Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Canadian Feature—Issue 53, May 2015)

Natalie Simpson
The mechanics of thrum

  1. For me, poetics is process. Writing without premeditated themes, ideas, or images: the work begins in the moment of writing. My processes include free writing that engages with language non-representationally and pays close attention to sound and rhythm and energy within the sentence, often in dialogue with phrases from other poets. I also use found poetry as a process, recontextualizing snippets of language from other discourses, such as news, advertising, and law. I write to a tradition which begins with Gertrude Stein and includes many contemporary Canadian and American poets, such as Lisa Robertson, Harryette Mullen, Anne Carson, Dorothy Lusk, Dennis Lee, Nicole Brossard and Juliana Spahr.
  2. Having nothing to say, and finding out the shape of that nothing. Accreting. It starts with sound and leads to sound and piling on sound. It tries to tap into rhythm. It tries to mine an impulse.
  3. I write from a notion of being a conduit, of being moved by. Of the ineffable workings of my mind, of my affect, of my particular bent of language. It may be solipsistic. It may be narcissistic. I want to be shocked into a heightened state of feeling by the electric shivers between words, by the click and pulse of phrases, turns and jags in the text. I want to feel wonder. I want to hope. I want to feel a pearl swell in my throat, I want to have a feeling of knowing beauty. I want to feel excited and devastated, ripped into. I use language to gouge into me and placate. It’s a high hum just below my brain pan, pings at my skull. It’s a deep low wave, gut pull. It’s something between words, something beyond words. The words together give it form. This is why meaning never really matters; whatever meaning the words could make comes second to this power.
  4. Beauty. Frisson. Erotics. Of the new. Erotics of the improbable.
  5. Words are sensuous, they have a tactility that is not erotic but pleasurable. This is the pleasure of pressing a bruise or tonguing a sore, this is the pleasure of digging toes into sand, of swiping condensation on a cold window, of swirling uncooked rice in water. Words have weight, and temperature.
  6. A beautiful sentence will intensely vibrate like a struck tuning fork. I’m uneasy with musical metaphors, because I don’t want to subsume poetry under a rubric of things that attempt to be like music. Poetry is not a poor substitute for music, just as Gertrude Stein’s writing is not a subset of Cubism. But the tuning fork simile gets at the sudden and striking inevitability of the perfect sentence as its elements slide into place.
  7. How to write a clean, strong line. How to frame. Propulsion. How to recognize an energy of. How to build, how to harness. Often so utterly without thrum. So far away from. What to do in the meantime. Formulate assonance. Strip rhythm. Word upon word. A trailing. A burstness. Plum rush. The mechanics of thrum. The driver. A range of translation. From ineffable to solid. Into language. Into texture.
  8. I’m in thrall to the word thrum. It began to resonate for me after I read about Dennis Lee’s idea of “cadence”, a sort of polyphonic vibration making its way to words through a poet’s concentration: “the indelible thrum”. I conceptualize my relationship to poetry in similar terms, as external pulse interiorized, an energy that I have the good fortune to interact with. It occurs to me that I can’t leave out gratitude. I’m grateful for this language, for this relationship to language that I’ve found my way to.
  9. Thrum is rhythmic, insistent, consistent, soothing, immersive, underlying, variable, ecstatic, wilful, blatant, or calm. I think of thrum as an essential quality of my poetry; the word has become a shorthand for me when I edit my drafts. Those phrases and sentences that make the cut have thrum; they have an important energy and a strangeness that excites me, that makes me want to share them.
  10. Thrum’s second meaning also resonates with my poetics. Thrum is stray fringe on woven cloth, unincorporated bits, ragged edge.
  11. Come to language with reverence, with awe and gratitude. Overwhelmed with language, with certain phrasings that open, with certain sounds that click. Broken open by words. To be a supplicant, a receiver. Come to language hopeful. Willful, and plain. Come to language with an itch. Terrible, and scriptured. Come to language doubting. A cynical ambivalence. Need and tenuousness. Desire but also deflection. Quick to resist.
  12. It makes me anxious, the open possibilities of word sequence. I’m afraid to write the word that isn’t the right word, the word that could have been the catalyst. I’m afraid to close down the writing, to cut short. The idea of discovery – of writing as exploration – doesn’t relieve any of my anxiety. I could still discover wrong. There’s much I could miss. Resting a poetics entirely in the new, the strange, the frisson of syntactic surprise, places too much weight on discoveries, eventual and necessary. Failure is always lurking. Turgidity and repetition. Same rhythm, same sequence. I try to write bold, adventurous, accepting. I try to trick myself into detachment, or lack of concern.
  13. “To get at turn away.” Making sense is not the same as making meaning. Gertrude Stein knew that any two words together must lead to meaning making. But we can also be seduced away from meaning to sound and texture and absence. Lack can be a comfort. We can find refuge in disordered language, in the alternative logic of poetic devices. Sound and rhythm. Syntax and punctuation. Tension in the sentence. Torque. Making strange is making sense. Placing pressure on language until it reveals its absurdities and its uncertainties. We can find beauty here, and hope. The writing records a poetics of process. The act of writing is a movement towards, an opening.