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.

Not the Time for Poetry?

Where does poetry fit into a life of practical considerations?

The other day, having put some ground turkey on the stove to brown, I made a quick trip to the restroom. Bad mistake, because I had the latest issue of a poetry magazine in there. “Glancing” at it led eventually to me wondering what that burning smell was before dashing out to rescue my carbonized lunch.

I believe, in a part of me I wish to give more power, that any and all times are good times to be a poet. The above anecdote, however, illustrates the principle that there are less than ideal times to manifest certain parts of this identity.

I live in this world, or try to. I don’t exist as an observer on some other plane.
Incubating poems is something I can do no matter where I am or what my hands and feet are up to, but I need balance. Sometimes I need to be fully present to the practical. For as long as I can be, anyway.

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.

There Are Spiders

“There…there are spiders.”
“Enormous spiders, yes. The size of houses, they tell me.”
“And they eat men?”
“Poets, I am told. Twice a year a number of spiders come from the forests into the square of the one town and they must be fed a poet or they will not leave. There is a ceremony.”
“…A reason not to write poetry?”
“I am told they make prisoners compose a verse in order to receive their meals.”
“How cruel. And that qualifies them as poets?”
“The spiders are not critical, I understand.”

–from “River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay

Something about this makes me smile every time I recall it. Maybe it’s the idea of poets as a unique food; desired by spiders the way virgins were legendarily desired by dragons. Maybe it’s the image of forcing a hapless prisoner to become just enough of a poet to be appetizing to an arachnid.

Are poets really different from other people? Of course not…or if we are, it varies from poet to poet as it does with all humans. However, any differences are more marked in societies that don’t see poetry as a part of mainstream life. The book above takes place in a world inspired by certain Chinese dynasties; a world in which poetry was the province of every educated man…the knowledge, analysis, and even writing of various styles of poetry a part of the civil service exams.

The society I live in is far removed from this. My sense of identity seems to have been altered by beginning to think of myself as a poet…is this evolution, or just a delusion catering to one’s natural desire to feel like a special snowflake of some kind?

Does it feed my ego to think of myself as especially delicious Spider Chow?

(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.

Hurt You Into Poetry

Lines from Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” keep going through my head, after referencing it the other day. Here’s the verse that is resounding the most:

…Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Hurt you into poetry. Something hurts us into poetry. I’ve written about the role of pain in art, and the different kinds of pain that carry power, but this phrase is talking to me. It’s pushing an image at me, an image of our lives pressing and pressing on us until we start to bleed words.

I once read somewhere that a writer writes when they’re forced to admit they are useless at anything else. I thought it was a vast and inaccurate oversimplification at the time, and I still do. However, I can see the spirit behind the comment. Certainly, many of us have tried to live lives for which the contents of our psyche make us less than suitable–and we hurt, floundered and failed ourselves into writing.

We flee into the valley of its making, where executives would never want to tamper.

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.

Unicorn Evils

Right now, literature students somewhere are probably writing a paper about what “unicorn evils” means.

They are probably not the first.

It comes from “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas. I ran across the poem in the library the other day, and I was blown away by how wonderfully weird it is. People think of it as romantic or inspirational, because of the theme of overcoming death and the most quoted couplet:

“Though lovers be lost love shall not, 
And death shall have no dominion.”

But when I read the whole poem, I fell in love with some very different phrases.

“Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through…”

This is what can be so wonderful for me about knowing nothing sometimes. The aforementioned graduate students probably have an idea about what Thomas meant when he wrote this. They’ve got mythological references, or information about the poet’s life and how it’s really a reference to some actual person, or they’ve linked it to some other writing somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong–if I won the lottery, you’d find me in those classrooms in a heartbeat. But because I know nothing, I’m free to put my own interpretations on the phrases. Even if I knew a lot, I think I’d try to preserve the ability to do this for my personal pleasure.

Also, “Unicorn Evils” would be a great band name.

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.

New Poem: “Privilege”

I do not usually post poems on this site, but as a white person living in the times of the Black Lives Matter movement I’m having feelings that just want to get out. I wrote this about what it’s like to be suffering and still be achingly conscious of white privilege.

Privilege

I got troubles, I got poison in my head
wanting to kill me and that’s fucked up it’s true
But if I open these pale ears of mine
I got other voices that talk at me too

and the voices they say, listen white girl
listen to us black and dying out here
dying while we’re trying to live
dying when we’re trying harder than you

Hear us howl, not afraid of a traffic stop girl
no stinkeye when you go in a shop girl
get some attention in the ER girl
not labeled druggie even if you are girl

Listen white girl, if it’s all you can do
just twist that razor blade in your hand
the one with a silver edge at a right angle
to the fishbelly skin inside your arm

Tilt it enough to catch the light
once and again just like the light
revolving on a black and white
shining on blood in this time of war.

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:

 

Picture This

Today's prompt

Today’s prompt.

