To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.
The form of the letter invites us to re-envision ourselves and the world via intimate address. It allows us to bring the unknown a little closer and to breathe new life into the seemingly familiar, which always makes me feel more open and less anxious. Letters are immediately accessible while also providing ample space for nuanced thought and complex conversation.
The letter poem may act as an enabling constraint. It can create a flickering frame, a simple structure for thinking and speaking that establishes connections and provisional boundaries. It implies relationships. It functions as a site of expression but also as a tool for discovery.
The poetic letter can hybridize genres, sometimes developing a narrative, other times engaging the lyric fragment or a striking image. It creates a dialogue between presence and absence. It can create a place to inhabit and to explore one’s own thought patterns. I also think of the letter as a form that can embrace vulnerability and uncertainty. Writing “Dear ___” is a way of moving toward something or someone. It can lead to an embrace, a confrontation, or both.
As Ron Padgett writes in The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms:
“In a poem, anything can happen, so you don’t have to limit yourself to letters you might normally write. You can write epistles to a grandmother who died, to your dog or cat, to a cactus, a cloud, or a baseball glove. The trick is just to keep in mind who or what you are writing to and what they might be interested in.”
Exercise part 1: Make a list of people, living or dead, known or unknown to you, famous, infamous, or anonymous, that you would consider an addressee for a letter poem. Generate as many possibilities as you can in five minutes. NOTE: Fiction/non-fiction writers might consider adding to this list a character/person from a current writing project.
Exercise part 2: Pick one of the people from the list that you generated, address them “Dear _______” and write them a letter. It’s okay if it’s messy. It’s okay if it jumps around. Just write as much as you can. This can be an early version of something you will work more on later
FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS FOR YOUR LETTER
You can use these questions to try different combinations of approaches to the letter poem.
MUSIC, REPETITION, AND TRANSFORMATION
Here are a couple of recordings that emphasize sonic play and musical repetition and variation within the letter form:
Michael Gizzi, "Dear Double Jehovah"
Ange Mlinko, "Classical Music"
In Gizzi’s poem, the sounds of words themselves become the subject of the letter. However, there are occasionally more direct moments such as “Absence finds a way of being there.” Gizzi is a good poet to look at for the range of his vocabulary. Part of the pleasure of the poem is the way that his sounds and ideas collide against one another, clanging and mutating. Mlinko’s poem oscillates between several addressees, so much so that the repetitions of the salutation become a form of music. Here, the somewhat stable formal framework implied by the letter becomes a jumping off point. These poems value the energy of surprise and transformation.
Chain, Issue 6: Letters
CAConrad, "Dear Mr President" (2 poems with the same title)
Harmony Holiday, "Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues"
More from this series
The Word was in the beginning but it is made of letters.Prompt #40—giovanni singleton
Write in NaturePrompt #39—Oogie Push
Real FoodPrompt #38—Joan Kane
You Don't Need Proust to Smell GoodPrompt #37—Elizabeth Hoover
Find Your Own FormPrompt #36—Sawako Nakayasu
Tarot Recall: A Visionary Exercise for the PresentPrompt #35—Laurence Ross
Queers in Love at the End of the WorldPrompt #34—CJ Scruton
WORKBOOK FOR CHANGE: TWO PROMPTSPrompt #33—Kate Schapira
Preparation for the PromptPrompt #32—Lisa Fishman
Collage Your Own Writing PromptPrompt #31—Helen Hofling
Prepared StatementPrompt #30—Mike Hauser
Repeat Repeat WritePrompt #29— Lewis Freedman
Poetic CorrespondencePrompt #28—Eric Baus
EKPHRASIS YOURSELFPrompt #27—Jennifer Nelson
POETRY IS FOR THE PEOPLEPrompt #26—Angela Trudell Vasquez
MAIL ARTPrompt #25—Siwar Masannat
VISUAL POSTCARDSPrompt #24—Portia Cobb
A [LONGER-TERM] DEEP LISTENING PROMPTPrompt #23—Jibade-Khalil Huffman
Humor as Medicine for the SoulPrompt #22—Mauricio Kilwein Guevara
Personification: A Social Justice PromptPrompt #21—Derrick Harriell
Ponge ExercisePrompt #20—Tyrone Williams
Occult DocupoesisPrompt #19—Kimberly Alidio
Junk Drawer SongPrompt #18—Hoa Nguyen
TALK TO THE POETSPrompt #17—Stacy Szymaszek
Make-Do Origin Stories & Concrete FuturesPrompt #16—Ching-In Chen
The Family PhotographPrompt #15—Rosa Alcalá
Writing Advice for Your Younger SelfPrompt #14—E.J. Koh
Note(s) to SelfPrompt #13—Stacy Blint
Embracing ConfusionPrompt #12—Bryon Cherry
Writing/Playing the ArchivePrompt #11—Jay Besemer
CAPTURED & FREEDPrompt #10—Dasha Kelly Hamilton
Poetic Exit StrategiesPrompt #9—Ana Božičević
Proyecto ConbífPrompt #8—Erick "CK" Ledesma
TRILOGYPrompt #6—CA Conrad
Utopian CompromisePrompt #7—Paul Druecke
A Series of RoomsPrompt #5—Laura Solomon
Two Variations on N+7Prompt #4—Jenny Gropp
T H E A P A R T / TOGETHERPOEMPrompt #3—Margaret Rozga
An Exercise in WindowsPrompt #2—Marla Sanvick
Erasuring AnxietyPrompt #1—Peter Burzynski
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