Poetry Dress-Up

I’ve been trying outfit after outfit on my newest poem in progress, and nothing works.

Advice essays by poets for poets often advocate experimenting with different poetic forms. Though free verse is incredibly popular, and is often a go-to, using a form can take  a draft in new directions. I haven’t done it very much–tried to do a pantoum with one draft, but usually blank verse is as close as I come to a form.

However, my current project has me so stuck I am desperate. So I tried doing it as a ghazal. (Basically, that’s a series of couplets that all end with the same word.) Then I tried doing a set of tanka (a five-line Japanese form with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern.) No dice.

Experience with forms is something I’ll get more of if or when I manage to take some actual poetry classes. For now, I suppose I’ll try a couple more forms–then, perhaps, give up and put the draft aside for now. There are other fish in the somewhat murky sea of my imagination.

One-Note Solo

I wrote this on my old site Not This Song years ago–and today, I needed to read it again. I need to remind myself that it’s okay to do things badly; to be a clumsy novice. It’s even okay to do things at which I might never particularly excel. I don’t need a reason or a justification for enjoying something. Neither do you.

When I was in second grade, the school had a choir, but the teacher chose which students were allowed to sing in it. So if you didn’t have a natural ability to carry a tune at age seven, having never had any practice or instruction, you were pretty much told that singing was not for you.

When I was nine, I had one season on a girls’ softball team. Now, it’s quite true that I sucked at softball. I was afraid of the ball; I was uncoordinated, and–something we didn’t know then–I couldn’t see worth a damn. This interfered with batting and catching. So softball wasn’t for me at that time…fine. But was it really necessary for the adults to shake their heads and conclude that I was never going to be athletic? It quite literally took decades for me to realize that, with my adult body, I’m not completely lacking in physical gifts.

When I was twelve, I got an F in art. Seriously? Who gives a kid an F in art? I don’t have a problem admitting that my clay dragon sculpture looked more like a dragon turd. I have a problem with being labeled “bad at art” and living in a culture where that meant I wasn’t supposed to do art any more.

I know, my story’s not unique. What matters is what I do about it now. Starting to write is a big part of this: I’m defying the messages that tell me writing is restricted to an elite class, or that it’s only worth doing if it will be well received. The bad poetry thing is another example. I also have aspirations toward becoming a bad artist someday.

There’s one area where I really made progress as an adult, and that’s singing. Thanks to the urging of a friend, I joined a choir with him in freshman year of college. It turned into many years of singing with various amateur groups. I finally got the experience of being new at something, doing it just well enough to get by at first, and gaining in ability and confidence as I got more practice. That concept we call…what was it…learning?

The best choir director I ever knew once said to us: “Don’t sing tentatively. I’d rather have you all slam into an entrance in the wrong place than do the entrance half-assed.” He meant it, too.

One day we were doing a full orchestra rehearsal, and the soprano entrance was a fortissimo (very loud) high G. When you’re a soprano, there’s one thing you learn about hitting those high notes: whatever the volume, full commitment is necessary. If you sing it any other way it will come out flat. The only way to sing it right is to be willing to risk singing it wrong.

It was probably one of the nicest G’s I’ve ever sung. It rang clear and bright, with a crisp start and plenty of feeling behind it.
Too bad it was one measure early.
I blushed bright red as the conductor prepared to start us all again, but I was able to join in the good-natured laughter and smile sheepishly when the director complimented me on my one-note solo.

Thanks, Maestro, for meaning what you said. That errant note made thousands of great notes possible.

The Fiftieth Person

Once, while preparing to speak at a recovery event, I wrote something like, “Open my heart, and then open my mouth. Let me look like a fool to forty-nine people if it will help the fiftieth person.”

Do I have the courage to apply that idea to poetry as well?

In a couple of days I’m going to read a few pieces of poetry at a recovery event. The audience will be very different from the ones I have faced before–for the first time,  I’ll be reading poetry to an audience of people who may have come for other things and have no interest in the poetry part of the show.  I’m experiencing a much higher level of public speaking anxiety than what is normal for me. I’m trying to revamp some poems into a format that I think is “cooler” or more likely to go over well–and the revamping is at a complete stall.

Not too surprising, I suppose. While my self-care has had some improvements lately, I have been very blocked when it comes to writing. The reasons are both repetitive and unoriginal, but there it is.

At any rate, past experiences give me faith that when the time comes, I will step onto the stage and manage to read. Past experiences assure me that this will happen, and the world will not come to an end. I just have to show up.

Too Little, Too Late

The phrase haunts me. Whenever I find a lump where a lump shouldn’t be, or even have a twinge of pain in an unfamiliar place, the fear comes up. I’m turning into a hypochondriac, and I don’t like it.

It’s not just that I am afraid of dying, although I am. It’s that part of me is still waiting for a judgment from the universe–a judgment saying I’ve had enough second chances. A judgment saying my current efforts are too little, too late.

