Process parallels

The weather warmed and got windy, and that bodes reasonably well for garden prepping even if the last frost date is still almost a month away. I got digging, sowed more spinach and carrots, cheered on the lettuce sprouts, and–with some help from Best Beloved–pried most of the winter weeds out of the veg patch and set up a raised bed or two.

While I was out there pulling creeping charlie and clover and reviewing my garden plan for this year, it occurred to me that my process in gardening parallels my process in writing. My approach to each has similarities, probably due to my temperament though perhaps due to the way I go about problem solving. The process is part habituation or practice and part experiment, with failure posing challenges I investigate with inquiry, curiosity–rather than ongoing frustration. And sometimes, I just give up and move on without a need to succeed for the sake of winning.

I have no need to develop a new variety of green bean nor to nurture the prize-winning cucumber or dahlia. My yard looks more lived-in than landscaped; on occasion, we’ve managed to really spruce the place up, but it never stays that way for long. I admire gorgeous, showy gardens but am just as happy to have to crawl under a tree to find spring beauties, mayapples, efts, rabbit nests, mushrooms. My perennials and my veg patch grow from years of experimentation: half-price columbines that looked as though they might never recover, clumps of irises from friends’ gardens, heirloom varieties I start from seed. The failures are many, but I learn from them. Mostly I learn what won’t grow here without special tending I haven’t energy to expend, or I learn which things deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and squirrels eat and decide how or whether to balance my yearning for food or flora with the creatures that live here and the weather I can’t control. There are a few things I’ve learned to grow reliably and with confidence–ah, the standbys! But the others are so interesting, I keep trying.

Writing poems? Kind of similar. After so many years of working on free-verse lyrical narrative, I feel confident in my control of those poems and can usually tell when they’re not operating the way I want them to. Then I wait and revise and rethink, but there’s a familiarity to the process. Whereas I am far less confident with sonnets–nonetheless, sometimes a poem really works best in a form like that. So I know I have to expend more energy on it. Other times I find myself needing to experiment. I try mimicking another poem, tearing apart my line breaks, or revising in a form I barely know. I play with puns or alliteration, alter punctuation to stir up the rhythm or surprise the reader (or myself). Breaking my habitual approach to starting or revising a poem leads to curious results, sometimes intriguing ones.

But, like my garden ambitions, my writing ambitions exist more as a means to learn and experiment. I do not set out to produce the decade’s best poem or to develop a unique style or form that academics will admire and study. (I just made myself chuckle.) Heck, most of my work has not yet seen print–and with good reason. Not every rose is an RHS Garden Merit award winner.

For now, here’s a poem I wrote over a decade ago, one that will be appearing in a forthcoming chapbook. More on that when I know more myself.

~

STILL LIFE WITH WOMAN

Loose sleeve envelopes her brown hand
which rests upon an apple or a secret 
cupped beneath; only the stem shows,
fruit’s oblate body intimated by
the solidity of her skin against
the table’s plane.
This is a moment undiscovered,
a painting by Vermeer—
blue, white, quince-yellow, poised—
her palpably-dimpled wrist sloping
toward the precise, thumbnail shadows of
her relaxed fingers. We know
blood imperceptibly alters the shape of her veins
every second her heart beats, we know her womb
continues its cyclical pulse, that she inhales
and exhales, a living form, yet—
still: an inclination of the white, loose sleeve,
half an eye open, she covers some promise.
This is only one second before
surprise or boredom, a miniature:
one of those moments we find ourselves
in parity with every other thing,
equal in being to quince, fan, mirror,
that pitcher of water on the sideboard,
that window, full of light.

~

Revision practice

It is National Poetry Month again, and this year, in recognition of the celebration, I have started a practice to experiment with, just out of curiosity and to give myself a nudge. Many of my poetry colleagues invest a month in writing a poem a day or reading a poetry book each week or posting a poem daily on their social media platforms. It’s important to remind ourselves why we treasure and delight in poetry.

I chose a simple project that requires frequent re-imagining/re-imaging. For my starting point, I picked a poem at random from a collection of Fernando Pessoa’s work. I copied the poem, by hand, into my journal and re-read it a few times. Then I turned the page and rewrote it, “revising” it in the way I might revise a poem of my own. My plan is to repeat this process after a day or so, each time revising from the most recent version. In a short time, the poem will have moved away from being Pessoa’s piece–perhaps bearing little to no resemblance to the original…a sort of whisper-down-the-lane approach. The intention is to consciously alter image and voice in each re-imagining of the draft, though I’m not sure how well I can hew to my intentions. We shall see.

from City Lights Books.

Why I decided on Pessoa for this project, I don’t really know; but I think there’s something perfect about using one of his pieces as springboard. Because Pessoa was kind of a springboard for himself–he created several writer-selves who wrote poems and critical prose: heteronyms, he termed them. The poem I used was “by” his persona named Ricardo Reis. Adam Kirsch wrote a good introduction to Pessoa’s peculiar obsession with being a non-person in a 2017 New Yorker article. By revising something by Pessoa in my own voice and through my own images, perhaps I nurture his pursuit of dissolving the self.

It occurs to me now that the poems of several contemporary writers may have induced me to try this writing prompt, most recently Daisy Fried in The Year the City Emptied (which I highly recommend). Her collection consists of “loose translations” of Baudelaire, reimagined in Philadelphia during the covid outbreak while her husband was dying. It’s not a cheerful read–but then, neither is Baudelaire–nevertheless, the resulting poems are powerful and vividly interesting.

