In Her Own Words
I think I was lucky in some ways. My parents were both teachers who loved to read. I later learned they were both gifted poets, but when I was young, I quickly understood that spending time with your nose in a book was a good idea.
One of my fatherís favorite subjects to teach was drama. He spoke once in a seminar about how, when good actors act, itís as if they walked up to a skyscraper on a city street, reached out their finger, and pointed at the top. And if you were walking down the street and noticed them doing this, you would be compelled to walk up next to them and look up as well to see what they were pointing at. The power of the actor is to generate a visceral click of shared experience, even if just for a moment. I think a good poem can do that: point at something, even something ordinary, often something uniquely human, and exhort you to look up.
For me, the writing of a poem often starts with a single thought. Sometimes itís based on an experience I had. One summer day, I saw a man using a pay phone who cradled a bottle of cream soda, and sported tattoos of tarantulas on his burly knees. From there, I tried to imagine what someone like this might be saying over the phone on an August day in downtown Portland, Maine. Sometimes reality trumps anything you can make up.
Sometimes itís not something I saw or heard, but something I felt, usually a strong emotion. The feeling, in turn, will generate a sensation, or an image in my mind: the feeling that I were drowning in a Niagara of need; the urges of physical attraction being primitive and animal; the sense that being in love is like playing a game with loaded dice; the idea that the anger I carry feels like an axe as I gently swing it back and forth in my hand.
The sensation blossoms into a phrase, and then a sentence. I follow the sensation to the next logical thought. How is my need like Niagara? How does it feel to be overwhelmed this way? What happens if this need isnít met? How can I survive without drowning in this feeling, or being swept away?
As I reach for a way to describe the sensation, I look for words that work well together. Alliterative words, double entendres, words that emphasize the sensation Iím describing. I love unusual words, archaic words. I treasure my motherís grade-school dictionary from the 1930ís, and enjoy rifling through it looking for new words to use. So many great words have fallen out of fashion, I somehow feel itís my duty to reintroduce them to the language in hopes of their returning to even occasional use.
I take the thought I have and tease it out gently. How far will it go? Where does it lead? I use the words to paint a picture in brushstrokes, a trail of breadcrumbs that beckons to the reader. What is this sensation? Where is it going? Where will it take me?
I often try to end the poem somewhere unexpected and disproportionately satisfying. A woman hurtling down the highway, locked in the chitinous carapace of her car, seems utterly devoid of human emotion until you reach the last line of the poem, where you discover the rime of salt on the rim of her sunglasses, and conclude itís the result of her tears.
I remember looking in a book of photos from Life magazine and seeing pictures of news photographers from the 1940ís. Their cameras are huge and unwieldy, the flash attachment suddenly and dangerously bright. When I write a poem, I feel like I want to bring that type of camera right up close to the sensation to capture its immediacy forever with a blinding flash. I want to use the proximity and illumination captured in that moment to share my thoughts with the reader, to bring them into the situation.
When inspiration strikes, my job is to get out of my own way and just let it emerge. I canít afford to waste energy worrying about how it will turn out. After all, Iím just the midwife. The goal is to release it, like Athena springing full-grown from the head of Zeus. I heard somewhere that good dancers donít dance, they leave. They let the dance take over. I believe good poets need to do that as well, that one of the most important jobs they can learn to do is to unleash the poem in its initial form.
Publius Terentius Afer, better known as Terence, was a comic playwright of the Roman Republic, who wrote, ďI am human, I consider nothing human is foreign to me.Ē I believe thatís what breathes life into writing. Thatís what makes it worth reading. We reach a destination at the end of the poem. It took us somewhere we wanted to go, or, better yet, somewhere we didnít even know we wanted to go.
I try to take words, string them together for the reader to follow, from one to the next, until a pattern emerges. I want the reader to follow the words wherever it takes them. Once a reader is involved, itís no longer my poem, itís their poem. And the same poem can affect different people in different ways.
A poet friend once took one of my poems and wrote at length about what he found in it. His description was deep and meaningful and brilliant and contained lots of things Iím sure I hadnít intentionally put there. The poem he read was certainly different than the one I thought I wrote. The poet brings the words, and the reader brings their experience. The intersection of these two spaces reveals something unique to everyone. The value of the poem is only by mutual agreement.
Iíve kept many of my old poems, even those from high school or grade school. A lot of them are full of clichťs, partly because I was so young I was writing about things Iíd never experienced, and partly because I needed practice. I still need practice. All artists need practice to cultivate skill, perfect innate abilities, stretch into new areas, experiment to find what works.
My older poems will never win any prizes, but in them I can see glimmers of good writing; seeds, if you will. With practice, every writer improves. Sometimes I take a phrase or a thought from an old poem and throw it on a blank page and see what happens. If you find a pithy quote or a glimmering sentence that means something to you, use it as the seed for a poem. If you want to hone your craft, start somewhere, start anywhere. Donít talk yourself out of it, and donít doubt yourself. Keep at it and donít give up.
To sharpen your skills, read great poetry. Learn at the knees of giants. Be humble. Marvel at the masters. See if you can discern what makes the poems you love really tick. And once youíve written a poem you feel holds promise, keep working on it. Arthur Polotnik said, ďÖ write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others whatīs burning inside you Ö edit to let the fire show through the smoke.Ē Sometimes a good poem needs just a little editing, and sometimes you must be ruthless. Avoid the curse of bad poetry; donít waste your time stringing together a poem that no reader will care about, one they will struggle to finish, or, worse yet, wonít. If you like something about your poem, fight for it. If youíre stuck, put it down for a time and do something else. Get some perspective on it, then pick it up again. Have someone else read it aloud to you. Read it aloud to yourself. Donít give up, keep at it.
Poets often write to share the human condition, to draw the reader parallel with the work, to make a map that leads the reader somewhere new, to shed light on what it means to be alive. I write in the earnest hope of achieving that visceral click with the reader. When you read a good poem, itís unavoidable. There you are, following the finger, looking up at the top of the skyscraper to see whatís there.