I recently spent time with a fellow addict who is on dialysis. For three years, she tried to quit smoking in order to get on the list for a kidney transplant and could not do it. She finally succeeded—two months before a heart complication showed up and derailed the whole process. Too little, too late.

My blood sugars are lower than they’ve been in a long time–but with every exam I fear the onset of some complication born during the less controlled times. My weight is improving slowly from the place it reached last year–but with every sore knee or backache I fear that I’ll never dance again.

It all feeds into the roar from the ever-present peanut gallery that observes my efforts at writing: You’re too old! It’s too late! There’s not enough time left to accomplish anything that is worth doing!

Starburst

I now have THREE poems stuck in pre-draft limbo. One has been there for two days, one for two weeks, and one for at least a month. What is this thing in me that will not give me permission to sit down and hammer out a first draft?

Well, besides mental health issues and a lifetime of experience at self-sabotage.

In desperation, I did a starburst on one of them. It looked like this:

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The starburst is a brainstorming technique. You put a single image or word in the middle and start drawing associations; some will be important and some not.

My image for this poem has been clear from the beginning: a glass mug of hot water with a chamomile tea bag in it. Pale brown-gold threads are drifting out into the water as the tea starts to be absorbed.

The image, like many of those a poet chooses, is a tool for crystallizing a moment and the thoughts and feelings that went with it. The starburst helps me elucidate some of those.

I’d like to say that the starburst promptly galvanized me into action–well, not yet. But I know I’m closer, both because of such things and from having coffee with a fellow poet yesterday.

Oak Tree Debate

Have you ever written a story specifically to help you with a poem? I have a poem that’s been incubating for a couple of months now. Like many, it started from an image and a thought, but it will not coalesce into a phrase that serves as a “hook” for the poem I want. So, as I talked about recently, I’ll write about this as prose and see if that begins to help the process.

The time: May, 2011. The place: a residential drug rehab center in Northern California.

The center was set in a lovely area, surrounded with picturesque roads (and, ironically enough, wineries.) The buildings of the center housed about forty addicts in various stages of detox and early recovery.

Once you were deemed past the worst early detox symptoms, you were allowed to leave the house and walk about the grounds. There was an open area, away from the main compound, with a single bench. The bench faced the largest oak tree I had ever seen in person. It was the only tree in the field, and seemed sentient when you looked at it long enough.

People were encouraged to spend time there, thinking deep thoughts. I didn’t need encouragement; it was a pleasure to get away from people for a little while.

So that’s the image: a huge oak tree, spreading its old and complex branch systems against the sky. The pattern of branches seen against morning sky, and midday sky, and evening sky.

Some people might have used the place for meditation, and some for prayer. I sucked at meditation, and while I had nothing against prayer I couldn’t concentrate on that either. My mind was occupied, more often than not, with what I later came to call the Oak Tree Debate.

The subject of the debate was simple: Did I want to live? And, even if I did, did I deserve to live?

The oak tree, it seemed to me, was my judge. It was the embodiment of all that was natural and true, while my drug-tainted, mentally ill and self-destructive presence felt like the embodiment of all that was not.

Even the bench I sat on felt soaked with pain and toxicity. I thought about all the addicts who had sat there for decades before me. Ashamed, grieving, belligerent or hopeless. I thought about how many came back to the bench more than once, having relapsed after weeks or months or years. I thought about what the oak tree might think of them, and of me.

The trouble with presenting a case to my arboreal judge was twofold: I was not competent to be the best advocate for myself at the time, and I did not speak the oak’s language. My case was inconsistent at best, and even if the oak did render a verdict I could not be certain of what it was.

In the end, I had to go from that place without a clear conclusion to the debate. It has continued, off and on, through years of recovery and treatment for my mental health issues. Perhaps it will never end–but when I can, I choose to imagine a verdict that tells me to keep going.

Just As I Am

Today I’m wrestling with a common question: go to a poetry reading or not? One of my favorite monthly ones is happening this afternoon, and I want to go–but I’m not having a good day.

Not having a good day, in this case, refers to my bipolar symptoms. The depression and disorientation are up for me right now, and it is hard to focus. When I am like this, I feel a bit alien and more socially awkward than usual. How much of this is my perception and how much actually affects others is hard to determine.

Would going to the reading do me good? Yes, almost certainly. It’s an opportunity to connect with the poet I am and disconnect from mundane worries.

So what’s trying to keep me away? Ego, of course. Not wanting to show my vulnerability. Wanting people to like me.

Let’s break it down, however. Some of my poems that touch people the most are my most unguarded ones; the ones that expose me. One of my favorite things to say to myself when I am blocked is “When all else fails, tell the truth.”

I’ve written it before, but for me it bears writing again: my best qualities come forth when I offer myself to the world, just as I am, and let others decide what to make of it.

