Exploring Poems as Letters

by Melissa Studdard

There was something about the poem “Dear Selection Committee,” immediately after I finished writing it, that struck me in the same way a rug or painting strikes you when it’s insisting you decorate a room around it. It was bossy, bold, and sassy and ready to tell my other poems what to do. Hence my epistolary poetry collection Dear Selection Committee was born, with the titular poem appearing in front of the table of contents, where, like that rug that makes your blue walls bluer, it could show the reader how to think about the rest of the poems.

It’s not so much that the individual poems are independently epistolary (though some are) as that the book itself acts as a letter to an imaginary hiring committee of which the reader is a member, with the sections and subsections—a job application containing letters of application in Part I and an interview in Part II—lending further direction for interpretation. For example, consider how the poem below can take on an added dimension of humor when included as part of a job application, in a section titled, “Describe Your Management Style & How You Assign Tasks.”

Modus Operandi

I put ranch dressing on the Greek salad. I stand
in my front yard in the rain and yell I’m the biggest
waterfall in this desert. When people invite me
to parties, I say No then show up anyway. I bring
my cat dressed in a graphic t-shirt with an image
of another, more attractive, cat. I tell everyone
I’ve just returned from my honeymoon, and when
they ask to see pictures, I show them the cover
of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. I like kissing
people I don’t know, sending flowers to random
addresses and signing the card Eternally Yours, God. I’m
a window cracked in the rain. My name is
Sitting Down and Standing Back Up for No Reason.
My motto is wings flapping. You should come back
into my room if you miss me. I’ll be there soon.
I’m 1,000 miles away on a different bed.

In an interview I conducted years ago with the poet Marge Piercy, she said if you want to give a good poetry reading you shouldn’t read too many of the same type of poem in close succession, or you might lose your audience. For example, if you read six love poems in a row, audience members will start reflecting on their own love lives, and you’ll lose the connection of the moment. The same can hold true for collections, and for this reason, I loved being able to organize a book in a way that allowed for such diversity of subject matter and tone while remaining cohesive because of its address to “the committee.”

I mention all of this to say that there are so many ways to approach the epistolary through poetry, whether that is book by book, or poem by poem.

In a workshop I teach for 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center’s online program, I try to crack the form open for students through prompts that address concrete objects, abstract concepts, institutions, and various kinds of people in a variety of situations. We look, for instance, at the poems Lucille Clifton wrote to Superman and Clark Kent and then explore writing letters to superheroes or supernatural beings. We look at epistolary poems between poets, like the ones Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil wrote to each other from their gardens and sent through regular postal mail, noting how their styles braid together over time as they address each other.

Although I strive for variety in approaching the form, there are a couple of central consistencies I try to impart to students. The first is that in the same way an ekphrastic poem should go beyond describing a piece of art to itself becoming a piece of art, an epistolary poem needs to serve as more than a letter.

We who practice the craft of poetry are not writing diary entries to squirrel away for our own private reflection later; we write because we want to explore ideas and communicate them to others through a language and medium more powerful than everyday speech. We know poetry sails in on the wind of breath and nests in the body. We know that unlike strictly functional communication, which often flies through and away, poetry arrives pregnant and remains to roost and hatch.

In this same way, an epistolary poem is not just a letter to a person; it is also still very much a poem, and that is something I encourage students to keep in sight through the process of composition, and even more so, in revision. Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil weren’t just checking in with a friend; they were designing, fertilizing, growing, and pruning essential thoughts into vital language to be gifted to a larger audience.

This brings me to the second principle I try to impart—to not be too formal. I don’t know why, but most people’s impulse, when tasked with writing an epistolary poem, or a letter in general, is to become a little more decorous. I don’t even think we know we’re doing it. But the thing is, readers of (epistolary) poetry are not seeking the distance of formality. Like most readers, they’re seeking connection, intimacy, and understanding. If reading a poem is visiting another person’s mind, reading an epistolary poem is visiting another person’s relationship, whether that relationship is to a person, an object, an aspect of self, or something else altogether. So, to me, the fundamental question to consider when writing an epistolary poem is, how are you in intimate relationship with that thing you’re addressing, and how can you invite the reader into the relationship? Or, at the very least, how can you allow them an authentic view into it? How can you make sure the reader receives that undiluted but beautifully wrapped gift?

I want to end by sharing a prompt from my 24PearlStreet class. It’s based on the Lois P. Jones poem, “Foal,” which won the 2017 Bristol Poetry Prize and appears in her book Night Ladder (Glass Lyre Press).

What You Wish You’d Said

“Revenge tries on its black / bridle then drapes it over / the swinging fence,” Lois P. Jones writes in the poem below.

Making us acutely aware of the awesome power of language, the end of the poem reveals that the revenge to be extracted is a single word the enemy must bear and wear. There’s so much seething and unsaid in “Foal,” yet it also says everything.

Your prompt for this poem is to write a message of address / epistolary poem in which you use 2-3 of the following constraints:

  • Say something you never got to say to someone
  • Do not name the person until the end of the poem
  • Let the person know what you wish for them
  • Create a powerful balance of what is said and what is unsaid
  • Use an extended image and/or metaphor to make your point
  • Let the person know what action you will take
  • Refer to an imaginary situation such as a next life, a past life, a parallel universe, a dream, a film starring this person

Please note that your poem does not need to be about revenge or a curse. It certainly can be, but you can choose instead to bless someone or to write about a beautiful act of kindness that you never got to acknowledge. It can even be an apology for something you did that you never got the chance to reveal, or a lie you told that you wish to undo. The point is that you are saying an unsaid thing so powerful that it has been lingering with you ever since you lost the opportunity to say it to the person you wish to address.

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