Friday, October 26, 2007

Poetry Friday: Breadcrumbs

Lately, we've been talking process here and over at 7-Imp. Here's the main character (who is really me) from my first book describing how she writes a poem:
"Then something weird happened. I wrote a poem about it. I didn't mean to, but all of a sudden, it was like there was another SOMETHING in the room, like a ghost. You know how you feel like there's breath on your neck? I didn't know how long it would last, so I grabbed a pen and I wrote down everything I could about that moment.

What I wrote didn't make sense at first, but then I remembered what my dad told me once about his work––that he tried to make his poems like spells (good ones, not evil) so that when someone heard one, the listener would be haunted by the spirit of the poem, as he was when he wrote it. So I went back and tried to make the pieces I'd written fit into a pattern, like I was trying to make a picture of that ghost out of words." ---From Letters From Rapunzel

That's about as close as I can get to pinning down the mystery that is a poem arriving. When I'm not in character, I try to grow as a poet by doing two things:

1) I'm learning not to turn away when I feel that ghost in the room. I run for pen and paper, no matter how weird the initial impulse is. I know now that it comes when I'm folding laundry ("On turning a T-shirt right side out") or when I'm driving down a barren road in January ("The Bones of January.") And once I have my pen in hand, I don't stop until I've pursued the thought deep into wherever it came from. I don't ask it why it came or what it is; I just follow, doggedly, leaving as many rich breadcrumbs along my path as I can.

2) Once I've paused for breath following the initial "running after," I gently bump the glimpses I've recorded against one another, to see what happens. I try not to overwork it, or to force the words to line up in a row. It's more like I'm writing music, and I'm listening for overtones of both sound and meaning. (You guys know I'm not musical, but I swear I hear this with my body.) What I try to do is not destroy the initial pursuit, but to lay it out so the reader can go with me. This is what I said about it in the comments section at Hiraeth last Poetry Friday:
Strange as it may sound, I think of poems as enchantments. The poet is casting a spell, and the reader, by saying aloud or reading those same words, is casting the same spell. Or if you don't like magical metaphors, a poem is like a liturgy. Yes, it's written, but its purpose is to be a living ritual that takes you beyond the words.
And that, my poetry friends, is as deep as I'm willing to go today.

Poetry Friday is hosted by Literary Safari this week.


  1. Thank you for articulating your process so beautifully, and for enchanting us with your spells every Friday.

  2. That's beautiful. I wish I got enchanted like that. I get ideas, but it comes out all clunky.

  3. I love the image of running for pen and paper. Sometimes petry hits me at the strangest hours. Lately, it's the middle of the night. I now keep a booklight and pad and pen next to the bed. If I wake from dreaming with a poem in my head, I let it all spill out on the paper.
    I'm so glad you don't run from that ghost in the room, but towards it, because we are all the luckier for it.

  4. I hate to get all metaphysical but I've certainly felt that ghost you mentioned above. It's not to say I don't think there's any technical side, but that comes later for me as I'm editting.

  5. That is beautiful, and there is truth in how you describe poetry. The goosebumps on my arms attest that it is, indeed, an enchantment. Thank you for your lovely words today.

  6. I loved your description of the poetry process. While I enjoy seeing your poems, I like this very different - and very helpful - contribution to Poetry Friday.

  7. "So I went back and tried to make the pieces I'd written fit into a pattern, like I was trying to make a picture of that ghost out of words."

    Yes! This is how I find my haiku. I start with an image of something I've seen or photographed and try to fit words to the feeling that rises with that moment; in a pattern..

    "I gently bump the glimpses I've recorded against one another, to see what happens." is another way you said it that rang a bell. Thanks!

  8. I actually respect your process so much! It is what works for me with short stories -- I force myself to write one a week, so it's always a challenge, bumping the words, rubbing my blurry head, until -- snap -- everything coalesces into place. And I can see.

    This is way cool.

  9. I might add that I always seem to write poetry when I'm supposed to be doing something else. Like writing a novel. Or revising. As a result, it always feels a bit like playing hooky to me. :)

  10. I got the chills reading that. It's beautiful. So many images went through my mind: a ghost, a muse, a word, a poem ... a breath, a gust ... These two paragraphs are going to stay with me. Thank you!

  11. Watch out! You're going to get google hits now for "witch spells for children" :)

    In any case, this is exactly how I work when a poem "hits" me. It's rare, but it happens.

    Also, as a non-musician, I know exactly what you're talking about. But, I think rhythm is different than music.

  12. I love the mysteriousness of this. And the magic. I was sitting here saying, yep, right, un-hunh. It's a beautiful thing...

  13. Poems as enchantments. Love it.

  14. These poems are beautiful. Here's my favorite extraordinary part:

    "In January, I kneel beside my children’s

    sleeping faces, and let them break

    the leafless branches

    that cage my chest."

    Gulp. Whatever you're doing, it's clearly working. There's a visceral feel to your poetry that rivals the best poems I'm reading in collections and anthologies. I sure hope you're submitting these. And if these are your so-so ones, then I can't wait to see the ones you're actually trying to publish!

  15. A truly haunting description of something I've barely glimpsed, despite trying. It's frustrating. I feel that I may have the tools to photograph those ghosts, if I were to see them, but I very rarely do, and then so fleetingly that the pictures are not good (ghost with its head cut off; half-baked poem). I truly believe that being a poet is a 'seeing' thing, as much as a doing thing; that it's about having the sight as well as the technique. I'm okay just writing stories but often I wish I had that sight too. Perhaps it will come one day. At the moment I feel like the Ghostbusters in the days when they are getting no calls...

  16. Nick, I have a lot of poems that I'm not happy with, that seem "half-baked" as you say. I think those were the ones in which I made my mind up too soon. I saw something and I tried to make it "fit" with what I knew. I do better if I don't expect anything at all; just write and write and write.


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