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.
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. If you have a big mind, that will show itself.”
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?