What Can We Steal From Julie Danho’s “‘?'”?

Title of Work and its Form: “?,” poem
Author: Julie Danho
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem appears in Six Portraits, a chapbook published by Slapering Hol Press, the small press imprint of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.  The kind folks at the HVWC have included the poem on the Six Portraits page to show you what you’ll find in the chapbook.

Bonuses: Here is a creative nonfiction essay Ms. Danho published in The SFWP Journal.  Here is a poem Ms. Danho placed in Blackbird.  Here is a poem that was published by Solstice.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Punctuation

Discussion:
What a clever and interesting poem!  On the surface, Ms. Danho simply describes the humble question mark in a number of unexpected ways.  The poem is a creative work, so there are, of course, infinite interpretations.  Me?  I think I like the idea of personifying a question.  Just like a person, a question can change your life or bring you joy or simply make you think about life.  

Sure, the comma helps your reader know when there’s a pause or an independent clause.  The full stop splits up sentences and allows your subconscious to digest prose in a felicitous manner.  Punctuation is indeed functional, but why can’t it also serve as the medium through which meaning is transmitted?  Why shouldn’t we USE punctuation in more powerful ways?    

.

The humble period.  She can stop a sentence in its tracks.  She can be the punch that drives home a confession or an insult.  She can cap off an epiphany or a declaration of love.  She can get together with some of her friends and form

An ellipsis.  A pause between phone call phrases.  A moment of anticipation.  What happens when a question mark gives a bracket a hug?

&

The ampersand is formed.  (The punctuation mark with several backs?)  Inclusion.  The joining of parent & child.  And I can’t help but point out my twelve-year-old self’s favorite bit of “functuation:”

The interrobang.

The point is that writers, like any craftsperson, should make use of every tool in his or her toolbox.  How can you use punctuation in an unexpected manner that will communicate your intention without leaving your reader behind?  (And let’s all thank Ms. Danho for writing a poem that makes us consider punctuation in this way?)

Another thing I love about the poem is the way Ms. Danho renders the question mark in a logical, top-to-bottom fashion.  The poem begins with a consideration of the mark’s curves and ends on a consideration of the mark’s dot.  I think that this choice might have been especially important because Ms. Danho’s poem does a “weird” thing.  While a reader may not expect to read a work in which a question mark is personified, he or she can certainly relate to looking a person from head to toe and rendering a verdict.  Isn’t this what we do when we see Michelangelo’s David or lay eyes on a blind date for the first time?  (The poem may also be “accessible” because it’s told in first-person…a kind of communication we each experience every day.)

If forced to choose, I think that I would say that the “s” sound is the dominant phoneme in the poem.   Why is this appropriate?  Both the ? and the S are curvy.  I’m not sure if Ms. Danho thought of it in this manner, but we’re her readers…we can do whatever we like.  What happens when we employ alliteration and actually make use of the sounds our letters make?  Great things!

I think it was Bill Cosby…I might be wrong.  But I think it was Bill Cosby who jokingly told parents to give children names that end in vowel sounds.  Why?  Because those names allow you to yell at the kid more effectively.  Think about it.  Your child is late for dinner.  You poke your head out the door and shout: “BRENT!”  That “nt” is hard to shout and the “breh” sound may not communicate your displeasure.  What about “TIME FOR DINNER, JULIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”  Okay, that sounds much better when shouted.  Good things can happen when we consider the sound of a word with its appearance.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make use of punctuation instead of just using it in the ways proscribed by textbooks.  Punctuation can create meaning instead of simply clarifying meaning.
  • Ensure that your “weird” work offers a handhold to the reader.  Fine.  Spend a thousand words describing an extraterrestrial’s biology.  Maybe you keep it accessible by doing so in the format of a recipe.
  • Match alliteration to the point of your work.  A poem about yelling?  Perhaps you’ll want to pack a lot of open vowel sounds into that piece.

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