by Sierra Nelson
Where can you find a bell
that will ring in your dreams?
– Pablo Neruda, from The Book of Questions, translated by William O’Daly
What is it about a question that can create a powerful pull in a poem? Is it the possibility of an answer that appeals to us? A question suggests our hope that knowledge or clarity exists somewhere: on the flip side of a flash card, by the end of a poem, from a book or sage or teacher or scientist, someone, who can explain. The speaker of a piece questions, and we question along with it.
Who are you and whom do you love?
What is the shape of your body?
Where did you come from / how did you arrive?
How will you begin?
– Bhanu Kapil Rider, from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers
Under what circumstance, or circumstances, might you noodle for a catfish?
If you could trade out and be say, Godzilla, wouldn’t you jump on it, dear?
– Padgett Powell, from The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?
But even when we know we don’t have to answer, or that there’s no one easy reply, a question can still charm us with where it leads—a trying on of possibilities (like Neruda’s conjuring of a dream-bell simply by asking about it, or our new futures with Powell of catfish noodling or being Godzilla)—or a moment of reflection (like Rider’s open, ever opening, “How will you begin?”).
Sometimes a question holds the kernel of a new or newly recognized truth:
Or will life not be a fish
prepared to be a bird?
– Pablo Neruda, from The Book of Questions, translated by William O’Daly
Or is simply an acknowledgement of our own unknowing, large or small:
How many rhymes in a sonnet? Something you ate?
– Maura Stanton, from sonnet “Twenty Questions”
A question invites the process of active wondering into the moment of the poem, for both the speaker and for the reader. We see and sympathize with the poem struggling towards some larger or unresolved understanding. And maybe it is also the gesture of being asked that touches us? Even if the question isn’t personal, on some level we respond personally: thanks for asking. A question suggests listening, invites it. We listen along with the poet for the answer—into the implied silence that follows each question mark. We listen into the space where the poem is listening back to us: whether or not there’s an answer, we feel the poem’s presence at the other end of the line.
This is my fourth year working with WITS at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, and it has been and continues to be an amazing, inspiring, and humbling experience. I feel so lucky to have this opportunity to work with these students each Thursday—along with the amazing Ann Teplick, my fellow WITS Writer-in-Residence at Children’s, who helps reach some other student populations at Children’s on Wednesdays. I mostly work one-on-one with longer term and palliative care patients, ranging from kindergarteners up to young adults in their early 20’s, who are for the most part stuck in their hospital rooms—bringing my heavy bag of poetry prompts, new notebooks, and writing encouragement to them door-to-door. Many of these young writers are fighting cancer, or have other diseases or conditions that require intense or ongoing medical treatment. I don’t always know—sometimes it comes up in our conversations, or in the writing—sometimes we talk and write about other things entirely. I leave it up to each student, what they feel like or feel up to on a given day, or we just see what comes up in the writing as it unfolds.
Needless to say, it can be a hard place for questions. (Perhaps why often being the least useful—or at least my own relationship to that question, applied to the big picture, has definitely changed since working here.) Yet the power of questions in poetry—their ability to listen to what we do not know, even what might be difficult to ask—as well as their potential for wonder, or even whimsy—still feels deeply useful to writing, even here, sometimes especially here.
As many fellow teaching artists can attest, Neruda’s The Book of Questions is a particularly great source of inspiration to writers of all ages for question poems. Here is one of my favorite poems inspired by Neruda’s examples, written by one of my students at Children’s:
Poem of Questions by Lizeth, Age 8
Where does the sun go before the moon comes out?
Does it go down the hill by the water?
How do you make the color brown
when you really need it?
How do you make a pen
that will write a letter
to my grandma in Mexico?
How does the snow
come out of the sky?
Does it make the sky feel cold?
How do teeth grow
and how do they decide
whether to become vampires?
How do batteries work?
Is their electricity fast
as a magnet?
How did they put the hook-line in
while I was asleep with medicine?
Did it cut out a piece of my chest
to move past my neck
to my heart?
Such amazing questions! From the growing up and decision making of teeth, to the longing for her grandmother in Mexico felt through that missing pen, to the brave questions at the end speaking to the immediate, visceral mystery of her experience—we are offered a unique opportunity to share in this writer’s perspective.
