In this month’s “Tell Me About It,” I enlisted friend, former writer’s group member, musician, author and poet extraordinaire Al Rocheleau to talk about the craft of poetry…and he didn’t disappoint. This week in Part 2, we look at the cross-sensing aspects of synesthesia, relationship of music to poetry, the most important thing to consider before publishing, and, of course, Al’s groundbreaking course, “The Twelve Chairs.”
Al’s poems have appeared in over 40 magazines in the United States, Canada, the U.K., France, Austria, and Poland. His work has been read on WMFE, an affiliate of National Public Radio, and can be seen at Internet sites as diverse as the Surratt House Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Saint Bernadette Institute of Sacred Art in New Mexico. His teaching articles are archived in resource databases of numerous colleges, high schools, and middle schools. For many years, Al hosted popular online workshops and served as Poetry Editor and Senior Columnist at Amazing Instant Novelist, a writers’ site sponsored by America
Online. In 2004, Al received the Thomas Burnett Swann Award from the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Association. He has lectured at Emerson College, the University of Massachusetts, and for many writer’s groups including the Florida Writers Association. In 2010 his poetry manual, On Writing Poetry: For Poets Made As Well As Born, was published by Shantih Press. It has been distributed to school and public libraries through Follett Library Resources and is also available from Amazon.com. In 2012, Al developed and launched “The Twelve Chairs” seminar program, offering a 180-hour course in poetry writing for poets of all levels. Al is a member of the Florida State Poets Association and resides in Orlando, Florida.
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LW: I was intrigued to learn years ago that you have synesthesia. For those who aren’t familiar with the condition, could you describe how your senses differ from the average person’s? Is the condition more common among “creative types”? Does it affect your creative process?
AR: I think we are all creative types in our own way. And I think we all have synesthesia to a greater or lesser extent. It simply means we can sense across the various channels we usually assign to one external organ. Those who experience this effect cross senses all the time; it is natural to such people, and they can be tested for a phenomenon that goes a bit further with them than with most.
This is the ability to “see sound, especially music,” “to taste a painting,” “to feel a sculpture as we view it from a distance” and so forth. There are different types of responses; many synesthetes see two-dimensional things as three, and are especially sensitive to the shapes of symbols, which evoke colors. Not the “idea” of colors – actual colors, to a greater or lesser degree. As a result, most synesthetes have an “alphabet.” Most of us knew this about ourselves from our earliest years – it was “just the way things are.” A synesthete can tell you what color his letter “e” is, which is different, say, from the letter “s.” Each color is of a particular shade: a synesthete would need more than Crayola’s 64-crayon box to tell you about his exact color alphabet. When a synesthete sees a word, there’s a tendency to experience a myriad of colors according to the word’s construction.
It’s interesting, however, that no two alphabets among synesthetes tend to be alike. I assign this to the fact that every person, not just those who might be considered synesthetes, lives and senses an external, physical universe from within our own, singular universe. In other words, there’s your universe, my universe, and the physical one in which we appear to live and agree upon. Seen as circles, where the three universes intersect is where we have the agreements of our symbolic communication, and where we create and respond to the arts. Because we are all different in this way, I’m not surprised that each synesthete’s colors are not the same, yet I also understand that we see the colors, do so instantaneously, and that our own colors never change throughout our lives. (This is one of the factors that is easily and irrefutably tested, and the University of Texas has a remarkable website in which one can test oneself.)
All that said, I still believe everyone has this ability to some extent. I think it is where our response to “dark and light” music comes from, as well as our gravitation to metaphor – that idea of transfer of not only images and action, but of sensation itself as we perceive it.
As for what it all does to the creative process, I’m not sure. Arthur Rimbaud, Vladimir Nabokov, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatole Scriabin, Leonard Bernstein, even Jimi Hendrix, had it in volume. I suppose the ability to keep the senses “wide open” might expand both sonic and metaphoric possibilities for a poet; I know that even in free verse, I tend to “paint” with sound, with assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme. I use the various vowel sounds, dark and light, hard and soft, like actual paint, so I suppose there’s something to that.