Beginning the Process

So, I just did the first cross-post from my other site. There will be many in the upcoming weeks. I picked an old post for the first one, but they won’t be in any particular order from now on.

I won’t be transferring everything. Some old essays feel less relevant because they talk about very specific things that were going on at the time. Some may also be edited a bit. But I want to preserve my favorites.

That being said, I also want to have plenty of new posts about what is going on with me now. How the poetry readings are going, what new submissions I am doing, and how I continue to navigate the journey to a more creative life and deal with the roadblocks that appear.

Today I’m heading to a poetry reading in Benicia, CA. I’ve been to it before, and it’s a mellow atmosphere. Familiar readings are nice; I get more comfortable with repetition and more willing to share brand new and less polished works.

Joining

I’ve been thinking about my two websites lately. The first one created, Not This Song, was focused on my experiences of living with bipolar disorder and living in recovery from my addiction to painkillers. It ranges far afield in topics and uses metaphors from just about anything. This site was created later, to focus on my poetry and my experiences with writing and creativity.

At the time, the distinction made sense. Lately, however, I have been struggling with writing frequently enough on either blog. I’ll want to write, then get stuck about which site to update with those words–and the thought of updating both seems like too much when I am feeling overwhelmed.

Life and art are blending together, and it is harder and harder for me to separate them. I have decided to join them together, making Not My Last Words my only site. I’ll still write about a wide range of topics, but most of the time they will be linked to some aspect of my creative work (or lack thereof.)

Over the next couple of months, I will cross-post my favorite things from the Not This Song archives so that they will exist in the archives here.

If you are a poet who has found this site, I hope the other topics won’t bore you. I hope to create a site that speaks of one person’s creative efforts and progress in such a way that others can identify.

Mentioned

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My first poetry award! I received a Second Honorable Mention in an annual Bay Area poetry contest. At their monthly get-together, I read my poem along with many other winners (there were four categories) and got to hear theirs.

The little kid in me is very excited about this. When I enter a contest or send off a submission, I look at it as gathering experience. I’m still so new to sharing my poetry that I need experience to become comfortable with the process. But I’d be lying if I said getting some recognition isn’t fun. This comes on the heels of doing that small feature, which was also an honor.

Here’s what I want to say to poets who haven’t yet read their work in public: TRY IT!

I first read poems in public on June 4, 2016. That’s less than nine months ago.

Cards

The reading was an amazing experience. My concern that the audience would be small proved to be correct, but that’s really the only thing I would change. The longer time allowed me to get into more of a groove, and doing so allowed me to read a couple of poems I wouldn’t feel comfortable reading at a two-minute open mic. They went over very well.

Because I had no books or chapbooks to offer, I thought I should at least have some cards to give out. So I went and had some inexpensive ones made at Staples. Let me tell you, designing it was a bit of a mental hokey-pokey.

I’ve had business cards when working in biotech. I’ve had them when I was working as a counselor. This is the first card I have had that describes me as a poet and writer. What should it say?

In the end I went with my name, the names of my two websites, my contact info and my unofficial motto of  “One Metaphor at a Time.”

Giving them out to people felt very strange, especially the idea that people who know me only by my poetry will know a great deal more about me if they choose to visit the websites.

I tell myself that’s OK. I write my best when I am my most authentic, even if that means I am authentically broken.

Peanut Gallery

My feature reading is tomorrow night. I’ve enjoyed preparing for it. I have also spent some quality time listening to the peanut gallery of my insecurities. Twenty-five minutes seems like a long time, although I know from other public speaking experience that it will probably fly by.

Beyond the normal insecurities one might have about public speaking, however, are a set of insecurities more specific to the type of sharing I’ll be doing. Here, in the spirit of putting honesty before pride, are some of them:

–I arrive and find that the audience is a fraction of its usual size because of the inauguration and the protest marches. This one has some practical basis, but there’s nothing I can do about it. It will be what it is.

–The audience, of whatever size, is disappointed that only a small amount of my poetry immediately relates to current events. They judge my work as self-involved and frivolous.

–The audience is baffled by the wide range of topics my poetry spans. They judge me to be without a unifying vision.

–The audience discounts anything I have to say because I am at the higher end of my weight range and don’t fit their picture of what a poet looks like.

–The audience sneers at the hints of spirituality present in some of my poems. I am written off as a kook rather than a serious poet.

–The audience is repulsed by the personal things they learn about me through hearing a wider variety of my work, and their view of me is now altered by prejudice and misconception.

There is a sample. The thoughts range from reasonable to ridiculous, but they are mine and deserve acknowledgement. Here’s the good news, though–I have faith that none of these insecurities are going to stop me from enjoying myself. I have another persona that emerges at times like this. It’s authentic, but is somehow able to place hesitation aside. The insecurities will probably come back when I’m done…but when I’m up there, it’s going to feel amazing.

