My late mother-in-law, may her memory be for a blessing, spent much of her last decades gardening. I learned a great deal about flower gardens from her, and we discussed cultivars and shade-loving plants and pest control with the sort of enthusiasm that avid gardeners well know. She enjoyed landscaping her place with colors and textures, carefully tracing expected bloom times as well as plant heights and spreads so that the beds produced an ever-changing canvas to delight the eye.
Hail: One of Nature’s curveballs
Except: Nature is always throwing curve balls. My mother-in-law’s gardens were beautiful, but she always eyed them critically. It is true that most gardeners notice what isn’t thriving, where the weeds are, or what has not grown out or bloomed as hoped. That comes with the territory. But the process of gardening is so much more enjoyable, even soothing, when one is not a perfectionist.
Not being a perfectionist myself, I find that time in the garden acts as a meditative oasis. It is part mindless physical labor, part problem-solving, part mindful awareness of the environment. This year, I’m making it even easier by planting fewer vegetables and fruits and more blooms to attract pollinators; I’ve a smaller variety of produce but am experimenting with some new (to me) seeds–a melon from the Caucasus, a few heirloom tomatoes, black beans as well as green ones.
I learn as I go–as I cull and thin, inspect insect damage, note responses to growing conditions. It occurs to me that this activity bears a resemblance to the writing process, particularly when putting together a collection for a chapbook or longer manuscript. In that undertaking, I’m also not a perfectionist; and I should not be quite so quick to gainsay the need for the perfectionist attitude when creating one’s art (as long as it does not lead to fruitless caviling).
But I’m just not constitutionally ordered towards that sort of purist idealism. The best I can do with my poems is similar to the best I can do with my gardens: devote mindful attentiveness to the “product” and try not to worry about eventual outcomes.
“Write a little each day, without hope, without despair.” —Isak Dinesen [Karen Blixen]
so, I did what I set out to do: I exercised the necessary discipline to draft a poem a day during National Poetry Month, and I pushed against my “comfort zone” by publicly posting those drafts as they came to me. Usually I do not share my initial drafts with anyone other than fellow writers in my writer’s group or a few poets with whom I correspond. This was an interesting experiment on the personal level, therefore, a sort of forced extroversion as well as effort in productivity. I now have 30 new drafts to reflect upon, revise, or ignore.
It has been years since I came up with that much work in four weeks’ time. For the last decade or so, my average has been closer to six or seven poems a month. And I would not have posted any of them as they “hatched.” I would have waited until I spent some time with them and figured out how best to say what they seemed to want to say.
That’s not an unwise approach in general; I see nothing wrong with letting poems stew awhile. And quite a few would have ended up in the “dead poems” folder. Nevertheless, trying something innovative tends to prove valuable. The takeaway is that I am glad I finally managed the NaPoWriMo challenge. A few of the poem drafts you may have read here stand a chance of evolving into better poems. Maybe some will end up in a collection (years down the road). That result feels good.
The takeaway is also the realization that I no longer worry about how others judge my poems, the way I did when I was starting out and discouraged about having my stuff rejected by magazines. Not because there’s less at stake–indeed, I feel as invested in my writing as I ever was. The difference comes with the kind of investment, the ambition to write something meaningful or beautiful, and not viewing the poems as results waiting to be determined as valuable by someone more authoritative.
I’m 60 years old and well-educated in poetic craft, style, purpose, analysis. I’ve been writing poetry for over four decades. At this point in my life, that’s authority enough.
Self in the World
Goose stands sentry in the dew-strewn meadow.
Blackbird browses dry grasses woven along embankment,
emerges, slim stems clenched in its beak.
Under the footbridge, polliwogs gather,
backing into its shade–hawk overhead,
bluejay screaming territory! the crows respond–
Sun halos the water-strider’s shadow,
making a cluster of coronas on submerged stone
where wood frogs squeak and leap into stream current
surrounded by bedstraw, henbit, dandelion,
Amur honeysuckle, garlic mustard, stiltgrass,
invaders all. Except the frogs, who found the stream–
itself new to the landscape, gouged here in the 70s.
What do I notice, then? That some of the living adapt?
What do I make of myself in this world?
Revising a draft, for me, means returning to the poem from several perspectives. I might change the speaker from first person to second or third person, or change the poem so that there is not a clear speaker at all–no longer “lyric.” I may alter specifics, such as place names or seasonal references. Or fictionalize with invented crises, persons, time periods, or events. Take on a persona, for example. Add or delete dialogue. These are interpretive and point-of-view considerations: How can I broaden the poem’s reach?
I might then revise for stanza patterns. Or find a vague meter going on in the piece which I will decide is worth pursuing, if it will enhance the poem; sometimes it does not work that way. If an image intrigues me, or puzzles or frustrates me, I’ll devote some revision effort to that. Play with alliteration or assonance, rhyme or off-rhyme, line lengths. Those are craft considerations, mostly.
