A: First of all, let me say that my entire identity in my family has been shaped around ignorance of music. I have three brothers who all play music, one professionally, and one who could be a professional – and my parents met in a band. So naturally, since I could really choose, I have identified as completely without talent and stayed intentionally ignorant of words to describe musical phenomena.
I’m not sure what style of music most closely resembles my poetry. Probably none. Probably I don’t know enough about music. Also, there are so many different ways a poem could be different from or similar to a piece of music. Some things I do know: I listen to a lot of hip-hop, sometimes while writing. I know that it influences my poetry but I see it more in terms of how ideas in hip hop (for example: materialism as a master metaphor, or the use of persona) influence my work rather than what my poetry sounds like, which is what I think this question is getting at.
On the other hand, something I do in readings is make certain hand gestures (I didn’t notice this until it was pointed out to me) that sort of punctuate my rhythms – the same hand gestures that I make when I’m in my bedroom by myself rapping along to a song. So maybe rap – as a musical way of wielding and performing words – has influenced my poems more than I think. This is a thing I think in general about contemporary poets and sound: I believe that many of them are like me, in that, having not thought about music and (/in) poetry, besides maybe in formal verse, though the connections must undoubtedly be there, they remain rather mysterious (which is why I’m so happy to be part of this conversation but also why I don’t have better stuff to say).
Another thing I think about poetry and its resemblance to music quite often: my poetry, and most of the poetry that I love, does not resemble most pop music structurally. That is, it’s not structured around a chorus, hook, or refrain. Rather, the contemporary poem, the ones that I like and the ones that I try to write, is a linear transformation, a journey, a road. I am often impressed by and fall in love with hip hop tracks that have movements, progressive sections and go through transformations (like this). At the end of this song, you are a different person than the person who listened to the first verse. This is what we are usually trying to do in poems as well – there is a discovery in a poem – the poem or the poet turns inside out, maybe more than once. You cannot enter the poem at any point and get the gist, as you can with a pop song – you have to go through the journey. I don’t know anything about classical music – but I remember from music classes – piano and flute – as a child – that this is the case with classical music as well – at least, I believe so. I remember change happening. This is not the case with most of the music that I listen to.
Q: Did you choose your writing style, or did it choose you? What does your style allow you to do with your poetry, that other styles would not?
A: It’s hard for me to answer questions about style right now because I think my style is undergoing a profound change – which is a bit vulnerable and confusing. But I guess that puts me in a good position to answer a question about where styles come from. My previous style and the style I seem to be writing in now definitely happened to me. That is, I believe that styles choose you. You choose a lot of other things that probably help determine your style. Your style is an outgrowth of who you choose to be in life, of your struggle to articulate things in life. Your style comes out of a radically honest relationship between you and the page. You don’t think about style. You think about not lying. If you’re me, anyway.
In a larger way, in life, you don’t make choices about style: you make, you keep making, all the choices about who and how you want to be. For example: I think my older style emanated from my persona, which was about who I wanted to be in resistance to things I did not want to be. I did not want to write an elite or an abstract poetry. I wanted my poetry to be filled with the things of this world and my life. I didn’t want to censor myself or be polite, etc. I wanted to resist the WASP-y Midwestern culture I grew up in. This made a louder more long-winded style. Another thing you choose is who you read. Who you read obviously, who you read when you were young and who you are reading as you are writing, inform your style enormously – though I think, even then, it is certain poets that you have a deep, musical, spiritual sympathy with (which is an affinity you don’t necessarily choose) and it is those poets who infect you and influence your style.
Q: How do you choose what a poem will look like on the page?
A: It’s all about how the lines sound in my head.
Q: How do you choose your punctuation, or lack thereof? Does it have more to do with grammar, visual cues, or auditory/musical cues?
A: Again, it’s all about how it sounds in my head. We are using our system of grammar in poetry, for sure, but I think there is no rule that it has to conform to conventions at all. For me it is all about making the reader hear the line the way I do. Any and all feats of punctuation are allowed to make that happen (and I’m an English teacher!).