Just Call Me Ebenezer

Not because I hate the holidays (even though I do.) It’s because I am being a miser with my poetry lately.

Last post, I talked about how I’ve been asked to do my first feature. At the poetry readings since then, I’ve had trouble choosing what to read at the open mic. I don’t want to read my “best” stuff, or my newest stuff, or the stuff that feels most personal…you get the idea. I want to save the good stuff to read at the event, which is in late January.

Understandable, but I shouldn’t get too fanatic about this for two reasons. One, there aren’t going to be a huge number of people there, and something I read at an open mic will be heard by many who won’t attend this event. Two, and more importantly, I need to stop worrying that a member of the audience at an open mic has heard my poem before. It is OK for a poet to read the same thing more than once.

All of these feelings are part of my desire to show people who I am as a poet. I don’t want to waste any opportunity to speak to someone, and that’s a good way to feel. However, I do my best work when I am not approaching things with an attitude of scarcity.

Twenty-Five Minutes

I’m featuring at my first poetry reading!

To “feature” means that you are the poet who spends a larger chunk of time reading your work, as opposed to the 2-5 minutes during an open mic. I will have 25 glorious and terrifying minutes to read multiple poems and give the audience a greater sense of who I am than a single poem can do.

It’s a small and intimate venue in Berkeley, and there will probably be less than 20 poets there–but it’s still exciting to me, and it’s a great compliment to be asked. Usually the featured poet is more established and published, and I am what is diplomatically referred to as an “emerging” poet.

At first, I told myself that the host who invited me was just being supportive and wanted to give me the opportunity as a growth experience (Me finding it hard to take a compliment; what a shock) but the next week another of the hosts, who doesn’t know me, asked me independently.

I’m really grateful for the kindness and welcome I’ve found so far in the Bay Area poetry community, and I can’t wait until January 23! I’m having such fun imagining which poems I will read and in what order, as well as being inspired to finish some new ones.

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.

Courage Comes in Many Forms

I am no longer a poetry virgin: for the first time, I read my poems out loud to a group of strangers.

My task was made easier by the fact that it was an informal event, with no lecterns or microphones. We went around the circle twice, and I read a total of three poems in two turns.

My God. I actually did it. I read poems to poets and they liked them.

It may be hard to understand, but this was the bravest thing I have done for a while. It took courage for me to drive unfamiliar roads and find the event. It took courage for me to walk into the room. It took courage for me NOT to walk out of the room in response to the gradual realization that the other poets in the room were all published, and all knew each other, and were all members of the Bay Area poetry scene about which I know nothing.

It took courage not to listen to the voice that said I was out of my league, didn’t belong there, and should stay quiet.

It took courage to read in a clear, resonant voice, not mumbling or hurrying through the poems.

It took courage to read the poems and let them speak for themselves, without prefacing them with a long autobiography or explanation.

It even took courage, when complimented on my work afterward, to smile and say “thank you” instead of making some self-deprecating remark.

Anyway, this is a great stride forward for me. I also gained a lot of good information about other readings and events in my area. Knowing these events are going on creates some frustration about not having the time to go to most of them, but I hope to go to some.

Reading my own work was terrifying, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Saved by the Kidney Stone

I am not making this up, although if I read it in a script I would roll my eyes. It happened last weekend.

The day had arrived…very shortly, I would be reading a poem of mine.

Out loud. To a group of people. Using a microphone. For the first time.

I had been ill, and not taking good care of myself, but I am glad to say I was not trying to talk myself out of going. This reading was going to happen.

Less than an hour before I was due to leave, my spouse–who had been feeling a bit of what he thought was digestive upset–transitioned into severe pain and vomiting.

Now, my marriage is not perfect, but never let it be said I feel no love for him: I did not run off to the poetry reading and leave him writhing in pain. Off to the ER we went.

They took care of him, and found a stone on the scan, and he is getting better.

I am left with a question: Should I search for meaning in this putative accident of timing, or can I let it be?

I am inclined toward the latter. If the universe wants to tell me that sharing my poetry is a bad idea, it’s going to have to do better than this.

Just leave my family out of it, OK?

Training Montage

What would a poet’s training montage look like?

Recently, even in the midst of being quite dysfunctional, I experienced a surge of enthusiasm about poetry. It got started when I attended a small poetry event and committed to reading at the open mic next month. This renewed fire energized me so much that I created the first new draft I’ve been able to do for months! (No, it isn’t Aquamarine. That one’s still a stubborn bitch.)

The point is, I fucking love poetry. And I love how I feel when I create a new piece. I wonder, what would it look like if that love really showed in my daily life? What if there were no barriers between my desire and my ability to act on it?

What if a part of me were not always trying to get me to destroy myself? Would my fire be strong enough to burn through the ordinary barriers of laziness or inertia?