When I work on a draft, my approach is that craft should hone perspective, and should be a silent partner in the poem. Early drafts, if promising, possess something inherently interesting. Otherwise, there’s nothing to work on or work with–the poem never really happens. Maybe all it manages to be is an idea, or a memory.
During the recession
laid off and without
even an old car
I lived in Sarasota
red tide gulf waters
slew of small fishes
dead on the beaches
where I went shell
hunting for lack of
Lizards on my walls
everything that mattered
blotted in moist air
novels and notebooks
drew mildew my hair
haywire the boy I loved
brown eyes & panic
sea at sunset gulls
Once weekly I’d bike
and wait in line to prove
I couldn’t get a job
but that I’d tried
& after my humbling
agencies I’d stop at a
coffee shop on Fruitville
Road and order two
eggs over easy home fries
brown toast coffee &
There was something
so filling about that
meal I still think of it
silky blueberries in my
mouth the tip I left
the blond waitress who
kept my coffee cup full
and always called me Darlin’.
This challenge has not gotten easier yet. Sometimes, disciplined practice leads to a certain ease or confidence–that’s always the hope, anyway, that I might find amid the drafts something wonderful. My model here would be someone like William Stafford, who sat down every morning to draft at least one poem (and sometimes they were wonderful). The Poetry Foundation’s site says:
Stafford reports that he sits alone in the early morning and writes down whatever occurs to him, following his impulses. “It is like fishing,” he says, and he must be receptive and “willing to fail. If I am to keep writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards…. I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on…. I am headlong to discover.”
At the end of this National Poetry Month, I will give myself a reckoning as to whether the NaPoWriMo process has been at all helpful to me as a poet. It may be it proves beneficial in some other way…
Her friends died young when she herself
was young and unbaptized in the realm of dying
Yet you would think her better prepared–for there were
car crashes, suicides, fires, the blood plague taking
its long and steady toll
There were the risk-takers certain of their immortality
who drowned or fell from cliffs or grace
through the needle or the drug or drink and those
whose hearts took upon themselves
a need to hurry beyond the body’s balance and
whose breastbones could not contain them
You would think her ready for the news that someone
loved or once loved or otherwise connected
(Milgram’s six degrees of separation theory)
had died however people do when they are young–
embolism, cancer, accident, murder
Slow or sudden–it’s not as if the difference
though there is one, matters
because you’d think, by now, when she is no longer young
the facts of gone and after and remembering
the evidence of dying and grief’s enormous cosmos
would have carved for her a familiar space
A kind of purifying trauma–as if the bulla and procession
could protect her or her community from harm
when harm is what the world offers now and then
and we must bid it enter even if we are young
Even when it is unwelcome.
* Lustratio was an ancient Greek purification and protection ritual for children or for cities, farms, and other precious items; in the case of a male child, sometimes it was a naming ceremony at which the baby would receive a small, gold bulla (charm in the shape of a bull’s head) as a blessing or for protection. Ancient historians describe it in several ways, but most frequently mention a procession and animal sacrifice.
I have to keep reminding myself that these poems are drafts and just get over their weakness and rough spots and recall that the drafting aspect is part of my April experiment–pushing the envelope, as the saying goes, and allowing the imperfections to go public. Then readers will perhaps recognize that every poem has to start somewhere, and it is not always from inspiration or native talent.
Any of the poems I draft this month that I consider worth keeping around for further work will move into my revision-worthy pile. For me, the revision process engages creativity in a form very different from the initial draft. Just as an example, few of my drafts use rhyme; sometimes I employ a basic metrical strategy (but not always)–and stanza structure almost always occurs during my revision process. Yet my finished poems often contain such components.
February’s coming to a close, and the forecast indicates a chance of snow soon–but the gardener feels stirrings of approaching spring.
Time to buy seeds, order supplies, plan the garden. Time to mow the meadow before the ground-nesting birds get started on their spring dwellings. Last night the temperatures went well below freezing, but the winterhazel has bloomed. Snowdrops push up from leaf litter: a glimmer of white petals still held close to the stem. Waiting for a string of warm days to open up for the early pollinators.
Indeed, the days lengthen at last. Next week marks Spring Break for my college, and with a little more flexible time available, I hope to pin down my garden plans. Each year, I try to incorporate something innovative in the small patch of (mostly) vegetables. This year, I’m tempted to try short-season artichokes.
Thinking about the garden energizes me, gets my creative side jumping. It’s partly the anticipation–will this plant emerge, grow, thrive, fruit? Will voles and insects and viruses attack it? Will the weather cooperate? For example, I’m glad I did not plant potatoes last year–the weather was too wet. Should I take a chance on potatoes this year? (Oh, those tender new spuds lifted from the warm soil in August…)
And tomatoes! So many varieties from which to choose.
