Aspiring Author August Blog Post: Associative Thinking in Poetry

My original post is up at The Aspiring Author Blog, where I’m a regular contributor. My fellow bloggers post about writing in their respective genres. If you’re looking for fun writing advice, check it out!

I start writing this as I am about to make dinner for the first time for my new boyfriend. Baked salmon, mushroom fettucine, asparagus with lemon pepper and dill, fresh Italian bread. I suppose I wouldn’t be a woman of my generation if this evening’s act didn’t make me think about being a woman, about whether I am too eager to fill this role, about whether being in a position of service changes something about our relationship in a way I don’t want. Am I happy and excited because I am the girl cooking for her boyfriend, or because I am a person who loves doing nice things for others? Is domesticity a fair extension of my femininity, or is it an expression of something different and more sinister?

Untitled design.pngSo I set myself to think about femininity and how I express it when I go to get a massage today. The room smells like eucalyptus and lavender, and it is warm with neutral, earthy colors. This is a gentle place and I feel relaxed. I muse on last night’s dinner, which was wonderful, and how my boyfriend thanked me, careful to show me that he didn’t expect me to do this domestic work for him, but that he appreciated it. I think he was careful because he understands the history of women cooking for men, and I wonder if he thanks his mom when she makes dinner.

 

My massage begins. I ask myself if femininity is what allows me to take care of my body, as so many other things I do– brushing my hair, shaving my legs, moisturizing my skin — seem gendered and connected both to beauty and to feeling confident. But men take care of their bodies, too, or should, in this Queer Eye era, and I wonder if masculinity is what allows men to take care of their bodies, not toxic masculinity but the good and true kind– the pride and striving that makes men feel they are achieving their purpose.
I start to muse on touch – if receiving touch is part of this file folder of feminist traits I am amassing, is giving touch then masculine? (I think callously while my female masseuse works on my back.) Is femininity receptive? Are men grasping? Is there strength in resisting its grasp?
Look, I’m not sure that I have any of the answers to gender and what it means to me, but this episode of looking into my head is to show you how associative thinking works for poets. Does your mind more closely resemble an ice cube tray or a spiderweb covered in dew? As far as I know, most poets’ brains are the latter. Thoughts like droplets are all connected by threads, and what a poem does is tap the web gently so all the droplets slide toward the middle or the bottom. You’ve got to make them intersect.

When I’m writing poetry, I’m fascinated by the ways images surface by surprise. Sometimes I can articulate the exact train of thought that brought me from the beginning of the poem to the end, and sometimes I’m not sure how stuff got there, but I’m sure it fits. I start with asteroids and end with snowdrops. In a poem I just wrote the other day, my first line sets up a comparison between scars and live animals, then between myself and the trash cans through which the animals are rummaging. I think this means that my scars are causing some unrest; they’re not really in the past. But if I am like a trash can, then I must be full of both trash and treasure. I’m not really sure I’m comfortable calling my actual self a trash can, but I’m intrigued by a character looking at her scars to attempt to decipher how good or bad she is. So I allow the speaker of the poem to diverge more from myself, and then thinking about scars leads me to tattoos and what marks us. I think it’s a really interesting poem, and it just took curiosity.

This is to say: I don’t think that associative thinking is a blessing from on high; I think it’s something that can be practiced.

One practice that helped me a lot with this type of generative, idea-rich thinking is yoga. Meditation and yoga practices encourage a non-judgemental way of looking at the self and its experiences. Gradually, I’ve been learning to welcome whatever thoughts come to me, and if they’re negative or doubtful or sad about my body hurting, I can see them and send them on their way. But if they’re intriguing, I just stick them up on the rocks on the riverbank and let things swirl around them to see where they connect.

I wonder if you’ve done this kind of thing when you’re in the shower, maybe washing the dishes, waiting in line, even driving? I think these daily, low-risk, semi-automatic activities allow for free associative thought, like walking does. Once you get in the habit, a blank page in a notebook sets that same motion going,

It takes some practice to turn these wanderings into interesting, poignant, or powerful poems. Sometimes I wander through a poem only to look back and think the connections are too obvious, or the images too random, not aesthetically harmonic. But if you’re wondering why your poetry seems basic, or stays at the same emotional pitch throughout, or lacks surprise, you might want to try letting your mind wander a little farther than you think it’s supposed to.

 

Here are some tricks I use to practice associative thinking:

1. Write a list of 10 objects, images, and actions that you associate with a certain age. Cross of the 2 or 3 most obvious ones. Now, use the remaining images to write a poem about someone that age without saying directly what age it is. For an added challenge, write about the person doing something that people of that age don’t normally do.

2. Look around you and choose a color you can see (it helps to visualize if you can currently see the color). Then make lists of things that relate to that color. There are a lot of types of connection you can find other than objects that are literally that color. What kind of feelings come up as you make this list? Go explore those.

3. Try association through opposites. Begin a poem with this line: “Because I can’t _____, I ______.” Fill in the blanks with verbs. For the next line, keep the phrase in front of the comma the same, but change the ending. You might keep it this way for a few lines, then try a different word in the first blank and see how that changes your options for the second. This is best done fast so you can see what conclusions your mind jumps to.

