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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Friday Reading Rainbow

Magic, Mystery, and Enchantment

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You know when you find a novel that just fills your heart and your head at the same time, so much so that you’re thinking about the mysteries it holds even when you’re not reading it? You can’t wait to get back to it, but you also want to stretch it out so it never ends? I found that in Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield.

A brief synopsis: On the night of the winter solstice in 1887, an injured man and a dead little girl arrive at The Swan, a riverside inn on the Thames. As Rita, the plucky nurse, treats the man, the girl is laid up in the cold room. The Swan, famous for its storytelling, gets a surprise later that evening when the girl – soaked to the bone and barely breathing, suddenly opens her eyes – and comes back to life.

The events of this night spread out (like the tributaries of the river, according to Setterfield’s clever chapter divisions). Three different families claim (or attempt to claim) the girl as their own, but no one is really sure of the truth. Was she dead or only mostly dead? Will she speak again, and tell everyone who she is? Who had an interest in finding her or losing her?

The book is full of lovely characters, people you actually wish you knew, and their backstories are freely told (the whole idea centers around storytelling and folktale). Woven with the realities of family, love, and longing  is an air of magic and superstition, including the belief the riverfolk hold in Quietly, the ferryman who takes you “across the river” when it’s your time to go, and saves you if you have more to do in life. Along with this retelling of Chyron and the river Styx, fairy tale references abound. It’s an enchanting read, and I’m looking forward to seeing the mysteries resolve themselves (or not!)

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———

 I decided to dedicate this Friday’s post on what I’m reading to magic, mystery, and enchantment. I used to read lots of fantasy when I was a kid, and though I haven’t really invested my reading into adult fantasy, I really enjoy things that have a touch of magical realism or mythology. There are books that just feel special and immerse you in a different world, and they can be inspiring. Some of my favorite magical books from my childhood and young adulthood include: Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy, Half-Magic by Edward Eager, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Redwall books, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, The Harry Potter series (obviously. I’m a millennial), and so many more.

Here are some places I’m finding magic these days:

Poetry

So much poetry verges on magic, because poetry takes words and makes them new. Here’s one of my recent favorites: ““Trees and What They Whisper,”  by Lynette Mejia.

 

Film / TV

I’m so pleased that Outlander is on Netflix and I don’t have to pay extra for it. The show is based on a time-traveling nurse from 1945 who finds herself in 18th Century Scotland, and it provides steamy romance and drama. Excellent escapism.

This week I went to the theatre to see All is Well, a Kenneth Branagh-directed film about the end of Shakespeare’s life. If you’re well-versed in the bard’s work (pun intended), you’ll enjoy this homage. Branagh’s directing is just gorgeous…. this is a slow, quiet, atmospheric movie. There were so many moments that stood out to me, but I’ll share one. When Shakespeare returns home to Stratford, he decides to create a memorial garden for his son, Hamnet. For the first third or so of the movie, he toils alone in the garden, and nothing really grows for him. But as he reconnects with the people in his family and community, they start helping him in the garden, and it is then that he finds success. There are some happier moments, but on the whole, this is a sad, sad movie. Use caution.

 

Next novels on my reading list

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Though these are very different from Once Upon a River, I’m hoping to extend my sense of expansive magic by reading them. Both have a sort of mythological largeness to them, I think. Everything Under is supposed to be an Oedipus retake? I’m troubled but intrigued.  If you have other recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Have a great reading week, everyone!

I am an affiliate with IndieBound, and if you choose to purchase the books I mention by clicking on the book covers, I may earn a teeny tiny commission, at no additional cost to you 🙂

Sunday Poetry: walking in a field

I am continuing my series of Sunday poetry posts this summer. Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

Sunday Poetry: June 9

My poetry so often starts with what I’m doing, what I can see, what I’m hearing. I almost always think of first lines first, and then the rest of the poem happens from there. It’s brilliant that other poets also start with what is being in the moment, what is doing right now.

Here is an excerpt from Oliver Baez Bendorf:

Here I Am Walking in a Field

again, I think, while walking

in a field. Field thick with
snow, field of milk.

You can read the full poem by buying the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of  American Poetry Review.

 

It shows that what we do has value, even if it’s a little thing. I might write about waiting for my coffee to brew, or sitting at an outdoor cafe, or sweeping my floor, or a spiderweb on my balcony. Poetry, more than any other form of writing, has the capacity to be in the present (and to keep us there).

Aspiring Author May Blog Post: Poetry: To Whom Do You Write?

“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver

The oft-quoted Mary Oliver poem, “Summer Day” is usually reduced to the last two lines and seen as a call to action. What interests me is that the rest of the poem doesn’t say “you” at all – it’s about the speaker, “I”, and then at the very end switches to the reader. It turns the meditation on us, and asks us to choose, because life is short.

Sometimes poems reach out and grab you by the throat. They shake you awake; they run a soft hand over the goosebumps you are wearing. They, speak to you — yes, you — I’m talkin’ ta YOU.