And in this question poem by another student, the writer shares with us not only her delightful curiosity about the world at large, but also her sense of humor and wonder:
Will the world actually end in 2012 by volcanoes and earthquakes?
Why do monkeys like bananas? Do bananas hate monkeys?
How did my dad learn squirrel language?
What color were the dinosaurs?
When will robots be invented to do our chores?
What will my sea-monkeys look like?
from “Questions” by Heather (Age 10)
And in the following poem, this poet takes inspiration from both Neruda’s poems and the artwork of Chagall—bringing us into her experience of Chagall’s painting through her questions and speculations about it, creating an evocative ekphrastic poem that stands beautifully on its own:
Questions for Chagall by Julissa (Age 14)
Where does the tail end?
Is it a party?
Or is it just a date to see the sunset fall?
Is that a goat or a dog holding up an umbrella
so that the chickens don’t get wet?
Is it feeding its own baby?
Did the pair pick the fruit
and put it on top of the goat (or dog)?
They’re smiling, they’re happy,
you can see that.
And it seems like the couple
is almost about to kiss
because they are holding each other.
He’s looking at her, but where is she looking?
Somewhere else, but I don’t know where.
Even when a poem is not explicitly a question poem, I love when questions enter a piece of writing. One teen student at Children’s while writing a personification poem about the color pink suddenly asked: “Her secret? Her favorite color / is silver”—surprising and delighting us both. A six-year-old poet verbally points to the picture she’s painting with her words: “See those houses? They’re windy.” Another student while writing a self-portrait poem thoughtfully paused to ask us about our life too: “Do you have a barbeque? Does your dad?”—shifting the portrait into a conversation and underscoring the poet’s own tenderness. And another young man, also inspired by Chagall, ends his descriptive poem with an intriguing query: “now why would a man / be jumping over a house in his white suit / as the goat is running / and the chimney is smoking / and the sky is dark?”
Something new opens up at these moments: we sense the poem, and our relationship with it, beginning to shift. And watch what happens when a question unexpectedly appears in this otherwise humorous poem about an invented constellation called “The Face”:
The Face by Nathaniel (Age 11)
Look for the three points to find the hair of The Face constellation.
Move 90 degrees to the east to find The Face’s nose.
Tilt your telescope down and you will find the open mouth of The Face.
Move 45 degrees below and you will find the neck.
People use the three points of The Face’s hair
to navigate through the woods.
The Face’s haircut inspires many people.
They feel hip. All ages of people can
be inspired by The Face’s hairstyle.
The Face appears on the day of October 21st
and that is when the chrysanthemums bloom.
Have you seen a chrysanthemum before?
To describe the chrysanthemum
you will have to know the texture of the plant,
which is soft, and that they come in the colors
of red, yellow, white, and orange,
and that they are a beautiful plant.
When looking at The Face, everyone feels drowsy.
They fall asleep and have a dream –
a good dream.
Have you seen a chrysanthemum before? Suddenly the poem puts joking aside and looks directly at us. We have to pause: have we seen one? And if we have, have we fully considered its qualities, what is most essential to know about it? After the question, the poem’s descriptions then help us to look more closely—and at the same time shift the poem’s tone to a quieter, more reflective place; “The Face,” funny and hip, ends as blessing.
Last year I asked my student Maga to talk a bit about what writing meant to her, as part of an introduction to our Poetry Broadside Project (a collaboration between a selection of WITS student poets at Children’s and a master class of professional letterpress artists at the School of Visual Concepts, resulting each year in a beautifully rendered portfolio of prints of the students’ writing. In fact, we’re getting ready to debut the third volume of this SVC-Children’s letterpress project in May! And the broadsides will be displayed at SAL Poetry Series and WITS culminating events.)
More articulate and wise from experience than most writers at any age, Maga, now an 11th grader, spoke to the power of questions, including those unspoken ones that drive her to write in the first place:
“When I write, I try to confront my thoughts. I ask, What do I think…really? I ask difficult questions, How do I ever go back to normal? Will my cancer come back? Will my friends who have cancer survive? Sometimes, I find that I know the answers already, it just took writing it out to realize it. I write what I can’t say out loud about my angers, fears, hopes…. I may not be in control of all that happens in my life, but I’m in control of my writing.”
Thank you, Maga—and to all my young WITS writers at Children’s—for your words, your poems, your bravery, and your questions.