We sat on the floor of the college’s workshop theater. The acting instructor spoke about mannerisms, filling the room effortlessly with a soothingly quiet voice. He said muscle memories would lock pieces of our faces, our shoulders, our necks -- the way we reach to pick up a phone, a newspaper, a love letter -- into unconscious habits. Acting, he said, is a study of these mannerisms. Good acting starts with the ability to release one’s own mannerisms so the actor can embody the character.
I wish I had pursued that training 30 years ago. The stretching, the voice exercises, the tai chi and yoga over a long period – each practice a particle of the whole over time, each exercise accumulating in a basket full of skills so that a body can hobble across the stage as a defeated king one day and answer the phone as a nerdy teenager expecting a call the next. But the lessons of that class didn’t go to waste completely. So much of what I think about poetry, I learned in that class.
I don’t want to be limited by my own voice. I want to be open to as many voices as I can be open to. So, like an actor, I practice with different forms as a way to open myself to a variety of voices, different vocabularies, different rhythms and tones and movements. I have written a sestina that is just awful, but the very complicated puzzle of a form loosened up something in my language engine, a discovery that I gladly cannibalized for another poem. I’ve also revised poems into various forms, then combined them, grabbing bits from the sonnet sequence, other bits from a draft written on an obscure Welsh form – all because of the discoveries I made in those exercises. This one, however, came without those exercises.
She is on her back, knees up,
feet on the floor, the house lights up,
behind a black steel grid ceiling,
and she is pretending to melt.
Start at brow. Feel the brow soften
like snow-thaw, a puddle forming
below, glistening above, now the eyes,
yes. Don’t forget to breathe. The jaw…
Her habits puddled on the floor, she
rolls onto her knees, her feet,
tale to the sky, head to the floor,
she rises slowly, vertebrae by vertebrae,
from the tail-bone to the neck.
Because she does this, day after day, year
after year, she will release the muscle
memory that makes her who she is,
the way her throat pinched in on itself,
when she squeaked “I’m a little busy now,”
or her fingers clenched, then stretched
to keep from clenching at her sister’s
wedding. All she was is gone now.
She is ready to answer the cell like you,
on the third “We will we will rock you.”
She is ready to roll her eyes and growl, low
and smoky: “You focking have a lotta’ nerve
you know that? A focking lotta’ nerve.”