But do the writers of these poems know us? Could they even imagine us? What if we didn’t exist at the time of their writing? What if we are very small and they are very big and important?

I find that poems come more easily when I address them to someone. Recently, I’ve written to a future son, the graduating seniors I teach, a long-distance friend of mine who could be more than a friend, another future child but not necessarily a son, and a mystery, beloved “you.” All of these poems have a special flavor based on their object, a certain language of feeling. At least they do to me. I wonder: will readers still relate to them if the “you” is too specific?

And why am I so drawn to this way in the first place? It probably would not be possible to write these poems with these specific colors without the element of “you,” but I’m not sure why.

Sometimes poetry can be a way of saying what we cannot say to someone. Because he would hurt us, because she wouldn’t listen, because they are not born yet. Or it can be a way of imagining conversations that are foreign to us, scary, uncertain, exciting.

If you’ve never written a poem to someone before, I recommend trying it. Here are some ways to start:

1) Write an Ode

The day we write odes in my high school poetry class is a fun one — we read dreamy Harlem Renaissance odes like “To a Dark Girl” by Gwendolyn Bennett or strident ones like Countee Cullen’s “Atlantic City Waiter.” Then the kids and I have to write our own odes. We get to choose any object – a person, thing or idea, and write a poem praising it or describing it. I wrote to a dear teacher friend of mine, describing her crinkled curls and her too-loud laugh, which I love. My students chose a wide variety of beloved “you”s: her mom, her boyfriend’s red sweatshirt that she always steals, the 4×4 at Wendy’s late at night, his dog Blitz, and “an Ode-a to Yoda.”

When you write your ode, think about starting each line with “you” or “your”; this jump starts your ability to describe the person as you extol their virtues.

 

2) Write a message in a bottle

This exercise yielded some interesting results when we tried it in class. Many students wrote as if they were stranded on an island and just wanted someone to know – not even to be rescued but to be remembered. And some, oddly, wrote to a person stranded on an island. “If you are lost, don’t panic! Just send a message back in this bottle, and someone might find it and send help.” I loved this hopeful vision.

I decided to go more abstract, writing to an unknown and far away “you” about whom something could still be known. So I will end this post with the poem I wrote that day, which is a tribute and a love song to the graduating seniors of my school.

 

A Message in a Bottle

Oh greetings to you in your wide world
on your coastline laced with brambles
and sage grouse and sandbrush.
What does your wide world look like today?
Are the skies lined with orange and sea salt?
Are the hands you carry still free?

What will you give yourself to sail,
what craft will embark today with you at the helm?
In every possible light you are fated
to venture so far you follow the stars.
In every decade you’ll sink in the sea
so far down the coral is sun.

But what does your wide world tell you today?
Does it whisper or shout or sing?
How will you answer
as you look at the waves?
Speak welcome — then throw the bottle back.

 

Sunday Poetry: A feminist Mother’s Day

Sunday poetry is a new series beginning this Spring! Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

Sunday Poetry: May 11

One of the things I detest most about Mother’s Day (TRUST ME, THERE ARE A LOT) are the facebook posts thanking moms for their sacrifice. My friends praise their moms and think about “all the things they gave up” to make our lives better. Some recognize that they “never wanted for anything,” implying that financial stability is one of the greatest gifts a parents can give. I’ve had a friend assert that one of his reasons for not having children was that he did not feel confident he could make enough money to pay for a child’s entire college education without any loans. It was better not to have children at all than to fail in this essential role.

Inherent in these Mother’s Day posts, to me, is an assumption that a mother’s identity is the sum of her children. Pictures of moms at their daughters’ wedding, or at college graduations not their own. It seems that what we expect from our parents is to sublimate or refuse their own lives and dreams in order to do it all on our behalf.

Isn’t it enough that our parents love us? Can’t we thank them for trying to give us a good life by being themselves, by being role models and teaching us that success isn’t measurable in dollars? Why do we demand their sacrifice?

I tried to write about sacrifice and what other versions of motherhood could be. This isn’t by any means a finished poem, but it’s my attempt to make some sense of the anger I feel and retain some hope that I could be a different kind of mom.

 

i.

how much blood is lost in birth
how much blood in nonbirth
what sacrifice do mothers make enough
to be counted as selfless
as if generating life takes away our selves
steals our bodies
crime of gift to take our minds and our lives

what if motherhood isn’t an altar
or a hospital issuing of what was once mine
not a battle, not a loss
not a taming of the spirit to be always hunched
but rather a transmission to other worlds, other minds
a melding
an embodying

ii.

giving up the self
should only be praised
when it is a lifting of hands to sky
to welcome rainwater in cupped hands.


iii.

what if motherhood is the mama I saw
hastening down the sidewalk
after her toddler practicing walking? 
with every excited step she cautioned
“don’t run, baby, don’t run.”
“there’s lots of cracks, don’t go too fast.”
“just take it easy.”

 

 

There are so many versions and reasons of motherhood, many of which are difficult and dark and sad. I hope that whatever motherhood means to you, you’re doing okay today.