The spider—why the spider?, or, a defense of recurring images

Ten spiders, showing much variation in shape and colour. Gou Wellcome V0043845

(art from Wikimedia)

A few days ago on Twitter, a poet tweeted about searching through her poems to make sure she hadn’t already used the image she wanted to use in a new poem. Another poet responded that she often does the same.

My response: I will fight you.

I mean: I haven’t slept since.

Well, okay, I have, but only restlessly.

Let it be said that these are poets whose work I admire deeply. And yet… And yet… My response: horror.

Horror, because what if Bonnard had only painted Marthe in the bath once?

What if Diebenkorn had worried about repeating himself, and only painted a handful of Ocean Parks, rather than painting 150 (correction: according to this source it was 145) Ocean Parks over the course of eighteen years?

What if Ruth Asawa had thought more than just a few of her sinuous and shapely wire sculptures would be repetitive?

What if Louise Bourgeois abandoned her obsession with spiders, which began appearing in her work in the 1940s, and which she was still using in her art early in the next century (i.e., this century)?

Reader, I would not want to live in that world.

Nor in a world without Charles Wright’s spiders. Nor without Ted Hughes’s crows, nor Larry Levis’s horses and wrens, nor Whitman’s body-as-land / land-as-body imagery, nor Emily Dickinson’s birds.

What if Mahmoud Darwish had stopped writing about his homeland, and Terrence Hayes had only written one American sonnet for his past and future assassin?

I mean—and now I’m getting really serious—what if Jack Gilbert had stopped writing about Gianna and Linda and Michiko and Pittsburgh for fear of being repetitive?

No thank you, my friends, no thank you.

There are images (and, I would add, subjects, and even colors, and probably other things, too) that belong to certain poets. They use, and reuse, and use again these images across and throughout the body of their work. Why? Because obsessions fuel art. Because images do more than simply describe or represent something in a novel way—they also haul up to the surface a particular emotional resonance. An image is a portal into a poet’s mind and interior world, and hopefully, into our own as well. And troubling a particular image over time, over time, over time, and more time—this is one of the things I love about reading and writing poetry.

Look: now Wright’s spider is “recit[ing] his one sin.” Now he’s “still there, invisible, short of breath, mending his net.”

Now Marthe is in the tub, practically Ophelia. Now she’s in the tub again. Now she’s—you guessed it—in the tub again. (I could go on).

So, no, we don’t want to close ourselves off to using new images. And we don’t want to read or write an image in the exact same wording and in the exact same situation every time across a body of work (although now that I think of it, I may not be entirely opposed to that either—I mean: think of the guts that would take). We don’t want to be lazy or unthinking. But yes, please, for all time to the obsessive return of a writer or artist to his/her/their foundational  images.

Especially because the best images, returned to, reveal more of themselves to us each time we read or write.

Especially because we change and (we hope) grow and (we hope) become more capacious and complex beings—so that a spider to us in 1987 will be very different to us than a spider in 2021.

Even the same spider.

Here are some of the images I return and return to in my own writing: the roof, the fence, the rib, the stone. The birches. The hillside and its forever-willow. The ditch, the meadow, the snow. The wood thrush; the indigo bunting, it’s song about fire. The dune. The doorway and the window. Abandoning them would be like giving up my own, well, rib.

Here is Bourgeois: “The spider—why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”

Why the rib? Because mine aches in times of grief or sorrow. Why the ditch, the hillside (which is also where the meadow was, ftr) and her willow? They were my best friends—places to see from without being seen. Good for watching storms blow in. Dappled, quiet, buggy, blown. Useful as a ditch / hillside / willow.

what ‘do your own work first’ means to me

Photo on 3-3-19 at 1.22 PM

Meet my to-do list

At some point in my writing life—I don’t remember when, but it was years ago—this became my mantra and my exhortation to myself: Do your own work first.

It may have been influenced by Mary Oliver, who once wrote in a letter something like, “I can’t meet with you, or anyone, in the morning… because that’s when I write” (I’m paraphrasing).

It may have been influenced by Robert Hass, who said, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in a half-hour a day.”

