Tuesday, October 1, 2013

John A. Nieves on "Spin-the-Globe Charades"

The Stakes of the Game

“Spin-the-Globe Charades” began as a kind of willful hallucination one summer afternoon. I wondered about the potential for games to connect playful imagination and the historiographical impulse to selectively narrate that often ends in distorted romanticism. I thought back to my childhood, when my little sister and I would pore over atlases wondering what places with names we couldn’t even say right were like. What did the kids play there? What was their favorite dessert? Of course, we were na├»ve to think dessert was universal, or even could be. A few years later, this game morphed into globe spinning. I would give my junior high’s library globe a spin once a week, then look up everything I could about where my finger had landed. Much of the time, that was ocean and I had to spin again—once six times before I hit land. The truth of the matter is that I was not really looking up places as much as the people who lived and died in them.

For the poem’s project, I imagined collapsing those steps as a kind of surrealistic game of charades. After the idea began to solidify, I went to my campus library and spun the globe until I hit land four times. The number four probably came from my seasonal mindset—I was working on a full moon sequence (one section of which, “Harvest Moon,” also appears in the new BPJ). Now I had material. I would research these four places then sketch them at specific moments in time. To assert the inexactitude of these vignettes (the amnesia of history about the details of the lives of those who lived it), I would withhold the identity of the places. I kept my eye peeled for both the beauty and the terror in each location I chose.

Then I began to tackle the problem of form. What shape would best deliver my hallucination, accenting both the rigidity of time/space and the mutability of historiography and memory? Again, I returned to the moon series. I decided that I would ground the poem in the dependability of the seasons. Each of the four sections (seasons) would have three stanzas, one for each of its full moons. I wanted regular stanzas to add a level of scaffolding to the quickly shifting images within them. The poem got unruly in drafts before I instituted that formal restriction. In the end, I settled on tercets for the unsettling effect they had; I did not want something as solid as quatrains or as reliably wispy as couplets. After I had found the shape of the poem, I created the image pool for each section, then laid the image pool on the frame of the game. It was difficult to strike the right balance between the game parlor time/space and the geo-historical time/spaces. I went through dozens of drafts before I felt sure I had reached the necessary balance.

At this point, it was four months after the idea struck me on that sweaty afternoon. I had a poem, but I did not have a title, and the asterisks separating the sections were not doing anything for the poem. I then began to understand that the poem’s premise was complex and that both the title and the headings should work to make it more apparent. In the end, the title introduced the idea of the game and the sections acted as touchstones for the reader to return to it. I also wanted a sense of progression, to mirror the march of history.

The last step (as much as there is ever a last step) in writing the poem was to rethink the soundscape of each section to make sure it closely approximated the content of its particular time/space. I paid close attention to sibilants, back and front vowels and the number of voiced stops in each section. I worked to make the sections as sonically distinct as they were lexically while also maintaining the poem’s voice. I’m not sure if I wholly succeed, but I gave it a solid go. I “finished” the poem just in time for winter.

I hope I captured side-by-side nonchalance and terror, play and display. I don’t fully know what it means, but I know it matters deeply to me to express it: that a globe is a story tied up in nostalgia for the wonders of a wide world, one which history hangs over in its selective recording and erasure. In the tiny moments I authored, I tried to speak to what has been forgotten insofar as any of us ever can.