Aspiring Author March Blog Post: Practicing Poetry: Walking and Noticing

I’m reposting some of my original writing from  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!

 

“You’re a poet now!” cries my friend upon hearing of only my second poetry acceptance, and I cringe. I shirk this phrase for two opposite reasons: first, because introducing myself as a poet somehow feels pretentious, as if I am putting on airs of laureates and Keats and the Brownings. How can I claim such a title in a field that demands more learning from me every day, that has many hills but no apex?

My students and I joke that I’m not quite a poet yet, but I am a “poetry professional.” I teach a poetry class at our high school and I tell students they can always come to me with their questions because in this room, in this cafeteria, I am the poetry expert. But it’s all relative.

The other reason I don’t like that phrase is the word “now.” Publication hasn’t suddenly made me a poet, my soul has. There’s something inherent to me that makes me see the world a different way, a way that is sometimes more painful and more sensitive. My emotionality has led me to choose to live my life awake to beauty and open to receiving. Words come easy to me, phrases like “the consolation of friendship” and “a lover of peonies” float around in the air around me and become poem titles. And then I choose to fill those poems with things I see and touch, and write them down.

And what’s actually incredible about this is that I’m not special. I make no pretense that these qualities are unique to me; I think that all of us are capable of great emotional depth, specific visions, or perfectly curated words. I tell my students that each one of them can and will write poetry in my class. And I believe it! But to be “poets” in how we see the world, we have to make the choice to walk through the world a certain way, and most people don’t. Most people, most of the time, hurry. Most people graze the surface.
It takes practice, I have learned, to develop the habit of slowing down and noticing the particulars of the world. You can do this sitting at your desk and looking out the window, or closing your eyes as you sip your tea. You can notice snippets of conversation or the way a storm billows. Or, as I find it particularly fruitful, you can walk.

I am lucky enough to live in a particularly beautiful neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. These days I can’t get enough of the idea that spring is coming. It hasn’t been a harsh winter, but it’s been long, and I’m so ready to move on to the next thing. I find myself walking more often in the afternoons after school, since the sun is out longer and the weather, while still chilly, is refreshing instead of achingly cold. I’m looking eagerly for signs of spring, searching for the buds on the trees, the first brave purple crocuses, the fat robins perching everywhere.

No matter what images or ideas I find, I collect them and use them to populate my writing. I’ve heard this concept called a “magpie essay” in various places, and I like the name though I didn’t create it. We are collectors of shiny, pretty things, aren’t we? Things we like to fiddle with or remember.

I’ve now written a couple of magpie poems, in which I catalogue things I have noticed and try to draw some connections between them. Here’s a list of things I’ve noticed that fit into one poem:

the twisting of a sprouting weed
the thorns on a tree
eggshells
blue flowers
snails
February buds
oval leaves of an ash
butterflies
fences with gaps
telephone poles covered in staples from flyers
a coy baby rabbit
a spider weaving her web
a garden

How do the things we notice come together into a poem?

As I write these posts on poetry and nonfiction writing each month, I hope to include a practical exercise or idea for you to try. One of the first lessons I taught to my poetry class this year was the “I saw” poem. Write down “I saw” on 3 lines in a notebook. Then fill them in with whatever you can gather.

“I saw” is different than “I see” because you can’t just look around for the answers. You have to remember what you saw, which means you must choose, somewhere in your brain what you want to include in the record of your sight. Then you may ask yourself, “why did I remember this?” and as you start to choose how all the shiny things collide, you begin to make a poem.

Here’s the latest one I’ve written:

I saw a tree tied with a bandage
I saw a tumult of bricks around it.

I saw a broken sidewalk that urges slower walking, no tripping,
a forgiveness for imperfection

 

Poetry is the art of noticing. Isn’t that the thing we most desire sometimes? To be noticed and known. To feel the eyes on us that value and adorn, rather than strip and smirk. Could we not grant this gift to the people around us and to the world?

 

Thanks for reading! My next post on The Aspiring Author Blog will be September 26th. 

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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

 

the medicine of silence — Robin K. Crigler

Reblogging this beauty from my friend Robin Crigler. Best essay I’ve read in a while (and it’s my business to read essays).

—i— you are here for not twelve hours and you say “i want to write a book about silence”: this is not appropriate, it’s not in the spirit. 2,487 more words

via the medicine of silence — Robin K. Crigler