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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Keeps Me Writing?

What keeps me writing is not something I have much control over.

How would I stop myself from writing? That's more like it.

I have an irrepressible urge to share about the Sombrero Galaxy.

I have a fecundity of impulses to grab a pen and write down "Hot Sexy Baristas!" (I saw it spray-painted on the take-out window of Sweet Shots Espresso, just north of Seattle on Highway 99).

When a student comes to class on the day I'm putting Richard Wilbur's "Junk" on the overhead, and this student happens to know all about Hephaestus, how can I not pay tribute in words, give thanks?

My son told me his favorite color was green. Poem.

My daughter asked me if there was an end to the world. Poem.

I had to interlock my two hands so my husband could climb up to fasten a kestrel nest box to the trunk of a lodgepole pine. One sonnet in a crown.

I taught William Stafford's "Traveling Through the Dark," and my students had a lot to say about whether the speaker did the right thing, pushing a newly-dead doe into a ravine: He should have raced that poor animal straight to the vet!; If it'd been me, I would've drop-kicked it! Poem in progress.

I figure I'm like most poets, most writers. Life happens, so we tell about it. We learn things; we want to share them.

We put words down, not sure where we're going with it. I do as William Stafford told me: I lower my expectations. I try not to think about whether I'm writing a poem or not, or whether what I am writing is "good."

Wanting to write well is what kept me silent for years. I didn't enroll in a poetry workshop until I was 25. 25 years wasted! I'd been writing poems since I was seven. I went through my entire undergrad education without taking a single creative writing course; I was too scared of not being any good.

The urge to communicate happens. The urge to give thanks, give praise, make connections, be surprised, go wild. The urge to connect to the past and the future--to Anaxamander, to my great, great grandchildren.

Where else but in a poem can the clothes on the line be talking to each other?

Where else but in a poem can ex-boyfriends be categorized by sausage type?

Writing gives me permission to be silly, absurd, childish, sarcastic, ironic, grave, witty, ponderous, ambivalent, obfuscating, someone else. Who doesn't want to be some or all of these?

Poems arrive. I get a first line and it won't leave me alone. "In that other universe, I married you . . . " came to me on my way to the gym. More lines kept coming as I swam and sweated. I had no pen, so I had to memorize and repeat over and over the lines in my head. By the time I got home I had a first stanza. (I get a first line, but rarely more than that, without much work. The rest depends. Sometimes the words come easy; sometimes it can take, as they say, years. What keeps me writing: getting what Stephen Dobyn's refers to as "the best words in the best order.")

But back to those first lines. I've been getting them in my head since high school, when I began reading Kurt Vonnegut. I would jot these lines into a journal. (Journaling keeps me writing: I've been writing in one since I was nine.) Vonnegut also taught me to free associate with metaphor.

Vonnegut keeps me writing.

So do Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Sherman Alexie, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg, Basho and Issa, to name a few. Many, many poets keep me writing; they buoy me; they beg me to call back to them, riff on their words, out-do them; they challenge me to tell it the way I see and feel and hear it--to make it new.

Poems come to me in campgrounds, on mountains, in the back seat of a car, and yes, while driving. More often, though, they come to me in the most unpoetic of places. A law office, say, looking at insurance premium tables. At the Table of Losses. There's actually a Table of Losses. How could I not steal that?

I should write less, is the truth. I should exercise more. I should be standing on the steps of the Capitol, demanding equal pay for adjunct faculty. I should be making my nephew, stationed in Afghanistan, a batch of homemade cookies. I should be writing Obama, asking him to please plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. I admire those who put aside their personal concerns and work for the common good. I should be grading papers, filling up my gradebook with little checks and numbers, adding things up. But instead here I am again, in love with how the world falls away as I focus in on the sounds and the syllables, on the rhythms in my head, on everything every poetry teacher has ever taught me, on the sweet and savory English language.


Anonymous said...

I love this post! Thanks also for passing along the William Stafford advice. That's definitely a problem for me sometimes -- censoring myself before I even begin writing because I want it to be "good".

Like you, I began writing poetry at an early age but didn't participate in my first poetry workshop until I was in my mid-twenties. I do sometimes think of it as all those years of "catching up" I have to do because I didn't start sooner. But, then looking back at all I did accomplish in those years, I am reminded of the value in everything we do, not just in the writing.

rams said...

All my friends are writing well this morning! (I want to see a draft of that Table of Losses poem by Monday, missy.) My friend Bonnie Jo Campbell's blog today contained the lines (linebreaks mine)

I begged him to consider the lesser repair,
the hobbling together, the propping up, the patching.
He poked his measuring tape into the soft
bluish wood of the ceiling, said he'd think
about the options and talk to me soon.

She's just spooling out blank verse! Is there a job descriptions for people who shag their friends' pop-fly poems?

Kimberlee said...

Thanks so much for such an inspirational post. I have been struggling (since starting my MFA program) with writing because it all feels so forced right now and there are all the fears of not getting it right. This is a perfect reminder. Maybe I'll print it out and carry it around with me to help get through those sticking spots.

Martha Silano said...

Bernadette: I know, I know, everything we do feeds the writing, but I spent most of grad school trying to figure out the difference between lyric and narrative, not confusing synechtoche with metynomy. And that's not the half of it: if it takes, like Robert Bly once said, 50 years to become a good poet, I wasted 10 years.

Rams: You can have it on today: The Table of Losses appears in my first book. (That Bonnie Jo is something else--what an ear!).

Kimberlee: There's no better fan/reader than you!

Joannie said...

Thanks for writing!