Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Paying Attention to Your Voice (Part 2)

Gonzo's nipples (prior entry) a little too tough a reference for you? OK. I understand. But the point is this: if you've created a universe that has certain rules, don't change the rules on me just to make a point or a joke, or - worst of all - to advance the plot. Fans of science fiction and fantasy take things like this quite seriously. {aginggeekreference} For example: In the Star Trek universe, "beaming" is possible. In the Star Wars universe, The Force runs through all things. If after two seasons Spock suddenly began deflecting phaser fire with a glowing stick, if after 90 minutes Obi Wan had suddenly materialized at the tractor beam's power source, would you stop thinking about the plot? Would you find yourself distracted by the one scene and lose sight of the larger work? {/aginggeekreference}.

Similarly with characters, if you've imbued them with certain characteristics, don't drop those characteristics suddenly to make a point or a joke, or - worst of all - to advance the plot. My point about Gonzo's comment was that it wasn't part of the action (the scene essentially stops so that Pepe can prompt the line), it was inconsistent with its context (Disney? Nipples?), and it was inconsistent with what we know about the character who spoke it (anyone who knows Gonzo as well as I do will agree).

So what does this have to do with poems? And my poems in particular? A friend once gave me a book of poems that an acquaintance of his had self-published. They were pretty standard fare - unrhymed, little regard for meter, no regard for form, preoccupied with death and badly-ended affairs. Except for one poem in the final third of the book: 3 rhymed stanzas about getting sprayed while changing his grandson. The last lines were "when changing a baby / better cover his spout". It's not really relevant whether or not this was a good poem. It came from such a completely different voice as the rest of the poems in the book that I lost sight of the collection as a collection. It wasn't a cohesive work by an author anymore. It was just some poems bound together. The collection had established the dark voice of an unhappy former cop and then sprung James Garner reading Hallmark cards on me. Boo.

The manuscript I just completed and submitted is a collection of poems all written as if I were speaking to my daughters. Not that the language is juvenile, but the topics are ones that derive from the experience of a man coming to understand how to deal with two small female presences in his life. The character I create as narrator is that man (NOTE: Yes, he's close to me. But since poetry is fiction, he can't really be me. Got that, Mom?), and his tone is consistent with that. Some of the poems are sarcastic, some are angry, some are frightened, but they're all consistent with that character. When I lined up the 70 or so poems I'd written (so far) for the project, which I'd never done before, I noticed that the tone varied in some of them. Less gentle, more adult subject matter, etc. It's not really relevant whether or not they were good poems. They distracted from the work as a whole and therefore had no place in the larger work.

I therefore rewrote a couple (probably weakening them as individuals), and decided a few of my favorites needed to be left orphaned. A tough process. Coming Friday: some examples.

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