University of Wisconsin Press, March 2012
Dear Dr. Poetry,
I’m a mime currently looking to transition into set design, but I keep losing jobs because my sketches are just blank pages. I have no idea how to translate emotion into visual effects or create a scene that supports a story. I’m really out of my element. Please help.
–Trapped In a Box
Well, TIB, I was originally going to quote from Fundamentals of Theatrical Design, but no need to waste our time there when poetry already has the answer. Are you familiar with the work of Jazzy Danziger? You could learn something from her keen aesthetic. Her debut collection, Darkroom, is composed of the minute details surrounding a girl’s grief-stricken childhood and her tumultuous relationship with her mother. Each poem is a cinematic portrayal of a moment that the girl knows intimately, like a scene from a movie that she’s watched a thousand times.
Though the news of her mother’s suicide in “The Visitor” carries a profound weight, for example, the tension of the scene lies in the setting:
Her camp counselor slides open the door
to the lounge. To prepare the room for her,
he’s turned off the lights, drawn the thin curtains,
left a fruit plate on the coffee table, and water, a blanket
on the couch’s arm. Artificial, mid-day dark. Now she knows
someone has died.
The moment is born out of those details; the setting itself holds her together: “Loss, the line dividing before from whatever will begin / when she leaves this room.”
Similarly, in “Other Mothers”, the girl panics after being dropped off at school on a holiday, frightened by what her volatile mother will do when she realizes her mistake. Luckily, a donut shop owner offers her a respite: “For now, she is allowed to nap, / to disintegrate onto a hard orange booth seat / like fine sugar on a pastry mat.”
These sorts of scenic details are what distinguish this book from other books about grief and personal tragedy. Though not central to the poems, each setting anchors the reader somewhere real; somewhere to rest away from the emotional and mental state of the poet, so that the poem itself becomes more accessible. It’s in these settings that one can consider the gravity of the situation.
So, TIB, the more intimately you come to know a scene, you’ll find that it becomes less about the dialogue or the main subject, and more about the finer details and the emotional resonance found within. To design a great set, you must understand where the characters are—only then can you grasp what they’ve come from, and what they’re heading into.