Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Modern Song of Triumph

As we've started reading and preaching through the Old Testament this summer, I've enjoyed very much the poetry of the Triumph songs sung by Miriam and by Deborah. On the one hand, like almost all ancient poetry, they are hard to access. On the other hand, it helps me so much to understand the joy of deliverance when I realize people had to sing. They had to dance. And this is what they sang.

Recently I encountered another poem, by the poet Gerald Stern, that seemed to me a powerful contemporary Song of Triumph. When I enter into the moment sung in this poem, I realize a little bit more what it means to be desperate for deliverance...and then delivered.

Here's the poem-- Enjoy. And I'd LOVE to hear any responses.

Maybe you have your own Song of Triumph to write.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Writing From Empathy

Perhaps the best known writing advice is to "write what you know." And it's wonderful advice. Often beginning writers produce flat, lifeless writing because they haven't found the courage or felt permission to write out of their own feelings and life experience and point of view.

But like most good advice and almost all truisms, this one also has its limits. The poet Nikki Giovanni challenges this dictum:

"I resent people who say writers write from experience. Writers don't write from experience, though many are hesitant to admit that they don't. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."

I loved this statement. Write from empathy. You don't have to have lived everything you write about. But you do have to care. You have to have your emotions and spirit and person involved. And that's absolutely necessary for all good art and all good work.

As writers, we aren't limited by our life experience, but only by our willingness to enter into life--and the fullness, the messiness and pain and joy that encapsulate almost every experience.

I would like to learn how to write more stories and poems "from empathy." I want to learn how to enter into the lives of other people enough to tell a bit of their story in a way that helps me make sense of this world and bring out a bit of the beauty I see in their lives.

But, like all art, this is a tall order. In the following poem, I tried it, and (like all my poems) I'm not entirely satisfied with what I made.

After They Found His Brother’s Body

He said that every time he heard an airplane, he’d look up.
For sixty years one boy hung in an island tree,
wrapped in a crumple of steel and rust—
the other watched the Iowa sky.

He filled his gas tank, mowed the lawn, pulled weeds, shoveled snow,
learned daily how light rushes
to each row of corn and bank of willows.
Waiting for that waving arm, the shout—
and how his name would sound.

--Jenny Jiang 11/07

This was a poem about a man I grew up knowing as a thin, balding grocer in his apron at our tiny town's one grocery store. A few years ago, the local news reported that this man's brother's body had been found in an airplane, on an island in the Pacific. He'd been a fighter pilot in World War II and MIA since then. And when they interviewed this unassuming grocer, he said he'd spent the last 60 years half-expecting to see his brother land in a field near him every time he heard an air plane.

This story, naturally, moved me. I wanted to write abou t it... in part to honor his story, but also, because there was something beyond empathy in my feelings. I felt like I could almost identify with this deep longing that was a mixture of hope and grief. It felt so universal--the raw hunger we all have that keeps us each, in our own ways, with an ear half-cocked, our eye on the horizon--the long wait for that unsettled grief and loneliness to finally be comforted.

I wonder if you have any stories or poems waiting to be written "from empathy." Is there something in another's experience or story that tugs at you in a way that can't be easily summed up and explained? Is there another's grief or joy or adventure that you can enter into enough to write about it as well?

Take ten minutes and free write (write without stopping or editing yourself in any way). Write from empathy.

And then, shoot me a line if any poems or stories or essays emerge.