The poem “Polaroid #2: Crack Motel” is part of a five-part series of poems I crafted surrounding events from my dad’s past. This piece is very typical of the way I like to write poetry in that, rather than tell a direct narrative, I utilize a sequence of still images within the piece to convey a tone that matches the emotion felt during the period in question. I hate simply dictating feeling or being editorial in my work—tackling this subject matter proved especially difficult without pointing the reader in a certain direction—so the elimination of abstractions proved very necessary. The reader does not know the “good” or “bad” of these relationships, only the images presented. From there, the reader forms opinions without aid.
I used Polaroids as a unifying factor, in that they normally conjure the most nostalgia—be it pleasurable or otherwise. They are the most fascinating of photos, in my opinion: the length of time it takes the actual Polaroid picture to appear speaks to the anticipation and wonder of what exactly was captured in that moment. The photo itself instantly makes moments tangible; it transforms the objects accompanying human subjects within the picture into a still life, making their presence just as important as the people within the picture. When someone else looks at the photo, they will see things differently through the cellophane, and the gloss of the photo may look almost overexposed and filthy. Understanding what is going on within a photo, even with dates and notes written at the bottom of a Polaroid, boils down to a matter of perspective and time. A photo viewed at a time of youth and naiveté will have a far different impact to someone with age and a different understanding of context. A pleasant picture could be a harrowing one to different people, and vice versa.
Since I was a child, I’ve always had a fasciation with photography and film, though I am not proficient in either. I did have a Polaroid camera at a young age and I would take photos of everything around me and be fascinated with the pictures. I still have a few lying around, and I often ruminate on the events surrounding the picture: when it was taken, where, how old I was, where I was in life. I would sometimes even ignore the contents of the photo because I would be so caught up in the subtext of the pictures.
This is what fascinates me most about poetry: “no ideas but in things.” You can’t tell a reader how to feel about a poem any more than you can tell someone what kind of memory they should have when they look at an old photo. When you present images within a piece, and nothing else, the reader creates his or her own narrative or meaning. It becomes the reader’s own poem and the reader’s own memory.
Read Marcus Clayton’s poem in our current issue.