In my fantasy, my desire to write would invade every aspect of my life. My life would be a training montage.

I’d eat well, take my medicine, never miss a doctor’s appointment…to be healthier and live longer to write more poetry.
I’d clean my apartment…to create a better atmosphere for writing.
I’d exercise…to be strong and fit so that the tasks of daily life wouldn’t exhaust me too much for writing.
I’d sing…to keep my voice limber and resonant for readings.
I’d pray and meditate…to clear the path of daily fears and let inspiration through.

It would all, in some way, be about the creating. Every positive action I took would be a way of showing how much I love the magic of the word.

But in my real world, the positive actions I manage don’t meld into a stirring training montage. The love letter to poetry I want my life to be is divided into scraps and snippets.

You Say “YES”

I think of myself as a poet these days, and this change in the way I see myself gives me a lot of pleasure. Not being published yet doesn’t stop me from thinking of myself as a poet. However, it’s one thing to embrace the identity within my own mind and another to lay claim to it with a stranger.

Recently, I found to my chagrin that when put on the spot, I struggle with identifying myself accurately. At a reading with open mic, I was introduced to several poets. “Are you a poet?” they asked, and I got words stuck in my throat.

Well, I’ve never been published yet, my insecurities wanted to say. I’m just getting to the point of doing my first submissions, I wanted to qualify. Well, I’ve only been writing for a few years. With the words came the urge to duck my head sheepishly.

How easy it was to turn my back on my beliefs about what a poet is, or to apply them only to others!

Then an iconic line from Ghostbusters came into my head:

…when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES!”

When someone asks me if I’m a poet, I need to say yes. It’s harder than I thought it would be, but it’s the only answer that makes sense.

The Law of Inverse Importance

Law of Inverse Importance:

“The more personally important, deep or creatively significant the poem, the more likely it is to be stuck in the poet’s metaphorical throat like a peanut butter-covered hairball.”

I think I’m losing my sanity to the Law.

I have a poem in progress called Aquamarine. The seeds of it were planted more than ten years ago, but I’ve only been actively trying to work on it for a couple of months. I’m getting nowhere…or getting somewhere only to discover it’s wrong, wrong, wrong and I need to backtrack, or change the voice, or do other useful revision tricks.

I’ve even tried writing the poem as a story first. It’s helped, but not enough.

In the meantime, I’m also being tortured by the corollary to the above Law:

“When a poem is stalled as a result of the Law, the poet’s preoccupation with this poem can become constant and extreme enough to interfere with the birth of any other work.”

It’s even interfered with writing on the site or on Not This Song.

Many other things have been going on in my life, of course. It’s not as if I have a huge amount of time or energy to spend on writing…but when I do have a chunk of time to enter that space, Aquamarine waits for me at the gate. It wants the password, and I haven’t found it.

(Don’t) Leave Me Alone

I’ve had a months-long dry spell when it comes to creating brand-new poems. I’ve done revisions, and explored my role as a poet, but my file of rough notes isn’t yielding any new drafts. Life circumstances have been a large part of this; I have few large chunks of alone time and much stress making it hard to concentrate.

It would be easy for me to blame only this for my lack of drafts, but I can’t. The truth is, I haven’t been using the private time I do have in a productive way. Poor self-care and outright self-sabotaging behavior (An addict being self-destructive?…Oh, the shock of it!) makes some of my solitude not only unproductive but actually detrimental.

I’m one of those writers who likes to works in cafes and libraries…by myself but not really alone. Even that hasn’t done much for me lately; I haven’t settled down to work instead of dwelling or acting on my negative feelings. I don’t seem to be able to make the switch from my other roles and focus on poetry: Okay, Lori, for the next two hours you are a poet. That’s all. You’re not doing mental dances about your marriage, daughter’s health and schooling, recovery choices, money, or worries about the future. You get to be a poet, and you get the privilege of making any feelings you’re having into precious raw material…or using the power of your imagination to concentrate on the other material of your choice.

Today, may the presence of grace turn my alone time into a poet’s blessing instead of an addict’s curse.

Follow, Poet

Sometimes I wish I had what it takes to be the kind of poet who serves as a voice of our times. Oh, I occasionally write things in response to a current cause for passion, but they don’t come quickly and I don’t have the emotional and spiritual fortitude–or the consistent functionality–to narrate with poetry a real-time cry against the things happening to us.

Indonesia burns, children go hungry, black lives end in travesties of justice, masked gunmen open fire…does poetic language not come to my mind when I feel about these things? Of course it does. If I were a stronger person, with more time and energy, perhaps I could make of myself a poet who responds to the news. In one browser window, I’d gather information about every cause for distress. On a notebook in my lap, I’d scribble responses and mutate them, then type the results into another browser window and post it.

