Going out of my head day and night; or, On Finding a Hook to Hang an Idea On

Regularly I cycle through a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing. A poem? What IS that? How do you write one of them thangs? I have this long natter of ideas in my notebook, so I thought, well, maybe this is an essay. An essay?!?! What the hell is THAT? What I suspect is that at times like these I have a bunch of ideas but no pathway into or through them.

Whether poem or essay, ideas need something to hook themselves too — an image, a story — something that can keep the ideas from self-inflating and floating away.

Although I didn’t watch them, apparently on the Oscars, Scorsese was quoted as having said this: “The most personal is the most creative.” I think this is fabulously true. The problem with ideas, mine anyway, is that they tend to be separated from the personal. How do I make these ideas come alive with something from my insides? Why did these ideas or philosophies rise up in me anyway — where in my melange of blood, guts, experience, desire were they birthed?

Without some kind of vivid, visceral structure, these words are just blather, gobbledygooking up the page.

The problem is that I’m a sucker for a well-put idea, even if it’s my own. I get dazzled by thought. I forget that what moves me, stirs something deeper than dazzle, is the combination of idea and that other thing that arises from the body, sensorial, flesh on flesh or wind on flesh or hum on ear, tang on tongue.

Get out of your head, I say to myself. In my head.

It’s funny because lately I’ve been living much more outside, so am filled with fresh air and pines and the rumple of hilltops and dit dit dah of tracks in the snow. You’d think my body would have something to more to say to my head.

Where in my body have these concerns risen? Where is the slant of my truth? Where is the half-open door from which these ideas breathe a scent — damp cellar? root vegetables? cumin and cinnamon? Where do the tracks lead?

Call me; or, On Hoagland and Cosgrove’s book of Craft on Voice

What a nice gift Tony Hoagland left us before he departed: The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice, with Kay Cosgrove. It’s a great little craft book that focuses on ways we can use and hone how a poem “speaks,” whether we’re using our own daily, casual “voice” or borrowing from other people or times or ways of speaking. In such chapters as “The Sound of Intimacy: The Poem’s Connection with its Audience” or “Voice as Speech Registers: High, Middle, and Low,” or “Imported Voices: Bringing Other Speakers into the Poem” he invites us to pay attention to not just what we’re saying in a poem, but how we’re saying it — what vocabulary, what level of intimacy or distance, what tone.

With each chapter comes a section with sample exercises, but often also with a little mini-post-script to the chapter that often is as rich as the chapter itself. But what I like most about this book is the number and variety of sample poems he uses, many of them from poets whose work I’m unfamiliar with or poems I had not encountered before.

I had not known of Lisa Lewis’s work, but the “voice” of the first line of her cited poem “While I’m Walking” made me almost laugh out loud: “Sometimes I like to tell people how to live.” I had not known Grace Paley’s poem that says: “what a hard time/the Hudson River has had/trying to get to the sea…” and starts with the Hudson’s rise up out of Lake Tear of the Clouds and traces its wandering lust toward the sea, and then “…suddenly/there’s Poughkeepsie…” which also made me laugh.

I don’t know honestly that I learned anything new, but I appreciated the opportunity to spend time consciously considering the options and tactics of using the various ideas within the overarching category of “voice” as tools of poem construction.

Plus he had some lovely things to say along the way. Here’s one: “A good poem can shape experience into a kind of tango that makes facts dance and shape-shift until we find we must…concede one more time that we are vulnerable to wonder, grief, outrage, and reflection.” Or, as Lou Reed put it, there is “a lifetime between thought and expression,” which to me means that the mode of expression can, and should, contain some thread of the complexity of a lifetime. A poem can be multivocal or can contain the many notes of a throat singer or can be one, high lonesome thread.

Here’s another Hoagland thought: “Experience is many great conversations happening at once. A good poem orchestrates such conversations in a way that makes graceful theater of them.”

And this: “A poem is a little movie, cut and shaped from the fottage of ordinary life. Its vibrant familiarities please and entertain us to draw us inside. Then, if the poem is good, its artful intensifications change our experience when we walk back out the door.”

I think this would be a fine craft book for a writing course of any kind, and was a very engaging read for this short-attention-spanned practitioner.

Under pressure; or, Prose as a Pathway to Poetry

I’ve written a bunch of thoughts, blather blather. Then I culled through them and found a portion that might be a poem, so I excised it out and started thinking about it poem-ically.

But somehow I wasn’t quite done with thinking about it prosily either, so I kept writing more.

But I looked back and found that pretty much everything I was saying in prose I had already captured in the poem. Yet I felt dissatisfied. Does that mean I have more to say? Or was I just on a roll and overshot the runway? Am I deedledeedledeedling over an abyss of nothing-more-to-say-on-the-subject? I’m perplexed.

