“I see and hear things at this hour that might be lost later in the day when texts and emails and schedules and all the to-do’s crowd in.”
I’m an early riser and wake to a quiet house. In the spring and early summer the sun slants into the house and I often watch it putting colors into the sky. Other seasons, I watch the lights of the near buildings taking their leave. I see and hear things at this hour that might be lost later in the day when texts and emails and schedules and all the to-do’s crowd in.
I begin writing with a particular word or phrase that I might have heard the day before, something I’ve ignored but now in the quiet can’t, or I might take an image from a dream. Sometimes there’s a feeling I can’t quite get at. I start writing in a computer folder labeled “Exercises.” I love the blank page and I love watching words appear. I don’t want to encumber myself just yet with something as important as “Poem”; something called an exercise doesn’t have to be anything in particular. Lines and stanzas don’t have to be organized. Words can come, and I don’t have to think if they are the right words. The words are neither right nor wrong.
There’s a receptivity at this time, and either because my energies are strong at this hour, or because I’ve cultivated this early morning habit, I can count on entering this state of mind. Knowing, guarding, and protecting this receptivity is my most important task. It sets the stage for good writing in the hours the follow, or if I’m faced with a scheduled sort of day, I can carry this capacity forward, beyond my desk, allowing me to be surprised by a sudden turn of phrase or turn of thought that may give access to a future poem.
In this receptive state, having played a bit with word exercises, how do I then actually write the poem? I think of poetry as both given and achieved. There is often a moment’s inspiration, an insight, a sentence which is given and comes from this receptive state of mind. Rarely, an entire poem may be given and line after line arrives as if it already existed. But more often a poem is built and constructed over time. What has come from this other domain, I use proactively to follow the feelings which first hinted a poem might be waiting.
As I build the poem, I’ll be asking myself what words or phrases are alive and which hold it back. I believe there is enough true mystery to living that poems should not unnecessarily obfuscate or complicate. I try to find the right balance between the narrative elements that orient a reader, and the lyric elements that highlight the emotional realities of the poem. Obfuscation and complication are not inherently “deep”, but if they are part of the subject, the reader needs to be taken willingly along.
In the writing, I am both looking for lacunae and lapses, filling them, and also creating them. Words come in and words go out. I like to get obsessed with a poem, have it nag me and follow me and insist I pay attention to it when I leave my desk, walk outside to get a coffee perhaps, or interrupt my conversations. At my most obsessed, a poem can have thirty or forty versions. I’ll let it interrupt me, and I’ve even been suspected of a petit mal, or absence, seizure, being unexpectedly taken into the poem instead of attending to the task at hand. As I write, it’s important for me to keep hearing the poem. Where does it follow lines of speech and where does it break expected lines of speech? There is great magic in shuffling a line-break or shuffling the stanzaic structure or discarding stanzas altogether.
At some point in my morning’s writing I will return to poems that are in process. There’s a creativity to editing (never editing per se but re-writing or re-hearing) that can be inspirational in itself. When I’m looking at an individual poem, I will also be asking myself if there’s a poem which preceeds it or needs to come after. Sometimes poems are, or may appear to be, solitary creatures. But more often, they are part, or will become part, of a larger sequence of poems, or even a book of poems. Writing into the book, or a potential book, frees the poem to be as large or small as it needs to be, and to find itself among a variety of tones. It gives breadth to the poem and time to sustain and deepen its discovery—as deep, perhaps, as the initial, almost wordless, fleeting feeling of insight.