Monday, January 7, 2019

When the poem writes back

Last week, something wonderful happened: My second full-length collection, Passing Through Humansville, published at the very end of 2018 by Sundress Publications, reached the hands of those readers who had pre-ordered it.

One by one, friends started writing me notes of congratulations and posting photos on social media of my book in their hands. It’s a beautiful thing to see the work that began in my notebook beautifully produced and present in places all over the country. My poems are, generally speaking, the best of me, and these poems are the best of the best of what I had to offer.

But is the best of me good? That’s the question, and it gives me pause when I see my loved ones holding my work. The question is not even a writerly one; any of us might take a moment to look around at the life and work we create and wonder if we’re reaching our potential or contributing something meaningful to the world. I hope we all do wonder this, just as I hope we all put forth some effort to make our one life mean something.

Poetry usually isn’t much fun. For me, the drafting begins with something like shame. I write out a word, a sentence, a set of connections, and then I can’t believe my foolishness. It’s my habit to obliterate those first words — just scribble-scribble-scribble over them until not a single letter can be picked out. That blacking-out (or bluing-out, more accurately — I have a thing for blue pens) seems to be part of my process. I approach what’s hard to approach, and then I back away from it in a very forceful way, and then I approach again by a more deliberate path.

After the drafting and its weird embarrassment, I begin revising, a process that is less shameful and more tedious. There’s not a lot of joy in sweating out each word and casting and recasting each line, and there is a fair amount of second-guessing in the process. Ultimately, I make a decision, and then I question that decision for a bit, and then I say the hell with it and call the issue settled.

Then comes submitting. I generally like this process — after all, I’m giving my poems a real, live audience, even if it’s just an audience of one harried editor. It’s kind of fun to see if they sink or swim on their own, and so much about the process is instructive. Editors always seem to go first for the poems I include as filler in a submission, for instance, and poems I love sometimes take longer than the others to find a home. I do not like sorting through submission guidelines and coughing up reading fees, but the human contact is nice, even when that human says no.

Putting together a book is another difficult task. Readers seem to like the relief that sections provide, so I spend a lot of time figuring out what goes where. (With my first book, I labored over this section issue pretty hard, but my editor, the brilliant Erin Elizabeth Smith, suggested I eliminate sections altogether, and that was the right decision — but wow, I spent a lot of time taping and retaping those pages around on a bare wall.) There are things in the editing process that we argue for and things that we let go of along the way, and that’s an invigorating set of exchanges, but again, it’s a lot of work.

One of the final parts of the writing process is that weird angst of having my actual book in the hands of actual readers, and I won’t go into that again. I notice, though, that I’ve not mentioned any real delight along the way, and a reader may well wonder — was there any?

In fact, there was. Writing poetry brings one distinct pleasure, and that is the satisfaction of having written. This is a feeling that only comes when the work is viable, as there is no pleasure in “having written” garbage. When we’ve written something we like, it feels very nice.

Beyond this satisfaction, though, is a feeling that’s downright exhilarating, and these are the moments when you’ve written the poem and the poem writes back. You scan the piece and, improbably, you discover something — some insight you didn’t plant there (or at least not intentionally). I’ve even found dense layers of imagery in a poem that I didn’t calculate; they just sort of showed themselves upon later inspection. My own poems kind of floor me sometimes, not because they’re amazing poems (although there are some I’m very proud of), but because they seem to operate independently of my consciousness. They have their own consciousness — and that’s a weird and breathtaking discovery on a printed page.

Sometimes we think we’re writing a question, and we’re actually writing the answer to that question. Sometimes we write out our fury or frustration and peace peeks through. Sometimes we’re just writing along the best we can when the poem says, “Let’s show her what we can do.” This is the thrill of it — when a poem is a horse that can take us into astonishing wilderness but then knows exactly how to bring itself home.