A notice about Karla Huston and her “Theory of Lipstick” being featured in Diane Lockward’s Poetry Newsletter landed in my email inbox a week ago. Since I was in L.A. having a great time at my son’s wedding and didn’t get back to Wisconsin until a couple of days ago, the link to Lockward’s blog post about Karla and her poem is no longer available — or at least I can’t find it. To compensate, I’m pasting in here the entire post that was included in the March 3 email to me. In doing so, I hope I’m not violating any copyright issues. To compensate, I’m including the newsletter link, so anyone who reads this post will have a way to subscribe to the newsletter, which might be something of interest to some — or all! — of you:
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Creativity is really the structuring of magic.
—Anne Kent Rush
Poem and Prompt
This month’s poem is by Wisconsin poet, Karla Huston, from her book A Theory of Lipstick. The poem won a 2012 Pushcart Prize.
Theory of Lipstick
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red …
Pot rouge, rouge pot, glosser, lip plumper, bee
stung devil’s candy and painted porcelain
Fire and Ice, a vermillion bullet,
dangerous beauty lipstick, carmine death rub, history
of henna. Fact: more men get lip cancer
because they don’t wear lipstick or butter
jumble of a luminous palette with brush made
to outlast, last long, kiss off, you ruby busser,
your gilded rose bud bluster is weapon and wine.
QE’s blend: cochineal mixed with egg, gum Arabic
and fig milk—alizarin crimson and lead—poison
to men who kiss women wearing lipstick, once illegal
and loathsome—then cherry jelly bean licked and smeared,
then balm gloss crayon, a cocktail of the mouth,
happy hour lip-o-hito, lip-arita, with pout-fashioned chaser
made from fruit pigment and raspberry cream,
a lux of shimmer-shine, lipstick glimmer, duo
in satin-lined pouch, Clara Bow glow: city brilliant
and country chick—sparkling, sensual, silks
and sangria stains, those radiant tints and beeswax liberty—
oh, kiss me now, oh, double agents of beauty
slip me essential pencils in various shades
of nude and pearl and suede, oh, bombshell lipstick,
sinner and saint, venom and lotsa sugar, lip sweet,
pucker up gelato: every pink signal is a warning.
Huston gathered the information for this poem from a book on the history of lipstick. One of the poem’s many pleasures is the opulence of its details—the numerous synonyms for lipstick, the different kinds of lipstick, and the variety of lipstick colors. The poem consists of a series of lists or catalogs. In the midst of the lists is a fact (line 5), which is identified as such, and two recipes (lines 10-11, line 16). Note, too, the heavy use of sentence fragments and their contribution to the poem’s feeling of speed.
Be sure you read this poem aloud. Its diction is a pleasure to put in one’s mouth. Bountiful alliteration gives the poem a wonderful music and pace, e.g., painted porcelain, history of henna, bud bluster, weapon and wine, and sparkling, sensual, silks / and sangria stains.
Note the prevalence of words using plosive letters (p, t, k, b, d, g). These letters make their words pop out of the mouth. Many of Huston’s words employ the letter p: pot, lip, plumper, painted, lipstick. Many employ the letter b: bee, bullet, beauty, because, butter, jumble, ruby busser. You could make a similar list of words with any of the six plosives.
Huston also employs a number of words with fricatives (f, s, v, z). Note the plethora of s sounds: stung, devil’s, dangerous, history, luminous, bluster. And the run of f sounds: Fire, Fact, off, fry, fruit. These also add to the poem’s music and energy.
Huston corrals her material into five 5-line stanzas and makes it behave. She uses four colons which grab our attention and make us pause in the midst of the tumult. She closes the poem with an ecstatic direct address to lips and then a declarative statement. Pow!
For your own poem, first write down “Theory of ___________________.” Then fill in the blank. Perhaps mushrooms, roses, tomatoes, thimbles, neckties, knots, wine, galoshes. Do a Google search or go to Wikipedia and research your subject. Have paper and pen with you. Write down some history, some facts, descriptive details, wonderful words.
Begin your draft. Pile on the information from your notes. Insert a fact and identify it as a fact. Be bold. You might want to vary the wording, e.g., “Esoteric information,” so as not to follow the model too closely. Be playful. Don’t worry about achieving complete sentences or making exact sense.
As you revise your first draft, pay attention to diction. Consciously use plosives and fricatives. You don’t need to use all of them, but sprinkle your poem with similar sounds. Go for an explosion of sounds.
Towards the end, zero in with a direct address, perhaps to your subject or to something closely related to it.
As you feel your poem getting close to done, plan a structure. Get some symmetry, e.g., four 4-line stanzas, six 6-line stanzas, twelve 2-line stanzas.
