Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Writing a Poem 30 Years and 10 Days Ago

L.L. Barkat at The High Calling Blogs featured my poem "Last Words With Her Executioner (Jeanne d'Arc)" in her November 6 post, "Writing in the Dark".

I was surprised and honored she called out my poem, although, until she featured it in her post, I hadn't thought of it as a response to our particular challenge to "try writing about love, in character". It wasn't love I was thinking about when I wrote it.

I did tell Laura that she'd given me the subject of my next post: her questions about where and how I came to write "Last Words". I have to apologize, Laura; I let your questions slide. I published as my next post my poem "Senses" and followed that with an essay for our online discussion about the sixth chapter of Gerald May's The Wisdom of the Wilderness. I'd been bummed all week about that mutilated turtle that May described. . . and the daily bread of violence that seems to feed us.

First Version

When, where, and how did I write "Last Words"?

I started at least 30 years and 10 days ago.

I wasn't married. I lived alone in a rather nice apartment in Virginia. I was working as a freelance reporter/feature writer and in a downtown think tank in the office of an international economist, a job that spelled boredom until I met another writer and poet there.

Poetry writing, in which I've always been interested, saved me from my day job. It's still saving me, just in different ways now.

I'd had the idea to try writing a series of poems that took on the voice of women I'd read or studied or heard about, women fictional or real: Eve, Jeanne d'Arc, Anne Sexton, Juliet, Desdemona, Lady MacBeth, Ophelia, and others. I wanted to write from their points of view and others' points of view about them. For some I had to go back to my books of poetry and plays and history. I was at least three years out of college and needed to re-hear and re-imagine the characters' voices.

The only time I had to write was after my long days at work and usually late in the evening, and in what everyone kept telling me was poor light. I kept the blinds up, even at night. Writing by moon's light.

I wrote, often until well after midnight, seated at the antique refectory table that forced me to sit up straight and served double duty as my writing desk and place to dine. In two weeks, I had some semblance of a manuscript that included a version of "Last Words", a version different from the one that caught Laura's eye, a version that 10 days ago I decided wasn't very good.

The poems were not like anything else I'd written. I decided to submit them to a competition. I didn't win and put the manuscript away. Calling myself a poet at age 26 seemed arrogant at the time. Thereafter, I wrote poetry only sporadically, usually for special occasions like weddings, births, deaths. I never stopped reading poetry, however, and when my shelves of poetry books began to bend under their weight, I stacked my books on the floor, at bedside. The collection kept getting higher and the collecting and reading continue still. Reading poetry is one way to becoming a better writer of poetry.

I took up writing poetry seriously again the day after one of my brothers called to tell me he had cancer. Writing poems was the only way I could ask why without expecting an answer. Then or now.

So I wrote and wrote some more. And after my brother's death on May 5, 2009, I continued to write, realizing how much I had missed what happens when words in mind mix with pen to meet paper (or, now, computer screen). I have a new book-length manuscript now and have a good start on another that could contain many of the newest poems I've posted since I began blogging in late September. "Last Words" is one of them.

The Posted Version

One day before Halloween I pulled out that old manuscript with the early version of "Last Words". I read it and pronounced the poem weak, the imagery not imagined well enough, the voice not quite right to my ear. I started rewriting, in pen (I can't recall ever using pencil to write poems; I've always disliked the mess of erasure), scratching out one line, slicing through another, substituting verbs, cutting excess nouns, rejiggering the poem's voice, tweaking the title.

When I decided I was done and had what I thought was a better version, I moved to the computer, typed the poem into the format I wanted, printed it out and read it silently, read it aloud, revised a little more now that it was readable and clearer. I did all this in maybe two hours, then decided to take a risk and post it.

The day it appeared on my blog was Halloween. "Last Words With Her Executioner" on Halloween.

Poetry Writing Not a Process

I do not think of poetry writing as a process. To me, the word "process" smacks of series of actions that are duplicable, repeatable, and a sameness I do not recognize. I can't duplicate from one to another poem what I do when I write.

Sometimes, it seems to me, my poems write themselves after I've read something, seen a picture that moved me, spent an afternoon looking at art, or listened to a piece of unforgettable music.

Most of my best poems have taken me very little time to write. They start with a jumble of words in my mind or on a piece of paper, with certain words aligning themselves with other certain words that sound "right" to my hard-core inner critic. Soon, images appear. I can't say I'm a visual artist; that term has a definition that does not embrace poets. I do think, however, that how words get arranged or laid out does create a visual image, just as the words themselves, if they're any good, answer to our senses. The more striking or powerful or imaginable the images, the better the poem.

Sometimes, no matter the approach, I can't write the right words.

I'm particularly bad at writing according to forms, with the exception of poems in which the first letter of each word at the start of a new line combine vertically to spell out something. I never liked being told when I was learning how to write in cursive that I had to slant the letters a certain way or add some curlicue or make the letters reach a certain height. I carried that dislike into poetry writing.

Often, after putting a poem away in a folder, I'll take it back out a month or so later and almost instantly come up with a better line or lines; I'll see a line break that needs fixing, or something unnecessary I should pare away. That's when I start the meddling of revising. Being good at revising requires knowing when to stop.

I walk around with poems forming in my mind. I hear the words before I take up a pen or turn on my Mac. When the words start to come, and the words begin combining and lines begin arranging themselves, I listen to hear the rhythm, I test alliteration; to see the pictures; to catch the voice and send it back to my ear; to become full of the sense of the poem-to-be. Then I either go to paper or the computer, so I don't forget the words and how they combined.

I never used to be able to write from scratch on the computer. Now, I can't imagine not using the computer to write. Its screen is my white canvas offering possibility. If I don't like the possibility that offers itself, I can delete-erase, and have no mess to clean up.

I don't think I can say more about the "how". In fact, I don't understand at all where my poems come from. I'm content to call what I do what others say it is: a gift.

Note: I wrote and posted a poem about writing poems. It's called "inventions". If you missed it, go here.


L.L. Barkat said...

I started reading, retweeted, then realized I don't have time to read all right now (boo hoo). I'll come back later.

I did smile about the Joan of Arc poem not fitting "love in Character." Prompts are always optional (and so I often pick poems that weren't in response to the prompt). Not that the exchange wasn't some kind of love exchange... but... :)

Glynn said...

I enjoyed this, Maureen. It tells a story (not a process!) of how this poem and other poems come to be. Sometimes they seem to flow effortlessly -- a finished draft on the first sheet of paper. Other times, they fight and struggle and decide to imitate labor pains. But I find them to be work, and sometimes hard work.

M.L. Gallagher said...

Hello Maureen, what I loved most about this post was not the bits about creating poetry -- and it is a creation to me, not a process, -- what I enjoyed most was 'seeing' you in the creative light of the moon. Sitting at the refectory table, moving with your pen and paper onto a white computer screen.

The visual images were enlightening and refereshing. I felt a part of your life -- and in that process, I felt warmth, like cinammon melting on warm buttered toast.

The beauty of your words never fails to stir my soul.

Thank you.