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CHALLENGES AND EVOLUTIONS IN ORPHANS - Joan Cusack Handler

CHALLENGES AND EVOLUTIONS IN ORPHANS

June 20, 2016

Now that Orphans is published and no longer mine alone, I’m feeling a bit lonely. I don’t have my ‘baby’ to tend to anymore (and that truly is a loss after so many months/(years!!) of obsessing,) and I certainly don’t have my next project in mind nor do I have room for it emotionally–that will take time.  And though Orphans is still center for me, now it belongs to its readers. So I’m delighted when one of them/(you?) leaves a question, or comment, about the book or poetry or writing. It’s a better treat than chocolate. Or pizza. We’ve included a response button at the end of every blog piece posted, so feel free. I’d love to hear from you. Let’s start a conversation.

I mentioned feeling lonely, how so? you may ask. It’s been a strange month—no readings since the book party, so I’ve felt somehow cut off until last Wednesday evening when I had the honor of reading at the American Irish Historical Society. There were three poets reading–Chris Cahill (Executive Director of the Society) and his poet collaborator friend, John Lilly, both of whom delighted us by reading alternately “Math”, their poem in many parts, each ending with the line ‘do the math.’ The result: a banquet of sumptuous language, humor and thought. Very Irish indeed. A natural team—as if literary brothers –their voices, both distinct, blend gracefully together. Thank you to Chris for creating the event and inviting me to participate.

To prepare for that reading, I reread Ophans several times and chose the poems that would form the arc of the reading. Then I rehearsed several times over the next few days. I’ve never done that before—I usually start thinking about what I want to read a few days before but only rehearse an hour or two on the day of the reading. And because I can never make up my mind, I don’t make final choices until I’m actually reading. Though the readings generally go fine, I’m usually anxious throughout.

I wanted it to be different this time. And it was. I gave the book, myself and my listeners the benefit of extended preparation which set me at ease and made it easier for me to make contact with the audience.  In the reception that followed several people asked about the architecture of Orphans—the central question: Was writing in 3 voices the biggest challenge of writing the book? My answer, a somewhat shortened version of what follows.

Writing in three voices was not the most challenging aspect of the project. Rather it was one of form. What initially had been prose sections collated and finessed from conversations with both of my parents that I had taped, were transcribed in prose and seemed initially to be natural to their speech, eventually became poems. The original shape of the book involved my parents each having prose sections and I one of poetry. A friend who loved the book in this form commented casually that someday she’d love to hear my parents’ voices in poems. Though she wasn’t asking me to make the change with Orphans but with some future writing, it immediately hit me that I had to try it with Orphans. When a strong reader suggests a way to strengthen one’s work, we have to pay attention. So I went back to the drawing board and set out to see if I could make poems of my parents’ words.

Finding the line and form for each of them was a wonderful creative and learning experience. I started out, not surprisingly, attempting to fit them into my signature form which for those of you who know my poetry follows the emotional tone of the voice and therefore calls for a variety of placements on the page and the use of the whole page as the space in which the poem is brought to life. I believe that words are alive and that they have multiple ways of enhancing each other based on the way they are placed on the page. It’s not in any way traditional except in its intent—to recreate the voice on the page. This is how my poems speak. How I speak. But I soon found out that it’s not how my parents speak. It amazed me to discover that my parents’ voices would not follow/mimic mine– that each had a voice of his/her own that would best be transmitted in more traditional lines and form. After much exploration, I discovered that the form natural to my mother was couplets; for my father, who refused to speak in couplets, it was traditional lines in longer stanzas of irregular length. Need I say that I was exhilarated when these forms unveiled themselves to me.   

Finding the poetry or rather releasing the poetry in my parent’s voices and committing it to lines pleased me more than any other aspect of creating this book. As most would agree the Irish accent and vocabulary are very musical, and, as I found out, are all the more musical and natural unfolded in lines. To find the poetry in them and join it with my own was/is an enormous gift to myself and to my parents. This book presents my parents as real people—complete with all their flaws and graces; I’d be remiss if I didn’t showcase the beauty of their voices.

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