere.
— From The Triangle of Representation by Christopher Prendergast

        * meaning

earlier we discussed meaning
which i placed entirely in your hands

this continues to be true
but to clarify — the author is present
residually in texts and as such
cannot be dismissed entirely

the author chooses which
bright shards of potential
to include in their work
that can be assembled &
reassembled & propelled
over a landscape that may
illuminate & reflect
according to your whims 5

some authors
choose to be didactic
and conventional 6
in the hopes this will
encourage you to gather
an “appropriate reading”

other authors see this
as a form of coercion7
which they try to combat
by experimentation and technique8

“the primary ideological message of poetry,”
ron silliman states,“lies not in its explicit content,
political though that may be,
but in the attitude toward reception
it demands of the reader” 9

so if the voices speaking in a poem can’t be taken
as authorial or an authoritative voice of discourse,
the attitude of that poem toward its own reception is
ideological regardless of the poem’s subject

        * context

arguments try to prove
context is the way toward meaning

but context is not stable

it relies on you and the you
that reads this changes as well as
the numerous yous
that individually pick this up
and start flipping pages

~sausage machine & the magical number seven10~

Readers create a text by connecting and interpreting a series of “gaps” between words and phrases    ...    Dickinson’s dashes underscore the high proportion of such resonant gaps in her poetry.
— From Feeling as a Foreign Language by Alice Fulton

        * resonance & gaps

originally from normal speech patterns
of pause, pitch, & stress,
can be excessive & is already the function
of many poetic conventions 11

some would argue punctuation
helps readers gather meaning
from context, but punctuation marks
don’t matter as much as numbers
when we’re trying to understand/comprehend 12

& gathering meaning from context
is just another instance of
reader interpretation

forget gaps
forget punctuation
go straight for the sausage


I wanted not catharsis but engorgement, not mimesis but 
uncovering, not mastery but plurality, not a “form” but a 
method  — of montage, of  interruption    ...
— From The Pink Guitar by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

juxtaposition & collage:
to glue/paste/solder/cement
to fit closely, to fasten

pick up workable pieces
put them to use

everything is fragmented
the narrative of “i,” of “self” connects — 

        the choices we make
        the things we focus on
                the way we see
                or what we choose not to

when everything is in pieces
there’s little reason for hierarchy

~rhetoric & composition~

To touch more people, the personal realities and the social must be evoked — not through rhetoric but through blood and pus and sweat.
— From Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers by Gloria Anzaldúa

anzaldúa touches on two important things here,
the first being that writing should “touch” people

the second is evoking through
blood/pus/sweat & not rhetoric
which might seem contradictory

anzaldúa is describing the necessity
of a rhetoric of blood/pus/sweat — 
a rhetoric of the body

writing is generally experienced in the intellect 13
but a rhetoric of the body is experienced
not only in the intellect but also
in the reader’s physical vessel [not just the author’s 14]
a rhetoric of the body expresses the need
to create connection between body & mind 15
to create connection from text to reader

people can relate to physical sensations
which is why writers focus on sensory details
a rhetoric of the body would have an author
“touch” the readers through visceral experience

this is what charles olson, denise levertov, & robert duncan
were trying to recreate — 16
a poetics of muscular & physical response
over reflective or discursive moment: 17

& the line comes (i swear it) from the breath18
seems a physical manifestation
of the sausage machine & the magic number seven 19

            * rhetoric of the body vs. plain rhetoric

Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

& sometimes a thesis 20 is better than a scream21

& other times a scream can function as your thesis
[or vice versa]

often a scream & thesis correlate

knowing which or what combination
to use is a complicated thing
that has something to do with richter’s law 22

~personality crisis [while it’s hot]~

The self, finally, is a kind of theater, an ongoing transference of identity, an endless “acting out”    ...    
    ...    Making oneself up is revealed here as a signifying process. That is, it creates meaning, and it creates it as a function of 
— From The Object of Performance by Henry M. Sayre

when you write about characters/
yourself/what do you say?

those of us who grew up
watching films & television
began to see & think of our life as a film — 
some of us tragedies
musical comedies or melodramas
choosing a line/narrative/genre

we define our selves
by reacting to stimuli
        through experience & community — 
                through negation
                through boundaries & similarity
                        created through recognition

we are actors in this sense — 
choosing our personas each moment23
for when i say “i”
i hear voices,
i want to say i (& also some other pronouns)    ...    
at doing the i as she,
the i as me,

a her, a we, a they, a them,
doing the i as he    ...    as you

anarchic, wayward, flaw-ridden, maddening
as much no-me as me

this is one of the things writing is about:
negotiating those issues of self — 
        through images
        through crisis
                grief & joy — 
                & finding balance outside & within

~the big nothing~

Their modernism beautifully encountered what-is-not and gave ample voice to absence. The postmodern poem, on the other hand, is an architecture of excess; it spends itself by reveling in the plethora of what-is. Its exhaustion is celebratory — or hedonistic, grasping. With the A-bomb’s ashes for its grim confetti, it means to carpe diem all night long, whistling in the dark context of impending (rather than ended) apocalypse.
— From Feeling as a Foreign Language by Alice Fulton

gaze where the city of hiroshima once stood
& you can recognize nothingness
as both material absence & spiritual void 25

radioactive cum from the shaft
of some metal carcass that shot its wad — 
& nothingness is your way of life

visit the grand canyon
& you can recognize nothingness as abrasion

water weather time
water weather tim
water weather ti
water weather t
water weather
water weathe
water weath
water weat
water wea
water we
water w

nothing is just as much something
as something is some thing

negative & positive space:
white canvas space
or space chopped full of paint
all space has to be considered — 
especially the gaps


