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Exploring Voice: Art and Writing

by Lucas Cardona

I’m a man with habits. These days, I thrive on routine. Much of that routine includes music. I like music. Music makes me feel human. I spend more time listening to music than I do engaging in any other mental activity. More than reading or writing, and, on some days, more than sleeping, even. I used to feel guilty listening to music on my morning commute to campus in downtown Denver, staring out the window of the train, not thinking much, but experiencing a rare moment of calm and feeling of safety inside myself. I should have been reading, I thought, or listening to a podcast, using that time to be more mentally productive. I don’t have that argument with myself, anymore. I’ve given up on obsessing over productivity.

I’ve recently returned to a childhood obsession—music videos. I grew up in the nineties, raised on MTV and VH1. Music videos were my first raw, unfiltered exposure to a culture of ideas that existed wholly independent of my household and community. At thirty-four, they still hold a magnetic thrall over me. And thankfully, I think they’ve gotten much better since my days of coming home after school to Total Request Live and Pop Up Video.

Part of my job as a creative writing teacher is getting students in the habit of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, helping to train their minds to trust and rely on that habit as a dependable method of processing their experiences, thoughts, reactions, and emotions. The trick is in learning how to help them form that habit in a way that encourages rather than stifles or inhibits self-expression, while still trying to teach them something about descriptive writing, sensory details, cohesive syntax, and other elements of craft.

Cultivating self-expression is integral to cultivating identity, personality, and intellect. Intellect is our ability to process what we see, feel, and hear, and articulate our responses to these experiences, whether internally (thoughts), vocally (to someone else), or on the page, page here being synonymous with screen. Without language, there is no intellect.

Poetry is an expression of one’s inner life that attempts to capture or recreate an experience of heightened awareness or emotion. Most poems successfully resonate with readers by connecting an external, physical experience or observation with the speaker’s interior reaction through a combination of concrete imagery, sonic devices, descriptive phrasing, pathos, and figurative language. Humor also occasionally finds its way into this mix, but many contemporary American poets (and songwriters) don’t seem to find anything about their emotions comical (let alone irrational).

Part of the reason students struggle to engage with poetry is because when meaning eludes them it makes them feel dumb, like there’s some message being transmitted that they’re intellectually incapable of receiving. Feeing dumb is another way of feeling left out, and no one likes to feel left out. So how do I convince them that sometimes the most effective way to express yourself is figuratively and/or indirectly?

Ekphrasis as a tool for engaging with, and reacting to, not only visual art but video clips of any nature, has, I think, become more prevalent and useful than ever with the internet. Experiments with ekphrasis are meant to be associative, reflective, imagistic, and, for students, often lead to persona poems. This, I think, generally, is a constructive outcome.

Any time I can get a student to attempt to write in a voice that is not wholly their own, about subject matter not derived entirely from personal experience, even if it’s just a slightly dramatized version of themselves in a particular moment, feels to me like we’re digging down toward the essence of what we mean when we use a phrase like creative writing. When we write beyond what we think we understand and recognize as familiar, we learn about how we view others, ourselves, and the Self’s cyclical and often limiting predilections for navigating the World in relation to others. A writer’s prerogative should at least occasionally be to write beyond what they think they know in an attempt to discover something about the self-fulfilling nature of belief systems they’ve inherited, whether sociologically or experientially.

My private obsession with music videos has led me to believe they might make for good ekphrastic source material. The question from a craft, creative, and/or pedagogical vantage becomes: how can we engage with someone else’s art in a way that serves as motivation for making our own, particularly when the inspirational source lives in an artistic medium different than the one we’re working in. Do we simply write about what we see, focusing on descriptive language? Do we write about the way it makes us feel? Feelings, like knowledge, are relative and fickle. Their mercuriality makes them volatile. Volatility is dangerous.

My pedagogical strategy is this: start by introducing students to a number of ekphrastic poems (e.g., Donald Platt’s “Cloud Study” or, M.K. Foster’s “Minnie Mouse vs. Security”) with distinct approaches to engaging with the source material (descriptive, persona, associative, personal, etc). Next, play a music video to the class, then, read them the lyrics without the music or video, and, finally, watch the music video again but this time on mute while having them write down any thoughts, reactions, or descriptions that come to them. Encourage them to think metaphorically by comparing what they see (the mise-en-scene) to other objects or images in the natural world, anything tangible, and allow them to explore another’s consciousness by attempting to capture or embody a figure’s perspective in the song or video.

