I’ve Got a Little List

I’ve read that part of working toward a goal is the art of breaking it into tiny, doable steps. Some people make “vision boards” on which they portray steps toward their goal like little islands in an archipelago. When it comes to my desire to publish poems, I’m trying to follow this advice, because I will become completely overwhelmed if I don’t.

The other day, I decided to create a tiny task for myself. So I got out my recently acquired copy of Poet’s Market and went through the publications list with a highlighter, marking every publication whose needs might match what I have to offer. I wanted to generate a list of publications to explore further–visit their websites; think about ordering sample copies, etc. Since my budget is extremely limited, I have to do a lot of winnowing when it comes to ordering things.

The list was getting pretty long, so as a way of culling it I decided to (at least temporarily) screen out those publications generated by the writing department of a university, except those in the Bay area.

As I often do, I simultaneously pampered my tactile self by making the list on my creamy linen paper with my favorite smooth-flowing ink pen. When I finished the list, I punched holes in it and put it into a new binder instead of leaving it where it could get mixed up with things and lost. There it sits, in lonely splendor, waiting for me to do something with it.

One small task. One trivial activity that took me away from my daily concerns and re-centered me in my creative dreams. A short break from worrying and trying to cope with mental health, recovery, parenting, money, weight, and whatever else I’m trying to keep afloat about. I’ll take it.

Too Late?

When I get excited about poetry–writing it, revising it, thinking about sharing it with others–the peanut gallery in my head gets loud. I hear all of the usual stuff from it about how many other writers are out there, how big the world is, or how crazy I am to think people would ever want to read anything I write when there are so many amazing poets to explore. I hear all of the usual self-destructive monologues from my addiction, trying to convince me that this, like everything else, is futile and wouldn’t I rather have a nice handful of pills instead.

When those don’t work–when my creativity is flowing too well, or my self-care is too good that week–the peanut gallery brings out its ammunition of last resort. That ammunition is my age.

When I read books by poets about writing/being a poet, they often speak of a process that started when they were quite young. By the time they are in their late forties, like me, they have been writing for twenty years or more. They have published books. They have degrees. They’re teaching. They’ve spent decades discovering and refining their voice.

What place is there for a poet who did not discover herself to be a poet until later in life?

It was always there; I know that now. But for decades I repressed my creativity so ruthlessly that it could not get out. Instead of writing words, I ate them, and my eating disorder ruled my life. When that was no longer enough, I added drugs to the mix. Now in recovery, and learning ways to manage my bipolar disorder that leave my creativity more intact, I have witnessed the rather slimy birth of a poet who appears to be me.

So, that’s what it is; I am a middle-aged novice poet. Is it too late? I know that all the training and classes in the world are no substitute for having something to say, and I believe I have something to say. But I also know there’s no substitute for experience, patient practice of a craft and learning from one’s mistakes. Is “catching up” possible?

I find myself doing math in my head; calculating around the age and cause of various relatives’ death to estimate how many years I might have left to write. I know it’s silly, and I know none of us know how much time we have left. But that’s what goes on for me.

I don’t understand what it is about poetry for me; I don’t understand what is driving me to become the adult in the kindergarten class of a strange school. I guess I don’t need to understand. I just need to take good care of myself and maximize the years I do have. If I can shout down that peanut gallery regularly, my desire to have a body of work can be a powerful force for resisting self-destructive impulses when they come.

Reeling It In

Now that feels better. After a week of incubating a certain key line that wanted to be a hook for my latest poem, it finally progressed and took shape into a revisable draft. I know a week’s not much for poets that are skilled in long-term creative process, but it felt like a long time while that key line was annoying the hell out of me. Six little words. Not even long words. Six words that I knew would tie up the poem when it came together; that encompassed the message of the poem for me. There wasn’t even a title yet, and the drifting fragments of other lines came and went without that punch of conviction.

Why did I persevere on this one? Poets who share thoughts on revision advise that some “great lines” be tossed into a bank and left for later revisiting if there isn’t a coherent flow appearing around them. I hope I would have had enough humility to do that with my six-word mascot if things kept not working. But something in me wasn’t ready to let it go. The line wasn’t alone; it had an image around it; it was the image, and I wanted to see it.

Today, when I planned to spend time writing, I knew I wanted it. I also knew that it can’t be forced. But I confess that while I was saying my dual-diagnosis prayers (hey, you, whatever you are, please continue giving me the strength not to take drugs or harm myself in another way today) I threw in a request. Something like “and if you’re feeling generous and whimsical, it would really lift my spirits to birth that draft.”

Coincidence, or testament to the power of asking? Don’t really care–I’ll take it.

Whitmanize Me

What I love about Walt Whitman’s poetry is that he is unabashed. Whitman, to me, is a great example of being unafraid to speak.

Whitman wasn’t afraid to be opinionated. Whitman wasn’t afraid to get up on a metaphorical tree stump and just say here’s what I think, here’s what I believe, and here, at great length, is how I feel about it. In his longer works, like Song of Myself, he also wasn’t afraid to be repetitive if he felt like it. I’m coming back to this theme, with slightly different words, and I’ll come back to it as many times as it pleases me.

When I read his longer works, my brain tunes out some parts. It can’t hold or follow the whole thing. It’s skipping in and out and latching onto passages here and there that catch my soul. I think Whitman’s poems know that. I think they don’t care–it’s another part of their nature; they invite me to shop. Here’s all my stuff, a huge selection; take what you like, take what sings to you and I’ll keep the rest for you if you ever want it.

Whitman is full of himself in his poetry. These days, being “full of yourself” implies being inflated or arrogant; but I wish that weren’t so. Full of yourself? What else should we be full of? Something else?