1actually it’s banking, flying an aircraft, & the writing biz  ↩︎

2  as nathaniel mackey states in “on edge”: “keep the weirdness of language in mind    ...    william burroughs’s idea of  language as ‘a virus from outer space’    ...    to see language as extraterrestrial is to accent its groundlessness” ↩︎

3  an argument against “objective” reading & passive reception of  knowledge ↩︎

4  or as charles bernstein says in artifice of absorption: “content never equals meaning” ↩︎

5  but as johanna drucker explains, “this does not make meaning. it only makes a space in which meaning comes to have its face pressed up against the glass, waiting to break through beyond the mirror of its own pale image” ↩︎

6  convention, drucker tells us, is “a stabilizing framework for meaning production” ↩︎

7  this is not to say that poems that are not didactic and/or conventional are not coercive. as harryette mullen explains, “on both sides there’s coercion, so that’s something to bear in mind when we’re talking about language, that there is violence, there is coercion, there is force involved in making people conform to a particular way of speaking, writing & so forth” (“a conversation with harryette mullen”) ↩︎

8  or as charles bernstein states, “the meaning is not absent or / deferred but self-embodied as the poem / in a way that is not transferable to another code / or rhetoric. at the same time, it is possible / to evoke various contours of meaning / by metaphorically considering the domains made real / by various formal configurations” ↩︎

9  in artifice and indeterminacy ↩︎

10  the sausage machine theory made in 1978 by psycholinguists l. frazier & j.d. fodor was a syntactic parser assuming people divide sentences into parcels roughly six words long & hypothesize the structure of that segment before moving on to the next “sausage.” & the magical number seven is a linguistic theory of psychologist g.a. miller’s created in 1956 which states that the maximum number of units of information that humans can hold in short-term memory for processing at one time is about seven — economy achieved by “chunking” smaller units into larger ones [phonemes into words, words into phrases, & so on] ↩︎

11  pause shown through line & stanza break as well as textual movement & fragmentation. pitch shown through typographical elements, repetition, & fragmentation. stress shown through all the above-mentioned conventions ↩︎

12  gertrude stein suggests the act of writing “as the organization & location of consciousness in legible units, & not just of consciousness but of the consciousness of consciousness, the perceiving of perception.” — lyn hejinian, “strangeness” ↩︎

13  as lyn hejinian states, “the disjuncture or discontinuity between the spacial existence & the temporal existence of a person ruptures the connection between body & the mind — it is a paradigm for all models & experiences of discontinuity, that fountain of postmodernity & anxiety” ↩︎

14  “a prophylactic attitude attempts to protect the imagination from direct encounters with the world as the tongue, the hand, the arm, the fist around the pen, the fingers on the keyboard all reach into the heavy flesh of matter & are rewarded by the response of sensate experience” — johanna drucker ↩︎

15  somewhat in harmony with the tradition of poet as “shaman” who mediates the spirit world through body as well as through mind ↩︎

16  most work passed through oral poetic tradition was immersed in visceral experience & “the verbal aspect of shamanism is oral rather than written; the healing chant derives its power in the ritual speaking or singing of it, as jazz & jazz poetry derive their power — in fact exist — in the improvised moment” — maria damon ↩︎

17  in “skewed by design” michael davidson gives both olson & duncan as examples of poetics for which muscular & physical response is valued over reflective or discursive moments & explains that olson & other poets of his generation hoped to defeat such reflectiveness by restoring the physiology of the poet’s breath, musculature movement in the composition process. he claims this act allowed the authors “levels of personal freedom in a world marked by increasingly alienating social institutions” ↩︎

18  charles olson, “projective verse” ↩︎

19  as anthony mellors states while discussing olson in “maximal extent: charles olson and c.g. jung”: “a reincorporation of breath inside the textual economy as part of an extended tradition of representation (viz. the representation of the body in language & process)” ↩︎

20  read as plain rhetoric ↩︎

21  read as rhetoric of the body [how do we communicate as young babes before we know how to form those intricate words & phrases that comprise a language?] ↩︎

22  equilibrium/balance/homeostasis/a level of neutrality usually being the goal ↩︎

23  as david antin sees it, “as soon as you begin representing yourself at all, anything you represent has a fictional property. as soon as a representation occurs it’s partly untrue, it’s partly fiction” ↩︎

24  from the pink guitar by rachel blau duplessis ↩︎

25  see john gery’s nuclear annihilation & contemporary american poetry: ways of nothingness ↩︎

Originally Published: June 1st, 2018

Shauna Osborn is an award-winning Numunuu (Comanche)/German mestiza wordsmith and executive director of Puha Hubiya, an Indigenous literary arts organization. Her debut poetry collection is Arachnid Verve (Mongrel Empire Press, 2016).

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In