Q: Do you think that punctuation can be equated with musical notation symbols such as note value, rests, and dynamic markings?
A: Yes – definitely. Periods, for example, are longer rests than commas. Line lengths change the length of syllables. CAPS make a word louder. Italics can make it quieter. No punctuation can also be quieter. It’s a little bit fuzzier because our marks are more subjective where as musical notations have absolute, universal values. I think this means we have more freedom to create different combinations. Line lengths – for example – all long lines is different from suddenly one long line after a bunch of short lines. These are tools that we can play with. And we do it all through intuition, without training and sometimes without intention, which is an interesting contrast to what musicians do – though maybe composers also write intuitively, still, it is after a certain amount of training…
I think that punctuation even controls pitch, to a certain extent. As we know, a period makes the sentence end on a lower note, a question mark on a higher note – no punctuation is a sort of monotone (which I find very pleasurable – not the bad kind of monotone… Like the affectlessness of someone enigmatic and attractive…)
Q: How do you think of white space? Between words and stanzas? As it relates to the size and shape of the paper your work is printed on?
A: I think of white space as silence. Not the silence of repression but the silence of listening. In a good poem with a lot of white space, short lines, breaks, etc, the poet is listening intently and the lines are what she heard when she listened.
Q: Do you think your poetry gives visual auditory cues to the reader? Do you think the reader hears the way you read your poetry by sight alone? If not, what do you think impedes this transfer of information?
A: I don’t know. I try to give auditory clues using punctuation and line length and white space, the way I’ve described above. I don’t have enough data about the way readers hear my work to know if they hear it the way I mean. I do know that having it sound right – or close to right – within the family of what I hear – is very important for me. I don’t think my poems mean in the same way when read in a different way, sound-wise.
Q: How do you notate your poetry to make up for the lack of your voice being there? Do you try?
A: I try! Same ways as above. Also sometimes I will use CAPS and st-st-stutters. I also sometimes disrupt grammar, and I use colloquial phrases like, “You see?’ to remind the reader that I’m a person, a contemporary person, speaking to them intimately. I want a human/vulnerable/tough/girl voice. Like me! Hopefully.
Q: Do you consider yourself a performer of your poetry, or a reader? How come?
A: A performer, when there is an audience. I get extremely frustrated with poets doing a disservice to their work by reading in a way that is not engaging. I have a child whom I read to almost every night, and classes full of ESL students whom I read texts to that are usually just slightly above their heads – so I know it is not what’s on the page that matters, really – in excitement and engagement or comprehension. A performance can be very monotone and deadpan and still be good, however – the reader just has to be present, and that has to be intentional. But you asked about me! I want desperately to communicate with the people who are listening to me read, so I perform, I put feeling into it, I acknowledge the rhythm and meter and music and diction by modulating my voice. Funnily, when trying to read to a small group or single person, I get really nervous and self-conscious about being performative and how vulnerable it makes me and usually end up reading and then hating those poems for a while.
Q: How would you describe your performance/reading style? Do you think that popular reading styles have shaped the way you read, or have you actively worked against the pull of mainstream performance style?
A: We are all trying to get the fucking cadences of popular reading styles out of our fucking heads when we’re reading, aren’t we?
Q: Do you think you’re the best performer/reader of your own work?
A: Definitely. Hell yes. It can be such a treat when someone else reads your work correctly, or well, or in a thoughtful and unexpected way. But no one else could possibly care as much as I do about my work communicating to others. Nor should they.
Poems by Julia Clare Tillinghast:
PANK: two poems
Julia Clare Tillinghast is from Michigan. She studied poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and Virginia Tech, where she received her MFA. She has spent a number of years, on and off, living in Istanbul, Turkey, and is Co-Translator, along with Richard Tillinghast, of Dirty August, a selected poems of the experimental 20th-century Turkish poet Edip Cansever. In addition to translations in Agni, Guernica, The Boston Review, Crazy Horse, Arts & Letters, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily & others, she has had or has forthcoming poems in Rattle, 3:AM Magazine, Passages North, Sou’Wester, Pank, and The Bakery. She lives in Portland with her son, Hamza.