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody could keep up. But there’s another reason my poetry isn’t going in that direction more consistently. I will tell you a secret: poems I write are often influenced by the news, but the link isn’t obvious. By the time my response makes it through my subconscious and out the other side, it may be unrecognizable. This makes them less useful for purposes of consciousness raising.

Must it be this way? For me, as I am now, it would appear so. Maybe W.H. Auden said it best:

…Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

–From “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

I’m not strong enough, not resistant enough to despair, to get a poem out until I’ve somehow “made a vineyard of the curse.” I can’t just paint the darkness until I can somehow make it shine. It’s selfish, in the short term. But it’s what I am, and I need to accept it in order to unlock the abilities I do have.

Marinating

We have our finalists: the four poems for my submission. I’m determined to stick with those four, the product of much thought and second-guessing. Now, for the first time, I get to have the experience of doing a final revision of poems that have been around for a little while.

Revising this way is different from revising and polishing a new work. Experienced writers advise giving a work space and time before coming back to it with fresher eyes, and I have tried to do this sometimes. Preparing poems for submission, however, is causing me to do it with a new intensity.

I made my choice of the four about two weeks ago, and I’m aware of them marinating in my brain. It’s kind of like when a poem is simmering in its preliminary stages, but different. They hang around, whispering to me when I’m bored. Bits of them recur, telling me that they want to be altered in some small way. I want them to be their best, yet I want to be careful not to strip them of their energy.

It’s wonderful, and strange, and it feels so, so narcissistic at times.

Emily Dickinson’s Twitter Feed

I’m starting to think of myself as a poet, and a writer. The past two years have seen a slowly creeping transformation in my self-image: despite a deluge of inputs from the self-critical or self-destructive peanut gallery, despite my doubts about ever finding an audience, my conception of who and what I am has become intertwined with the arrangement of words and ideas to tell a story or evoke an experience.

One thing that troubles me is my lack of aptitude (or energy) for social media or networking. Not only lack of aptitude, but actual insecurity, fear and a feeling of being drained and exhausted after very little participation. It seems, these days, that a writer who wants to be heard must be a social media guru, and I am not one. I’m an introvert with chronic pain, mental health issues, and daily responsibilities that leave me wanting to assume the fetal position rather than do a status update.

Continuing to write requires that I have faith about the worth of what I am doing whether I am ever published or not…and I need to think about poets like Emily Dickinson.

I don’t think Emily would have been very good at the social media thing either. Really, can you imagine it?

@EmilyBroods: Thought about death some more today #HeardaFlybuzz #Stopforme
@EmilyBroods: Looking at the light through my window. Thinking about death. #acertainslant
@EmilyBroods: Having a better day! Maybe it’s not so bad. #Thingwithfeathers

She didn’t write in constant touch with an audience, and when I write poetry I don’t either. I need to be at peace with that. I get huge satisfaction when my prose touches someone, and I’m sure I would feel the same way about poetry when I am ready to get more of it out there–but it’s frosting. My truest self wants to go on doing it even in isolation.

That being said, I want to be open to learning more about reaching out. But I can’t stop writing to do it, and if the act of writing uses up all of my energy for that day–that’s how it is.

Oh, Well, “iamb what iamb.”

All right, I’m probably going to hell for that one. But seriously, I seem to have fallen into a ditch filled with iambic pentameter.

I’ve been thinking about meter in general lately. When I first began to write poetry, it was mostly free verse–no rhyme, no meter. Nothing wrong with that. But in my recent poems, I’ve noticed that when revising a draft and paying attention to the sound of the line, I am tending to change words and phrases in such a way as to fall into a regular meter.

The biggest catalyst for this was when I began to follow advice from writing guides and make a habit of reading my poems out loud as I revise them. In doing so, I came to know how pleasing a rhythmical line is to me.

Rhyme is still not often present, and when it is there it’s more likely to be slant rhyme than full rhyme. So I suppose you’d call these poems blank verse as opposed to free verse.

Nothing wrong with that either–as long as my paying attention to meter doesn’t make me suck energy or juice from the poem’s language. But I’ve noticed that several poems have evolved, specifically, into iambic pentameter. Hey, it was good enough for Shakespeare…but I don’t want to get into a rut.

So, I suppose I should do some deliberate exercises about writing in other meter structures. Trochees, anapests, dactyls, varying number of feet–and if I worry about loss of spontaneity, I should remember that none of these are a commitment. The poem is mine; I can tear it apart and rebuild it as many times as I want.

Do you know the little verse about the main types of metrical feet?

“The iamb saunters through my book,
Trochees rush and tumble;
While the anapest runs like a hurrying brook,
Dactyls are stately and classical.”

By the way, an even better way to remember the dactyl is Benedict Cumberbatch.

