Poetic Correspondence: The Epistolary Impulse

“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”–Samuel Beckett

We will:
* listen to some examples of different approaches to the epistolary
* generate some new writing incorporating various manifestations of the letter form

The literary form of the letter invites us to investigate ourselves and the world through the framework of intimate address. It allows us to bring the unknown a little closer and to breathe new life into the seemingly familiar. Letters are immediately accessible while also providing ample space for nuanced thought and complex conversation.

The letter may act as an enabling constraint. It can create a basic framework, a simple structure for thinking and speaking that establishes connections and provisional boundaries. It implies relationships. It functions as a site of disclosure but also as a tool for discovery. The letter hybridizes genres, sometimes developing a narrative, other times engaging the lyric fragment. It creates tension between embodiment and dispersal, between the intensity of an isolated detail and the larger span of unfolding thought. It creates a dialogue between presence and absence. It can create a place to inhabit and to explore one’s own thought patterns. I also think of the letter as a form that can embrace vulnerability and uncertainty. Writing “Dear ___” is a way of moving toward something or someone.

*In the PDF Packet (LINK), I’ve included a general description and a brief history of the epistle, taken from Ron Padgett’s Handbook of Poetic Forms:
“In a poem, anything can happen, so you don’t have to limit yourself to letters you might normally write. You can write epistles to a grandmother who died, to your dog or cat, to a cactus, a cloud, or a baseball glove. The trick is just to keep in mind who or what you are writing to and what they might be interested in.”


-Is the addressee a real person? Is the addressee an object or an idea?

-Is the speaker/writer of the letter closely identified with the author or is it a persona?

-Is the letter signed or is it left blank?

-Is the diction modeled on formal prose or is it more speech-based/colloquial?

-Are line breaks used or does it function as a prose poem, paying attention to the music of syntax within the sentence? To what extent is sound emphasized?

-Is a single, consistent subject or argument present?

-If the subjects are multiple/transitory, how smooth or jagged are the transitions?

-Does the letter imply a larger correspondence or series?

-Are additional form or genre models present? [For example, prose poem, elegy, cento, persona poem, etc.]

-How much closure is achieved by the end of the poem? What is left unwritten?


Play CA Conrad recording (written to George W. Bush)
Play Laynie Browne recording (including Browne’s introductory notes)

Exercise part 1: Make a list of people, living or dead, known or unknown to you, famous, infamous, or anonymous, that you would consider an addressee for a letter. Generate as many possibilities as you can in five minutes. NOTE: Fiction/non-fiction writers might consider adding to this list a character/person from a current writing project.

-Read from Harmony Holiday’s Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues
(See PDF packet) (Link to order book)

All of these examples in some way reference dreams, and I like to think of the letter poem as a place where dream and daily-ness coincide. It allows for brief anecdotes as well as flashes of linguistic music and surprising imagery. It provides room to express ambivalence, uncertainty and complication as well as clear ideas or coherent emotional states. It is a container that “accommodates the mess” of consciousness and experience, while acknowledging that there is always more to be said.

-Read Bill Luoma excerpt from “Dear Dad” LINK

Exercise part 2: Pick one of the people from the list that you generated, address them “Dear _______” and write them a letter. It’s okay if it’s messy. It’s okay if it jumps around. Just write as much as you can. This can be an early version of something you will work more on later


The first good poems I ever wrote were in the form of the letter. My college physics professor asked the students to come to class with our own informal definitions of concepts such as “Force, Energy, and Work.” I was so concerned with getting the ‘correct’ answer, the one that I imagined would be most impressive to a physics professor, that I found myself blocked. After pacing around my apartment for a while, I felt a strange new impulse. I wrote on a piece of paper: “Dear Force, Energy, & Work” and then I entered into a conversation with these abstractions. These ideas become more tangible, more real to me. I doubt what I wrote was profound as a poem or particularly scientifically accurate, but I had discovered a novel logic within myself that could be used as a tool to investigate the world.


I want to listen to a few recordings that emphasize sonic play and musical repetition and variation within the letter form.

Michael Gizzi, Dear Double Jehovah
Ange Mlinko, Classical Music

In Gizzi’s poem, the sounds of words themselves become the subject of the letter. However, there are occasionally more direct moments such as “Absence finds a way of being there.” Gizzi is a good poet to look at for the range of his vocabulary. Part of the pleasure of the poem is the way that his sounds and ideas collide against one another, clanging and mutating. Mlinko’s poem oscillates between several addressees, so much so that the repetitions of the salutation become a form of music. Here, the somewhat stable formal framework implied by the letter becomes a jumping off point. These poems value the energy of surprise and transformation.

Listen to John Yau discuss and read from Russian Letters (see PDF packet)

John Yau’s letter poems are comprised partially from the language of other poets. Sometimes it is possible to get at an idea or an emotion or a tone you want to achieve by weaving together bits and pieces of language from other sources. Yau is a surrealist poet, so he is interested in the juxtaposition of distant realities and of the blending between reality and dream logic.

Khadijah Queen’s epistolary pieces in her poem “Black Peculiar :: Energy Complex” from her book Black Peculiar (Link to order book) are “analogies to imaginary letters to various facets of the self” (See PDF packet)

Exercise: Keeping in mind Khadijah Queen’s “imaginary letters to various facets of the self,” write a series of very short letters addressed to several different objects and abstract concepts.

[For example, if I were doing this a series of addresses might be something like Dear Stomach, Dear Cat Whisker on my pillow, Dear Newly-Doubled Car Insurance Rate, Dear Depiction of Poets’ Lives in Movies, Dear Fillings-in-almost-all-of-my-teeth, etc.]

You might go back to some of these letters later and sketch them out into extended pieces.


Listen to Eileen Myles read from Andrea Poems
We won’t have time today to write using these particular processes, but I want you to keep them in the back of your mind when you’re writing, regardless of your genre. When you pay attention to overheard language, like Eileen Myles did when her girlfriend was on the phone, marking down particular snippets of language that are out of context can give you raw material that is interesting to your reader because it is partial and mysterious. This is true whether or not you’re using the letter form.


-Take a poem or story that you’ve already written, and address it to a specific person. Revise it with only that particular person in mind. Which decisions change when you shift the work into the imagined intimacy of the letter?

-Pick an author that you don’t know personally, someone whose work you feel an affinity with, and write them a letter that, among other subjects, discusses some of your own ideas and beliefs about writing. (See Spicer in PDF packet)


Final Thoughts

Epistolary as “impulse”
The form of the letter is sometimes a step along the way to another, more appropriate form. However, the idea of beginning by addressing someone or something specifically provides a focal point, a center of gravity to build outward from.


Collaborative recording of seminar participants

Chain Magazine: Letter Issue PDF

Dear PennSound Commentary

Eric Baus website

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