Concerning Craft: Form as engine

Chiara Di Lello is a writer, teacher, and native New Yorker whose work has appeared in Best New Poets, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Kissing Dynamite, and Yes Poetry, among others. Her loyalties lie solidly with public transportation, public art, and public libraries. Her lessons are peppered with Star Wars references.

Chiara’s poem “how to end a decade” appears in our Summer 2020 issue. Her guest post is part of our “Concerning Craft” series.

Chiara reads her poem “how to end a decade” as part of our digital launch for the Summer 2020 issue.

I learned how to make a sonnet about the same time I learned about jazz chords. It was a bit like learning a spell: a hidden order became visible and legible. Once I could hear the root, fourth, and fifth chords, it was as if the instrumental pieces I was learning in middle school jazz band suddenly had words, because the chords themselves were speaking. Shakespeare sonnets I read in English class began to feel like a piece of choreography—I could only be in one line of the poem at a time, but I knew what was coming next, like a familiar dance routine.

Throughout high school and college, I explored more forms, often writing several in a bid to capture their mechanics, their flavor. Sestinas have the feel of like music boxes, complex but minute machines that aren’t done turning until they wind through all their possibilities and roll to a stop. For a while I couldn’t get enough of ghazals, with their galloping energy and a sense of seeking closure (and, if you’re keeping it traditional, a coming home to yourself in the final lines).

Form has felt this way to me for a long time, and it is a source of inspiration and delight in my own writing. It lends structure and legibility to a poem, and can become a meeting point for reader and author, a baseline for understanding. In my mind, writing a form poem follows a kind of design thinking: what, asks the form poem, would it mean to have poetic form follow function, just as form follows function in biology, or furniture design? If I know what kind of poem I am seeking to write, I can ask myself: what is the breath of this poem, the energy, the level of smoothness or disjointedness? Form can then provide that shape and structure in an intentional way. At the same time, the constraints of any given form lead me to unexpected choices as I try to fit my ideas to the container of the poem. It is satisfying, and exciting, to make it work.

Whether the pattern is seasons, school years, or the daily commute, we are all experimenting within a given form, finding ways to exercise creativity within constraint.

“how to end a decade” was invited into the world in Patricia Spears Jones’ workshop on forms. She reminded us before trying a Golden Shovel to choose our source text carefully, because it would become the container and the breathing room for the poem. I landed on a few short lines by James Tate that I knew from memory, because I had spent about a year feeling like I lived inside that tender, painfully earnest “sodium pentothal landscape / a bud about to break open.” I was twenty one, an underemployed college graduate commuting to and fro across New York City to my unpaid internships (thanks, Great Recession) and odd jobs minding children, dogs, plants, and sometimes youth soccer players. Everything about my routine felt haphazard and immediate. Every little thing that worked felt like a tiny green light from the universe, a sign that I was on the right track. When spring came I felt ready to stick my entire face into the magnolia blossoms lining 5th Avenue in Manhattan, thinking all the while of Tate.

That life-moment resurfaced for me at the end of 2019 as so many people shared their reflections on the decade in preparation for 2020 (little did we know…). I realized that a full ten years now stood between me and that beautifully indeterminate time that I so longed to leave but now looked back on with nostalgia. To structure a poem about that time around Tate’s words feels like coming full circle.

My writing practice has definitely had its ebbs and flows over the years, but form poems remain a consistent part of my work. As I understand it now, I think I appreciate form because it resonates with life in general. Whether the pattern is seasons, school years, or the daily commute, we are all experimenting within a given form, finding ways to exercise creativity within constraint.

Grab your copy of the Summer 2020 issue—in print or in digital format!

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