Friday, January 9, 2015

Writer's Block? The Problem May Be Your Butt

            I really don’t believe in writer’s block.
            For three days, I’ve been trying to think of something to write a poem about, and for three days, I’ve come up empty. No blue bolt of inspiration has struck me in the brow and set my pen moving. I haven’t snagged an intriguing phrase from the ether. There’s been nothing—nothing at all.
            What I haven’t done, though, is find the time to deploy the surefire cure for a lack of poetry: my butt.
            By some accident of fate or scheduling, my butt has never been oiled up and photographed for magazine covers, à la Kim Kardashian, and so far no songs have been written about it (that I know of). To look at it, it’s actually an unremarkable—if big and squishy—backside.
            But it’s not specifically my butt that holds the solution to writer’s block. In fact, it only works its magic for me, and, I like to think, for anyone who happens to be behind me on the dance floor.
            Inspiration is overvalued. Too often, writers try to court it. We have countless historical examples of writers who sought it through pharmaceutical sources or through risk-taking behaviors. And actually, I don’t knock the strategy. Taking risks of any kind can yield subject matter, and that’s a portion of what a writer needs. I hopped a train once, and I try to write about it every so often. The thrill of that risk has never left me. I haven’t had much success in writing about it, but I hold out hope that one day I will.
            But some of the poems I like best are about incredibly small moments—sometimes the subjects amount to even less than a moment. I’ve always loved the William Stafford poem “The Little Girl by the Fence at School.” It’s about wind rippling the grass—period. Oh, and someone is dead. But the poem is about something anyone can see from the window. I’ll put it here.

The Little Girl by the Fence at School 

Grass that was moving found all shades of brown, 
moved them along, flowed autumn away 
galloping southward where summer had gone. 

And that was the morning someone’s heart stopped 
and all became still. A girl said, “Forever?”
And the grass. “Yes. Forever.” While the sky—

The sky—the sky—the sky.

The way the grass moves. Our mortality. These ideas are more than enough for a poem, no hallucinogens or freight trains required.
            One of my favorite books of poetry to come out in recent years is the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds. The title poem offers another example of inspiration from a nearby source. Here are the first several lines:

Then the drawing on the label of our favorite red wine
looks like my husband, casting himself off a
cliff in his fervor to get free of me.
His fur is rough and cozy, his face
placid, tranced, ruminant,
the bough of each furculum reaches back
to his haunches, each tine of it grows straight up
and branches, like a model of his brain, archaic,
unwieldy. …

Olds got the inspiration for this poem from a wine label. I picture her casting her eyes around the room for an object to serve as a linchpin for her ideas about love and loss. Maybe when there is something that needs to be said, anything will serve as the vehicle.
            But poems don’t just happen. They need to be invited in. Sometimes we get lucky and they come easily, but very often we have to move our fingers and see what magic comes out of them.
            The most important tool in our utility belt is located just under our utility belt. Every poem in us demands that we stop and sit. Anything we spy out the window or on the table or in the mind’s eye can serve as a subject, but poems aren’t about their subjects; it is the tenor, not the vehicle. I think poems may actually be about words and the connections between them, and the connections they make in the reader. I don’t care especially about plums, but I take pleasure in considering forgiveness for their eater.
            Given enough time at the desk, words will come. There’s a good chance they will be terrible words, unmusical words, words that refuse to play together. The words might be in the wrong order. They might even be the wrong words.

            But give yourself time to sit. Eventually, they’ll straighten themselves out.

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