Aaron Shurin’s Poetic Punctuation

an ellipse followed by an exclamation point in a bold black font.

Writing teachers have endlessly told me that a story needs to teach the reader how it wants to be read—but then I read Aaron Shurin’s 2011 book of poetry Citizen

When I started writing, I struggled for my voice, for a sense of myself inserted into my stories that showed the reader the rhythm of the story, the individual voices of the characters, and the way each syllable echoed in my head. And along came Shurin’s use of “…!”

My father told stories, my grandfather told stories, and I would sit at their feet and listen to the ways my great grandparents emigrated from Russia or the tiny details of my grandmother’s tumultuous life that she let slip into a legend about her brothers. I collected each story like gems—and as I grew, wanted to share them with the world. But they always sounded wrong when written down, they never captured the voice, the emotion, the pace of my family—of myself. But then I heard my family’s voice in the use of “…!” 

I write novels. I write books steeped in fabulism and the speculative; I write stories that imbed the reader in the essence of a character as they spiral out of control nearly crushed by the weight of their own worries. I love run-on sentences. I enjoy using different types of punctuation. But when I started writing, I thought I had to follow the rules of periods and commas—until I read the purposeful use of em-dashes, ellipses, and the combination of…!

I have loved using em-dashes to force the reader to stop and pay attention, to breathe, to demonstrate when the story is shifting its focus, and while Shurin similarly used the em-dash to insert asides, the ellipses that greeted an exclamation mark opened up a new perspective of how I could use—utilize—punctuation. I had always believed ellipses were a sign to the reader that the voice trailed away. But the addition of the exclamation mark turned the whisper resounding. 

It was as if I used each em-dash as a stepping stone to reach the platform of the ellipses only to find the edge of a cliff where I could scream a word, the sentence—more importantly, the emotion—into the head of the reader and leave it to resonate. And ever since, my writing is…!

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