Monday, February 17, 2020

Making a Poem

    I want to talk about writing poetry, which along with intimacy, is my most joyous activity. When the muse is with me, words and images flow and I happily surrender to her. When she is gone, on vacation, having an affair, I become bereft after a couple months, and feel somewhat empty. Years have taught me that I shouldn’t even try to write without her, it will come to nothing, and I don’t. Fortunately, my life has many riches.

For many years my poems were mostly mythological.  I wrote in the voice of many mythic women, from Mary and Mary Magdalene to baudy Baubo and the Japanese crane wife. I wrote about art and music and the experience of visiting sanctuaries in many countries. And then the plight of the earth and migrants and the work of nature took me over, and those are now my themes. And underlying it all, is connection. Among images, among ideas, among trees in the forest, and our common grounding. And beneath that is love.  
Connection  Photo by Allie Smith
    I worry that my poems are sometimes esoteric. I doubt that I reflect much of the collective, but I join many who have taken on similar themes in response to our times. I have choices in imagery and metaphor and structure, but I have no choice but to choose what has chosen me.

    Psycholinguist Dan Slobin has written about thinking for speaking and thinking for writing, and I have been talking to him about thinking for poetry. When I’m writing a poem the sounds of words are as important as meaning. Alliteration, my love of the repetition of vowel or consonants, takes precedence, and then there is rhythm, and meter and flow. Words come to me as sounds, which doesn’t happen writing prose or speaking. It’s rather magical. My desire is to create rivers in my poems, they flow far and fast, and through and past my meanings. Then they flow out into a sea, which is the spaciousness I hope to create with the poem’s ending. 

Place seems to have little effect on my poems. There I was in Costa Rica recently, in the midst of a tropical forest, writing about the Great Red Cedar Forest on Vancouver Island, because no place in nature has ever created such awe. The subject of the poem was the fungal connection between all the trees in the forest. I had heard of it, was enchanted, and read everything I could find. The muse insisted it become a poem.

The Great Fungal Network

    I never know how a poem is going to begin. Though 
I intended to open with the connection among trees in that first poem,  what came to me was “How she was the leader and told us kids to take one giant step  but we had to say mother may I or lose our turn and when I come years later to the Giant Red Cedar Forest I whisper mother may I.” Did I actually whisper that years ago when I went to the forest? No. But this time, when I revisited the forest in my imagination, that’s what I said immediately. The truth in the poem was not literal truth, but the intensity of what I imagined saying. I feel now what I didn’t feel when I hiked through the forest - my deep gratitude to mother earth.

Beginnings and endings. I don’t write in circles, the ending often has nothing to do with the beginning. There is a movement from image to image. One new poem begins with one million ibis buried in an Egyptian tomb, and ends with a melting glacier. That was my stream of thought. And the challenge is to create a link between ideas, so they appear to be a natural sequence. One strategy is to repeat certain phrases, or a single word like star, throughout the poem, or end with the phrases that begin the poem.

    It may take days of playing with what initially appeared, shifting stanzas, hunting through a thesaurus for synonyms, adding a new creature, finding out where they land. Other poems have a symmetrical connection. A new one, Homing, talks about the homing in of animals and people and missiles. Easier! Poetry is about intuitive problem solving without having to worry about the consequences, because choice yields choice, till finally there are no more choices that have to be made.

    When the poem feels done, I experience the deep pleasure of completion, but it’s the process that I love. What writing a poem gives me is total immersion and involvement, where the world melts away and I am in the absolute presence of my poem, inward, migrating between imagination and feeling and soul without any separation between them. And this is the gift that life has provided, and I call it life’s blessing.




1 comment:

  1. What a lovely insight into poetry-making and your way of doing it--now beautifully enhanced by the selection of images. The Great Fungal Network is such a moving evocation of that underground network, contrasting so well with the sea of Costa Rica and the real green of the rainforest. Total immersion -- that is what we strive for -- and love. How fortunate we are, and have been, to have lived repeatedly in those timeless moments.