Saturday, March 5, 2016

On writing a book (whatever that means)

I’ve been writing a lot lately, so don’t get the wrong idea, but with a first and second book forthcoming, I have a major problem.

What the hell am I supposed to write about now?

I continue to write poems regularly, even daily, and because I’m that kind of poet and thinker, I draw most of my material from my own life. Today, for instance, I wrote a poem about a dream interpretation class I’m taking (maybe I’ll stick it at the end of this post, even though it’s rough, just to prove I’m on the up-and-up, doing the work and all that). Nothing about my creative life has changed, except maybe the pressure to be worthy of my good luck.
But my first book, due out in June, is in the old style of first books—a collection of work that shows my range of interests and styles, rather than the kind of cohesive, thematic or even linked initial collections that we see coming out from most poets today.
Even more disconcerting, my second book, coming in April 2017, is similar—a little more thematic, maybe, in that it offers poems about motherhood, the body, and the spirit. Readers of book one (in other words, my mom and maybe my spouse) will recognize me in book two—both books are from the same consciousness, and they have overlapping concerns, although the books themselves seem quite different from one another.
But writing now, I explore the topics that interest me, and they’re not altogether different from the topics that have always interested me. I fear that I may be in danger of cranking out a third book that is also an old-style first book. In an era of writing programs and carefully conceptualized theses-cum-books, is this even allowable?
I have in mind a weird collection that draws on my kind of extensive reading about vaudeville (it’s a bad idea to say too much—that squashes the muse), and I’ve shaped it a bit in my mind, like all the ways I could intersperse this kind of poem with that kind, and what the final project might look like. The thing is, that sort of cerebral project is not where my spirit is. Writing a thematically driven book sounds like intellectual work, rather than the kind of dreamwork poetry is for me usually. While occasional exercises in form or theme offer intellectual pleasures, an entire book of a poetry project just makes me feel a little bereft. It’s not what I want to do.
It’s enough to make a gal turn to fiction.
There was a certain freedom to not having a book. Before I had a book (and now two!), I was free not to write books, and not even to think about what in the world it means to write books. I’m a poet; I write poems, not books, and so far, they’ve been artifacts of particular moments in particular days, or the cumulative product of long thought on a topic. Do my ruminations on any topics require sixty pages or so? And if so, is it OK for some of those pages to say, “I just don’t know”?
I have to say, I’d rather write about a thing my kid said, or the snake I saw on the path, or the return of wild strawberries in spring. There’s surely a book in that stuff—two, in fact. But will readers put up with a third?
Time to think about plot and arc and character development, clearly, as I blow the dust off Freytag’s pyramid—maybe settle in to write a cozy mystery, a tidy little whodunit.
Poetry has suddenly grown way too serious.

Sadhaka: Dream Interpretation

At last I remember a dream.
I did it the way he told me, wrung,
upon waking, the body as sponge,
starting with the base, moving up,
twisting and squeezing until there
it was, ludicrous, wise: the dream.
There was a basement pool,
sumptuous, its mosaic tiles
ornate, strangely antique
to have survived the fire
(one of those odd histories
dreams bear, things we know
and accept, though they happened
offstage, in the long-ago),
and in the middle of that pool
where a fountain might be,
my soul placed a toy store, me
in it, and all around me, full,
packed shelves that I braced
to keep from falling, and they fell
anyway, all around me in the center
of that pool, nothing even vaguely
my fault, though the store clerks
glared—that’s the only fact
on which I’m clear. This
I can take to my teacher, place
in his hand as if the dream itself
were no more than the princess
playset featuring the fat TV sheriff,
obscenities spelled out in flowers
on the walls of his pretty room.
Here. This is a thing I found
in the toy store in my basement
natatorium, I’ll tell him. Help me
understand what it means.


  1. I struggle with the same, as a "mixtape" book poet. If you read all four of my published things (books/chaps) in succession, you'd see so many similarities it would just be hilarious to reader and possibly embarrassing to writer. Don't get me wrong; I think I do my thing very well. I'm writing a project book now, after writing all these things that circle the same loose themes in various mixtapey ways. It feels good, but very unfamiliar, almost like writing stories. I'm not a talent with fiction but I think I finally broke out of my cycle and started writing the project book and a bunch of essays on poetry to un-jam myself, and to see why I was doing what I did. : )

    1. How funny -- I use prose in the same way! It unjams the poetry. Good way of putting it. :)

  2. Karen, I so agree with this post. I'm finding it hard to navigate the terrain of new work after completing a second book. I want to recapture the joy of writing poems rather than forcing them into a narrative. I suppose whatever narrative they need will arrive in due time, right?

    1. It must be a very common problem! And obviously it's one of the better problems to have -- could sound like a humble-brag if we're not careful. I think you're so right -- letting the poems come is a joy, and they find their shape. It may be an inefficient way to work -- but it's efficient for the soul. :)

    2. I agree, Karen and Julie. Whenever I talk to folks about how to make a poetry book, or my own struggles making a book of poems, I think about the fact that many of us have been writing poems since our teenage years (or earlier?) but we've only been crafting them consciously into books for a short time. We are very familiar with crafting the individual poem, but the book terrain is unfamiliar. And, since books of poetry with arcs and sections and everything else are relatively new on the scene, this makes them trickier. We didn't see Emily Dickinson or Gerard Manley Hopkins sussing out the arc. So, perhaps that's part of the reason why this is common?

    3. You're so right. It's a hard thing that most of us figure out by ourselves!