LW: Earlier this year I became acquainted with the term “poetry therapy,” which brought a smile to my face before I read about how valid a tool it can be. Have you ever used words to heal or be healed?
AR: Haven’t we all used poetry as personal catharsis, as problem solving, as celebration, as a tool of mourning? And haven’t we been called upon here and there to act as a channel or shaman to effect such emotional and metal wringing from the affairs of others? It’s what poets do. It’s what children do easily; it’s what, even if we have forgotten how to be children, to display our emotions, to wonder in reverie, to arrange our images playfully – we aspire to return to, to what we felt and thought as children, and with that purity. So yes, poetry can be real therapy, to a lonely senior, to a grieving wife or mother, to a war veteran, to anyone. Poetry heals in its reading or its writing. The poetic utterance, and lift of the poetic wave across the arts, is a balm of mind and soul alike.
LW: Like many writers, you’re also a musician. What’s your take on the connection between the two disciplines?
AR: Poetry is music, music is poetry. I once wrote an essay with that title which is not only in my book “On Writing Poetry,” but before that volume appeared, the essay had already been “borrowed” from the Internet and had bounced around schools and writers’ group sites from the States to France to Tokyo. Really, there was nothing in that essay except common sense. Poetry began as song, from the Bhagavad Gita, from Ecclesiastes, from Homer and Pindar, and it is still song, whether Dylan Thomas or Bob Dylan, with or without accompanying instruments.
You know that I tell my poets to listen to the nocturnes of Chopin 100 times, whether in the forefront or as ambient music, in order to absorb the tone colors of pieces in various major and minor keys, to pick up the elasticity of rhythm, especially that stretching of the beat called rubato, as well and the dynamics of loud and soft. Even without musical accompaniment, the long and short vowels, as well as the hard or soft sounds of various consonants, create wavelengths just as does the shiver of piano strings, or air through a flute. We make music when we recite poetry, and because of the unique properties of the human mind we also can read symbols off the page and still hear the music laden in the printed words.
When I play a Robert Johnson or Skip James tune on the guitar, or noodle on the keyboard with inaccurate counterpoint, or even when I listen to the performances of recordings played from a collection of 6,000 discs of all types, the poetry within the music – not only lyrics, but also lyrics – in fact, all of it, comes to me as poetry. And with that inspiration, it hopefully returns to my own verse, and can be picked up by others.
LW: Let’s talk about publishing for a moment. I’m not sure how much respect there is for poetry in this country today, and when it came time to do my own first book, I ran up against voices ranging from “a chapbook is a great way to establish yourself as a poet” to “what does it mean to have a book few readers would ever come across on their own?” Still another felt that there were already too many manuscripts out there already…all of which left me with the question, is it even worthwhile to print a collection today? What advice would you give poets thinking about publication?
AR: Oh, there’s that word again, chapbook. It’s a book, and yours happens to be a very good one. As you did, finally, when you are ready to publish, you publish. Whether its on your own, or through a publisher that takes the manuscript, there is a time to publish that’s individual to you. I think it might be wise to submit packets of poems to various journals first and pick up a few credits. Not only will it make you feel good, it establishes that somebody else has been interested in your work all along. In any event, the big thing is not to worry about all the other manuscripts out there, how little it might sell, or anything else. In the end, it’s about THE WORK. If it’s good enough, and you have enough of it, it certainly deserves to be in print. In fact, it must be in print.