My favorite band right now is The National. The video for their song, “Hairpin Turns,” is a stark, live-action rendering of the band recording the track in a whitewashed, speculative limbo, captured beautifully by American filmmaker Mike Mills. Each band member is shot in isolation with their respective instrument, showcasing their personal contributions to the finished composition. The white, congealed backdrop permeating the space between musicians makes the video feel like a painting where the edges of your screen function as the frame. A lone dancer, choreographer Sharon Eyal, with dark makeup around her eyes that resembles a Tonto-like facemask, moves among the musicians, disrupting the stillness in the void, or, perhaps, more accurately, breathing life into it.

I get the sense when watching the video that I’m witnessing a spiritual renascence, like some vital, dynamic energy in Eyal is being transmuted through the music into me. Her improvisational movements correspond rhythmically to the instrumentation while mimicking the lyrics’ confessional subject matter & edgy, idiomatic themes. At times, her body curves, twists, and turns like a river meandering over dry land. Other times, her gesticulations appear jerkish, jagged and abrupt, painful, almost. These visceral, unpredictable contrasts in motion have a hypnotic effect on the viewer, making it difficult to look away.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to be able to conceptualize this sort of improvised dancing as a nonverbal, physical expression of poetry, but surely the recognition must make me a better poet and teacher, by which I mean, someone more attuned to the body’s natural rhythms, reflexes, and digressions. Those three things—rhythm, reflex, and digression—feel to me like ingredients for cooking up poems. Each intuitive motion is equivalent to a line, a stanza, a break. Associative, symbolic thought processes, imagery, figurative language, and attention to sound, the basics of poetics, feel analogous with Eyal’s expressive choreography. She responds to what she hears the way a poet responds to phenomena—intuitively through the body, breath, and mind.

Once the students have watched the video, with volume and without, and taken descriptive notes, I have them do a short free write reflecting on their thoughts, how they feel about what they heard and watched, and what memories or associations the experience evoked in them. Then, we examine the song’s lyrics more closely together. Matt Berninger, The National’s lofty, old-school, ruminative frontman, is one of the most craft-conscious, enduring, and self-possessed lyricists writing in the American indie rock scene today. Berninger’s lyrical personas strive to reflect on the recurring, distressed, psychic and emotional conditions that, in certain, dogged ways, define many adult lives—those manic-depressive highs and lows of a globalized, mainstreamed, technocratic lifestyle. They aren’t afraid of talking about what makes them so afraid of the modern world. Students need to be exposed to this type of lyrical courage to help discover and invent their own creative voices.

Like all accomplished poems, Berninger’s lyrics are compressed, associative, and embellished with evocative, often menacing, imagery and metaphor.

Your nervous throat clicks And my spirit swims right to the hook. You go quiet and leave me in the wake Of a terrifying look.

These lines, in both precision and content, echo marital themes from Robert Lowell’s more confessional verse in Life Studies and The Dolphin. In “Hairpin Turns,”the characters are caught in a destabilizing loop, fighting over and over “about the same things,” and, for a brief, merciful moment, the speaker’s vision of the future begins to unravel. It’s merciful because it grants a rare instance of objectivity and emotional clarity. He questions everything he thought he knew or was supposed to know—“What is it you want me to be learning?” It’s the kind of question that, on the surface, sounds rhetorical, but is actually as earnest a plea as anyone could think to broach to someone they love. In some sense, it’s more of an interrogation than a question; what have I done to make you see me this way, where did we go wrong, and what, if anything, can be done to salvage our relationship?

When reading poems, essays, or stories, I’m always asking my students—where’s the heat in the piece? The central dramatic tension? What’s sucking you in as a reader, making you wonder, feel, and reflect? The question, “What is it you want me to be learning,” feels to me like a major source of heat in this song. All the dramatic tension leads in and out of this existential challenge the speaker poses to his partner, the way blood gets recycled through the heart. Once we’ve located the heat, it’s easy to have students write something of their own that draws on this heat for creative inspiration. Think about a missed connection, I tell them. Think about a time when you failed to understand how your words or actions impacted someone else, or when someone else failed to understand how their words or actions impacted you. What happened? Who was involved? Where were you? Recreate the scene. Then reflect on the consequences. You have eight minutes. Write in lines. Write in prose. Write whatever way you want. Go.

Lucas Cardona is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where he holds a graduate teaching assistantship. His first published poem appeared in New Ohio Review.

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