It  may have been influenced by the time in my life when I was sick and literally couldn’t write, couldn’t hold a pen in my hand, couldn’t press the keys down on my laptop keyboard, couldn’t even hold a book to read. I remember lying on the couch shortly after giving birth to my daughter, child number three. My mom was staying with us because I was too sick to care for the baby (or the toddlers, for that matter). I remember saying to her, “I hope I can write again someday.” Her reply: “Oh, sweetheart. I just hope you’re well enough to take care of the kids someday.”

I wished that, too. But also, I knew that someone else would always take care of my kids if I couldn’t. And that no one else could write my poems.

In that moment I felt a little monstrous, as writer- and artist-mothers sometimes do. But I also understood something: I understood what my Work was. I understood that if I didn’t or couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be Molly Spencer. That my life would not be my life.

Do your own work first.

Sometimes I’ll post it on social media as a reminder to myself and others.

Do your own work first.

Sometimes I’ll text it to a writing friend who’s feeling overwhelmed by all the obligations of life.

Do your own work first. 

Enough so that, occasionally, someone will ask me: What do you mean by that exactly? as someone did over the weekend. And here, somewhat edited now from a tl;dr text thread, is my answer:

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First, it means to give up on the idea of balance and try to embrace, instead, what I call “the juggle.” I’m not someone who does well in a chaotic environment, physically or psychically. But my experience is that family life and trying to raise children to adulthood is often chaotic. Also, capitalism and our society’s power structures like to act as if they’re very orderly, but they are not: They send us bewildering and conflicting messages every day. So one important thing for me has simply been to accept that I may never feel balanced in terms of how I spend my time in this life, but I will keep trying to juggle so that what’s essential gets its time.

Then I had to figure out what really is my own work. What is the very most essential work? What work is it that, if left undone, I cannot be Molly Spencer? For me, it’s poetry. This is the Work, then. Everything else is just work.

Then I had to figure out what must be done to meet my obligations to others, many of whom I love deeply. I need to feed my kids, attend to their health and schooling, and help them find their joy(s) in life. I want to nurture certain relationships. There are laws, so I have to do my taxes. There are bills, so I have to work. And so on.

Which brings me to work-work, the kind they pay you to do. This kind of work could fill up an entire life, and capitalism and the power structures would like us to fill up our entire lives with it. I have a lot of conversations with myself about how to still do a good job at work, while also not doing everything I have the impulse/inclination to do at work, because if I did that, I would never do anything except work-work (tiny bit of perfectionism running through my veins).

This means I’ve sometimes gone into meetings less prepared than I’d like to be—that is, prepared but not over-prepared, since I seem to prefer over-preparing. I’ve sometimes even taught less prepared than I like to be (but always prepared, and, as I tell myself when I’d like to have over-prepared: I know how to teach writing; it will be fine). I’ve said no to extra assignments. I’ve said no to students who want me to add them to my schedule. I don’t—and don’t want to, and can’t—always say no to such things, but I sometimes do. I’ve also intentionally sought work that leaves room in my life for my poetry and my kiddos. My job holds no prestige in the field of poetry, and my earnings (and the potential for earnings growth, and the potential for advancement) are limited. I’ve accepted that I will have less career “success,” as defined by our culture, and less money than I otherwise could have, in the long run.

So now I’ve said no to everything that’s not pretty essential. Including, for example, reading the school newsletter, which I haven’t done in years. Occasionally it has caused small problems, but only occasionally. I mention this, not because it’s any more instructive than other non-essential things I’ve said no to, but because this is the level of the cut: Saying no to many small, non-essential things is what it takes. It’s like when I’m working with students, and they ‘re 100 words over the word count, and I tell them: It’s going to be a word or two here and a word or two there until you’ve cut 100. (They hate that, by the way :)).

So, okay. Back to putting my own Work first. It means a couple things to me. First, it means I devote time to it—probably not ever as much as I’d like, but I clear time for my writing life every day. This is true even when I’m not writing much, like right now. Sometimes I am only reading. Sometimes I write down one word. But I make space in my day, in what we call Time, for writing. I am exceedingly stubborn about this. It sometimes causes tension in my relationships. It sometimes makes getting the kids out of the house in the morning a little crazier/more rushed. But it’s just not negotiable for me.

