Last year, I had the opportunity to sit down with the poets Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs for an interview. They drove from Asheville to Orlando that same day, and I was apprehensive at first, wondering if the hours of driving would drain their energy. I was most likely projecting, knowing it would be hard for myself to go from road trip to interview to giving a reading without a nap and/or coffee. I was instantly relieved by their charm, humor, and smiles that never seemed to fade. In the interview, we talked about lineation, influences, what it was like to be married to another poet, hobbies outside of writing, and their future of writing. When I asked about the details in their work–the visceral descriptions that left me nodding and smiling while still reading–Nickole told me that she liked to think about the exactness of words, in metaphor, and how best images were the ones that the reader had never thought of before—the striking, the odd, the weird.
The next week, I was fortunate enough to attend the Sanibel Island Writers Conference, where Nickole gave a lecture on poetry. The description of the class was vague, and I was not sure what to expect. She quickly introduced herself, and then reached into her heavy canvas tote bag and pulled out an apple. “What is this?” she asked.
We all smiled, looked around, and a few people gave her the answer.
“I could argue that the apple is the most overlooked object in the world,” she said. “We grow up knowing that ‘a’ is for apple. Some maybe knew the apple from a religious background. But we don’t ever consider the apple—actually look at it and see it.” Nickole wrote an unfamiliar word on the worn chalkboard behind her. Ostranenie. She told the group that it was a Russian term that referred to defamiliarization with something common. “So, today,” she said, “that’s what we’ll be doing with the apple.”
We were still unsure. At least I was. She started handing out apples to each of us. She handed me an apple and told me how happy she was to see me again.
For the next hour and a half, we examined our own apples with every sense. “See the apple,” she said. “See it like you’ve never seen one before.” We started with sight, and I realized quickly that this was harder than I originally thought. Just sitting there made us all force ourselves to pick on things we had never actively thought about before. Eventually, I started jotting notes: stems like candle wicks, small spots on the skin like a connect the dots puzzle, turning it in my hand like a doorknob. I looked around and, after the initial confusion, everyone was writing.
Nickole told us that this technique separates the good and bad writing. Making writing weird makes the reader stop and consider the image, rather than simply reading by. She challenged us to make our writing original and use images in our own work that might be odd or different than what the reader might expect. I took this concept with me back to my own writing and, since I became aware of it, I cannot stop looking for the “weird” in the everyday. Along with this, I see more of this concept in the books I read.
Recently, in my fiction workshop, we read “Last Days of the Dog-Men” by Brad Watson. The following line, found in the story titled “The Retreat,” describes a dog eating a rabbit: “She trotted back into the living room and lay down in front of the fire with the rabbit under her front paws and began to eat it almost delicately, sniffing it and licking it as if it were her pup and she were eating it almost lovingly in maternal wonder.” I read this line a few times because of the accuracy and the peculiarity. As weird as it is to think about a dog eating an animal in a motherly, nurturing way, the image makes us stop and appreciate the action in a way we wouldn’t have before.
The concept of ostranenie allowed me to slow down, to imagine the details and objects as if I were experiencing them for the first time. I encourage my fellow artists to try this. Sit with something for an hour and force yourself to write as much as you can. Forcing yourself to touch something or hear something or taste something like it is the first time generates new ideas and more interesting work. Write until it hurts. Go see the weird the world has to offer.
Ryan Skaryd is a second year MFA candidate in nonfiction. His poetry has recently appeared in Ink in Thirds and he hopes to continue publishing across genres. When he is not writing, you can find him running, drinking too much coffee, drinking too little water, and buying too many books.