Classroom Excercise

Listen: Exercises in response to Brenda Coultas’s poetry of private histories
created by Martin Corless-Smith

Brenda Coultas’s poems are not rushed—they accumulate their gravity and momentum slowly, with the humility of folk history. Their affects are not to shock and seduce—but to be clear and truthful. To listen patiently.

Each poem seems haunted—but it is the quiet haunting one feels when left alone in a small museum room, looking at a chair, or some other domestic tool, simply but exquisitely made, appropriate to its task. The object takes time to reach out with its own story. You might read the card then pass on, returning for some reason to watch the item again. Coultas listens and she waits. It is a subtler and more tender skill than one imagines. And it is as important as it is rare. Coultas is the woman the whole village tells their story too. Not the village gossip. The one who listens. She has been alive in every village and every community. And it is through her that the history of people continues.

When we read the first person in Coultas’s The Marvellous Bones of Time we know that the “I” has been written through by history. It’s not a single instant of a single self speaking, but a voice in the chorus…any pronouncement that “I” makes that is personal takes place on the community stage.

“I was born between the free side and the slave side.”

That’s not just personal, nor geographical, nor even just historical, its ontological as well. We all are a part of difficult and mixed up histories. For Coultas the drama of American history plays out in details of everyone’s life, in the names of every town and every street. Names are a storehouse of the personal and public, signifying the shaping of a region, a state and even a country; one name and one brick at a time. Our history is there in the details. One just needs to look, and to listen.

What if the self isn’t the source of all poetry. What if language plays through the self, as history passes through us onto the next generation? What if poetry is the act of listening and noticing rather than speaking?

Writing exercise:
Put yourself in a public space, a museum, a church, a hotel lobby (not a café!). Sit in a room for some time. No phone, no internet. Sit and listen. Don’t use your words. Wait for others to tell the story of the place. Let the words come to you. Wait to hear what is said. Be patient. Listen.

Writing exercise:
Befriend someone from the community, someone with time to talk. Visit a VA hospital. Visit a park. Don’t worry about the person telling a story that is exciting, or even a narrative that makes a full story. Just listen and record the lines that catch your interest: a turn of phrase, an odd sounding name, anything that resonates for you. Be patient. Listen.

(We are extremely thankful to Martin Corless-Smith of Boise State University for this exercise.)