Carol Guess on Literary Minimalism

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Untitled by Nasreen Mohamedi

I see much of my work as blocks of text that are made up of sentences, which are made up of words, and each of those words and sentences and blocks of text are modular—I can move them around as I see fit. I can subtract and subtract and subtract. I hate to add. I feel strongly that what I am trying to say is already on the page waiting to be uncovered. I print out pieces, cut out paragraphs, tape them together in a new order. I hate that such clunkiness is part of my revision process, but reading Carol Guess’ essay today on Lit Hub made it feel a little more okay:

“…looking at the papers strewn on the floor, I saw lines lift as if illuminated. I understood clearly that the poems were there, hidden, as sculpture hides in a block of stone. It wasn’t four books, but one; the obstacle was excess. I didn’t need to write more, but less.”  -Carol Guess

The Volta

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“The poem is a ritual space for the practice of feeling.”  -Gregory Pardlo

I’m less than a year away from finishing my MFA and recently chose my thesis advisor. David Payne is a poet, fiction writer, and memoirist. His most recent book, Barefoot to Avalon, is a memoir about his brother. He discusses it here.

After David read the sample I sent him, he asked me to think about “where the status quo is broken”. And I have. For most of the summer and now into the fall. And I’m still not exactly sure. Then I was assigned the poet Gregory Pardlo’s memoir, Air Traffic for one of my other classes.

For Pardlo, the tipping point, or fulcrum, is the point in the poem where something in it shifts. It could be a plot twist. It could be a change in tone. It may be a point midway or more toward the end, and Pardlo calls it the volta, or “moment of transformation”.

He says there may be many patterns in a poem, but THE VOLTA IS SPECIAL. The volta marks a moment when the poem breaks its deepest and most characteristic habit. He says if there is no volta, no tipping point, the poem is “a laundry list of selections and anecdotes…a litany of relapses…the barren passage of time unthwarted.”

Maybe one day I will find my volta.