Whatever he was like in his personal life, in his poems Whitman made himself an oracle. He treated his pronouncements as truth, simply because they were his.

He adored himself, and scattered that adoration onto others in his poems. He makes me think of the Biblical quote: Love thy neighbor as thyself. The principle is often overlooked, but there are also many people, trying to be good, who take in a misleading version of it…it doesn’t say to love our neighbor more than ourself, it says to love ourselves and our neighbor equally. Loving ourself, exuberantly and generously, is not a selfish act–Whitman’s poems believed that.

My style may be very different from Whitman’s, but I can always learn from him. His writing has an office in one corner of my mind, where I can go for counseling any time insecurity eats at my creative joy.

Logophilia

Scintilla

I admit it: I love words. Not with an elevated, academic love, but with a selfish, fetishistic, pleasure-seeking drive. I want to collect them, fawn over them and rub my face in them.

Daimon

I’ve been known to censor my vocabulary a bit, depending on where and with whom I am. I’m afraid of being seen as snobbish, or full of myself, or an out-of-touch egghead. Or I’m afraid of making others feel bad in some way.

Hierophany

Or, as has happened more than once, I’ll be accused of “intellectualizing” when I’m supposed to be accessing my more primitive feelings. Sometimes it’s true–but sometimes, I’m frustrated that they won’t believe I can be feeling something genuine and express that in passionate and articulate language because it’s what works for me.

Pulchritude

There are times for me to craft my choice of words and consider whether they are reaching people clearly, but I think I do it too much. I need to let go of that fear, and come out as the word geek I am.

Seraphic

Some eras of poetic history were very heavy on what we, today, would consider big or obscure words. I like them. I like old, archaic, plush words. I own a beat-up Thesaurus that was published in the 1930s, and it is one of my favorite books–you would not believe some of the stuff in there, and how many of the words are almost gone now.

Recreant

My poetry isn’t as full of ten-dollar words as some of the old greats. I’m a product of my time and I tend to want my poems to tell a story of some kind to all readers, including people who don’t generally read poetry.

Puissance

But still…I love words. It’s probably why I enjoy reading Hillman or Jung when my mind is up to it, because I’m guaranteed to encounter words I don’t know. I love the old poets who write in lush, sprawling vocabularies acquired in a type of liberal arts education common to certain groups in bygone eras.

Tenterhooks

So here’s to owning my fetish! Who’s with me? Do you have a favorite obscure word today?

Stages and Stanzas

When I began to write poems again, my process seemed to follow certain stages. The sequence could be fast or slow, but it was predictable, and I found it both frustrating and enjoyable.

Stage 1 is the itch, the feeling of unease and discontent I get when I haven’t written a poem in a while.
Stage 2 is the idea; the desire to write a poem about a certain thing (this can precede the first stage if it’s a fertile time.)
Stage 3 is stream-of-consciousness, almost prose, just scribbling down the images or thoughts as fast as I can write.
Stage 4 is the hook. That’s the moment when at least the first draft kind of takes shape–what kind of voice, a binding metaphor, or one key line that gives me the shivers.
Stage 5 is revision, which I enjoy doing on paper with a great deal of energetic crossing out. Although I haven’t had a lot of formal training, I seem to do a lot of what poetry books advise: check for cliches, experiment with different voices, try going in different directions from certain points, trim off extraneous words or parts (it’s interesting how often I find the entire last stanza of a poem is unnecessary!)
Stage 6 is the moment when I call it a completed draft, and I begin the process of falling in love. Not that it could never be revised again, but this version of it exists and I have a relationship with it.

Between stage 1 and stage 6, I feel pregnant. I’m aware of having something in process, and I’m looking forward to the time when it will be done and out of me. It was a linear sequence, when I began to write again, because it was one poem at a time. But things have speeded up inside my head, and I have more appreciation for revision as a longer process…so I must learn to incubate many poems in progress.

Yesterday I did some stage 3 scribbling about an idea; a real event from my childhood popped into my mind and I began to write details down. Colors, textures, the scent of snow and the alien thoughts of a six-year-old, on their way to creating something that is not a poem about a child at all…and that’s it. It’s not ready to go any further, so it’s incubating away. Coexisting with a stage 2 idea, a stage 4 mess with words but no clear hook, and a stage 1 itchiness that wants to PUSH one of them out.

This is where I need to learn from more experienced poets. I need to learn how to be content with five, ten, a hundred unfinished things in my head; perhaps to thrive on the state and see it as the desirable one.

Ink Vanity

So, I just came back from one of my outings to Peet’s Coffee–like many of us, I sometimes find it easier to get something done with other people around. While I was there, I noticed that out of eight people working on something, I was the only one using just pen and paper. Everyone else had laptops. There’s nothing surprising about this–what I really noticed, and feel sheepish about, is that I was kind of getting off on the fact that I was the different one.

Oooh, look at me, I’m quirky, I’m artistic. Look at me marching away to my different drummer over here. Gaze in befuddled admiration at the splotch of ink on my fingertip. 

Really, Lori, get over yourself. You were listening to your iPod headphones the whole time, and most of your prose is done on a keyboard. It’s only poetry brainstorming and some therapeutic journaling that gets the pen and paper treatment.

I suppose I get creative about fuel for my vanity’s fire, especially in this stage of my life. Today, the guy next to me in Peet’s tapping away on his laptop probably has a JOB he’s working on, after all, one that might even pay him MONEY…and it’s hard on my ego that I don’t, so I try to tell myself that I am special in some way to make up for it.

And maybe I am special. But not because of some cream-colored paper and a $1.99 rollerball pen.