Alaimo O’Donnell is a poet and professor at Fordham University in New York City
where she teaches English and Creative Writing. She also serves as Associate
Director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.
Her most recent book is Saint Sinatra & Other Poems, a collection of rogue saints’ lives (Word Press, 2011). Previous books include Moving House (2009), and two chapbooks: Mine (2007) and Waiting for Ecstasy (2009). Her poems have appeared in many journals, including America, Comstock Poetry Review, Concho River Review, First Things, Hawaii Pacific Review, Italian Americana, Mezzo Cammin, New Texas, Pedestal, Post Road, Potomac Review, RUNES, St. Katherine Review, The Nepotist.org, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net Award, and was a finalist for the Foley Poetry Award, the Elixir First Book Award, and the Mulberry Poets & Writers Award.
In addition to poetry, O’Donnell has written a one-act play, “Melvilliana,” performed at the Metropolitan Theatre in New York’s East Village (2009). Her essays and reviews have appeared in journals such as America, Commonweal, Mezzo Cammin, Studies in Philology, and Christianity & Literature and have been collected in a variety of anthologies.
For more information, visit her website: http://angelaalaimoodonnell.com/.
Statement of Poetics
Several times a week, I sit down with a blank piece of paper and play at making
poems. I use the word “play” instead of “work” as it conveys the paradox of
poetry as the exercise of freedom in the face of constraint. “Play” suggests the
challenge of discovering ways to subvert the rules of the game, even as I
observe them—to figure out how to use limitations to my advantage. “Work,” on
the other hand, connotes duty, dullness, and drudgery--none of which (happily)
has much to do with poetry. (Full disclosure: it also helps that I don’t get
paid to write.)
Though I’m sure there are writers who make poems in solitude and silence, I don’t. In fact, I’m talking most of the time. I do this, mostly, so I can hear what the poems are saying and whether or not they sing. But I also do this to remind myself that when I write I am with someone.
W. H. Auden once said that poetry is a way of “breaking bread with the dead,” and he’s right. All of the poems I’ve ever fallen in love with—and all of the poets who wrote them, dead and alive—are in the room with me as I write. They are informing the language I choose to use, the music of my lines, and the timbre of my voice, even as they stretch the limits of my vision. They are the Company I Keep, and in return for their long and good companionship, I offer them my own poems, bring them to the table at which we break our (un)common bread.
Speaking, singing, and listening to my own poems serves to remind me of the constant, yet invisible, presence of The Reader, whomever he or she may be. Just as surely as there are readers who fall in love with poetry, there are poets writing poems with the specific purpose of wooing them. I know this because I am one of them. (Robert Frost once said of the process of writing poetry, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” He might also have added, “No love in the writer, no love in the reader.”) Within this dynamic, poetry becomes a gesture, a set of signs and symbols expressing the shared humanity of reader and writer—concepts expressed through the material substances of book and ink, paper and pen—and so aspires to the condition of sacrament. (Full disclosure: I am a helpless Cradle Catholic. We are taught young to talk this way.)
Any effort to define one’s Poetics (with a capital “P”) is doomed to fall short, and this brief essay is no exception to that mighty rule. One reason for this inevitable failure is that Poetry (like Love) is an abstraction, whereas true poetry (like true love) is found in the flesh-and-breath experience of it. Given this, it somehow seems fitting that I finally resort to poetry to elucidate my practice of Poetry, and close this meditation with a poem.
“I feel that the Godhead is broken up like bread at the supper,
and we are the pieces.” –Melville, Letter to Hawthorne, Nov 17, 1851
I’m a Sicilan woman
and my poems say mangia!
I want to feed you
bread and wine, fruit and feast,
blessed and broken words
to chew, chew, chew.
I want you to eat them
purely for pleasure,
to put your lips around p,
crack k’s with your crowns,
roll l’ s across your taste-budded tongue,
to swallow sweet & easy
the meal of your life.
For it is what your body craves,
your heart sorely wants,
what your gut loves.
It is lies & truth, death & life,
what you have always
and have never known.
It is itself and you besides,
every thing & no thing at all.
It stuffs you full and leaves you
heavy, hungry, starved for more.
It makes you glad.
It troubles your sleep.
It is my body & my blood.
Here. Take. Eat.
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