In 1934, Gertrude Stein asked “What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose.” Throaty Wipes answers this question and many more! How does broadband work? Does “chuffed” mean pleased or displeased? What if the generations of Adam had mothers? Through her signature fusion of formal innovation and lyricism, Holbrook delivers what we’ve been waiting for.
Read on to enjoy several poems from Throaty Wipes and Susan’s thoughts on the selected pieces
As an excerpt of Throaty Wipes (Coach House 2016) I’ve chosen four of the constraint-based poems from that work. It seemed appropriate in these days of physical constraint!
“What is Poetry” offers multiple answers to the titular question via anagrams of it. “Without You” was composed without the letter U. “Calculogue” was composed on a Canon LS-863TG handheld calculator – remember doing this in junior high? “Tonsillitis” was written using only the letters in “tonsillitis.”
American poet Harry Mathews explains the energy of constraint-based writing as arising out of the fact that “being unable to say what you normally would, you must say what you normally wouldn’t.” This forced mobility of expression yields more than aesthetic novelty, however; Mathews’ observation speaks to the revelatory effect of constraints. What would we normally not say? What knowledges are obscured through normative discourses? Perhaps writing constraints paradoxically allow for freedom of expression, for honesty, a way for us to, as Emily Dickinson suggested, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
In his “Prefatory Sonnet,” Wordsworth wrote about the freedom he experienced writing in the constraint of the sonnet form. The fifth poem I included in your excerpt is new, and takes its title from lines 5-7 of Wordsworth’s poem:
[…] Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells
You’ll see that my “Foxglove Bells Manifesto” uses only the letters in the word “constraints,” and argues for appreciating the generative power of choosing to be hemmed in. I hope readers will want to murmur in foxglove bells, to find out what they might hear from themselves.
To continue reading, purchase Throaty Wipes here!
Susan Holbrook is a poet and fiction writer whose first book, misled, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the Stephen J. Stephensson Award. Her chapbook Good Egg Bad Seed was published by Nomados in 2004. She teaches North American literatures and creative writing at the University of Windsor. She recently co-edited The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: Composition as Conversation (forthcoming from Oxford University Press, 2009).