My mind(s) go back and forth between the two modes, poem and prose, rereading what I’ve written. I admire what the poem manages to do. Poem Mind starts feeling comfortable. Prose Mind keeps nattering away. Poem Mind says, Um, I already said that. Prose Mind says, But what about this? Poem Mind: Yup.

Either I need to keep writing through, or I need to stop and take a breath and release the endorphins of thinking. There may be a deeper level I haven’t written to yet. I just happened to grab a poem along the way.

And don’t tell Poem Mind this, as she already can be rather insufferable, but the unsaid — the space and breaths of poetry — have the capacity to suggest so much more than the word-filled prose.

But she gets lazy, Poem Mind, and Prose Mind needs to push on, dig down, “read” the white space of the poem and write into it so Poem Mind can perhaps breathe deeper still. Even if Prose Mind repeats herself along the way. Sometimes even that can be revealing of something still unearthed.

Oh, the water; or, on Kathleen Graber’s Capacious The River Twice

I was thrilled to see a new book by one of my poet gods, Kathleen Graber. The poems unfold, or unscroll, down the page, sometimes multiple pages, and are polymathic in their contents. One moves from an eipgraph on the recalculation of the age of the universe to a comet no one will ever see again, as its orbit is longer than any one human life, to her brother who died before ever seeing a cellphone to vultures to two photos taken of that comet and finally to how long grief lasts.

If that sounds like too much for one poem to hold, I did not find that to be so. It seems like in these poems Graber is pushing the outermost walls of the poem’s container and it holds and holds.

Last year I spent several months on a project on this very thing — pursuing where the unfolding threads of a thought took me and how much digression a poem could stand. I found I thought it could stand more than some editors and trusted advisors could, so I pulled in the ropes of thought. But reading these poems I’m not sure now. I have the urge to go back to that poem and unleash it again.

As I read and reread the book, called The River Twice, knowing I wanted to write a blog post about it so I could encourage you all to read this brilliant poet, I searched for excerpts I could include. But the poems are so braided that I couldn’t pare off a piece of a poem without losing the power of the whole. So here are a couple of links to poems in their entirety. Throughout the volume are these “Dear America” poems, which, although at first made me think of Stephen Colbert in character in his old show (“America,” he’d begin, pompously…), I found to be among the most poignant in the book.

Here is one from the American Poetry Review: https://aprweb.org/poems/america-peaches.

And here is one that was published in Plume: https://plumepoetry.com/america/.

I hope you enjoy her work as much as I do.

What do you do with a drunken sailor; or, On Failure

I am thinking today about the economic notion of “sunk costs.” I recently finished a project that took a lot of time and effort, and I hate it. It sucks.

I’ve spoken in this space before about how all creative people must allow themselves to make sucky work. But I need to take a minute to dwell in the rendeth-my-garment frustration of coming to the end of creating something only to be gravely disappointed. A moment of grief must be allowed. A flopping about of dismay.

But in the end, crap is crap, no matter how much time and good intentions it took to make. There’s no regaining the time and attention. It’s all part of the process. And I know I’m supposed to be focusing on appreciating the process. But, arrrghghgh.

I know some of you softies are thinking, “Oh, you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s probably fine.” There are some good moments in it, I’ll admit (it’s a cartoon), and I continue to be astonishedly pleased at some of the things that can come out of my not-entirely-in-control scribbling with my fingertip on the iPad. But a few moments doth not an entire piece make.

Can it be saved? I don’t think so. I’ll give a little time to trying to piece something together from the moments I like, just to indulge you. But I’m not sanguine. A word which also means bloody, which is closer to how I feel.

I’ll also spend some time thinking about whether I learned anything along the way, so it might not all be for naught. Processing the process, as it were.

So allow ourselves to make crap, yes. But I think it’s also worth taking a moment to grieve the sunken treasure of time and creative energy, the debris of the process settling lightly on the ocean floor, glinting of false promises.

Synchronistically, I heard an interview recently and it took me three times to understand that what the interviewee was saying was “work of art” not, as I had braingzingingly thought, “workfart”…

Then we take Berlin; or, Editing the Heart of the Matter

Most editing advice edits at the level of the word or sentence: do you have too many articles, are your verbs too boring, are your sentences too syntactically the same? But sometimes (often?) I find the problems I can’t seem to overcome with a poem are either in the entire approach of the poem, or the content. This is far harder to fiddle with effectively.

For example, I have a poem now that is well grounded in sensory stuff, but it takes a sudden turn at the end, and I can’t figure out if that’s okay, or if it seems abrupt because it does not grow organically out of what came before in the poem. Is it another poem all together? If I take out that turn, the rest of the poem seems unfinished. Maybe I have yet figured out what the poem is about, so I stuck on this other thing. On the other hand, maybe I just need to weave the ending into the rest of the poem. Or maybe the poem just sucks and I need to start over.

Do you see the problem? This is not a put-a-comma-in-take-it-out thing. This is an existential quandary at the poem level.

Sometimes if a poem does not seem to work it’s because I have not reached far enough. In this case, it may be that I’ve reached too far — beyond the scope of the poem into another poem all together.

