Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Against dailiness: Time and attention in poetry

Lately, I’ve been trying to make some changes.
I’m trying to be kinder. Trying to watch less news. Trying to be more giving, more contemplative, more focused. Trying to soften.
I’m also trying to change the way I write, and to be gentle with myself as I do. I recently lost my friend and mentor Michelle Boisseau, a superb poet and an incomparable teacher of poetry. I was lucky enough to have her in my life for almost three decades, having met her when I was an undergraduate at Morehead State University. The first poem I handed her then was about rainbows. She handed back instruction in how to be deeply authentic—to live observantly well below any rainbow—and I was instantly hooked. That was how I began my life as a poet.
Michelle’s last advice to me had to do with my habit of writing daily poems—a practice that has been important to me, almost like meditation, for years. But a few months ago, she asked me why I was so keen on poem-a-day projects. Why didn’t I invest more time—go further in?
It had been years since my mentor had offered direction about my poems, and I wasn’t sure what to do with this guidance. Daily writing was how I worked. I specialized in small poems, sonnet-sized or below, and I labored over the page, putting hours into crafting each piece. There was nothing light about my labor, nothing throwaway about my poems, and I stand by the work. Still, I couldn’t deny it—there was something to what Michelle was telling me.
I’m realizing more and more that I have trained myself to pay big attention to small things—status updates and tweets. Magazine articles. Songs and sitcoms. Nothing in my daily life prepares me for sustained thought, and very seldom do I return today to an idea that was percolating yesterday. Each day brings some new cynosure.
Of course, we can think of many important poems that were substantively completed in a day. The Romantics offer plenty of examples. Think of William Wordsworth, practically running as he approached his door after a ramble, “Tintern Abbey” ready to spill from his head. Or think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, frantic to record “Kubla Khan” in the moments between waking from an opium-enhanced dream and the unfortunate knock on the door by that damnable Porlockian.
But my little poems about my life aren’t the same as these. Maybe they have more in common with Emily Dickinson’s work—her poems born complete on the back flaps of envelopes. I know I flatter myself with any of these comparisons, but I’m thinking about process as much as product, and of that part of writing that occurs far from the page, as we noodle and observe.
I should note that I see my friend’s advice as very targeted—a suggestion meant specifically for me, a midlife poet with a book under her belt and another on the way. This probably isn’t something she would have said to a beginner, for whom experimentation and variety can be richly instructive and rewarding. I think she was offering particular advice from a mature poet to a maturing one, and it had to do with allowing myself to follow my thoughts well into their depths, rather than staying at or near the surface.
When I first knew Michelle, she advised our university literary journal, called Inscape. It is not lost on me that the concept of inscape, that term coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins, is in back of her suggestion. I don’t think Michelle was telling me to labor more over prosody (although that’s not a bad idea, either). I think she was seeing the potential in me to explore the inscape of me and everything around me, and she was giving me permission, in a life built of student compositions and editing projects and PTA meetings, to probe the thingness of things, the instress.
It feels incomparably fine to be recognized as someone whose insights might matter. When I sit at my desk, though, this new challenge is a bit of a burden. I’d like to tell you the astonishing thing my young son said in his sleep, or maybe describe what the sun did to the remnants of the ice storm in the trees. These are not new thoughts, but they’re beautiful ones, and I’d like to nudge them around a bit, see where they take me. But I have something big to say, and I can’t be sure that ice-coated branches will get me there.

Of course they can. What I mean is that I’m not sure how to get to a big there from my very modest here. There’s no map, and the way is not direct. And that’s the real poetic challenge, and one I hope I’m up to—my new job is to lay down that path.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Writing will always take you back

Antony Gormley, Feeling Material II (2003)

I have a thing I say to myself, and to writers I know who have hit a dry spell that they can’t seem to emerge from, and it is this: Poetry will always take you back.
When one has been a long time away from writing, the blank page is daunting. There’s just too much white. Every mark we put down seems to stain it.
I remember a Christmas day a few decades back. I’d walked behind my house through a stubbled, harvested farm field toward the railroad track that formed its border a few hundred yards away. It wasn’t particularly cold; I wore shorts and a light jacket.
And then the snow came. It came sudden and hard, and I was blinded by it. My only course of action was put my head down, turn around, and follow the direction of the empty furrows back to my far-off home.
I trusted those grooves to get me back, just as I trust my lines of writing to get me somewhere. If we lower ourselves to the page, it meets us back, and it becomes a field where anything can happen.
A lot of people have advice on how to get the words going again. (I’m one of them, actually—I’ve written many posts containing writing prompts.) But starting to write again is a simple matter, if not an easy one. We just have to write.
I like to draft longhand, so for me, it’s literally a matter of moving my hand and arm over the page. Ink comes out; the page is defaced, so just like that, a source of consternation is behind me. At first my motions are mechanical and forced, my letters crabby and precise. I have a habit of crossing out those first sputters of language, and not just drawing a line through them, but obliterating them—scribbling over the offensively bad writing until not even the merest tittle shows. This is part of it, though—scribbling just another way of moving the pen.
That’s the trick, see—it’s not to be brilliant, but it’s to allow something to come through. After weeks or months away from writing, whatever presence is on the other side of that pen, looking up through the still pond of the page, has stepped away. The sound of our scratching beckons it back, and eventually, if our heart is pure, it offers us a crumb—a good word, a phrase, an image. 
And then we’re off.
Put in more practical terms, we have to write in order to write. Writing isn’t magic; it’s just slapping down some words. Most good writing happens in its revision anyway, but we can’t revise nothing. Moving the pen, or moving our fingers on the keyboard, gives us something. And we go from there.
For me, it really is as simple as this. The way to get back to writing is merely to write. After a few dusty gerunds or infinitives shake out, the pump begins to prime, and whoosh—out comes a lovely noun, and it’s one you hadn’t thought of in a while, one with the perfect sound. Tuba. Crypt. Syzygy. You hook your wagon to that word and it carries you … somewhere. And wherever it is, it’s always somewhere new.
I think we imbue writing with the wrong kind of voodoo. It isn’t fickle; it doesn’t leave us. It really does reside in us, always, and it can emerge if we make a path for it. The real magic is that writing begets more writing. The main thing that keeps it from happening is that we can’t easily find the time and the solitude to let it flow. 
Once we do find ourselves in the position to receive, we sometimes make one of two mistakes: Either we take an agenda to the page, and our plans don’t compel us, or we sit down and file through our mental Rolodex of potential subjects, and nothing there demands to be written about.
I like to rely on chance when I’m writing. A phrase here, a word there—these can lead to some surprising conjunctions, and the interest generated by an unexpected melding of ideas takes me past my panic and into … a poem. Or a proto-poem? 
At any rate, it’s a start.