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.