When stakes are high in writing (like, say, is true for the college essay) we can forget how much joy there is in mixing unlikely things together.
This is a form of play young children know well, and shed reluctantly. Only after enough adults have said, “You can’t do X with Y!” a la “You can’t put a POTATO on the TRAIN TRACK!” does the kid eventually “get it” = the adult world is full of arbitrary rules, and really missing out on the power of mixing up.
We need our poets to keep our language lively
This morning, the power of mixing tackled me from the first lines of Terence Hayes’s poem “When James Baldwin & Audre Lorde each lend Stevie Wonder an eyeball/ he immediately contends with gravity, falling either to his knees/or flat on His luminous face.”
I mean, lend an eyeball? Thanks, guys. We know right away we’re in the presence of a player. In mixing surprise with pragmatism, absurdity with serious verbs (lend…contends…falling), Terence says: get in on this, it’s going to be good. I’m not going to give you what you expect, because you don’t want me to. And did you notice the rock stars in my poem?
Be the kind of player who mixes meanings
Speaking of players; There were plenty of the other kind of player in my high school and college (both elite institutions, GULP!), the sort who slept with girls and then thought nothing of ranking those experiences on a scale of crap to Cardi B the next morning in public lounges.
The only reason those guys were fun to be around was the same reason anyone wound up the topic of their conversation: they kept it light, everything, even themselves, was a joke. I mention them because they were mean: but the player of words is not mean, though perhaps slicing. The poet players are truth-chasers.
When Terence plays, we have to play along. The poem is full of nouns, and potential white-people repellent. Nods at lyrics and artistic endeavors, “inner visions” of Wonder are now populated (purpled!) with ” blackness, gavels, grapples, purrs, pens.” It’s a short poem, but we feel we’ve been in the presence of an explosion in which a Great Mixing of meaning is taking place.
Try Mixing your own lines
If you’re stuck as you try to write something high stakes, back off. Seek opportunities to play with words, mixing the things you care about most with all the fun language can create. Humor can be a headlight for the truth lying right there in the road.
Prompt after Hayes
In a spirit of “Let’s just try!”, take a few passes at filling in the following lines with different “luminaries” in your personal pantheon of awesome people. Pick hero/ines from a discipline that matters to you.
“When A and B each lend C their D, what happens? “
You don’t have to write a poem, but you might try breaking lines just for the sense of music and emphasis that creates. Those things can help your prose have just as much bounce and movement.
Ask yourself what new thing, what true thing you really want to say, might be going on in the playful scenario you’ve created.
Ask yourself, when I look at this bizarre piece, what do I notice about what I care about, and what I’m willing to risk?
Reflect on that for a while. If you’re lucky, Hayes will lend you his eyeball. I’m going to start beseeching Nina Simone for hers.
Help! What have I done?
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