How I wrote this week’s poems: Objects and opposites

Photograph of pale pink flowers; one bloom is whole, the other bloom has holes in the petals.

Hi folks,

I’m completing a 30/30 challenge with Tupelo Press this month, and each week I’m writing a blog post about how I wrote the week’s poems.

As I’m doing this 30/30 challenge, I know that I’ll have to actively maintain the well of inspiration from which I draw my words. Your donations can help me finish the month strong–there are even a few rewards you can redeem if you donate certain amounts!

About midway through this semester, one of the assignments for an Anthropology course I was taking was to look at one of the objects from the Southwest in the Nebraska State Museum collections and write an object biography. Who was the previous owner? How and where did that owner obtain the object? Where is the object from, how old is it, and what was it used for?

For the Anthropology assignment, the object I chose to write an object biography for was a pitcher with very little documentation; the only trace of it was a line in a list of items collected and donated by William Jennings Bryan. The rest, I had to determine based on additional information I could find on objects from the region to compare the pitcher to what is definitely known, what I could discern about the object’s use based on the patina and wear, and a smattering of historical information about William Jennings Bryan and the late nineteenth, early twentieth century time period in which he lived.

Object provenance, or lack thereof, sometimes makes its way into the news and reveals a pattern of questionable (at the very least) museum collection practices. So while I deeply appreciated the opportunity to see these objects and observe them closely, and while I don’t know the full history of the Nebraska State Museum’s collection practices, I also know that there is an undercurrent of problems that museums cannot necessarily solve. Sometimes, the acts of collection, curation, and display are antithetical to the object’s purpose. Sometimes, there is no middle ground.

This tricky love of museums is part of what I’ve been working through in my poems this week. Because I do love museums, and seeing the object collections when they’re not on display felt like another hidden layer I didn’t know was there. I could stare at objects and hunt through their accession files and never get tired of trying to piece together where it came from and how it got to wherever it is.

The other part of what I’ve been writing about this week is trying to feel the opposite of what I feel all the time during finals week (that is: despair, distraction, disillusionment, etc.). I was talking to a poet friend, and she mentioned writing poems that include joy in ways that’s rare for poetry. And at some point in the week, I was worried that my finals despair was going to leak into all of the poems I was writing. I tried, then, to write the opposite of what I was feeling. I tried to recall the scent of lilacs on the walk home, and the happiness that brought. I tried to imagine celebrating something like sobriety.

I don’t know that this necessarily changed my mood, but it made me at least remember that my poems do not need to be me all the time. That would be boring, anyway.

Some prompts:

  • Read through some object biographies in the Pitt-Rivers collection. Then, choose an object you use in your everyday life and try to write a lyrical object biography about it. How did you get this object? What do you use it for? Will it outlast you after your death? (Sorry, that last is pretty morbid.)
  • Go to a museum and choose a piece of art that makes you look again. If you can, sit in front of it and observe it closely for what might feel like an uncomfortably long time. Then, start to write an ekphrastic poem inspired by the piece.
  • If you can, see if you can gain access to a museum collection or archive (find the contact information for a collection specialist or similar role and see if they would be willing to guide you through the collection). Pick an object that speaks to you, and look at the accession file. Try to piece together an object biography, and then write a poem about the experience.
  • What are you feeling right now? What would be the opposite of that emotion? Write a poem that demonstrates that opposite emotion through action and imagery.

Thanks for reading!

Published by Caroliena Cabada

Caroliena Cabada is a writer currently based in Lincoln, Nebraska. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, Fiction, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her writing has been published in online and print journals and anthologies, and has been selected for Best Small Fictions 2021.

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