Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What It Takes

I couldn't sleep last night (or this morning) -- again. Something about the change of seasons, being in between jobs, two upcoming trips Back East, and still, thoughts about the reunion.

So I answered my new/old friend's question:

I say I have many questions but really it is all one: how does one sit down and write a poem?

(He is a writer, but not a poet.) This is what I said to him:

There isn't one answer, of course. Get thirteen poets and you'd get thirteen ways of looking at that blackbird. But it's a good question, nevertheless. I'm going to be teaching a five-week class this spring, a poetry workshop; I ought to be able to answer it.

Picasso, when dared as a child to draw a donkey, drew a donkey with one stroke starting at the leg. You could start anywhere, and it wouldn't necessarily limit where you ended up.

I often have to sneak up on a poem. If I face it squarely, head on, it eludes me, it disappears. (That's why the poems I've been struggling with about the reunion aren't working. I tell myself I'm writing about the reunion and they're out of here. Maybe in six months I can pull them out, tell myself they're not about the reunion but about a Robert Altman movie -- and it might work.)

For me, sound is key. It's the best and worst aspect of my poems. I often start with a phrase that just comes to my head.

I take notes all the time. I make a note in a notebook about something intriguing and forget it. These notes can be sounds, reminders of something read or said, dream sequences, ideas I need to research and pursue -- or anything. Often the notes don't go anywhere at all, but sometimes they do. Sometimes, when looked at later, the mishmash of the scribble creates the poem. A misspelling, a shape suggests something to me. I wrote a poem after seeing Walk The Line, the Johnny Cash movie. I wrote it on a narrow sheet of paper. The poem is about crawling off into a cave to die, and the poem is narrow like the paper and cramped like a cave. It is, as you said associative. It's best not explained in the poem.

Sometimes, more rarely, the note is the poem. The poem Sonhar that is on my website was a reverie, some rather disorganized thoughts that came to me sitting in my garden and drinking a glass of wine and thinking about the one boy ever who cried for me, someone back in college. I hardly wrote it; it wrote itself. He'd grown up in Brazil, which is why the Brazilian / Portuguese references, but there would be no way one would know that.

But that's unusual. More often, I write whatever and in the clear light of day edit it, look for the form it contains, remove the dead matter. When my mom was dying of a brain tumor in 2000, I wrote dozens of poems to deal with it. They were 90 percent awful. I ended up taking all the lines I liked from those poems and putting them in one composite poem. The star image you liked in Fraught With Danger was cannibalized from a poem I wrote very long ago, in the seventies, imagining my own conception.

I don't necessarily have any idea where the poem is going when I start writing it. My latest accepted poem, Conjugated Visits, which will be published in Field in the spring, started with a note about a snail and a question about styles of love. It ended up as a sort of grammar of love: she, he, they, we and so forth.

Maybe writing a poem is like any other writing, but more so, taking more advantage of the serendipitous, not necessarily arriving at answers when it asks questions.

Okay, poets out there in the blogosphere, what does it take for you?


Pamela said...

I get an image in my head, and if it doesn't disappear, in a few days I'll have a draft ready for paper.

That's true for short stories, too. I'll think of a first sentences or a snippet of dialogue for months, till it has to be written down.

Beverly said...

There is no way to describe my process of writing poetry. I swear it's different every time.

I've written prose passages that turned into poetry. (Someone told me that Yeats used to write his poems as prose first.) I've started with a dream, a word, a tree, a first line, a voice, a funny story, a horrible mood, an item in the paper.

I've had poems born pretty much straight from the head of Zeus and one's that took five years and 40,000 rewrites.

I've written a sentence in one of the small poetry notepads I stash in various places around my house and then two years later I come across it by accident and I transcribe it to the computer so I can throw that notepad away and then if I sit there long enough, it may become a poem.

I've had poems form by cannibalizing three or four different poems, just a few lines from each. The new poem comes as something between them. I've written poems from exercises and assignments.

I'm awed by those who do have a process that they use for most of their work. Can't imagine that. I just grab any way I can into a poem.

Diane K. Martin said...

I love that I'm getting others' responses here. Pamela and Beverly, all those ways also work for me.

Beverly, you mentioned the computer. Wherever my poems start, it's when they hit the computer that they actually kick into gear. Something about the freedom to choose alternatives.

Also like to kick off from other things I've read, have conversations with it.

Robert said...

I postpone going from pen to computer as long as possible. Pen in hand, I feel as if I'm drifting in imagination and dream, as opposed to being "at work" at the computer. For me the move to computer seems to cut off inspiration.

Beverly said...

I'm a computer writer myself. Because of the ease of instant experimentation and revision which handwriting stifles.

Funny I didn't name reading other poets or fiction writers as that's actually the number one source of inspiration. I love letting another poet's voice get into my head, i.e., reading a book through until I've absorbed voice, diction, perspective, emotion, content, something, then seeing how it's transubtantiated (can I say that? makes it sound awfully religious) through my head into a different poem on my paper. Er, my computer.

Robert said...

Am I the only person in the world who does not get inspired to write by reading other poetry? Sure, on a long-term basis I am. I'm still inspired by that haiku by Buson I read when I was 15, or by reading Lolita 25 years ago. But much as I may love the latest poem I've read by, say, Robert Hass, it just doesn't make me want to write a poem. If I really love the poem it may make me want to read it over and over and over again, but not to write.

Diane K. Martin said...

I'm not sure I get inspired by reading a poem directly. There are things that may intrigue me about a poem that I decide to try -- not necessarily right away, as in that time I read a poem by Sylvia Curbelo and decided to "borrow" her patterns of syntax.

Often there are just lines I write down because I admire them. I like to work off them as epigraphs. This may not be a good thing, may be a crutch.

But often in a poem I argue with fiction or nonfiction that I've read. Just messing.

Leslie said...

I love the poems that come all at once, and are finished between the scrap I wrote them on and the computer during transcription. I love the ones I work and work on. I just finished a poem I'd had drafts of for, like, a decade. Ack. I only love it now that I fixed it, that I made it right--its best self, or the best I could do for it.

I do get sparked most by words. Sometimes poetry, somethimes prose. But the way other people are writing opens up some channel, conduit, something in my brain that tricks it into playing around, again, with words.

I'm also, unlike most poets I know, in love with doing exercises. I'll do anything someone suggests. Often poems happen that way. Its the sneaking up thing--a poem happens while your brain is tricked into paying attention elsewhere.