Our voice as poets is a mix of who we are, what we think and feel, and a summation of everything we’ve read in our lives. Voice is the result of both experience and influence.
In her book Black Lightning: Poetry-in-Progress, Eileen Tabios lays out how Kimiko Hahn derived her poem “The Notice” from French feminist Catherine Clément’s “The Guilty One.” This essay—one of several that we’ll read in my upcoming class, Discovering Poetic Voice—shows in detail four drafts Hahn worked with before arriving at the final poem.
Clément’s phrase that triggered Hahn’s poem was “obliging him to see,” from a section of the original text that discusses ways women break from an oppressive silence, how “the hysteric and the sorceress are more cunning” in their rebellion as their public displays of crying out force the oppressor to watch them, to also experience and “suffer from the rebellion” (26). Hahn used that line to examine, in part, what a woman might want for herself. She composed a poem in which the speaker both compels and obliges a would-be sexual partner, a neighbor, to look at her through the shared dark—”for fun” (34).
Here’s a writing exercise that draws on this method: while reading a piece of prose—an online article, a Facebook post, a street sign, a menu, a short story, a self-help book, instructions on how to light the grill—choose the first sentence or phrase that stands out to you and write it down. Give it a setting—root it somewhere—and write a poem from that place.
Hahn took “obliging him to see” and placed her speaker in a bedroom. I just opened a meditation book on the table next to me and took out the phrase, “we are really saying we are ready to be honest.” I see that happening in a car, late one summer night, with the engine still running. I’ll start from there.
For extra fun, cross out five lines and rewrite it. Add as many lines as you want. Do at least four drafts, crossing out five lines each time, before calling it done. The original phrase may disappear entirely by the time your poem is final—as it did with Hahn’s—but its essence will stay in your poem.
Tabios, Eileen. “Kimiko Hahn: Expressing Self and Desire, Even If One Must Writhe.” Black Lightning: Poetry-in-Progress. New York: Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 1998.
Jeanine Walker was a 2015 Jack Straw Writer and has published poems in Cimarron Review, Narrative, Pleiades, and Web Conjunctions. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and teaches for Writers in the Schools.