One of my favourite comics is Robot Hugs’ Identity Shift. It’s addressed to folk exploring gender and sexuality, reassuring them about the anxieties that come when identity shifts and changes over time, but it makes a broader and stranger point: that all of us present ourselves as different people in different places. The face we wear depends on who we’re going to meet; we become different people at different times; for many if not all of us, we carry different, contradictory identities with us daily.
I feel this strongly, and it comes out in my poetry: I write in two main languages, Scots and English, but restlessly explore different registers and dialects within them. I’ve always been suspicious about the idea of a stable poetic “voice”, because I’ve never had a stable voice in my life. Like many people of mixed and muddled heritage, my accent changes depending on where I am and who I’m with. My way of resolving that confusion has been to shift voices many times within a book, to put contradictory poems alongside each other, to approach authenticity through diversity rather than through consistency. Often, that means I end up collaborating with myself, having two different parts of me talk to each other and see what they come up with.
Often “experimental” poetics start as conceptual statements about what poetry can be, and then gradually shift from the radical fringe to the centre of the poetic toolkit. At their beginning, the Oulipo’s practice was about designing poetic constraints rather than writing poems themselves: they had grand theories about what poetry could be, and were more interested in the process than the result. But now, Oulipian techniques are a staple of creative writing workshops, and for me they and other once-experimental poetics provide ways to put the parts of myself in conversation. For me, these exercises are a way to explore my identity, and maybe they’ll be that for you – but if nothing else, applying a strange technique can be a great way to revive an old poem. After all, even if you feel secure in yourself now, you might be astonished at who you used to be five years ago, and maybe that writer’s poems need rewriting.
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1. Translate Yourself
Translating other poets is a process of discovery, of learning not just about their language but about your own. But translating your own poems between languages can help you learn new things about their dynamics, their tensions. If you speak more than one language, what happens when you rewrite a poem from one to the other? Do new things emerge in the poem? If you don’t speak more than one language, are there any dialects in your life you could try? (Tip: don’t worry about the spelling, start with just writing how it sounds.) And if nothing else, what happens if you rewrite your poem in txt spk, in emoji, in the dead tongue of management jargon?
Further reading: Robert Alan Jamieson’s Nort Atlantik Drift (http://www.luath.co.uk/nort-atlantik-drift.html) which gives each poem in Shetlandic poetry and English prose; Rody Gorman’s English settings of his Gaelic poems (http://www.levurelitteraire.com/0NUMERO3/TEXTES/gorman.htm), which create a new poetic vocabulary; Hannah Silva’s txt ergot in Forms of Protest (http://hannahsilva.co.uk/books-im-in/forms-of-protest/)
2. Erase Yourself
Sometimes you want to cut out part of yourself, some memory. Sometimes only TippEx or a black sharpie or a pair of scissors will do, and sometimes severe edits are the only way to rescue a poem. Take a poem – preferably one you’re too proud of – and an erasing device, and try to discover a new poem inside it. Cut it down to at most 10% of the original, and see what else it can say. This is also a good technique to apply to any news story or management email you find infuriating. Erasure is often more popular when applied to other people’s words, but applying it to your own can help you discover something new about yourself, something you never meant to say.
Further reading: Mary Ruefle’s beautiful book-length erasures, which you can view online for free (http://www.maryruefle.com/menu.html); the Erasure tag at Found Poetry Review (http://www.foundpoetryreview.com/tag/erasure/)
3. Reshape Yourself
Maybe you don’t need to get rid of anything: maybe you just need to put things in a different order. Take an old and broken poem and alphabetise it. Or put it in order by length of word, descending. Or maybe those words need changing: replace each word by a word that rhymes with it. Or a word that starts with the same three letters. Or the first Google result when you type it in. Beneath each ordered and rational poem is a different rationality, or irrationality – a different way of saying the same thing, or something different – a text hidden beneath the text you thought was stable. Uncover it, and uncover yourself.
Further reading: Sandra Alland’s Blissful Times, tour de force of creative self-translation, reshaping the same poem over 50 ways (http://www.blissfultimes.ca/books/2596-Blissful-Times—poetry-). Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, a foundational text of the discipline of self-translation.
4. Replay Yourself
One of the workshop exercises I use most often is to get the poets to change all the pronouns in their poem. For confessional poetry, making the “I” a “they” or even a “you” can provide enough critical distance to say something truer; for any poem, shifting from “he” to “she” can uncover layers of gender-play and self-expression; for any poet, “we” can multiply the meanings of a poem. We often start by writing about ourselves, but by making ourselves into other people, playing other roles, we can find ourselves anew.
Further reading: Pay attention to the pronouns in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, because they’re doing a lot of heavy lifting.
5. Don’t Be Yourself
Let’s finish on a straightforward task: take a poem you love or loathe, and negate every line. Find a way to contradict everything you’ve previously said. Unleash the contradiction inside you, and make yourself say or believe what you don’t believe in. Sometimes the result is a satire; sometimes the result helps you understand your reader, your interlocutor better; sometimes doing this helps you change your mind and become someone new. And always, you’ll find a new poem.
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My poetry school course, Against English, is all about discovering the different tongues with which you might speak. We’ll explore a couple of these techniques, but more than that, we’ll look at the many, many different languages we all live with and often neglect. We’ll begin by looking at transformation and restriction from Oulipian constraint to disability poetics; then examine creating new vocabularies, working in dialects and minority languages from Linton Kwesi Johnson to Christine De Luca, with a dip into ‘conlangs’ like Esperanto and Elvish; and finish up by exploding language entirely into visual and sound poetry. I want you to discover not just new ways to write, but new way to think and be.
This year give your poetry a rocket blast of new ideas and tools, from dialect to Elvish, creating new languages, destroying old ones, and exploring the outer reaches of English with Harry Giles on his new online course, Against English: Dialects, Coinings and New Vocabularies. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.