Why and How I Write Poetry
On June 1 and 8 this year, I co-presented a two-part poetry workshop at the Eugene Public Library, as part of their Summer Series. I described the method of my madness about a couple of poems I’d written recently, and some of my Poet’s Toolbox techniques that helped me polish the poems. Let me know what you think, and any other tools you could share to help others. I finished this portion of the workshop with a very different poem — much lighter.
Inside My Head:
I see the world in images, flashes that bounce around in my head, the equivalent of “ear worms” – a brilliant term I read recently that describes snatches of songs that pop into consciousness and won’t let go – usually until shoved aside by a new ear worm.
I also feel the world viscerally. Words can choke me, make the hair on my arms stand up, surge through my gut like a gallon of bile, leave me speechless with tears – any number of physical, emotional, and/or mental reactions that sneak up to replay unexpectedly, any time, anywhere.
Words and images power my life, clutter my brain, and beg to be put to paper if I ever hope to understand and process them. I will share three poems, the first two described below. Poem #3 is a change-of-pace / true slice-of-life about the bossiest member of my family.
About these Poems:
In April, Annette Funicello, died. I watched the Mickey Mouse Club as a kid, but I had no fan connection to Annette, and read the first obits without any sense of loss of someone I’d miss.
I knew she had MS, but no clue about how completely her form of the disease devastated. Then I followed a link and watched a short clip showing what her life had been like, having lost most of her ability to even communicate. She resembled a sloppy rag-doll version of her former self.
After the clip was made, she went into a coma and was kept in that state for “several years”. I was haunted by the images, her extended coma, and why, ultimately, the plug was pulled. Two poems, Why No Mercy? and And The Answer Is …, are my attempt to make sense of it.
The Tool Box:
1. My CRITIQUE GROUPS said my images were confusing, when I shared my original poem; they didn’t know if I was talking about a person or an animal. Didn’t get the terrible core – how I was now aware of yet one more way we can die while being forced to keep breathing. After my revision and edits, I read them again to my Crit Groups to see if I’d fixed the problems.
2. I used a partial “LEAPFROG” or “LEAPING POETRY” effort with the poems, looked at each line, image, phrase; the sequence and flow; to dig deep for the truth of what I was trying to say. Sometimes I must write so I can excavate the words for the critical essence, figure out how the parts fit, and fashion bridges to connect what is known with what is missing. Sometimes the results have little in common with the original poem, except the heart.
(There are multiple approaches to Leaping Poetry – most bordering on deep surrealistic juxtapositioning of images, the conscious and unconscious minds, etc. The simpler one, my method, is to look inside each image and phrase, then “leap” to what it conjures up, to see if that’s closer to what I want to say. The new image or phrase replaces the previous one, thus “leaping” closer to my target.)
3. “…Mercy…” became a PERSONA poem, written from the narrator’s point of view, changed from third-person (outside) to first-person (inside the poem).
4. Where possible, I edited to present tense for a sense of immediacy.
5. These are PHOTO/ART poems, inspired by the video described above.
6. Both were written for PROMPTS (to write a Hunter poem and a Hunted poem) during the April 2013 Poem A Day (PAD) Challenge on Robert Brewer’s Poetic Asides. (Link below)
7. I REVISED for content, then EDITED to polish the poems.
8. I READ MY POEMS ALOUD several times before they reached the current version, to see how the words flowed (or didn’t), pacing, and “mouth feel”.
Revise and Conquer:
Revision is not a dirty word – it’s the first step to clarity. None of the tools in my arsenal could be used until the words were down on paper. Think of it as a Treasure Hunt; you gotta start your search somewhere. Take what you write today and explore where it wants to go.
I had to admit to myself that the poems clearly were not about Annette. Her life and death were merely the vehicle for an emotional overload of my inner, stinging terror at losing control of my life, unable to make my decisions or wants or needs known. Perhaps it’s a form of claustrophobia, fear of being locked into a tight space, unable to think or help myself, not knowing who holds the key, why I’m being held, or if I’ll ever be released.
So, as you read the poems, know that I’m sharing my own nightmare, and attempting to reason with my own psyche. The poems are still works in progress, delving deep into the whispered realms we seldom share.
1. A version of the video about Annette: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VbaLzo–ds
2. Robert Brewer’s Poetic Asides blog:
First Draft Opening Lines:
The Hunted: Why No Mercy?
Last night, in voyeur garb,
I saw the ravaged carcass
of what was once a beautiful creature
the image of wholesome grace . . .
(I include a reference to Oregonian Ken Keysey’s 1962 novel (and 1975 movie) One Flew Over The Cookoo’s Nest. The revised poems follow.)
Why No Mercy?
Last night, my gauzy,
sooty voyeur’s shroud
snagged, ruthlessly tangled,
caught on demon’s flypaper,
sucked into someone else’s life
a once beautiful creature,
the image of wholesome grace,
now a ravaged carcass
tortured, slowly, methodically,
hidden away allegedly with love,
but shown no mercy
Locked in a body no longer mine,
I rage in limbo, not dead, perhaps,
but surely not alive
How long did they keep me
in that madness?
— several years, I heard –
tethered to the eternal drip
of excruciating, painful optimism
For whom, I wonder. Who gained
as I wasted away
to less than nothingness?
Why NOW did they release me?
Why not before?
Ken Kesey had it right.
My Cookoo’s Nest needed a fly-by
many moons earlier, someone
to give me passage by pillow,
admit, like the Indian,
it wasn’t me any more.
May my memory be a blessing
and a warning, give pause.
This is not the dream,
the wish my heart made.
And The Answer Is …
‘Twas done for love
The chance we’d find
That bit of magic,
The only thing left,
To bring you back
Agony does not do justice to
our hopes dashed, crashed
repeatedly on the rocks
as we prayed to any deities
on call who would, could, respond
We conjured spirits
for a sign we’d been heard,
acknowledged by the cosmos,
… A single candle’s flicker …
Something, anything, to show
there is — or was — a reason
to believe in belief itself
If only we held on long enough,
prayed hard enough,
sacrificed whatever was required,
perhaps . . .
Finally we knew
No One was home,
wherever home was,
to take the call
Our only mercy
was to let you go.
Perhaps your molecules of pain
were all we had left
to pray with, be heard
not by Gods on high,
but creatures of the earth.
Michele M. Graf