(NB: What I do not mean by Do your own work first is that you must do your own work in the morning before you do anything else. It is a philosophical first, not a chronological first. For me, it happens that I prefer to do my own work first in the predawn hours whenever possible).

Second, it means I keep headspace clear for writing, so that even when I’m not writing, even as I’m teaching or cooking or editing or mothering, there is a province of my mind that is a writer, and is thinking like one. It means listening to poetry podcasts while I fold the sheets. It means reciting poems I have by heart as I walk across campus from my office to the parking structure. It means repeating and repeating a scrap of language that has announced itself to me—I still miss the tree they swerved the road for—and listening for the next scrap whenever it arrives. And writing it down. Always writing it down (you think you’ll remember, but sometimes you don’t).

There is only so much space in one brain, and defending a  province of it for writing often means I forget other things capitalism and our society would’ve liked me to keep in my brain, mostly to do with mothering, like: when is show and tell, when are permission slips due, when is the meeting for basketball parents, when is the field trip, etc.. Generally, this has not led to disaster and (the kids and) I can live with the fallout when there is any.

Another thing: I’ve learned the hard way through chronic illness that if my body is not tended to, I can do neither the Work, nor the work. I make sure to take care of my body. I eat what sounds good and stop when I’m full. I rest sometimes when I could be [fill in the blank: cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry, putting together a photo album, cooking a few meals ahead, etc.]. I get regular exercise. I make sure my body is comfortable (e.g., warm socks, clothes I feel good in) and cared for (e.g., occasional long baths with lavender oil to soak the pain away).

And let me say that this is all much easier said than done. Some weeks I do better than others. Some years I do better than others. And it always, always means that there are things I “should” be doing that I’m not doing. It always means my house isn’t quite as tidy as I’d like, and the laundry piles up on the regular. It means I always owe about 57 people an e-mail. Another important mantra in my life, which I write on my calendar page every day: Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. (Capitalism and the power structures would like you to believe you are doing it wrong—especially if you are a woman—so you keep scrambling, working, buying, achieving, striving, etc).

So, I don’t know if any of this will help you. I just know that life and the culture as it currently stands will grind us to the bone if we let them. I try to keep the boundaries of my chaotic little juggle intact. It’s hard. This poem helps. This poem reminds me that my life is a “made place.” Either I can make it, or capitalism and the power structures will make it. I’m not giving those assholes my life. The end.

//

[Editor’s note: a friend has since pointed out that I could just call “capitalism and the power structures,” “the Patriarchy.” And she’s right.]

Do your own work first.

 

friday roundup (sort of) with a body and a rough net

Hello, reader, it’s been a while.

Summer has come and gone, the kids are in school, and—now that I’ve finished my MFA—some days I have time to do nothing for a while.

A short while.

The other day, I put up corn and tomatoes with my aunt. We blanched them, then cooled them in a cold water bath, cleaned (corn) and diced (tomatoes), then put them in containers for freezing. It reminded me of the importance of sometimes doing things that allow me to be just in my body, to take a break from what’s caught in the rough net of my mind.

I love the phrase “cold water bath.”

Most days I’m busy reading, writing, editing book reviews for The Rumpus, sending out poems and manuscripts of poems, looking for work, taking people to the orthodontist, making dinner, dropping off and picking up from ballet, etc.

I’ve been writing only small things. A list of words, a phrase, a grammatical construction: “The (n.) is what the (n.) (v.).” “Where (n.) (v.) you can find a way to (v.).” “I say (x) so as not to say (y).”

I’ve been casting about for something to read that will (get ready to laugh with me) Finally Make Sense of Everything Once and For All, that will (as I think of it) save me: a book of poems, just one poem, a couplet, a line, one word, rafter, loiter, femur, blanch.

