CRAFT OF LITERARY 2.3: Featuring Kendall Dunkelberg – “Adapting a Traditional Form”
In this post, I will discuss how I adapted a form for my new book, Barrier Island Suite. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because my book is just out and because I am teaching a Forms in Poetry graduate class on free verse. Form doesn’t always happen in a vacuum, and a free-verse form is rarely completely free. When considering form for a project you’re writing, don’t automatically ignore existing forms and don’t feel you have to follow a form precisely either.
When writing the first poems for Barrier Island Suite, I wanted to find a form that would fit my subject, Walter Inglis Anderson, who often sketched and painted on Mississippi’s barrier islands. I wanted a form that would differ from what I usually wrote because I wanted the voice of these poems to be distinct from my own. Because Walter Anderson was influenced by Japanese art and because I had been teaching linked renga poetry in my World Literature classes, I felt it would be fun to try my hand at it.
Renga poetry, though, has many rules. Several poets get together to craft a poem of 100 stanzas, and there are specific kinds of images that must appear at certain points. I knew I could not approximate that, though the idea of poets in conversation felt appropriate since my poems would become a conversation with Walter Anderson through his art and the logs he wrote on the islands.
The basic stanza of renga begins with a haiku (and the haiku began as the opening stanza of renga): a stanza of three lines with 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. To this the next poet would add two lines of 7 syllables. The next poet would add another 3 lines, and so on. Each segment was supposed to go with the previous, though not necessarily with the one before that, so the poem would develop unpredictably, though the prescribed rules lent some order to the collaborative improvisation.
To approximate this, I chose to write 5-line stanzas with 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables. I felt the alternation between line lengths gave the poems a wave-like quality. To add some variety to the sequence, I sometimes chose to invert the stanza for a poem, beginning with two lines of seven syllables, and sometimes chose to separate the tercet from the couplet so there would be a stanza of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, then one of 7 and 7, which would repeat throughout the poem, ending in either a couple or a tercet.
The main point was that the poems had a form that lent them a consistent and meditative voice. The voice was not mine, and yet the form also helped me move away from Anderson’s voice in his logs or the voices of his biographers. What it has taught me is to be more open to existing forms and to be willing to adapt them to my own needs.
ABOUT KENDALL: Kendall Dunkelberg directs the Low-Residency MFA in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi, where he also directs the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Dunkelberg has published one collection of translated poems, written by the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus (Green Integer 2000), and three collections of poetry, Landscapes and Architectures (Florida Literary Foundation 2001), Time Capsules (Texas Review Press 2009), and Barrier Island Suite (Texas Review Press 2016).
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