Saturday, January 24, 2015

In Praise of the Writing Project

            So many of my poet friends go through long stretches where the poetry just doesn’t happen.
            I know the feeling. I had a stretch like that for, oh, a decade or so. As a result, I missed my poetic prime, and alas, there will be no younger poets award for me. (If I ever win Powerball, I hereby vow to start a poetry prize for poets who aren’t young. “Your boobs must be THIS LOW to enter,” I’ll advertise, with an accompanying diagram.)
            I digress. There are so many things that keep us from writing. People act shitty and it gets into our head. We work at a job that saps our time. We work at a family that denies us our comfort. We work at a life that dries up our creativity and initiative.
            I previously posted my theory that the answer to writer’s block is serious butt-work—sitting down and not getting up until something happens. (That’s a reasonable approach to constipation as well. And if you take a notebook with you, well—two birds.)
            But sitting isn’t the whole answer. The pen needs to move, or the fingertips, or some other word-writing appendage. And it’s hard to get to that point, because first it seems like there ought to be an idea.
            Or should there? For a long time I thought that I needed to approach the page with something in mind to write about. Otherwise, it’s possible to waste a whole lot of time trying to think of a viable subject.

            Lately, though, I’ve been waiting until bedtime to write, and in a desire to get something out of me for the day, I sit in my bed and look around for a starting point.
            The other night my cat came along, and I ended up with a pet poem. And on another occasion I heard a siren in my neighborhood, and it led me to a nifty poem about first responders. And recently my eyes lit upon an outfit that I had laid out for a job interview the next day. I really liked the poem I got out of that visual prompt, and it also filled my long minutes of nervous insomnia and Q&A rehearsal.
            What I’m working on now is a series of poems about “The Poet,” a version of my frantic daily self as seen through the eyes of my more contemplative poet self. It is the latest of a long line of poetry projects—a strategy I have employed for my entire writing life.
            In grad school I had a series about the Escaped Housewife, an exaggerated version of myself, I suppose, stuck and looking for adventure, and finding it in activities like playing the bagpipes, picking up hitchhikers, sprouting a penis, or taking a job as team mascot.
But the writing project doesn’t have to be a set of persona poems, of course. My most successful project was a series that combined a writing practice with regular meditation, and I set out to write a poem a day for one hundred days using a stone as a starting point. The stone was a river stone that I plucked out of a river in Montana just after I graduated from college. Rocks are a different color in Montana than they are in Ohio, and a rock that is pink or green or blue underwater quickly goes gray in the pocket. There is a lot to say about a rock like that.
Another series of mine combines suicide methods with Old Testament stories, and yet another takes the form of a guided meditation, relaxing the toes, foot, legs, and on up to the head and, just above it, the crown.
When you come to the page looking for inspiration, you can train yourself to find it in anything—in the paper or pen itself, in the chair, in the blank wall. But when you come to the page ready to pick up where you left off on a poetry project, you can set straight to work on the next installment.
There is a danger, of course. A poet with an eye toward a full-length book manuscript could find herself with a bunch of unrelated chapbooks instead. That’s a problem I face myself. I’ve solved it by publishing a couple of chapbooks and continuing to plug away at the work of poetry.

Time is the problem. We waste a bunch of it, and then it suddenly occurs to us that, wow, a lot of time has passed without us accomplishing much at all. The project is the palliative, but, I’m sorry to report, there is no cure.

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