Did you know the technical term for a joint (the kind in our bodies) is articulation? We say that one bone “articulates” with another where they join. Did you know that, amongst other things, articulate means “to divide into distinct parts”? Isn’t it odd that we use a word that means “to divide” to indicate a joining? From the Latin articulare, “to separate into joints,” from articulus, “a part, a member, a joint,” also, “a knuckle, the article in grammar.” A knuckle(!). Did you know that, amongst the many architectural (as opposed to corporeal) joints, there is one called birdsmouth. BIRDSMOUTH(!!!).

[This, by the way, is how one word can Finally Make Sense of Everything Once and For All, can save someone, at least for a while. A short while.].

I’ve been listening to the Commonplace Podcast while folding laundry, chopping onions, sewing ribbons on pointe shoes, ripping out ribbons from pointe shoes because they need to be repositioned, sewing ribbons on pointe shoes again (true story). If you’ve never listened, I recommend it enthusiastically. Rachel Zucker has interviewed poets (and some other people) and recorded their conversations. There are many gems for poetry, the writing life, and for all of life, really, in these interviews, and I’m grateful for the way they catch in my mind’s net and pass the time while I am in my body, folding, chopping, sewing on, ripping out, and sewing on again.

I’ve been reading women poets along with other poets and readers of poetry on Twitter. If you’re looking for books by women poets, search the hashtag #SeptWomenPoets and you will find treasure. This project is the brainchild of Shara Lessley. It’s been fun to read and tweet along.

Here’s a poem from one of the books I’ve read this month, which also happens to be by someone from my old writing group (during my California days): Even Years by Christine Gosnay (Kent State University Press, 2017). There is a particular joy in reading the poems of a friend and colleague, poems that you read when they were just born and solitary things, poems that you’ve watched grow up and begin to join together in constellations of theme and thought, poems that are now bound in a book.

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AKADEMOS by Christine Gosnay

I give my daughter the name Hypatia, tell her
the monks pulled Hypatia through the streets
and sewed her back together. I give my daughter

an astrolabe and tell her ships baste slit-
seams in the ocean to snag falling bodies.

Earlier, white stones fell from my hands
and landed on the road
until I could not see one stone.

I give my daughter a body and a rough net,
tell her to straighten her back and be ready
to weave the welkin sphere that bleeds

skeleton-blue and gray. I give my daughter
eyes and a sky.
I give my daughter a long, bright day.

My daughter carries a harpoon. She drifts
the sea with her barb the size of a needle.

Sea full of bodies, she sings, stalling. Then bends
her back, out she climbs. Oyster shells
bunched in her net.

*

Happy weekend, thanks for reading.

friday with another screen door and balance juggle

The screen doors pursue me.

I went 44 years without reading a screen door poem, and here in the last two weeks I’ve come across two that will fold into the Important Poems file of my mind.

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But first a word on balance. Earlier this week, I shared a Gwendolyn Brooks quote about “poeting” (her word) being just one element of a lived, human life.

I went on to say: Yes, but. Yes, but creative people must sometimes say no in order to make their art. I said: It’s all in the balance, I suppose.

A reader wrote asking if I think the balance is really possible. My answer is no. I used the wrong word. I’ve never balanced my life, I’ve only juggled the various elements of it. So, if the balance (whatever that is) seems to you impossible to achieve, you’re not alone. Also, the non-art-making world may wish for us to balance rather than juggle. The non-art-making world may not understand why simply parceling out a certain number of hours per week for our creative work, for example, does not work for the art-makers. [*Returning now to say: Yes, but. Yes, but setting aside regular time is also important]. That the art-makers must respond to the art when it’s ripe for making. Or sometimes, let’s be honest, when the deadline approaches.

Making art is Other. Let us juggle avidly.

*

Bachelard:

Shall we repeat with the logicians that a door must be open or closed?

*

Here’s a little ars poetica from Franz Wright that makes use of the screen door’s liminal equivocality:

BEFORE THE STORM

The poem seeks not
to depict a place
but to become one—

synonymous
_____________summer
and loneliness…

Mute child-ghost
of yourself
at the screen door.

*

The poet Kaveh Akbar recently organized a tribute to Franz Wright to coincide with the first anniversary of Wright’s death. It’s here and in the latest issue of Pleiades if you’re interested.

