What Do We Want?

“What do we want?
When do we want it?

—from “The Poets March on Washington” by James Cummins

But seriously…what do we want for our poetry? What do we want it to do? Not that it has to do anything, of course. It can be only for ourselves if that’s what we want—Emily Dickinson ordered that all of her poems be destroyed after her death. We only have them because someone ignored her wishes.

I’m running into this question more and more since I’ve begun sharing my work at readings and preparing actual submissions. I find that my process of revision feels different when I am anticipating reading the poem out loud to a group, as opposed to thinking only about submitting it in written form.

Beyond this, I want to think about how I’d like my poetry to affect other people. Do I want it to help someone understand something? Do I want to make someone feel less alone? Or do I want, in the end, just to give others bits of the oh-yes-I-don’t-know-why-but-yes feeling I get when a poem speaks to me?

If I am sharing my poetry only to get fortune (ha!) or fame (slightly less vehement ha!) or even just to get appreciation and positive ego stroking, I’ll set myself up for disappointment.

What is your fantasy about your poetry’s role?

It’s Alive!

I am the mad scientist of poetry! I have taken something apart, put it together in new ways, injected it with new essence and created LIFE!

There’s a lot of great writing out there about revision, and I love reading it. I love hearing about the ways other poets try to shake up their poem in hopes of finding a better version of it. But I think many of us fear revision because we imagine it as some painstaking, word-by-word nitpicking that will never end…and will suck the joy out of our creative process.

I’ve been known to do that kind of revision; I’ll take out a comma and put it back ad nauseam. It’s important, however, that I understand I’m doing it not to please some omniscient editor but rather to please myself.

What’s really amazing, though, is the type of revision I got to do a couple of days ago. The starting material was an old draft of a poem that has never really pleased me–it existed as a draft, but I wasn’t in love with it.

I opened the word processing document containing the old poem, and opened a blank file next to it so that I was writing a “new” poem using the old draft as reference. My starting point was a change in voice I’d decided to try, so I began with that. As I typed, it took on its own direction with new rhythms and transitions.

I revised the revision a lot, going back and forth to make sure that the things I loved in the original were preserved or given a transformed role in the new version.

The magic moment happened about a third of the way in: the poem surged into life before my eyes. It was not only a better poem than its source, it was alive in a way that the source was not. Where I had not considered sharing the original at a poetry reading, I couldn’t wait to share this.

This is why revision is worthwhile. It isn’t about judging my old draft–after all, without it this one could not have come to exist. It’s about creating something that makes me happy.

Show and Tell

Here’s the greatest benefit I am receiving from starting to attend actual live poetry events and read my own work: When I know I am going somewhere like this, I get like a kindergartener on Show and Tell Day.

I want to bring something new, if I can. I want to bring something I’ll enjoy sharing. If I have a partial draft that’s been in limbo, I get inspired to sit down with it and see if I can whip it into readable shape. If I have a piece that exists but has never been read to an audience, I get inspired to polish anything that might improve its readability.

It’s wonderful for breaking me out of physical, mental or emotional inertia. Right now I’m about to tackle revising an old draft that has been untouched for nearly a year. I’ve been vaguely dissatisfied with it the whole time, but never dug back in…but for some reason, I want to read it tonight.

Who Was That Masked Poet?

I am a part-time Mystery Woman.

Last week, I drove up to the Napa area to attend another poetry reading and open mic. The two poems I read were well received, and it was more useful practice for me. While I listened, read and talked to poets afterward, I experienced a feeling that’s becoming quite familiar: Mystery Woman syndrome.

You see, some of my readers also read my other site, Not This Song, on which I write about living with mental health issues and living in recovery from substance abuse. These two things are a huge part of my life: I try not to let them define me, but who I am is shaped in large part by the nature of the disorders and the nature of the physical, mental and spiritual treatments I apply.

I feel like a mystery woman at these poetry events because nobody there knows anything about me. They have no idea about the mental health issues I have, or that I’m an addict. They don’t know about my past, or my family. Aside from whatever assumptions people make based on my appearance, my poetry speaks for itself.

As I spend more time in the poetry community, this might change, and I have mixed feelings about that. I’m not ashamed of being what I am (in fact, I expect these parts of me to provide much rich material) but I am prone to social insecurity and don’t look forward to extra challenges in that area.

Sudden Ease

Two days ago, over a bowl of oatmeal, I was ambushed by a poem. The seed of it had appeared the day before, and was suddenly mushrooming into near-draft form. Obediently, my half-awake self reached for a pen and wrote things down. In half an hour flat, I had something better than the things I’d been staring at sporadically for two weeks.

“You will find that you may write and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second.”
—Richard Hugo, from The Triggering Town

If I were reading this in a church, this would be the time to shout “Amen!”

I have thought about abandoning a poem when it feels awkward or stuck…and sometimes I do put it aside for a while. This passage affirms what I think I already knew: working on a poem is never wasted time, even if that version of that poem isn’t destined to become a star. The work of the past two weeks bore an unexpected fruit, that’s all.

Think Small

“Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself.”
Richard Hugo

The above quote comes from my latest acquisition in the “poets writing about being a poet” genre. It’s called The Triggering Town: Lectures and essays on poets and writing. I recommend it highly; there are some sections that caused me to get out my highlighter because yes, that phrase, I want to remember that one. I could write a post about each of those phrases, and I might.

So what does he mean when he writes “think small?” He’s talking about how some of the best poems come from a small triggering subject as opposed to tackling a huge, monolithic  one. A small, finite experience or image is used as a starting point, and the mind expands from there.

It makes sense to me. What scenario sounds as it if will lead to a better poem? A poet sitting down saying “I’m going to write a poem about Death now” or a poet musing about the birdsong that distracted them during their grandfather’s burial?

The advice to “think small” is helping me in other ways right now. I’ve been to several poetry readings and open mics lately, following up that first experience, and it’s having a Pandora’s-box-like effect on my feelings about poetry and my generation of new poem ideas. It is very easy for me to get overwhelmed, especially since I now realize there is more going on in my local poetry scene than I could ever have the time or strength to attend.

Think small. What event am I going to next (and for God’s sake, don’t overcommit yourself!) What am I going to read there? Is it ready?

Winning Formula

There’s no one way to stimulate creativity. For me, the seeds of a new poem can come at the oddest times. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is the role played by boredom, fatigue, or concentrating on a task like driving or dishes. A mental state in which thoughts drift randomly and hook up in unexpected ways.

Recently, I had the most glaring example of this…it was the night before my father-in-law died, and I was up at the family’s home being with them in their vigil. We were all catching bits of sleep where we could, in between listening to his breathing. I lay in a trundle bed, stupidly tired, and could not fall asleep. I listened to some music on my headphones, tried again; still no dice.

My mind began to wander, and BAM! the seed of a new poem appeared. Was it a poem about death, or grief, or what it’s like waiting for it this way? No. The poem is (as far as I can tell at this stage) completely unrelated to what was going on. The trigger appears to have been a phrase in a poem I’d read the day before, linked to a different poem I’d been working on, linked to a song I had heard…you get the idea. These things drifted through my fatigue-drugged mind and collided.

And it wasn’t just an idea, it was an idea. One of those juicy ones that gives you a little shiver when it clicks into place.

Those who speak of the drawbacks of technology, or those who caution against the overscheduling of children’s lives, understand that we all need time to daydream. Boredom and random mental drifting are vital to imagination. I know that I interfere with my creativity when I distract myself from insomnia with my iPad instead of just letting myself drift, although I forgive myself because it’s the least of evils at times.