I have been wanting to write something here for a while for the poet Tony Curtis, who, after a reading last month, approached me and asked me about my use of punctuation in my recent poetry collection, Hand & Skull. He was particularly interested in the use of forward slashes and repeated colons. I’ve also had conversations with my editor Neil Astley about the use of em-dashes which was fruitful too, and I talked a bit with Hannah Lowe about using repeated colons.
One major issue in writing Hand & Skull was thinking about trauma, and how the form and punctuation of the poems might express the experience of reliving trauma on a personal and cultural level. It is important to me that trauma experiences like breaks, avoidance, intrusive thoughts, visualising, OCD behaviors etc. be enacted not only in the content but in the fabric of the poems. One of the reasons that this book took such a long time to write was because I wrote and rewrote the poems many times until I found the right form.
One strategy was using the forward slash, inspired of course by Natalie Diaz and her book When My Brother Was an Aztec. (Shout out to my workshop group with Kathy Fagan where we discussed this book quite a bit.) You can see an example in Diaz’s poem ‘Hand-me-down Halloween’ and here’s what Diaz says about her use of forward slashes:
But in reference to the forward slashes, they aren’t meant to be exciting. I hope they make the readers’ eyes uncomfortable, that they physically and musically express the disjointed, jagged experience explored in the poem. The text within the slashes can be removed but is responsible for the fractured experience. I’ve had people ask me, “Well, how am I supposed to read the slashes?” I usually just answer, “Yes,” which I realize is no answer. Then, they realize it’s no answer. It’s downhill from there—ultimately, the asker ends up revealing that their great-great-great-something is an Indian princess.Natalie Diaz, ‘In Their Own Words’ series, Poetry Society of America
Forward slashes became quite “trendy” after Diaz, with many imitating her style, but perhaps not as successfully. What is really effective about Diaz’s forward slashes is how they make meaning less readily available: do you read the chunks texts in isolation, or as a whole, or both? It is challenging to the reader, and that can be particularly effective when writing a poem about trauma and pain, as Diaz does in the collection mentioned.
I use forward slashes sparingly – just in two poems, ‘Poem on the Edge,’ and ‘Beatitudes for the Women.’ The first is a deeply personal poem about trauma, and the forward slashes worked for me to ask the reader to think about how we access personal stories about trauma, and to make the story itself less readily available; the poem is really about someone trying to talk about a traumatic event, and not being listened to. ‘Beatitudes for the Women’ tells stories of violence against women in Britain, America and India; cis and trans women; some from cases that were high profile in the news. Again, I wanted to question how we read and absorb cases of violence, and the backslashes ask the reader to take in the lines more carefully than the careless way we sometimes receive media stories. Ultimately, forward slashes should, as Diaz says, make the reader a little uncomfortable.
In quite a few poems, I use a repeated colon, which has a particular significance for me. Normally, a colon introduces a list, or it precedes a final clause of a sentence. What does it mean if a colon occurs again and again in a sentence? What if we believe the final clause is coming but it never does, but goes on and on adding more and more to the original thought? This strategy seeks to reproduce the intrusive thoughts or chains of association that happen after a traumatic experience. I seem to remember a poem by Pascale Petit called ‘Lunettes’ that uses this strategy really effectively, and I developed my own version in workshop with Joanna Klink.
I use what I call “flight” of colons in a significant way in poems about violence against women like ‘Blind Horse Elegy’ and ‘Sonnet for the Hole in the Glass’; in poems about legacies of trauma like ‘Forgetting Poem,’ ‘Poem with Seams,’ and ‘The Amish Roofers’; and in ‘Swan’ which is a poem about motherhood, loss, and fear. In fact, most of the poems that use these “flights” are about intrusive fear, and how that can be ongoing, without end, not concluded, no happy ending. Often, this means the specific fear that women and minorities feel in their interactions with the world.
In most of the poems, I use em-dashes, though ‘Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe’ uses en-dashes, because that was the way O’Keeffe wrote in her letters, replacing punctuation with Dickinson-like dashes. I favour the long dash though, again because it speaks to me in a particular way. The length of it adds a wrenching feeling, like the little shocks and interrupted thoughts that are experienced after trauma, and I really appreciate Neil Astley allowing me to use the longer dash.
So, to Tony Curtis, I’m sorry that I couldn’t explain all this after the reading that night. I felt so drained after reading that I didn’t really articulate all this very clearly, and I hope that this explains it.