Just make sure you have made those poems the best they can be, and if you need to work them some more, even if you need to learn HOW to work them to perfection, take the time to do so. No one’s pressing you for your collection. First, know that your work is GOOD. Poets sometimes go gaga over the popular poet-du-jour, and want to be like him or her. For me, even when I look at those minor celebrities, large fish in very small ponds, it still comes down to how good the WORK is – this work, here, now, not who the poet is, or who somebody says they are. The work speaks for itself – only the work. I have seen “name” poets publish absolute drivel in some of the most recognizable journals in the country, and it was clear the work was accepted on the basis of perceived status rather than on the quality of the poems. So as much as one might ask, “am I ready to publish?”, I wish some of the poets who’ve “made it” would ask themselves that same question regarding a poem or poems at hand, and publish based not on a reputation derived from some source, not on the fact that they can publish here or there, but rather, to assess and be assessed on the strength of the poems themselves. If you have strong work, get it out there, get it in journals of your selection and then, when you think you’re ready, in your own collection.
LW: You’ve gained a lot of knowledge of your craft over the years, and fortunately you’re not the type to hoard it. Tell us about “The Twelve Chairs” program you designed and recently took through its inaugural year.
AR: The project that has come to be known as “The Twelve Chairs” began with a desire to expand the material contained in the book, On Writing Poetry, into a comprehensive, practical course. It’s targeted for poets seeking to broaden the craft, scope and voice contained in their work, and to make use of all available resources to achieve those ends. There are no prerequisites; a new poet could take this course as easily as a published, working poet. It covers everything, and I would hope in a refreshing way. I teach through the many disciplines, not just writing, and every seminar touches somehow on the breadth of the humanities, and on the arts specifically. But it isn’t dry; we have fun doing it, never forgetting that our urge to create came from the workings of reverie and imagination as children. As a result, my poets are just as likely to make a three-dimensional poem out of Legos as they are to discuss rhetorical devices. And, my poets read and absorb centuries of master poetry, since those masters teach by example on every page they penned.
It is expected that by the end of the course each poet will have expanded his or her public outreach and publishing options via placement in quality journals and/or development and completion of their own book projects. Or, they’ll just know and love poetry a whole lot more than when they started. It’s called the Twelve Chairs because the classes are limited to twelve students, and the poets are hand-picked, not by reputation or proficiency level, but by their purpose and desire to learn. That is how they earn their “Chair.” I have high school students and septuagenarians in the same class, new poets and very well-published ones. They all come for what they need and want to get their work to a higher level or a certain goal.
I’ve had college professors tell me that the material that is in the Twelve Chairs syllabus has never been presented as one ambitious, sequential whole to anyone – and that includes the content of many MFA poetry programs. While many other poets and teachers could have done this, and many have certainly done parts of it, it takes a lot of time and commitment. You have to do this while not pursuing much writing on your own. I’m at that stage of life I guess, and I want to do it, to give back as I was given to, and to share the progress and experiences of forty years of writing poetry. After all, I could drop dead tomorrow! And outside of the poems themselves, wherever they are out there still, and the few books, there would be nothing more of permanence to show for a life in poetry. So it’s worth it to me to push the issue, to actually make this program available as long as I have students that want it, and as long as I or others are available to deliver it.
LW: Any final words of advice to wannabe poets, already poets, or those just wondering what the heck poetry really is?
AR: Poetry is life; it is humanity; it’s the physical universe shimmering before you in a way too many too often miss. If you don’t write poetry, read it. The poetic wave lifts, as it does from all art, and the amazing effects of aesthetics, so close to pure spirituality, will enhance your life. If you’re going to write poems, and we’re all capable of writing good ones, take the time to do it right. Learn technique and gain perspective. Resources are out there. “The Twelve Chairs” is here now. Learn about the traditions and history of poetry, and bring the master poets alive for yourself. Moreover, bring them back alive for them (they earned that much), as you will do every time you read one of their poems, silently or aloud. What you gain will make you want to read even more, and write more, and better. In the end, poets write because they have to– within, it fills a need of both the mind and the heart; without, it reflects and effects the world at large. Yes, it’s work, and the vocation can seem thankless at times– but it has to be done, because the world will always, one way or another, require it. And in the end, it’s what you do. No one says you have to do it, but you know you do. So do it well.
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For more information on The Twelve Chairs program, contact Al at ARRO40@aol.com or call 407-592-4527. “On Writing Poetry” is available from Follett Library Resources and Amazon.com.