Book RecommendationAmy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (in a later edition the subtitle is Memories of a Writing Life) is a literary memoir consisting of seven sections presented roughly in chronological order. I savored this book, taking pleasure in Tan’s skill with language, the story she had to tell, and the humor in her writing.
Tan begins with family history, going back to her grandmother’s rape and suicide, events that colored Tan’s mother’s life and, consequently, Tan’s. She writes about how she used these autobiographical facts in her fiction and how she changed the facts to make them work as fiction. She also talks about how she changed her own “fate” and became a woman who could make choices.
In a humorous chapter about CliffsNotes, Tan corrects some misinformation about her life, while remaining tongue-in-cheek fascinated to learn what she really meant in her books. There’s also a wonderful chapter on the differences between writing The Joy Luck Club and making the movie. Tan was convinced to become one of the screenwriters when the head screenwriter told her, “I think I could help you find the poetry of the scene.”
Another chapter I particularly enjoyed is entitled “Mother Tongue,” about Tan’s love of language and the challenges of navigating between her mother’s Chinese and her own English. This chapter and “Five Writing Tips” will be of particular interest to poets.
Fleda Brown is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently No Need of Sympathy. Her awards include the Felix Pollak Prize, the Philip Levine Prize, and the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award. She served as Poet Laureate of Delaware from 2001-2007, when she retired from the University of Delaware and moved to Traverse City, Michigan. In Traverse City, she writes a monthly column on poetry for the Record-Eagle newspaper, and she has a monthly commentary on poetry on Interlochen Public Radio. She teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.
Putting Obstructions Along Your Poem’s Path
The mind—my mind—has its grooves. It’s been perfectly happy, thank you, with the routes it’s carved over the years. If I want the poem to surprise anyone, as Frost, of course, says, I need to surprise myself first. But how can I do that when basically everything that enters my mind heads out along its predictable pathway before I catch conscious hold of its thread?
What are poetic forms but planned obstructions, arbitrary rules that make words stumble, make us go in a direction we hadn’t intended? What is a dance but a deliberate interruption of the body’s prosaic movements? Ellen Bryant Voigt recommends “structural subversion.” I recommend, and employ, any sort of subversion I can come up with.
I think of everything I can do to make myself clumsy. When I stumble, I’m likely to see, low to the ground, a hidden alcove, a secret passage. Once I have some words on paper, some draft to work with, no matter how fuzzily conceived, I can begin setting up barriers for myself.
Consider casting any of these obstructions along your poem’s path:
1. How many perfect words have arisen because of the need to make a rhyme? Follow a strict rhyme scheme, even if you invent it yourself. Let it drive the poem far from where you began. Let it make the poem insanely wrong, if necessary. Do not deviate from it until you’re entirely satisfied with this rhymed poem. Then feel free to break it apart. There may be a better/different poem inside.
2. Follow a strict meter, same idea. Or strict syllable count. Or, invent an entire form with patterned line-breaks.
3. Once you have something going, some inclination in a poem, pick a book of someone else’s poems. Choose a book whose poems draw you at the moment. Go through it and make a list of more than a dozen words that appeal to you. Make yourself use them in your poem. Since you already have your mind on the poem, the words you choose will magically relate, one way or the other.
4. Do not let yourself write more than four lines moving in the same direction. Turn a corner; see what’s behind the curtain; recall a moment in childhood. Recall your aunt Millie washing a pot of exactly the same color as the blue you’ve just seen in a bird’s wing. Don’t worry if the connection is tenuous. You can revise later if you need to.
Think about these two lines from Laura Kasichke’s poem, “Hospital parking lot, April” :
Once there was a child who woke after surgery to find his parents were imposters.
These seagulls above the parking lot today, made of hurricane and ether, they
Hard to tell where this will take us, yet; it’s a leap of faith.
Some stumbling blocks work for some poems, others for other ones.
What I want to emphasize here is the need for the kind of awareness that comes from preventing a “natural flow.” Or, rather, not preventing it, not that, but after the flow has happened, going back and building an obstruction against the clichés your mind latches onto. Think about what happens when water’s dammed up. It gets quieter, the silt settles, and you can maybe see all the way to the bottom. My god, there’s a pike down there, as still as if it were sealed in amber. Farther down, shadows, a sunken boat, sunken tires. What of that? What is opening before my eyes?
The Listening Booth from Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room
contains dozens of wonderful recordings of poets reading their work
Erika Dreifus reviews The Crafty Poet in The Practicing Writer. (Scroll down.)
Lynn Domina reviews The Crafty Poet at Lynn Domina, Poet.
Carol Berg interviews me about The Crafty Poet in Ithaca Lit.
Grace Cavalieri reviews The Crafty Poet in the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Check out Martha Silano’s review of The Crafty Poet at Blue Positive.
“This book has a spectacular array of model poems and information from poets on how they see the craft. It will get you writing and it will help you keep on writing poems.”
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