Saturday, May 18, 2013

How to Write a Poem

Dave Bonta has done something bold in his electronic chapbook, Manual: he has created a set of instructions intended “only [for] those who have no need of it.” There is a great deal of whimsy and play in this collection; at the same time there are moments his instructions read like well-translated passages from the Tao de Ching.

I am reminded of Neil Gaiman's poem “Instructions”, collected in Fragile Things. It also balances whimsy with the imperative case. It also seems basically impractical, given that these “Instructions” are a charming how-to for surviving a fairy tale.

Bonta's poems also have to do with basic survival: how to breathe, how to sit, how to walk. These are things most of us have learned once we got past the age of two. But perhaps not with the aplomb and intention these poems call forth.

How to Mourn

Write his or her name in the snow, get a comfortable chair and watch how it melts: the letters expanding, becoming illegible and finally disappearing into the earth.

Spend time—the only form of currency the dead still honor.

Find the perfect slab of polished granite and release it into its native habitat.

Every year on the anniversary of your loss, take out a small ad in your local paper. Let it remain blank—an oasis of propriety among the ads for legal services and riding mowers.

Become migratory.

Visit caves that have lost all their bats to white-nose syndrome. Stand at the entrance and listen.

Visit mountaintop-removal sites in the Appalachians that have been terraformed to look like Wyoming.

Wear a cowboy hat and squint.

Become addicted to a tear-flavored brand of chewing tobacco.

Bleed yourself regularly with leeches to remove the black bile.

Follow a river from its mouth to its source: a spring small enough to empty with one long sip.

Plant a stump.

As you see, Dave combines form: he mixes lyricism with prose poem. He adds in the occasional surrealist touch — "Become addicted to a tear-flavored brand of chewing tobacco." — and drops in a note of political commentary — I find the mention of Appalachian strip-mining quite effective here.

This collection is only available through Dave's web-site, Via Negativa. This allows the author to take full advantage of html tools: he links to Sound Cloud recordings of his reading the text, and to avant-garde videos inspired by his poems. This enriches the multiple layers of possible interpretation already present in each poem.

I read through this brief collection in a few hours. But each poem deserves its own hour. Many of us think of poetry as some code that must be deciphered. These poems are a fine antidote to that fear: they are approachable, friendly (in their imperious way), tender, often whimsical, and sly.

I love dipping into this instruction manual at random. Give it a try: you may learn something about how to wait, how to learn, how to write a poem.

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