Where the Hell Have I Been?

…one might ask. Well, I’ve been writing like hell.

Just not here. Part of my brain seems to think writing sections of my book, or writing new poetry, means there is no time or juice left for updating this site. And that’s bullshit. It’s not as if doing a post takes me a long time; it just takes the willingness to sit down and write something about what’s going on in my head or my life right now.

The hardest part is picking out a subject from the thousands of possible ones. I’m seriously considering getting a jar with scraps of paper and pulling out a random one every day.

I’ve also been house hunting and moving. Yes, after seven years, my family is living in a house again. It’s not really any bigger than the apartment, but it has a little yard for the dog…and a room that has a corner that’s MINE with a DESK in it that belongs to ME and NOBODY else can put so much as a PENCIL on it or I will SMITE them like an Old Testament plague.

*insert maniacal laughter*

Non-Zero

“Just get a non-zero amount of words on a page.”

I have a series of files containing the scraps of future poems. Some files have nothing but the poem title. I open one up, stare at it, and if nothing seems to be happening I close it back up again.

I do this because it is a lot less intimidating to look at one of these than to look at a blank page. The act of establishing a place for the piece to come gets me over a psychological bump about starting something. I’ll put in the words or phrase that inspired the idea, give the project a title, and that is that. Sometimes I will let myself stare at the file for a few more minutes and see if something arrives–but that is not the plan. 

The philosophy of non-zero applies to other aspects of my life. Just do a non-zero amount of exercise. Just make a non-zero effort to reach out socially. Setting the bar that low can get me past inertia, and the non-zero amount might grow. If it doesn’t, it is still better than zero.

Ah, the psychological tricks we need to play on ourselves! What would it be like to be someone who just decides to do things and does them?

Porn for Poets

If the main purpose of porn is to inspire and facilitate fantasy, the poetry equivalent for me would have to be ads for workshops and retreats. Magazines such as Poets & Writers contain multiple listings that render me dreamy-eyed and wistful, imagining myself scribbling away under a linden tree on a remote estate or perched, bright-eyed, on a chair as a teaching poet reads my work.

Some workshops are priced lower than others, but aside from the rare scholarship offers   they are all out of my reach.  Alas, just as in porn, sometimes you get what you pay for. On the other hand, there do exist some good, free online resources and opportunities for writers–certainly a cut above the internet’s jungle of free porn options.

It’s important for me to be aware of these and understand that when I feel isolated as a poet, it isn’t because I lack money. Sure, workshops are fantastic, exciting, sexy. I’m getting excited right now just thinking about a couple of notices I read this month. However, a poet can form ties and get criticism in other ways. My most important barriers are emotional and psychological, not financial. My level of connection and my development as a poet are my responsibility. “But I had no disposable income,” is not a suitable epitaph to rest above a grave filled with unwritten truths.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.