Poem of the Month: “Clowns” by Robbie Q. Telfer

“From the stage, you can’t see the hyenas; but you can hear them barking. Your job is to be meat dangling, to tease out the barking…”

I’m highlighting some older poems that are personal favorites of mine; it’s a way to shout out some good work, and also to analyze some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers. Find the full list here.

There are two things on my mind right now. First, this poem has been a favorite of mine for years, and it’s always fun to share great poems with people. Second, I get a lot of messages from poets asking for feedback on their work, and I think this poem kind of crystallizes at least some of the feedback I end up giving to 99% of people. And with Button Poetry’s chapbook contest now open, I wanted to share a couple of observations that might be useful to aspiring/emerging poets out there.

To be clear, these aren’t rules, or some kind of step-by-step guide to writing good poetry; these are just things that I notice in THIS poem that I carry with me into my own writing.

1. The very first line of this poem is an image. It’s not a “here’s what I think” statement or some abstract, philosophical pondering about the universe. It’s “there’s a dark club, full of hyenas, barking at an empty stage.” You can see it. You can hear it. You can smell it. Right away. And look: a poem doesn’t have to start with an image; that’s not a rule. But for me, as a reader/listener, it’s one of the most basic things a writer can do to capture my attention. It’s also one of the most basic things that a whole lot of aspiring poets don’t do.

2. The poem is made up of stories. There’s some really powerful connective tissue in the poem, but the “bones” of the poem (as I see it) are small stories, anecdotes, moments, and memories. Again, there’s no rule that says that “good” poetry has to have a narrative element– it doesn’t. But stories are powerful. Both in terms of grabbing the audience’s attention and communicating something deep via images. Some poems are built around one story; this one uses a bunch of little stories to paint an impressionistic picture of the deeper truth the poem is trying to point toward.

3. The poem is emotional and personal without being strictly autobiographical. I want to be careful here: I’m not saying that autobiographical or confessional poetry is bad– it has the potential to be just as good or bad as any other kind of poetry. I’m just excited by poems that can be this honest, and create this kind of emotional energy, via other avenues; I think that’s a useful tool/approach, especially for those of us who maybe don’t want to write directly and explicitly about our real-life trauma. To use myself as an example, I’ve often said that this is my most personal poem, even though it’s obviously not a true story. I think part of poetry is being able to make connections, to juxtapose stories and create dialogue between the personal, the universal, and the space in between.

4. On a delivery level, it’s straightforward without being dull, and theatrical without being T H E A T R I C A L. Of course, other listeners can disagree with me, but I love how this poem is performed. Spoken word’s connection to theater sometimes manifests as pure leave-it-all-on-the-stage volume, or melodrama (both of which I’ve been guilty of). But there are moments in this performance that are just chilling; the conversational/understated delivery really propels a deep emotional intensity. I know this point may be less relevant to people preparing their manuscripts, but it’s maybe worth thinking about how that dynamic lives in our writing too, and not just in performance.

5. This poem has a strong hook. I’ve written about hooks before, but the basic idea, for me, is that the hook is the concept, the organizing principle of the poem. It’s what makes a poem stand out– whether that means stand out from all poems in general, or stand out from poems that tackle the same subject matter. This poem has a laser-specific topic and knows what it wants to say about that topic. There aren’t a dozen other poems about the same thing that I can pull up on YouTube right now. A strong hook doesn’t necessarily make a poem good, but it very often makes it more memorable.

6. Finally, I think one of the functions of poetry is to recontextualize, especially things we think we already understand, and this poem is a devastating example of that. The stories about famous comedians aren’t just random factoids; they build upon each other, supporting the thesis of the poem indirectly, until that thesis is made explicit in the famous (well, famous in the circles I run in, haha) line playing with the word “spite.” The poem has levels too: even if it were just literally about the idea that comedians sometimes pull their material from dark places/experiences, it’d be powerful; but I’d argue that it taps into something more universal about the nature of the relationship between spite and survival, something so many artists– and hell, non-artists too– can relate to.

So again, just a few things I notice in this poem; I hope they can be useful to any of you prepping chapbook submissions.