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Behind-the-Scenes Look: "Genetic memory"
Annotation & Author's Note
One of my favorite parts of this newsletter is sharing behind-the-scenes looks at poems. My hope is that these annotations might be useful for you as you write your own poems, or they might come in handy if you’re teaching creative writing. This week I’ve annotated “Genetic memory,” a poem that was first published in A New Decameron, thanks to Pete Candler and Rosanne Cash. The poem hasn’t appeared in a book yet. Maybe my next collection? We’ll see.
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“Genetic memory” was inspired by the theory that memories may be inherited, and that perhaps we “remember” our ancestors’ formative experiences. The details in the poem are pulled from my grandparents’ lives. For example, my father’s father, Raymond Edward Smith, was the first Columbus, Ohio, resident reported killed in action at Pearl Harbor. On Christmas Eve, his parents were informed that it was a mistake—their son was alive. My grandfather never spoke about Pearl Harbor, but reading about genetic memory, I wondered: Could I be carrying traces of experiences like this one? What if?
In the handwritten annotation below, I’ve noted some of the craft decisions I made related to repetition, sound, word choice, and line breaks. In the title, the word memory is lowercase because it’s a run-in; the sentence begins with the title and continues into the first line. The phrase “Genetic memory explains how” in that first sentence sets up the following three sentences, which begin with How, How, and Where. The anaphora changes in the next two sentences, which both begin with the phrase I know. It’s implied that “genetic memory” is the root of this knowledge.
Because I drew on my grandparents’ experiences for the details in the poem, I also wanted to draw on their vocabulary. What word would they have used for an evening meal? Perhaps supper instead of dinner? The short U assonance in the word supper also plays off the words drunk, doesn’t, come, and lumberyard.
I chose the order of details to play up sound: “a lumberyard, an Elk’s Lodge, a boarding house” makes more sense musically than “a boarding house, a lumberyard, an Elk’s Lodge.” Lumberyard is closer to other words with the short U. The phrase “bang a door” is closer to the B and or sounds in “boarding house.”
Regarding line breaks, my two major considerations were pacing and tension. I read my poems aloud as I draft, and often—intuitively—I hear where the line wants to break. But I also like to use enjambment to create some suspense and even, in some cases, playful misdirection. The meaning changes when the full sentence comes into view.
You’ll also notice that there is rhyme tucked into the end of this poem: gun/done. Again, I chose the order of details in this list to maximize the music. The hard K sounds in the words can and climb play off the hard K in cut. The phrase “load a gun” needed to come last to land on the rhyme.
Keep an eye out for a craft tip related to the ending of this poem—a strategy that helps me land a poem in a satisfying way. If this newsletter has been useful for you as a writer or teacher, I hope you’ll consider becoming a paid subscriber. I’m very glad you’re here, in whatever way makes the most sense for you.