So, back to my little project for April: I figure this need not be a daily practice, though I have managed to get to revision three by now–so it is moving apace. The deepest challenge is not the revision, as I enjoy revising and wish I had more time and energy for it. The challenge is just that: time and energy! As the semester sidles past mid-terms into the final stretch, I get busier at work; in addition, my chronic health conditions have moved into a frustrating flare lately, leaving me fatigued and feeling as though my brain were swaddled in cottonwool and embroidery floss. The news from Ukraine drags on sadly in the background of my day-to-day. My mother’s aphasia worsens. I am dealing by plodding away, sometimes without much brilliance, at the revision challenge. Also by watching the goldfinches as they molt into their yellow plumage… and urging my tomato seedlings to flourish in their little indoor pots.

Then I pluck daffodils and set them in vases. There’s nothing like fresh flowers on the dining table to cheer a low mood. Onward to revision four…

~

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

Practice

When students struggle, I nod as kindly as I can. Do they need to know they’re not alone? Seven billion of us, each with struggles of our own. It takes practice, I tell them, and practice takes time. But persistent patience isn’t common among young folk, who seek strategies, shortcuts, miracles.

They yearn to know what I know so easily, are astonished that words and thoughts can spool smoothly–they think so, bless them–as though there were dictionaries and references in my mind. If they would believe me when I say: it’s possible to learn–

They never realize I haven’t always been old or knowledgeable, that practice continues and, dear students, so does struggle.

We can practice that, too.

~

You noisy jays!
scattering
       the mourning doves

Practicing

When I was 15 years old and learning to type on my dad’s old manual typewriter, I decided to write my memories; I was composing memoir before I knew what memoir was, under the influence of fiction (David Copperfield). I lost track long ago of where those pages are, but I do recall that I wrote page after page. What on earth would an adolescent who was raised in loving and non-traumatic circumstances in a middle-class New Jersey suburb have had to say that was worth recording?

I wrote about losing a toy bear, and learning to read; receiving second-hand books with joy, reading voraciously, wondering what it would be like to be an orphan, and feeling terrified of dying. I wrote about the attic of our old house and learning to ride a bicycle. There were other things, too, that I can’t remember now. Generally, mundane and typical 1960s-childhood events–and descriptions galore. It felt important to write down the small details.

Perhaps I should have gone into journalism.

These days I’ve no interest in writing memoir. I have kept a journal since I was ten years old, and that constitutes enough self-indulgent scribbling on its own. I treasure, however, the practice all that writing gave me: practice in constructing sentences, employing vocabulary words, creating metaphors, using punctuation in various ways, expressing abstract ideas and describing concrete objects. Writing, learning to write, critique, and revision have been immensely valuable to me.

I’m not sure who I would be if I hadn’t been constantly writing (and reading). Maybe I’d have been a contemplative.

~~

All of which is to report to my readers, who may be experiencing their own obstacles to their art, that –yes– the writing continues in the face of loss and grief, anxiety, and the work of the body in the world, in the mundane spaces of daily grind and in the wakeful hours, and in the containers of dreamwork and consciousness. Right now, the writing is not “good,” not crafted, aware of itself, ready to speak to others than the self. It is, at present, more akin to what the Buddhists call practice.

Photo by Donald Macauley on Flickr | https://tricy.cl/2DSmsmY

~

Keep working, keep practicing, keep breathing.

Epistle as writing practice

I am often asked by my peers why “young people” do not come to college with exemplary writing skills. Because I feel protective of my students, I wish to defend them–not always an easy task. My first response is that they have not had enough practice in writing to develop adequate fluency, and I generally follow that by admitting that many of my students have never really read books for leisure or out of passionate interest and that they are quite adept at other forms of communication (social media, looking at you!).

Last year, I decided to spend one class period on epistolary writing. I recognized that one way I developed confidence in expressive writing was by writing letters. Lots of them. Every week to my parents, almost as often to my sister, to my best friends, to sweethearts, grandparents, anyone I cared about. Probably 30 years of letters, which later morphed into lengthy emails as the technology developed.

Letters. Who writes them any more? Certainly not today’s college freshmen, if my students offer any objective measurement of their generation.

The epistolary mode offers students a chance to exercise the use of second-person as a governing pronoun, a style that formal academic writing shies away from except in certain forms of persuasive writing–the opinion column, for example. Teaching my students NOT to employ “you” is such a constant effort that I thought letting them write letters would give them a much-needed break from prescribed academic conventions and allow them to loosen up their sentences a bit.

Before I assigned in-class letter-writing, I asked whether any of them ever writes letters. Not one hand went up. I withdrew from my tote bag a clutch of old correspondence (yes, of course I would be that person who keeps the letters people write to me). After flourishing an envelope–with a 29-cent stamp–I disclosed the contents, a ten-page, handwritten letter from a dear friend. The students audibly gasped. “How long did that take to write?” “Did you read all of that?” Sure! When long-distance phone calls were expensive, letters were social media. We couldn’t just snapchat a photo of ourselves standing on a pile of snow and caption it “Snow!” We’d have to send a photo. Or we’d have to describe without the visual–and this is a practice my students have almost never had to employ.

Lack of informal writing practice translates into lack of writing practice, period.

I even read passages from three letters aloud, and the students were impressed with the vivid writing…writing by “non-writers.” “You could write like this, too,” I told them. “You just haven’t needed to do it, and therefore you think you can’t do it.” Then I asked them to think of a person, a specific person, and come up with a reason or purpose to write to that person, and then just write. The response was amazing. Some of these students wrote more in 15 minutes than they ever have for an in-class assignment. Most of them enjoyed it! One student even said that “this old style of long form texting intrigues me” and plans to start writing letters to a sibling once a week.

Success!

~

Letter Writers Alliance is an informal site promoting the hand-written, postal-mail delivered epistolary correspondence. Members can sign up to find a pen pal or just browse the site for stationery, pens, letter-writing tips, etc.