Bounty (our own, in 2015)
Anticipation feels different from expectation, though the two are related. For me, at least, the connotation of the first is more open-ended. Anything can happen, though let’s hope what happens is good. Expectation seems more results-oriented. I am not a results-oriented gardener; I like surprises, I appreciate the education I get even from failures.
Come to think of it, I could describe myself that way as a writer or poet, too: not results-oriented, more intrigued by the things I learn when I work at the writing.
Even when the results do not pan out, even when I finally must give up on a poem that is not working, I learn a great deal about where and why a particular approach fails. This is why writing requires practice, patience, and time to analyze and reflect on what those “results” tell the writer.
Poetry and publishing: two topics that seem diametrically opposed, if you look at them under the perspective that’s the norm in the USA—that of business, capitalism, popular culture. Shake off that norm, however, and publishing can be re-imagined as aural/oral, visual, textual, cinematic, digital, interactive…who knows?
When a reader begins to deepen her understanding of creative literature, she will also find it necessary to widen the concept of publishing. Some folks say this is a new world. Or they’ll claim things were better in the old days. Curmudgeons and prejudices abound.
In my lifetime, I have observed and been part of significant and constant changes in what constitutes publishing, from Linotype to Huffpost. Recently, I participated on a panel of poets talking to students who have just begun an MFA program. The panel was a discussion, but it jogged reflections on the process of getting poetry to an audience. So here’s a compressed version of getting poems published, as I experienced it.
I began to submit my work in the very early 1980s to the indie-publishing journals which were extant at the time: photocopied, stapled zines with print runs of 300, or maybe just 150. I was new at writing and aware that my work wasn’t ready for Ploughshares or Poetry and the so-called top-tier journals I purchased and read carefully and tried to learn from.
As a 20-year-old woman, I was not exactly full of self-esteem. Why did I submit at all, when I knew my poems were juvenilia? Well, I know that now…at the time, let’s say I knew they weren’t up to the work of Elizabeth Bishop or Audre Lorde. The reason was mentorship. I had two good friends who encouraged me to send work out but to be realistic. To read the journal first and analyze my work in comparison to what appeared in the magazine. Good advice—and let me tell you how much harder that was in the years before the internet! As I lived in New York and Brooklyn and Philadelphia, however, and it was the 80s, there were good independent bookstores to browse, and good libraries. And there was Dustbooks.
So analysis was crucial, not just for deciding where to submit but to learn how to be a better writer. It was important to compare, to take apart, to hear meter, to recognize rhythm and consonance and the fabulous image and the fresh metaphor, to say how does that writer achieve what she does and can I learn it? Without slavish copying?
Damned difficult. But thanks to publishers, at least the materials were available. If we hadn’t had poetry publishers, it would have been even harder to learn the craft; and I’m not the sort of sui generis writer who just creates out of genius. I had to study, practice, revise, and learn the hard way. Alas.
In the later 80s, I started doing some editing and publishing of other people’s work. My dear friend, David Dunn, and I had a small press that put out two broadsides and four chapbooks. Taught me a great deal. I helped to edit a Xerox-zine in Philadelphia in the 80s. Meanwhile, I kept getting work into small press journals nationwide, mostly these photocopied deals with tiny readerships; but the minor successes kept me going. After awhile I had enough hubris to try the better-recognized journals, with some success. This is how it works: persistence, but not bull-headed, blind persistence. One persists through the learning process; revises, practices, finds trustworthy people for feedback.
My sister, my spouse, and I all have worked in the publishing business-as-business, in how-to and B2B magazines; I was a typographer, proofreader, copyeditor, writer, indexer. All of that background was valuable in its way and never kept me from pursuing creative work. So I did eventually go for my MFA, in my 40s, and I got chapbooks and a collection published at long last in spite of—oh, you know—life.
Because I feel that poetry needs audience, I was early to jump on the online publishing wagon, despite colleagues who warned that it wasn’t really as acceptable a venue as academically-affiliated print journals. Nonetheless I’ve found myself enthralled by online journals, by audio-poems, moving-poems (video), podcasts, blogs. I’ve watched well-respected magazines migrate to the internet. And there are problems with online publishing. I know about them, wrestle with them, yeah—keeps life interesting.
My route has not been the academic route, although I work at a college today; I am more of an outlier. Poets and writers can be nurses, doctors, mechanics, or landscapers, grandparents, people with disabilities, insurance industry managers, post office workers, tutors. Each of us discovers her own process for writing and for getting the poems into the world. Mine is pokey and slow and frequently interrupted, and my next long collection won’t appear until 2021, nine years after Water-Rites, my first. But I feel satisfied with my publishing record, such as it is. People do read my work, which is kind of the entire point of writing, no?
When everything is easy and there’s no chance of failure, life is boring. Writing creatively means taking risks, creating tension. Publishing creatively requires the same things. Risks, imagination, persistence, curiosity, analysis and a willingness to be open-minded. Fun pursuits, but not always easy ones.