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Also Bachelard:

But is he who opens a door and he who closes it the same being?

Horse, then, unhorses…

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view from here

It is finished.

That is, I have finally sent off both my creative thesis and my critical paper to my Master’s program.

The creative thesis I could’ve sent months ago. The critical paper was a particular, and long, labor of love, and I must admit to shedding a few happy/sad tears upon finishing.

I have also removed all the index cards, with the voices of so many writers written across them, from my study walls. It ends up I could not bear to part with the cards altogether, so I fastened them to paper and put them in a folder in my desk drawer.

I’ve lived with these cards and their voices for months now, and although I find the mostly-bare walls more aesthetically pleasing, I miss being able to look up and see the quote I knew would be there, just where I’m looking.

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“Urge and urge and urge” —Whitman

“It’s almost as if we sing to each other all day.” —Robert Pinsky

“Love buries these ghost forms within us.” —Frank Bidart

Plumly: consonance, assonance, & surprise.

“No verse is really free.” —T.S. Eliot

“Wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall” —Robert Duncan

“[S]ilence is finally the only perfect statement.” —A.R. Ammons

“The poem’s form is where resemblance and distinction intertwine. It’s where you can’t tell something. Dancer from dance, for example.” —Heather McHugh

“It is always less tiring to substitute method for intelligence.” —H.T. Kirby-Smith

“Meter developed in response to the motion of human lives… .” —Stephen Dobyns

“I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form.” —Theodore Roethke

“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful…” —Charles Darwin

Paul Fussell: the pleasures of meter are physical

“I and this mystery here we stand” —Whitman

“Craft dries your tears.” —Molly Peacock

“The rhythm is like an other, attending to me.” —Pinsky again

Calvino: not light like a feather, light like a bird.

“The form of the poem unlocks the mind to old pleasures.” —Donald Hall

“Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning. I couldn’t unpeach the peaches.” —Annie Dillard

Is this then a touch? … quivering me to a new identity… —Whitman

Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.” —C.D. Wright.

*

And more, so many more. I will carry them with me. It’s almost as if they’re singing to me all day.

friday roundup: Whatever in passing

Alexander_Mann,_1883_-_Soubrette

Spring is trying to arrive; some days yes and some days no.

(I think) I’m nearly finished with my creative thesis and my critical paper.

There are nine weeks of school left for the kids.

We just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb known to humankind.

There is an app that will wake you up to the sound of birdsong.

I’m not sure what to make of any of it, but here are some things:

no Creative people say no. Women, especially, are conditioned not to say no. And never the twain shall meet.

Someone once tweeted (I can’t remember who, but the words have stayed with me): You will have to say no in order to do your work. It will be worth it. I have said no to lunch invitations, movies, shopping days, volunteer “opportunities,” children, laundry, dinners (as in making them), hairstyles (as in having one), arguments (both having them and settling them), sleep, and more, in order to do my work. I just said no to a second game of PIG on the driveway basketball hoop with my darling girl. “I wish I could, but I have to work today,” is what I said. The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Here are two articles about saying no, and one even gives you some good ways of saying it: One. Two. Spoiler: Even Dickens said no.

reinforcements A friend posted this on Facebook the other day, and it’s now hanging above my desk. In case your will to say no requires reinforcements:

A woman must be careful not to allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She must simply put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only. —Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Men may also need to be careful about this, but since those who identify as women still do most of the child-rearing, household-running, and the Administrative Caca that comes with those tasks—none of which are ever “finished”—, it’s especially important for the Sisterhood.

Whatever in passing  This morning I read two poems at Poetry Northwest‘s website written and translated by two women—Ye Lijun and Fiona Sze-Lorrain—who said yes to their art. We will never know what they said no to in order to do it, but I am so glad they did, because these poems are exquisite and they kindle in me the desire to keep trying to make exquisite things with words.

You can read them here.

one more thing I recently—and finally—created an author website. If you click on it, it will become more findable. Would you? Thanks. www.mollyspencer.com.

