In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin subscribes to a magazine for chewing gum and it’s funny because of the absurdity of having an entire magazine devoted to the subject of chewing gum. People are interested in all kinds of strangeness and the world is a wonderful place because of it. To read a book of arcana is to know how small a place we occupy in the world, how completely insufficient our idea of normal is.
I know from personal experience what it is to occupy strangeness for a while. I stumbled upon an essay by the poet Heather McHugh, on the medical drawings of Vesalius which, for all their anatomical precision, also had the dead bodies in strange arrangements. From there, I found my way to a classic of literature and science, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. For months, I immersed myself in the version online, until finally I asked a friend to buy me a copy and send it to me.
The idea that emotions resided in certain parts of the body, the list-making, the humour that seemed so exaggerated and overdone to modern ears – all these fascinated and absorbed me.
There is something about the obsessions of others, their urge to detail and classify, that is so very attractive to me. What motivates them? When the rest of our immediate world is so single-mindedly pursuing the minutae of daily living, so succinctly expressed in the term rat race, what are they doing giving their lives and time over to something so outside of the common experience? And – most importantly for us this month – how can we participate, even if for a little while?
This month, I would like you to immerse yourself in one book of strangeness. It could be any one of the thousands available to read for free on Gutenberg; it could be something you own at home – a manual of carpentry, a book on palm reading or mountain climbing, a treatise on ushering souls to the afterlife. It could be as much about a vanished world as it is about a world we can’t yet see. It should be something you wouldn’t otherwise pick to read.
Whatever it is, I would like you to pick a book – one single book – and use that as the book upon which you will build your poem. You can dip into it at random and read a page; you can read a few chapters. Spend two or three days out of the two weeks at your disposal, just reading and immersing yourself in your chosen book. Make notes if you like, or write down words and phrases. Think about what made you choose this book.
After a few days of immersion, write the first draft of the poem. Your poem must also be about the subject of the book. You can use the subject metaphorically or literally but make it function on several levels. Do something with your poem that the book could not. Try out variations: is there a person in the poem? Why is she necessary? Is the poem instructional, descriptive? How can you make the strange seem normal?
Put away your draft and return to the book. Read from a section you haven’t yet read. Read the end of the book. Now look at your poem again and rework it in light of what you have read. What do you want your poem to do? In what way is the book you have read the parent of the poem you are writing? Look at every word choice, line, and line length and work on your poem minutely and with great attention to the small things.
Above all, don’t be easily satisfied. A fortnight’s time will always result in a draft rather than a finished poem, but it can be a very good draft rather than one that merely resembles a poem.
When you are sure you can’t do any better in the time you have left, send in your entries – which must be twenty lines or under – to email@example.com by the July 20. I look forward to your entries this month.