My Underwear Drawer

I’m doing a casual two-week online set of poetry exercises, and it’s making me even more aware than usual of my own reticence about sharing any poetry I write. I’ve previously compared my poems to a box of sex toys…kept private and shared only with very special people in very special circumstances. The more recent part of it began when I learned more about submission rules, but much of it is older.

With the exercises I’m doing, a lot of my reluctance has to do with fear of being judged only by the exercise I’ve just produced. I worry that the quick piece I just dashed off will now be the basis for someone deciding whether I am a budding “real poet” or not. It’s like showing someone my underwear drawer at a moment’s notice.

There’s some real-world validity to my desire not to be judged by a poetry exercise, because an exercise by its very nature may constrain me. I might be writing in a completely new form, or writing a light or humorous poem. Whatever the parameters are, they’re likely to take me in an odd direction. It’s understandable that I wouldn’t want these to be interpreted as representing my poetic voice.

That being said–get over yourself, Lori. Keep doing the exercises and letting your fellow students see them, stains and all.

Which Four?

It’s time.

At long last, I’ve chosen a place to send my very first submission.
I’ve recently found a small magazine I like very much, and I’ve subscribed to it.
I’ve looked up and read its submission guidelines.

I am fully prepared to be rejected; I shall buy a frame to display that rejection letter.
It shall be a sign of this milestone in my writing.

I’d be lying if I said there is not a tiny part of me that fantasizes about being accepted.
That believes my work will fit very well on those pages.
I acknowledge this part of me, while willing it to remain of manageable size.

The guidelines say to submit up to four poems.
Now comes the fun part: Which four?

No, really. It is fun. Maddening, but fun too.
Considering poems, and combinations of poems.
Considering final tweaking I might want to do.

I hope to do more submissions soon, now that the ice will be broken.
But only four will live in my memory as being the first!

The Right Flavor of Pain

Pain fuels creativity; we all know it. Strong emotions make good art.

Poetry spins darkness into a million shades of beauty.

Poetry even spins darkness into light sometimes; light that is made more beautiful and whole by the process.

I have no problem believing this. I affirm that pain has been a catalyst for some of the greatest written songs of consciousness I have ever witnessed.

I do have a problem with hurting in a way that won’t let me use the hurt to grow or create.

It’s not a matter of degree. My most intense despair makes great fuel, when it’s felt cleanly. Its impetus might even push out a poem I’ve held back out of insecurity, because I am less likely to feel I have anything to lose.

It’s the flavor of suffering that makes the difference. Authentic emotions, each with their own spice, are all usable. Even the bleak and thin taste of loneliness has its place. But there’s one flavor that sucks out all others and turns a potentially unique recipe into mush.

It’s not an emotion, but rather a condition. You probably know what I am going to say. It’s depression. Deep, clinically significant depression.

When my depressive symptoms are elevated, poems don’t want to come. The poems come when I’ve clawed my way out far enough to scream; far enough to feel the need to scream.

I know poetry is more than a cat’s cradle of pain. I know the ability to transfigure emotion is only the beginning, but it’s a pretty important one. Of all the reasons I have to despise my mental illness, its periodic theft of my creativity is one of the strongest.

Sometimes You Just Need to Ask

You mean that’s it?

I just needed to ask some poetry to come and crawl into my head?

I knew that; I really did, but I had forgotten. I have had the experience of asking for a poem to get past the fragment stage and having it happen within a day or two. It seems counterintuitive that creativity, that most capricious of things, should be at my beck and call.

But it’s true. To a degree, it is responsive to my requests when they are made humbly and honestly.

Prayer, in its most primal form, is a formal statement of desire and intention. It takes an inchoate longing and frames it into a concrete wish (or states for the record that one needs help figuring out what the wish is.)

Any time I ask for something in a way that draws aside the curtain of pride and shows my truest need, I am praying.  By praying, I make room for something numinous to answer.

Lover, Come Back To Me

Dear Poetry,

Come back to me. I miss you so much.
I never meant to make you think you don’t matter.
I never meant to imply, not even for a second,
That I don’t need you to survive this life.

Come back to me. You know you want to.
You want to see your beauty reflected in my face.
You want to hear your words anew in the way they touch me.
You want to know the old words as eternal and make me birth fresh ones.

You want to humble me; to tear out the truth.
You want to see me spread it out before you in its imperfect flesh.
You want to taste it; share it, paint it on my face.
You want me wearing you for all to see.

I want it too. Come back to me. Return
To our strange home upon the hill,
The one I leave so dusty when I’m sick.
Oh love, come, and if I am lost and not there
Call to me until I must obey.

Loneliness

Does a poet have to be lonely?

I look at today’s picture and think about how much I’d like to have friends with whom I could share my poetry.

I tell myself it’s lack of money that keeps me from entering the world of workshops and writer’s circles, and there’s some truth to that–but there do exist alternatives, and I haven’t explored them very extensively.