This is the most interesting aspect of the editing process, eyeballing one’s own utterances, meditating on the source of images, the hidden reasons behind unconscious choices of vocabulary, choices of sound. Something has appeared here on the page, blurted out of my various levels of consciousness. It interests me. It fails me.

Sometimes ideas can be unearthed by playing at the level of word and syntax and sentence and sense-unmaking — so editing at that level can be useful too for this deeper examination — but at risk of the nicely arranged Titanic’s deck chairs’ fate.

I need to ask of the poem what it’s deepest intentions are. I need to ask, brutally, whether this is a poem that has enough to be said that it’s worth saying. Is it a nice description but not much more? Is it a clever snapshot but not a well considered moving picture with chiarascuro and resonance? Was it a moment’s effort that came of some deep bodied quake or a moment’s effort that came of a brainy shake?

I owe it to myself and the poems to ask this.

And if I have even a whiff of doubt, I need to listen to it, even if I share it and others say ooh and ah. If I think something’s awry, then something’s awry.

There is some level of communion I have to come to with a poem like this, to feel its beating heart. And if I can’t find a pulse? Well, there’s my answer.

So Quiet in Here; or, In Praise of Silence in Poetry

I hear the tick of drips off my metal roof onto the deck, somewhere a low hum of a machine in the neighborhood, far off a rumble of a truck just discernible, the leaves are moving outside my window but I can’t hear their titter in here. I hear the steady jangle of my tinnitus in one ear. Now the truck is gone. Now I hear the dehumidifier in the basement kick in. More drip drip from the roof. This sounds like noise on the page, but feels like quiet to me. Most of the year my neighborhood is blessedly quiet.

Some of you may know of my ten-plus-year plague of dog barking — two dogs on one side of me, four on the other. Calls to the police, tearful calls in the middle of the night to the dog owners, consideration of murder, consideration of suicide. I think the only thing that saved me was the otherwise quiet of the neighborhood. And the quieting with age and personal development of the sounds inside my head — the thoughts, I mean, the expectations, the shoulds and coulds, the grasping at and letting go of what I thought was power. But while I was in the middle of it, I thought I’d lose my mind.

And a recent article in The Atlanticindicated I was not wrong. Sounds deeply disturb us. In “Why Everything Is Getting Louder,” Bianca Bosker notes: “The earliest noise compaint in history…concerns a bad night’s sleep. The 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgameshrecounts how one of the gods, unable to sleep through humanity’s racket and presumably a little cranky, opts to ‘exterminate mankind.'”

Alas, we apparently sprang back.

She also cites at least half a dozen incidents in 2019 alone of people shooting other people over noise. Sing it, sister. Noise exposure has been shown to increase blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, diabetes, dementia, agression, and depression. Good grief.

I wonder if this is why I was drawn to poetry: the importance of silence in it, the tension between sound and silence that often resolves in a sound spoken into and reverberating in silence, and then dying away, leaving silence (or the post-poem moo) once again, replacing the noisy self, at least for a moment.

I need silence. It’s a visceral thing sometimes.

That article notes the steep decline in quiet places. I am fortunate to have easy access to the woods, both in my immediate area and up in the Adirondacks. But one of the places that represents quiet for me that feels lost is the library. The library of my young childhood was in an imposing edifice with a large staircase and lions at the gate. Inside was hushed and hallowed, high ceilings, huge windows. Whispers were the mode of communication.

Now, in their efforts to be a relevant community resource, libraries still have books but have lost the hush. At my library now, a modern affair, my perusal is racketed by two homeless guys complaining about a third, and a tutor trying patiently to go over some algebra equations. (Yes, I’m one of those cranks, complaining about “these days” and loud about “the good old” ones.)

Oh, I long for the days of shushing. In the quiet of the library, words and books seemed to be holy things, the library itself a sacred space. Now it’s just another place to have an overly loud cell phone conversation.

I’ve been experimenting in my poetry with placing white on the page among words. We had an interesting conversation about this at my recent writing retreat — how do you decide where the space goes in such a setting? Natural pauses, deliberate choices to withhold information or make the reader wait, and some instinct about what words or phrases could use the kind of emphasis that silence around them can provide was our best guess at an equation for such decisionmaking.

Sometimes I fear it makes the poem look too self-conscious on the page. Ooh, look at me all spread out here. But mostly I like it. It eases me somehow to allow some light and space into these poems I’ve been working on, and even imposing them on old poems in revision. Nothing worse than a poem that barks at you from the page, incessant, tied to a pole in the backyard.

The dogs? One of the two on one side died some years ago, and the remaining one is very old and mostly barks from inside the house at predictable points in the day; on the other side, the noisiest of the four dogs eventually died, and then owner moved away, and I heard that she too has died. Ah. May they all rot in a noisy hell. I’m not THAT far onward in my personal development and inner Zen.