For about ten days last year, I drew a new picture from a bag as a poem prompt every day. It was meant to be an improv exercise as well as a meditative one; if something I wrote led to the seeds of a more developed poem that was fine.

I gave it up when I found myself missing days. Perfectionism is truly the bane of creativity.

It was a mistake to stop doing it—maybe I would have been inconsistent about it at times, but even the brief foray into daily pictures yielded several poems I am glad to have in my body of work.

The most interesting thing about picture prompts is the space between picture and poem. A shot of a snarling badger becomes a poem about repression of the Self. A shot of a laughing chimpanzee becomes a poem about meeting God. A barren desert landscape turns into a poem that makes people laugh out loud.

Most of the pictures in my stash come from old National Geographic magazines. I obtained about 200 old issues, and find the cutting out of pictures to be therapeutic in times of anxiety. Nature scenes, people, animals…and abstracts. I’ll cut a picture at places that are not the obvious ones if it creates an interesting image. Some of them, on the other hand, are quite dull…it’s up to my imagination to get an idea from them more interesting than “Fuck, that’s a lot of sand.”

I’m thinking I will start to pick a picture every day again–but with some new rules:

1) I am not obligated to write anything inspired by it, but I must leave the picture somewhere in plain sight all day so that random thoughts can percolate.

2) Then I glue it into a binder, so that I can go back to it if I wish.

3) The most important rule: If I forget, blow off or otherwise ignore my picture stash for one or more days (as is not unlikely because hello, imperfect human being) I am allowed to come back to doing it as soon as possible.

Ghost Writings

Are you like me? Do things you did not write cause you more grief than anything you ever have written? Is the pain of the nonexistent greater than the pain of the inadequate or banal? Is it greater than the frustration of the rejected, the outgrown, or the embarrassing?

Go into the palace of your mind, while I go into mine. Find the door that leads to the room of the unadmitted; the room filled with ghostly manuscripts that were never given flesh.

Take one down from the wall, as I do, and open it. Do you feel the way I do? Are you almost, but not quite, able to hold it in your hands? Do your eyes strain to make out the shifting print, amorphous and taunting you with an unreadable message?

Do you apologize to them? Do you promise to let some of them come into being?

Do you admit to yourself that you are lying?

That it can’t be done; that even if you tackle an old idea you can’t recapture the way you would have given it voice in its destined space and time. It might be better in some ways, or not–but that piece of aether, that ghost, will never take its solid form.

Do you pause in the doorway, suspended in currents of regret and acceptance?

I do not think I am the only one. You don’t have to be as old as I am, or have stifled your creativity for as many years as I did, to have a ghost library. We all have one, no matter how large or small.

I cannot change mine. The spirit behind words may be nonlinear, but my personal timeline only moves in a single direction. But when I think about trying to write, I can be conscious of the delicate brush of cobwebs against my skin, reminders of my last visit to that room.

The Sensibility

“If it is all poetry, and not just one’s own accomplishment, that carries one from this green and mortal world–that lifts the latch and gives one a glimpse into a greater paradise–then perhaps one has the sensibility: a gratitude apart from authorship; a fervor and desire beyond the margins of the self.”
–Mary Oliver

I, like many of us, love and admire much of Mary Oliver’s published poetry. I have to admit, though, that my favorite things written by her are lines like the above: prose meditations about the experience of writing poetry. Why to write poetry. Why poetry matters. I believe the above comes from “A Poetry Handbook,” and when I read it I felt a rush of comfort and belonging. She knew. Someone knew, and someone was telling me it’s a good thing to love what I love.

What does “a gratitude apart from authorship” mean to me? I think it means that the words stand for themselves; that a configuration of words has magic that speaks to me whether they were written by me, or you, or my worst enemy.

It means I ask myself whether I would still want to write this poem even if I knew nobody in the world would ever see it. If I knew I would die soon and I’d never get to read it again. If I knew the linear life of this universe was about to depart its track and the words were destined to come apart into cosmic mists.

Would I still want to read? To write? Does it lift that latch; give me that glimpse?

Yes, Mary Oliver. Yes.

Ink Runs From My Mouth

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry…
–Mark Strand

 

That’s what it’s like for me when things are going well.

When the veil between me and the fire of my self is thin.

Poetry, then, is more satisfying than food; more life-giving than rain.

The boundaries of my skull contain all that I require.

I need not fear boredom, or loneliness, or abandonment.

And when the veil is very, very thin–I need not even fear dying.

I want more days like that.

I want to remember the truth about how much I want that.

I Will Very Soon Begin

Here lies a poet who would not write
His soul runs screaming through the night,
“Oh give me paper, give me pen
And I will very soon begin.”

Poor Soul, keep silent. In Death’s clime
There’s no pen, paper, notion–and no Time.