I feel as if my poems are the equivalent of sex toys–kept in a box, never talked about and shared only with very intimate companions.

Masturbation, to continue the metaphor, is safer for the psyche than sex with others. You get no feedback, don’t need to deal with self-consciousness and don’t have to consider others’ needs.

But it can get lonely, and it’s missing a special energy that intimacy with another can create.

I’ve been working on getting my first submissions done, and I am eager to take the next step. I’m eager to take steps in getting more involved with my local scene, or find a course I can afford next year.

But I’m also afraid, and a part of me would rather stay lonely than risk ending up with companions who might be toxic.

The Empty Chair

How many metaphors do we creative types have for those times of feeling blocked, repressed, empty or otherwise unable or unwilling to create?

I chose no picture for several days, and the one I drew from the box today seems quite fitting: a humble wooden chair in a small room, red desk, messy papers and bookshelves. Even what I think might be a crumpled white paper on the floor.

Ill in body and mind, I have not been present in that chair. Grey of thought, I have not looked through that window. Sick with shame and inertia, I have not even climbed the steps to that room.

Today chance brought out this photo (as, it must be admitted, my sole creative effort for the day since I am still not doing too well) and I am taking a moment to look at it.

No poem appears, nor am I feeling a jolt of energy that I will use for another essay or poem.

I am not transported into the room. I am not yet able to reach it–but the room is still there.

The chair is empty, but it is waiting for me.

The Poet of Wickedness

“I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.”

—–Walt Whitman

Today’s picture prompt made me think of the Shadow.

The jagged, irregular boundary of it in the picture reminds me of how I live inside my head.

Now, I know what Jung says about the Shadow, and how important and valid it is. But right now, I’m just thinking in child’s fairytale terms of light/dark, life/death. Indulge me.

Part of me would like to believe that I am 99% a child of Light (whatever I define that to be) but that is not even close to true.

Suicide prevention is a cause dear to my heart, and the creative pursuit of one more day is part of what my other site is about. I believe I write as a force on the side of life–but when it comes to poetry, it may not seem so clear in my words.

The poet I am is not a nice person.

Even when I write about nice subjects, dark stuff can creep in. When I write about something that’s already not so nice–look out. I’m usually not happy until the result gives me a creepy feeling on the back of my neck and a vague disturbance in the region of my belly button.

So, when I let the darkness run rampant on my page, am I still fighting on the side I believe in? The side I need to pour energy into if I want to stick around here?

Yes.

If “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—then yes.

What is the Ocean Thinking?

Here is today’s picture prompt. Do you know the most important lesson we learn from prompts? That anything can be an inspiration for a poem. Anything. A poet in touch with his or her creativity need never fear boredom.

Even with an abstract image, I can access a multitude of angles for poem seeds. For an image like the above, there are so many ways to go.

There are the most straightforward ones: A journey. Loneliness. Nature. A character: what is the walker thinking? Where is he or she going? Why?

Oh, but there is so much more. Gestalt theories of dreamwork postulate that everything we see in a dream is a part of our own consciousness. When I look at a picture, I sort of reverse this idea and imagine that anything in it can have a consciousness and a story.

What is the ocean thinking? Or the sand? Or the walking stick? Or the walker’s shoes?

Who or what is seeing this scene from above? What’s the story there?

Is this whole scene happening in someone else’s thoughts? Do they miss the walker or try to imagine what he or she is doing?

Do we want to delve shamelessly into archetypes? We’ve got symbolism from water, mud, traveler/seeker, the rod…have fun.

It may all sound cheesy. One hundred flights of thought may lead to one promising seed–or less.

But contemplating a picture–or any image we see, as long as we do it with conscious intention–invites our creativity in for tea; helps it feel welcome.

And when it feels welcome, it’s more likely to drop by with gifts.

I Took Out a Comma

“This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again.”  — Oscar Wilde

I have done this. I have done this actual act, as well as many other “trivial” changes to a poem.

I have altered a line break by one word, and returned it to the first break.

I have changed a word, changed it back, come up with a third and fourth word, juggled the choices, and come to the conclusion that the first word was fine: it’s the following word that needs to be changed.

Why?

There is no logical reason. This is poetry, not geometry, and no two poets would make the same set of revisions. It’s not supposed to make sense to anyone but me. Half the time it doesn’t even make sense to me.

For instance, one of my poems uses the word gray several times. Now, in the US, either gray or grey is considered an acceptable spelling for this word. But in this poem of mine, grey looks and feels wrong, wrong, wrong. It would ruin the whole work in my eyes. It has to be gray with an A.

No logical reason.

I read somewhere that Elizabeth Bishop would tack up poems with one blank space for months until she had just the right word. I’m not sure I have that much patience, but I can understand.

Today, embrace your illogical microtinkering, and I will try to embrace mine.

Here is today’s picture prompt: