As anyone bothering to read this blog likely knows, my first manuscript is a project-based collection of poems wherein I make use of the prose works of Frederick Law Olmsted as the primary source. For the most part, this means quoting or collaging Olmsted’s language into my poems. Collage as poetic method simply means to lift language from another source and let it become material, language you can construct with, combine, or merge with other language (your own or otherwise). Susany Tichy, a professor at George Mason where I am pursuing my MFA, talks about collaged language as texture. “If you could run your hand over it,” she says, “you would feel it as different.” This, she argues, is true even when you do not visually cite the collaged language by some typographical indicators like italics, bold, or quotations. This is completely true. Olmsted’s mid-19th century prose is certainly different from my 21st century speaker.
Olmsted’s language in this project, however, is also a source. Think of an academic essay, where an author’s language is lifted out of its original context due to the importance of their ideas, and cited directly because paraphrasing seems to sell the idea short. I am committed to honoring Olmsted’s ideas as much as I am interested in his use of language aesthetically, or as different from my own lyric musings. Then the lifted language becomes something the lines in my poems can interact with, revise, adjust, rebut, or find kinship with. Olmsted and I converse in the poems. I maintain his “voice” with single quotation marks ( ‘ ) to indicate his text where this dialogue is present. I hesitate to use the term “voice” in regards to verse. Although poetry has its roots in oral and song tradition, mine is not a voice-based aesthetic. Colloquialisms or speech sounds that mimic the voice I might use on the street is material, one form of language I can insert into the line.
But then, I’ve also pretty much fallen in love with Olmsted’s language, and this might be problemmatic. I very viscerally love it. I turn his phrases around in my head as I am walking. I see a shadow and think of him. I feel him holding my hand when I am standing in a park of his design. This is not Olmsted’s biography I feel so clearly, it is his language and the ideas he presents with it. I know little of his social graces, but everything about his tendency to present verbs in their noun forms. I am often so in love with his sentences I have to force myself to break them for the sake of my line. I often quote more than I collage – I can’t strip the author from the phrse and make the text communal. It is not mine to steal, it is mine to honor. But what do you do when you love something so completely it is difficult to use?
The poet Elizabeth Willis has said devoutly of the source material that makes its way into her work, as researched background or otherwise, that what we read becomes as much of who we are as our families or regional or cultural heritage, if not moreso. I think this might help with this syndrome I feel I am developing. I’ve internalized the source, and from it extends this broader body. I could have used the more probable definition for the title of this post: source (n): A work, etc., supplying information or evidence (esp. of an original or primary character) as to some fact, event, or series of these. Also, a person supplying information, an informant, a spokesman, but not only is the “spring” more poetic, it is more apt. Olmsted is the place from which a flow of [thinking, of lyric, of investigation, of being] takes its beginning.
The question I keep asking myself–the same question I keep getting asked by Sally Keith, my director–is, of course, why? I became interested in architecture and its relationship to poetry in so far as they are both arts so clearly dependent on construction to achieve their aesthetic ends. Landscape architecture, in particular, like poems, eventually becomes out of reach of its origins. Both the poem and the park are designed, have visual elements, but also wilderness, resist stasis, and change across individual experience. I think the poems are something about that… and that might be enough.
2 thoughts on “Source (n): The fountain-head or origin of a river or stream; the spring or place from which a flow of water takes its beginning.”
But, Olmsted is also “an informant, a spokesman” in your appropriation of him, however much that spokesperson status might be refracted by your use of his language. And, he’s a spokesman you’re actively invested in constructing through that appropriation, whether that’s your intention or not. So the status of Olmsted as something other than genealogical font is still a question, and the choice of Olmsted as opposed to…oh, say, Notre…is an important one for your readers if only because of that presencing quality–the adducing of a particular reading of his figure. This is something that I’ve been thinking through a lot as I’ve revised things (when I’ve done so, which is pretty minimal right now). “My Freddy Olmsted” maybe.
So, who is your Freddy Olmsted?
Yes, agreed – Olmsted becomes a sort of “spokesperson” (I like that) as much as he was so in the original context of the work I am pulling from, so in a sense I’m merely RE-constructing his language in a different form (slash era, slash mode, slash occasion). I’ll be pleased, of course, with whatever take my readers can glean from the work, regardless of this “intention” (ugh, the word itself makes me shiver a bit).
I think it’s appropriate that you make allusion to Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, though. I often felt excluded from Howe’s relationship with Dickinson, though – I hope I let the reader in as much as I (perhaps selfishly) engage with the Olmsted all my own.
All in all, Olmsted’s status in the project is always a question. How I am making use/appropriating Olmsted differs depending on the poem, depending on the Olmsted work I am working from, depending on the day I am reading/writing it. Some days I can pull it apart and it has little resemblance to any idea that could come from the man, Olmsted, himself. In a way, the project has become ABOUT the multiple different points of interaction one can take with a text, especially one complicated by a certain kind of kinship. I’ve even written these letters to my Freddy… I don’t think they’ll make it in the manuscript, though. I start to sound like a groupie, I fear 🙂