Thursday afternoon at AWP, I had the good fortune to attend a session called Creating Emotional Depth: Tools and Inspiration from Various Genres. I chose it for a few reasons, one being the topic. What writer wouldn’t want insight on creating emotional depth? Another was the cross-genre panel, which included Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Tim Siebles, David Jaus, Karin de Weille, and Robert Vivian. But the third was curiosity. How would these writers explain emotion, something that writers have been trying to do for centuries?
Laure-Anne Bosselaar began with a quote from another writer (whose name I did not get in my notes) that “To write is also not to speak.” She continued that the images, metaphors, direct address of the reader, personification and pathetic fallacy used by the writer need to be carefully selected, need to use an originality of showing that will surprise the reader. She discussed the poem “The Two Trees” by Larry Levis as an example of these devices used to evoke emotion. She also discussed the idea that poems that take leaps in topic or image can sometimes be labeled as unemotional if they are distant or feel like they are randomly selected. But these types of poems, she asserted, can have emotional power if the associative images you use are personal. If the images are personal, the reader will follow you even through difficult abstractions. She ended her portion of the panel with a question and a quote. The quote was from Larry Levis – “the art of the poem withholds its howling so we can only imagine its sound as our own.” The question I had heard from her when I had the good fortune to workshop with her at the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway – What is the urgency in the poem that causes the speaker not to remain silent? To her, that urgency is the emotional center of every poem. That is a question I can certainly ask myself about each draft.
David Jaus presented the four most common ways that writers try to convey emotion: direct abstract statement, internal physical sensation, body language/placement, and metaphor. He provided examples from each category which were very interesting. I was particularly struck by his discussion of body placement, how a speaker/character can say the same words and have them mean something completely different only by changing body placement. For instance, a character can look directly at another character, holding them tenderly, and say “I love you” but if the character says those same words from across the room, back turned, standing at the kitchen sink and looking out the window, that “I love you” means something very different. He also discussed the two most common “avoidance” techniques that writers use when writing about emotion: glossing and sensory bypass. Glossing is interpreting the emotion for the reader without allowing him/her to experience it. This frequently focuses on the eyes, as in “his eyes widened in horror.” Sensory bypass takes a shortcut to abstraction – “she was horrified” – that gives the reader no way in to the emotion. I found myself wondering how many times I had been guilty of those techniques – probably too many to count- and also knew that these terms would be useful in trying to teach my seventh graders to avoid abstractions. He ended with a Shakespeare quote – “Action is eloquence.”
Tim Siebles continued, using Ai’s poems “The Tenant Farmer” and “One Man Down” as a way to discuss tone and emotional risk, the poem as a vehicle for the writer to declare extremes of emotion and control how she wants the reader to respond, “gut-wise.” He posited that sometimes extremes in emotion can be handcuffed by polite poetic sensibility, and that stepping out of these bonds can lead to new generative content to match that undone tone. Emotional/intellectual engagement with difficult material can evoke a strong reader response. The poems, especially “One Man Down,” were great examples of how arresting images can involve the reader’s emotions immediately.
Karin de Weille used a long sentence or two from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf to discuss how form and syntax can trigger tone and emotion. Her passion for the structure of this passage was infectious, and she convinced me completely to pay more attention to movement on the level of the syllable to inform syntax for prose and line breaks for poems. Finally, Robert Vivian discussed the role of play in discovering emotion in your writing, asserting that play is a generative force behind all human culture, and thus all human emotion, that playing radically with words is an important way to reach emotion. I took to heart his statement that play and seriousness are not opposites but companions.
After this panel, I have much to think about in terms of revision. Though I am primarily a poet, I have been writing more short prose in the past few months, and these varied ways of approaching emotion in text will inform both my poetry and prose in ways I can only hope will improve them both.