Switching Style and Focus in Writing, from issue 299.1

James Cihlar

The brain is more receptive to ideas at different times. Who’s to say why some concepts stick while others don’t? It must have been in an introductory creative writing class at the University of Iowa where I first interpreted the notion of ars poetica to mean a poem that defines poems. I’m sure one of my impassioned graduate student instructors wrote the term on the board, as she assigned Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop and Ariel by Sylvia Plath, Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. Creative writing courses must be the gateway drug to literature courses: they are great books’ point of entry into students’ consciousnesses as well as into the curriculum.

1% Reign

For me, ideas are almost inseparable from the place of first encounter, and place itself is a mélange of faces, phrases, and interactions. Ars poetica and the dim halls of EPB, a lone student singing Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” with its refrain of “why? why?” EPB, the home of the English and Philosophy departments, on the banks of the Iowa River, a law student wearing a Members’ Only jacket walking the opposite direction across the long bridge to the ugly postmodern buildings on the west side. The east side was anchored by the former state capitol, a humble cube with a presumptuous cupola, and was called the Pentacrest, a grand square of five buildings lined by Iowa Book, Bivouac, and Things & Things & Things. Because I couldn’t have things, I wanted them more. Too poor, too shy, too temporary.

Today, I have more things than I need, but the memory of longing for things informed my essay “Born on Halloween,” which appeared in a recent issue of North American Review. I set out to write a funny anecdote of a ridiculous lie I told in grade school, but ended up writing a condensed catalog of my hometown, punctuated by a family confession. Every writer has his obsessions, and as a professor of literature now, I’m not surprised to notice how often writers write about writing. Ars poetica—art that defines art. Kurt Vonnegut said the classics—Moby-Dick, the Bible—are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being. Just as consistently, artists often propose art as the solution for what ails us. We might be biased that way.

Sylvia Plath wrote to sustain herself. Elizabeth Bishop wrote to locate herself in the world. Sometimes a story needs to tell itself. In graduate school, when asked what my creative dissertation—a collection of poems—was about, I’d answer, “My horrible childhood.” But sometimes we need to change things up.

I remember a poet-friend’s comment on a draft in an informal workshop: “Jim, this poem is so self-pitying.” Although Rilke said that if the senses were deprived in adulthood we’d always have the rich storehouse of childhood, after a while I began to feel a little guilty about what I was doing to my family. In “real life,” they were all fine—carrying on despite what I wrote about them. But in my poems, they were doomed to act out the same scenes, utter the same lines. I pictured their miniature figures doubled over between pages, hands on their knees, huffing and puffing to catch their breath, pleading, “just give me a minute.”

A few years after my poetry book Undoing came out, I thought, it’s time to change my approach. Ars poetica and the Bijou at the University of Iowa Student Union: Daisy Kenyon and The Spoilers, Spellbound and Lady in the Dark. So I started to write what I called movie poems. But they were really poems about art, poems as acts of reading, poems as acts of viewing. I had always loved old movies, because they seemed weighted with subtext. Characters were having conversations under their conversations. From film noir to screwball, I had to know the subtext to keep up. My movie poems turned into reading poems: poems that mashed texts together, that treated everything as “stuff”: image, line, and detail all equal. Ars poetica and the texts I was teaching at the time: The Plague of Doves and Wuthering Heights, Slaughterhouse Five, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Everything was story, both internal and external. As with my essay, “Born on Halloween,” in my poems I also couldn’t extricate the strands.

I’d like to think the new poems, collected in Rancho Nostalgia and A Conversation with My Imaginary Daughter, are a shift in direction. But maybe in the act of consciously trying to change my writing style and subject matter, what I did was refocus the lens, switching from childhood to memory. Memory as individual, memory as an operation of culture, memory as a vehicle for art. Isn’t it funny that the more I thought I was getting away from my obsessions, the closer I ended up delving into them?

James Cihlar  is the author of the poetry books Rancho Nostalgia (Dream Horse Press, 2013) and Undoing (Little Pear Press, 2008), and chapbook Metaphysical Bailout (Pudding House Press, 2010). His poem, "Born on Halloween," is featured in issue 298.4, and his poem, "Island of Cats," is featured in issue 297.3 of North American Review.

Anthony Tremmaglia  is the North American Review‘s featured artist in today’s post. He is an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. His art is available at Saatchi Art.