Inviting the Epic into the Everyday
by Tricia Coscia
“You have epic structuring within you that you can reclaim or retool to suit your poetry.”~ Oliver de la Paz at the Bluegrass Writer’s Studio Winter Residency, January 2016.
As a graduate student, parent, and full time worker, the word “epic” is daunting. I scribble lines on junk mail envelopes in found moments, elbow in a stanza or two on the train, alternate edits with bites of lunch at my desk. Sometimes I have no idea what I wrote on that envelope, and I wonder what my fellow commuters are thinking as I count syllables on my fingers. In lucky moments I feel the muse is with me; other times I wonder if what I credit to her is just another manifestation of my ADHD.
Poetry has worked well for me as it fits my attention span, but structuring the images and ideas I see connected to one another into a cohesive piece is often a challenge. I might successfully paint a picture or evoke a feeling but am I really getting out what I intend to say? I find the time to get some words down but struggle to convey the larger meaning from within me to the reader. Oliver de la Paz’s workshop at the Winter Residency provided pragmatic and evocative strategies for generating and shaping writing using qualities of the epic structure for inspiration.
In his workshop, de la Paz showed how the structure of epic poetry can provide a tool kit to inform our everyday work as writers. He described an epic poem as “a long poem derived of ancient oral traditions” and reviewed the characteristics of an epic story. The characteristics include, among other things: a hero as the most important element (who is usually a relatable, average person), a story that is of interest to higher powers, and an invocation of the muse. Writers, he suggests, can employ epic structure and epic gestures to address larger social justice concerns, citing examples such as Major Jackson’s Hoops and Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah.
To harness those larger ideas and concerns into poetry we can embody the hero on a journey, and our first step is to invoke the muse. As de la Paz put it, his muse is typically invoked when the orator asks for assistance “to create an exciting, effective and accurate story.” We might ask ourselves “How are my concerns epic in nature as a writer?” and find that in our material, the stuff of the everyday. From that which compels us to write, through accumulation, and ordering, and by establishing routine, we can “develop a ritual that eases the mind into the space of poem making.”
A way of making order and generating writing is to choose a form or formal structure that can serve as a guide, such as the typical hero’s journey trajectory in an epic poem, or other structures such as the list of forms of music that make up Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll. This inherent structure can facilitate “sparks of writing” in Oliver’s words. Once there, he suggests we don’t rush but find ways to continue, stay in the middle of the action, and don’t be too quick to close. Epic poems begin in the middle of the action. One poem might lead us forward to the next one, or we might consider what poem was before this, and write it.
Oliver de la Paz writes connected, epic poems while parenting young children and teaching. I imagine that the activities of a single day, as for many of us, can seem like an entire hero’s journey. But maintaining a ritual, establishing structures that work, and finding time each day will allow creating poetry to be part of that journey. As he pointed out, even 15 minutes a day adds up. And how do we insure that the muse shows up at the same time? Make an appointment with her.
Tricia Coscia is in her first year of studies at Bluegrass Writer’s Studio, working toward her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives with her family in Morrisville, Pennsylvania and does her homework on the train to and from her job as Community Engagement Coordinator for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Tricia received her BS in Art Education from Kutztown University of PA in 1984 and has worked in non-profit, social services and the arts since then, while companioning her children on their journeys.
Published on March 01, 2016