 

Exercises 2 and 3 are adapted from prompts I received from my teacher Christopher Citro at the Kettle Pond Writers’ Workshop. You should check out his work and his teaching: christophercitro.com

 

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Seeds of a Garden: a novice tries raising plants

I don’t profess to be any sort of expert when it comes to gardening or caring for houseplants. If we were to add up all the plants I have successfully cared for in my adult life before moving into this apartment, the total would be: one. A cactus, named Spike, whose care I took over for a while from a friend and then gave to another friend. I forgot to water him most of the time. He did not die.

But since moving into my apartment in July of last year, I’ve become interested in caring for plants. It brightens my home quite a bit to have little green guys on all the windowsills, and it’s an opportunity for me to learn. There’s great joy (and sometimes great frustration) in admitting that one is a beginner and trying to learn from there.

🌱

 

Today I’m learning about….. cyclamen!

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I bought little Venetia here from Trader Joe’s several weeks ago, not knowing what she was. I believe I described her as “some funky kinda orchid thing” to a friend.  At that point she had beautiful white flowers.  I set her on my nightstand, with occasional trips to the windowsill for extra sun, and watered occasionally. She did pretty well for a while! 

Cyclamen have beautiful flowers; they kind of look like they’re upside down, or like a butterfly is pretending to be a flower, or like a deconstructed post-modern tulip. They come in many colors, but mine is white.

cyclamen
Photo copyright Royal Horticultural Society 1996: RHS

 

So Venetia bloomed for maybe a month. Then the flowers started falling off, and the stems started drooping, and the leaves got wilty and then crunched. Sad!

What I know now, but didn’t know then, is that this means the plant is not dying, but instead going into dormancy. Cyclamen come from the mediterranean, where winters are mild and moist and summers are dryer. When summer comes along, it’s natural for the flowers to die, the leaves to wither, and new growth to stop.

Cyclamen flowers grow from a tuber, which is a great crossword puzzle word that you rarely get to use in real life. Like a bulb, a tuber sits underground for an extended period of time before stimulating growth. Once I learned this, I went to look at my plant (murmuring tuber, tuber, tubey-tuber under my breath) and sure enough, there’s a little mound sticking up slightly out of the soil. It almost looks like the top of a mushroom and it’s firm to the touch.

This presents an exciting challenge for the beginning gardener. If I play my cards right, I could have a perennially blooming plant. AND the cyclamen’s growth period is opposite of most of the other plants around, so as the days are getting darker and cooling off, my beautiful flowers should come back into the limelight.

Here’s what I have to do next.

Cyclamen Care After Blooming

After a cyclamen blooms, it will go into a dormant state. Going into a dormant state looks very much like the plant is dying, as the leaves will turn yellow and fall off. It isn’t dead, just sleeping. With proper cyclamen plant care, you can help it through its dormancy and it will rebloom in a few months. (Please note that hardy cyclamen planted outdoors will go through this process naturally and do not need extra care to rebloom.) When taking care of a cyclamen after blooming, allow the leaves to die and stop watering the plant once you see the signs that the leaves are dying. Place the plant in a cool, somewhat dark place. You can remove any dead foliage, if you would like. Let sit for two months.

Taking Care of a Cyclamen to Get it to Rebloom

Once a cyclamen has finished its dormant period, you can start to water it again and bring it out of storage. You may see some leaf growth, and this is okay. Make sure to completely soak the soil. You may want to set the pot in a tub of water for an hour or so, then make sure any excess water drains away. Check the cyclamen tuber and make sure that the tuber has not outgrown the pot. If the tuber seems crowded, repot the cyclamen to a larger pot. Once the leaves start to grow, resume normal cyclamen care and the plant should rebloom shortly.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Cyclamen Plant Care – Tips For Taking Care Of A Cyclamen https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/houseplants/cyclamen/cyclamen-care.htm

 

I flubbed this process a little already, because when the leaves had mostly died off, I successfully revived it by adding more water rather than letting it go dormant. So I’m cutting you off, Venetia! No more water for you, you little spendthrift! You are banished to the bureau, where it will stay relatively cool and dim.

I’m not sure how successful this will be – first because I didn’t go right to dormancy but have had a second growth period (look how healthy these leaves look! As a side note, I love the heart shape of the leaves.). And secondly because my house does not stay very cool in the summer. With no central air, even in New England, we get some pretty warm days. But it will be a good experiment.

On a less practical note, I’m touched by the idea of a plant that sleeps all summer and reawakens in the winter. When stillness and heavy cold set in, my mediterranean Venetia will be abloom. All the world around me scorns winter, it seems, and wants heat and sun. I’m the opposite – heat makes me grumpy and summer days are too long to fill with creativity and productive thought. But I’ve always found myself re-energized when autumn arrives, filled with new purpose and excitement for chilly days and snow. I am putting every effort into embracing summer, but I’m pleased that when the cooler days come, and I start feeling that fall sparkle, it’ll be time to flood Venetia’s soil with water and say “wake up!” so we can both get ready to bloom.

Most of the information in this article came from the article cited above, as well as these videos: Caring for Cyclamen and Cyclamen Care Basics Step by Step.