Happy weekend!

from the notebooks

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I love to look at artists’ notebooks. ^^Here^^ is mine. (Well, actually, I prefer to look at the insides of the notebooks, but sorry, this one’s still too fresh to bare).

It is a messy place, scuffed, tagged, dog-eared, x’d out, scrawled across. I’m against making the notebook a sacred place. I’m in favor of messes.

When I start a new notebook, I always write this quote from Robert Hass inside the front cover, even though I don’t really believe it: “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.”

It’s the half an hour part that I don’t believe.

But you can do at at least some of your life’s work in half an hour a day, so there’s that.

Here are some snippets from my notebook, selected at random:

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“Over again I feel thy finger and find thee” Hopkins… Deutschland

//

Lament for Untitled

//

Also, that Goya painting.

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(Imitating Wright, god help me)

//

3/15/2017 ( and you? )

//

wing
broken wing
snapped wing
snapped wing of your doubt

//

S-P as a Paper Boat

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Also: the moon as ashen

//

bleh
bleh bleh bleh

Note: written below attempts at poems

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A.R. Ammons “A Tree Full of Cleavage Bared Branching”—one word from it: chantless

//

papery->chartaceous(!), tissue, parchment

//

flange
rail
cringe
blear
share (as n.)
unchild
shoal
vault
reeve

//

From Linda Gregg’s poem “Blake”:

“I am finished with knife and window / My bed will be underground soon enough. / I will persist in this impermanence / that flesh holds. The body smooth, / the voices speaking within.”

shit goes wrong

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I have mostly been writing my thesis nonstop for the last two weeks. A draft is due tomorrow. I should be working on it now (and will soon), but I’m stopping by here to share a link to two of my poems in this month’s THRUSH poetry journal.

They are poems from my first full-length manuscript which is currently making the rounds.

At first glance, they might appear to be poems about love gone wrong—Persephone and Hades, you know the story. But when I wrote them they were attempts to reckon with the reality of serious, chronic illness. Illness that was never going away.

More broadly, I was attempting to reckon with the problem of suffering. Suffering, which—as long as there are sentient beings in existence—is never going away.

Shit goes wrong.

Sometimes something dark kidnaps you and takes you underground through a rend in the earth. You’re down there, you’re hungry, you miss your mother.

But after a while it becomes your life. YOUR life. And so, while you wouldn’t choose it, you can’t exactly wish it away either.

Here are the poems, and make sure to read the rest of the issue, too. Thanks for reading.

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(Note: The first poem is also an ekphrasis of the painting above, View of the Campagna, 1832 by Friedrich Wasmann; oil on paper mounted on cardboard, Hamburger Kunsthalle. You can find a larger image of it here).

I attack the ruse.

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(art from wikimedia)

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Nobody is attached
by Tomaž Šalamun

Nobody is attached. You too are not. You too
are undressed and warm, breathing like a

hare. We breathe slowly. I’m the thorn.
The thorn. I go into the goblet. I toss

the string. There’s a bucket on the string. It
splashes in the fountain. At the bottom of the fountain

there are does with big eyes. I limp, I eat kohlrabi,
point with a finger, and ask too much. Calm

yourself. It will come and vanish. You’ll be mute
and black and you will fall asleep on the shelf.

Combines will halve you. The shy ones
the rag opened the eyes to the timid ones.

No one loaded the duffle. The lamps along the path
were made of white plastic. I attack the ruse. I love.

*

I love this poem for its strange unconnectedness. Richard Hugo: “Connections are not stated, yet we know the statements are connected. They are connected because the same poet wrote all (of them). That is, they are products of one vision that, along with style, becomes the adhesive force. This adhesive force will be your way of writing. Assume the next thing belongs because you put it there.” From Hugo’s “Nuts and Bolts.”

I am almost mad when it ends up the lamps along the path are made of plastic. But then I see how it fits perfectly, waking us from the dream of the poem.

I’m not sure who translated this poem, but Šalamun translated his own work at least some of the time. I found this poem via the poet Gretchen Marquette, whose book May Day is fantastic. You should read it.

Happy New Year!

friday roundup: you do not need to leave your room edition

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Here is what the walls of my study look like these days. Thank you, critical thesis.

