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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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: weakness / strength

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. 

April 28: weakness / strength

Sometimes I think my poetry is weak.

It’s not a commentary on the unique 21st century conundrums of technology and privacy. It doesn’t always deal with cutting-edge social controversies or current events or social justice. Sometimes it does. Sometimes my identity is relevant to the poem. But sometimes I write about waiting for someone to come home, or wanting someone to change; about being alone, about love, about seeing myself in nature. Sometimes I write about vulnerability and grief.

A while ago, I was talking to a friend about getting published. Kind of cool, I thought, to get recognized when all I do is write little love poems.

He stopped me in my tracks. “What could be more important than little love poems?”

 

I have to say I agree. We live in a world where too often simple humanity is seen as weakness, where kindness is seen as an absence of strength rather than an absence of tyranny, where talking about feelings is less important than talking numbers. I want so much to be in a world free of this toxic masculinity, but I still feel doubt that my softness is valuable.

This worry over weakness and strength is found in Elaine Equi’s poem, “Lazy Bones,” recently published in American Poetry Review:

Lazy Bones

Sitting in the waiting room
sucking on the sweet paranoia
of a Shirley Jackson story.

Sitting among silk tulips
and paper roses,

the frosted glass panels
and pale pink walls
of the radiology center.

Then led to a dark cubicle
(politely pornographic?)
for the imaging of my skeleton.

Dave, the tattooed technician
slips a pillow under my knees.

I want to tell him,
“My bones are shy.

I don’t exercise.
I love coffee.

They know they’re weak
and don’t like being photographed.”

 

I was intrigued by the word “weak”, and by the speaker’s advocacy for her bones. She identifies her bones as ‘shy’ as if they are actually humans who don’t like being photographed. The reason given: “they know they’re weak.” The speaker wishes to express this sentiment to Dave, the technician, who is in the position of looking at her (and her bones) and potentially judging them. To stave off the embarrassment of being seen, she wishes to reassure him that she already knows her weaknesses. It’s the same phenomenon of getting up in front of a class to perform a speech and apologizing first: “I know this isn’t very good, but it’s the best I can do.” But the bones do not speak in first person; the speaker wishes to speak on their behalf: “They know they’re weak” (emphasis added). This shows that she feels responsible for their weakness, as we can see from the lines that immediately precede this one: “I don’t exercise / I love coffee.” Here, the speaker is criticizing the actions in her life that have made her bones weak, and therefore critiquing her own character weaknesses as she notices her physical ones.

But she also uses the poem to establish sympathy. Weakness seems allied to softness, gentleness, in the feminine, gentile setting of the waiting room. And she is, after all, here to seek medical help, an act of bravery in my opinion. he speaker must admit that she is weaker than she would like to be, weaker than a healthy person should be, but why should she apologize for that?

This poem seems to suggest that we all have moments when we are weak– we are not always at our peak condition. Sometimes it is because of injury or disease, sometimes because of emotional distress. We also may have moments when we are seen as weak because of our identities, our ages, our gender, our class. We may find embarrassment or judgement in those moments, and may try to avoid it by apologizing or self-deprecating. Instead, we should sympathize with ourselves. It is okay to be soft and vulnerable, and when we feel tired and weak, we should accept the kindness of a pillow gently slid underneath our knees.

Writing about this weakness, these moments of humanity and need, is the role my poetry seems to be serving in my life right now, and in doing so, I think it is making me stronger.

 

Sunday Poetry: short poems

Back from a short hiatus, Sunday Poetry is a new series 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. 

April 21: short poems

A student recently talked to me about poetry (first– can I take a moment to think about how amazing it is that teenagers talk to me about how poetry works? And that another student sent me an email with the subject “A poem I wrote but don’t want you to share with anyone”? This life of mine is a treasure).

Okay, back to the question at hand– she was wondering how to write or what to write about now that she’s doing well and she’s in a supportive, healthy relationship. How do we write about joy? She identified that it requires a shift of mindset, and maybe a different way of writing altogether.

This reminded me of The Secret Sisters Tiny Desk Concert in which the sisters mention that now that they’re married and happily settled, they don’t know what to write about anymore.

And I’ve been in this place too. When everything seems fine, there’s nothing too interesting to write about. There’s no pain that needs to be expunged. So, no new poems?

The great thing about poetry (one little great among many many) is that it can be used to notice the smallest moments and not to reflect the overall trajectory or mood of a life. That’s where short poems come in. There are still interesting tensions and contradictions within joy and peace. Here’s one of mine:

how can love happen any other way
but quickly
majestically
like a fast otter surfacing joyfully midstream
twitching its whiskers
shaking water freely
about to dive deep in its search for clams?

I originally wrote a second stanza, about springtime and being in love, but it felt canned. And I’m still toying with the question mark. Is the poem compact enough to viably be one sentence?

So to answer my student – our poetry changes when our lives shift in new directions. Most of my poems until quite recently, have been in the same length range, but I’m trying my hand at shorter poems and longer poem sequences. Maybe this is because I write more regularly, and am more willing to revisit poems. That first length range feels comfortable because it is the stretch of time I need to get something important out. Poetry seems less urgent now, because I can trust that it will be there whenever I need it.

Our poetry may change, but it is still ours.

Sunday Poetry: astronomy

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. 

March 31: astronomy

One of my dearest students has a small obsession with astrology and horoscopes, and she helped me look at my natal chart. I’m an aquarius, but with rising scorpio / saggitarius signs. And apparently my moon is in Virgo? (this seemed like such a chump sign to me– didn’t agree with me at all). And then there’s a lot of dominant Mars rumblings going on. I’m not sure how they’re all connected or what they all mean, but I’m a little fascinated by the idea of seeking signs to tell us who we are. How often do we look outside ourselves for the answers of who we should be? Do we have a way to compare this outside signifying with the urges and signs of our internal selves?

Right in the wake of editing a poem of my own that’s now called “Astronomy,” I ran into this gem in American Poetry Review (Nov/Dec ’18). I’m really intrigued first by the suggestion of two moons and two loves, and then by the lingering temptation that the speaker feels to take tenderness or buy it or take advantage of it. She reminds herself that “tenderness is not for sale,” yet it calls to her. Tenderness and love has called to me so many times. I feel that.

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My own poem starts, “something is violet / in the way you look at me” which at first seemed to be a happy desire. Violet is beautiful and soft, and the speaker can see that in the gaze of her lover. But then, that violet distance becomes astronomical distance, as the speaker looks at the sky above an ocean and wishes that the stars and her lover could come close to her.

How often do you look up at the stars and moon? What do you feel or think when you do?

Another snippet from one of my poems:

I wonder if he knows I started
writing moon poetry because of him,
and that I’ve outgrown that weak light;
I am a sun and sky creature now.

Dear reader, what’s your sign? What kind of creature are you?