–“Here Lies” by Stevie Smith

 

“Very soon.” That is the key phrase. Even in tormented regret, it’s still “very soon” and not “right now.” 

I wonder what stands in the way of “right now” for that poor dead poet?

Does what stands in the way of “right now” for us make any more sense?

So Let it Be Written

What’s the deal with me hand-copying poems from books, anyway? Why am I doing it, and what do I get out of it?

It’s become a pattern lately: I go to the library. I walk immediately to the poetry section, find an anthology of twentieth century poetry (because I am working on modern poets) and take it to a table. I scan, being a lazy reader and waiting for poems to catch my attention. When one does, I read it thoroughly. Then, perhaps, I read it again. If, after I’ve moved on, a phrase is stuck in my head, I return to the poem: it just might have made the cut. I think about it; about how it makes me feel–and if I feel that way about it, I get out my pen and paper.

I have favorite paper, and favorite pens. Copying a poem is a sensual experience as much as an intellectual one. I have a notebook where I place the written copies, handy for later rereading. I fantasize that one day it might be useful to my daughter to know what poems spoke to her mom.

I write in cursive; less legible but it feels right. In writing each line of the poem I have to hear it in my head. Because I fear getting a word wrong, I have to look back at the phrases and repeat them. By the time I’m done, I know the poem far better.

That’s the obvious benefit, but it’s more than that. It’s a ritual; a process of making something more real to me. The phrase “it is written” used to imply destiny or fate–by choosing to write this author’s words down with my own hand, I take them into my world and my fate.

Today’s poem: “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford.

(Don’t) Tell Me You Love Me

Love: one of the most universal subjects for a poem. A poet can expound, at great length, upon the reasons the beloved is loved. Metaphor and simile are showered upon the admired object.

But my favorite love poems are those that never mention love.

They might not even seem to like the person they’re talking about; or they might come across as ambivalent.

Yet I am left with an impression of love; love that is felt and not described.

A few days ago, I “discovered” the work of Billy Collins in an anthology. His poem “Litany” spoke to me this way, so strongly that I added it to my handcopied collection. He begins a series of metaphors describing his subject:

You are the bread and the knife, 
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are…

But then he changes gears and starts with:

However, you are not… and writes some of these;

…and you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

He also writes some I am metaphors in contrast; but ends with

…But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife…

I was astonished to find that not everyone feels the love soaking this poem. Look it up; read it; what do you think? Can you see love in a poem that is not full of compliments; that points out what the object of love is not?

Welcome, Sister

Last week, Anne Sexton showed up and informed me that she is part of my family now.

Some educated readers may be saying “How can you not have read Anne Sexton before?”

But remember, I am new to the more avid pursuit of poetry. I have had no courses, no structure; no homework to guide me. I don’t read poetry to educate myself, although I want and need to learn more about the art of poetry. Educating myself is not a strong enough yearning to keep me reading when intense depression makes learning feel pointless.

I read it because it brings people like Anne Sexton into my life in a way that time, death, or dysfunction cannot take away.

Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and took her own life in 1974. She had a long history of psychiatric hospitalizations, and credited the practice of poetry with extending her life by many years. She wrote about everything you might imagine, with occasional emphases on themes such as fairy tales and God. She was a confessional poet, shocking people at the time, and an important force in feminist psychology.

I don’t like everything of hers that I’ve read so far. As with many poets, it’s a case of little gems popping up here and there.

But she is one of my circle now; her words belong to me and live in the house of my imagination. She joins all of my sisters and brothers, created by words and shaped into my council of meaning.

T.S. Eliot is pouring her a cup of tea. Sharon Olds hangs up her wet raincoat and offers her a towel. John Donne bows and kisses her hand as Emily Dickinson moves over to make space on the sofa.

Welcome, Anne, and thanks for coming.

Surgery Scheduled

I’ve made a resolution to go through with a procedure I’ve been putting off–and given myself a deadline: June 1.

The procedure involves opening my skin, removing a piece of what I keep buried in there and mailing it to a stranger.

The glistening piece of tissue will sit, in an envelope, stacked in some editorial person’s office. Perhaps, in time, the envelope will be opened and discerning eyes will gaze upon the raw flesh.

Perhaps he or she will find something in its cellular structure or colors intriguing. But it is more likely, given the realities of this field, that the biopsy I cringed to share will be thrown out hastily lest it begin to stink.

But I am determined to go through with it, if for no other reason than to treasure the fact that I did. To push through my perfectionism: which journal to submit to? Which poems?

To push through my second-guessing: I should wait until I’ve been able to look at them more in a real workshop setting. (No money for this, and there isn’t going to be for a long time.)

To get that first time out of the way. To just pick a publication, choose a submission according to its guidelines, do a little polishing revision and send it on its way.

Now all I need to do is buy a frame for my very first rejection letter. I’m truly excited about that. I’m not just saying it–a rejection letter will mean I met my goal.