Using poetry techniques to reinvent/fracture memoir


Another piece I learned about from the class on literary hybrids I’ve been taking this month: Bluets by Maggie Smith.

It’s a book-length prose-poetry hybrid about the color blue, and it weaves together personal anecdotes with art and literary history. The start of it can be read via Amazon,  and another excerpt can be read at Pen America.  My favorite bit so far can be found at Gwarlingo: 

14. I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book about blue without actually doing it. Mostly what happens in such cases is that people give you stories or leads or gifts, and then you can play with these things instead of with words. Over the past decade I have been given blue inks, paintings, postcards, dyes, bracelets, rocks, precious stones, watercolors, pigments, paperweights, goblets, and candies. I have been introduced to a man who had one of his front teeth replaced with lapis lazuli, solely because he loved the stone, and to another who worships blue so devoutly that he refuses to eat blue food and grows only blue and white flowers in his garden, which surrounds the blue ex-cathedral in which he lives. I have met a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s Blue in heartbreaking drag, and another with the face of a derelict whose eyes literally leaked blue, and I called this one the prince of blue, which was, in fact, his name.

15. I think of these people as my blue correspondents, whose job it is to send me blue reports from the field.

The piece was mentioned in last week’s New York Times “Match Book” recommendations column, in response to a query about pieces “with an Emily Dickinson or Anne Carson slant.”


Nelson is also mentioned in Stephen Burt’s recent New Yorker article on “recent books that reinvent, or fracture, the memoir’s form.” (Literary Style and the Lessons of Memoir – July 26, 2017. )

Burt writes:

“…Experiments in the genre continue, many of them, like Maggie Nelson’s breakthrough book, ‘The Argonauts,’ from 2015, intimately connected to the drive toward new forms, and the use of fragments and white space, in contemporary poetry. These memoirs take cues from prose poems and lyrical essays, like those in Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen.’ They also use the devices of poetry—interruption, compression, extended metaphor—to pay book-length attention to individual real lives, and, not coincidentally, they come from independent publishers known for their poets and poems.” 


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