Dear Reader, I keep starting blog posts like this: I had not intended to be away quite so long. It is still true. I’m just trying to keep all the balls up in the air: my thesis work, my editorial work, motherhood, keeping people (reasonably) well-fed and the bathrooms (reasonably) clean. Laundry (insert deer-in-the-headlights look here). And lest we forget: the poems.

[Confession: I am really good about not forgetting the poems. They are always my first priority, and I work on them every day before doing anything else. This may be a character flaw, but it’s the character flaw that has saved my life.]

At any rate, I’m here to share a few things this cold, snowy Friday.

“to let the words write the words”  One thing I want to share is this amazing essay, “Bewilderment,” by Fanny Howe. I’d printed it off a few weeks ago and finally sat down to read it. First a little background: up until several months ago, my process for writing  a poem was to free-write whatever came into my head, often something off a line by another poet, and often, amidst writing, returning to that line, and then to shave the free-write down or  mix it up or do whatever I needed to do to it to make it a poem. Lately, though, my process has undergone a big (and often, for me, bewildering) shift: Words and lines arrive from I know not where. I write them down. More words and lines arrive. I write them down. And so on until (sometimes) a poem is made. I’ve been thinking of it as the LISTEN & DICTATE process of writing poetry, a phrase which I came across in this interview.

But in this essay, Howe writes a description of her writing process which better describes my own. I never would have been able to articulate it—which is why we need the rock star poets of the world: so they can tell us what we’re doing—but it is exactly how my poems have been arriving and making themselves. Howe writes:

First I receive the impression of a time period as an experience of pure language, glimpses of actions, emotions and weathers. I jot down whatever comes through—in a rush of words. Then I begin to see what is being said and to see it as it unfolds, as if from afar and sometimes I actually stand at a distance from the words that are there. Spotting word-associations and what their sounds suggest and prove about the “point” of this emergent poem forces me to remove my body from the action; to let the words write the words. Letting the lines cohere on their own volition is crucial. Literally it is like watching someone else take form in the dark and I am weirdly disassociated from the action, an observer, a voyeur, though all the objects in the room, and the body, are familiar, are even “mine.”

An experience of pure language. To let the words write the words. Yes, please.

the poem wanders away from the demonstration  Since the election, there have been many calls to many different kinds of action. On social media, in articles, and elsewhere, I’ve read several outright imperatives and a few gentle suggestions that our poems must now be political. That poetry that does not engage in the public sphere and advocate for change is a useless endeavor.

I disagree. I think the act of making art is, itself, political. Roethke: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” Lyn Hejinian: the poet must “undertake the preservation of otherness.”

I also think that poems are the very opposite of tools. Which is not to say that a poem can’t be political and can’t become a rallying cry for a movement—we know poems can do this—but it is the poems themselves that decide what they will be. It is the poem’s will, not our own.

This essay at Lithub by Matthew Zapruder expresses and explores these ideas better than I have here. In it Zapruder argues that poems are an unreliable vehicle for advocacy; that:

The poem is by its nature and design easily distracted. It wanders away from the demonstration, the committee meeting, the courtroom, toward the lake or that intriguing, mysterious light over there. What is that light? It looks like something, I’m not sure what, I’m sorry to leave this very important conversation but I have to know.

He also argues:

The role of poetry in our time of crisis is the same as always: to preserve our minds and language, so we may be strong for whatever is to come. And also, to preserve the possibility of mutual understanding, not by arguing for it, but by demonstrating it.

I guess what I’m saying here, to myself as much as to any of you, is: keep writing your poems. If they are political, so be it. If they are about a pair of socks a friend knit for you, so be it. If they are about the moss growing on the garden bench despite the snow, so be it.

and in a departure from our usual Friday programming  I am not going to share a poem today. Not because there aren’t one thousand poems I could share, but because these words from Franz Kafka seem to belong with the other words I’ve written here today. And because, in a way, they are a little poem in and of themselves:

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

I’m planning to try a little something new here moving forward. Which is: smaller, more frequent posts. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, I’m wishing you warmth, comfort, and poems, yours and others’.