Guest Post, Dara Elerath: Going by Way of the Unknown

Writing poetry requires us to get away from the rote maps of meaning we follow in our daily lives and enter our imaginations. There are many ways of doing this, but one of the most helpful I’ve found is to focus on a subject I am not particularly knowledgeable about and have little to no emotional stake in. I don’t mean areas of expertise that are not my own, like cellular biology, beekeeping or astrophysics. I mean small things: words or objects I encounter that do not appear to carry great weight or significance. Certain objects, like knives, are so laden with symbolism that it seems almost impossible to approach them without invoking particular narratives; however, other, less freighted objects retain their mystery because they’re often overlooked. They exist in shadows—dropped under one’s desk, forgotten in a drawer or hidden beneath a pile of papers. An eraser, for example, is a small, functional piece of rubber that we’ve all likely interacted with on numerous occasions, but have probably never had reason to give much thought to. It embodies the concept of erasure, of course, but erasure on a small scale. I think of times I used one as a child—when trying to learn cursive, or when sketching figures in a notebook; otherwise, the object is not associated with any moment of great importance in my life. For me, these things make it an ideal starting point for a poem.

This brings me to the approach I took when writing “Oriflamme.” Instead of an object, I began with a word I did not know the meaning of (it was not oriflamme, incidentally, but another word with similar qualities). I chose it because it was not associated with any crucial stories or memories in my life; it was merely a series of syllables that pleased my ear. Granted, there may have been certain ideas the sound evoked, or echoes of other words that informed my thinking, but, on the whole, it was a sealed box I had to open by way of language. Knowing only the music of the syllables I was compelled to use my sonic imagination; instead of following a particular narrative thread, I imagined possible definitions of the word by following the syntax of the language and the sounds of the words, looking for rhymes, slant rhymes and patterns that might guide me towards meaning. I used this same approach when writing “{ }”; taking a mathematical symbol I had little knowledge of, I began to make associations with it visually. Over time I’ve come to realize that the more my sonic or visual imagination is engaged, the more elastic my thoughts grow; at such moments the language of metaphor and figuration comes to me naturally. 

Our minds want to make meaning; they want to recite, over and over, the particular myths and stories that constitute the logic of our lives. If we write expressively and choose a conduit through which to channel this poetic thought—be it a crumb, a pair of hands, or a beetle—these stories will begin to manifest themselves. The key thing is to surprise ourselves, and this is most possible when what we’re describing is somewhat unknown to us. Chances are that the image or sound will trigger some associated thoughts that, if we follow them deftly, will guide us down towards deeper meaning. There is also the fact that we experience these everyday things—an eraser, an orange, a word—tactilely and intimately, by the way an eraser feels in our palms, the way an orange smells and tastes, or the way letters look as our eyes move across them on the page. We can use these simple, physical facts to anchor our writing in reality and sensory detail. These objects and words (if we are speaking of words with definitions we choose to remain ignorant of) can have as much or as little meaning as we elect to ascribe to them, whereas the subject of one’s parents or other high-stakes topics come with expectations that we may be inclined to lean into. Often, the sentiments and ideas that emerge when I write about subjects of known importance tend towards the cliché, as though I’m merely reflecting back the many stories about birthdays, death, pet dogs, and so on, that I’ve heard or seen over the years, instead of discovering anything new about myself. 

Going by way of my own unknowing (innocence with regards to the self might be another way of thinking about it) is certainly not the only way to approach poetry, but it helps me to overcome the cultural and personal maps of reality that I’m used to orienting myself by. It allows me to become disoriented, to discover the secret mythologies that my psyche is always trying to find a way to speak. Because the self is small and the heart is vulnerable, the smaller, more vulnerable and lesser known objects (in my experience) often make the best conduits through which to pull the weight of the tender and diffident psyche.

Dara Elerath

Dara Elerath

Dara Elerath earned her MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, AGNI, Poet Lore, The Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, Plume and elsewhere. Her first book, The Dark Braid, was chosen by Doug Ramspeck as the winner of the John Ciardi Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from BkMk Press in 2020.
Dara Elerath

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