Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Where the Little Bitty Living Things Are

If you know me at all, you likely know that my blog is a once-in-a-while-when-I-really-feel-like-cranking-out-some-prose-about-me-but-I-hate-writing-about-myself-so-I-avoid-it-a-little sort of affair (sick of hyphens yet?). The inspiration this time is that I have been tagged in a writer’s relay of sorts, and I have been asked four questions by the lovely and talented Heidi Willis: What am I writing, how does my work differ from others in its genre, what is my process, and why do I write what I write? (I will be answering these out of order).

If you’re a writer, you’ll know that the first question is a pretty common one. It can also be the one most guiltily answered, depending on the day. Often, I’ll mumble something about “oh, you know, a poem” because I don’t have anything freshly scratched into my notebook. Today, I think I can be a little more successful.

My primary writing genre is poetry, and I usually have one or two poems marinating in some way at any given time. Although people tend to think of poetry as a quick and easy art, often I’ll have a piece that gets “stuck.” I’ve been working on one such piece since January. After pages and pages of rewrites, time spent walking the labyrinth on the Pacific University campus, three outside readers (many thanks to Lencho, Cynthia, and Unkyl), a new notebook, and walks in and around the orchard and river, it’s still stuck.

The concept of the poem is fairly simple: There are a lot of difficult things happening right now, whether they be smaller personal events or larger world events. So many times, we tend to focus on all the difficulties of these situations instead of taking some time to look at the hope that still exists in our lives. I’m an optimist by nature, and I know that if a person is trying to light a fire, it only takes a spark and the right kind of tinder. So the poem explores various negative circumstances and turns to smaller things to accentuate the fact that hope and joy still remain. I don’t really know if it will work out, but if it does, it will be (to me) one of the most important pieces I have ever done.

My second main project, in addition to other poems, is a novel. I have not quite settled on a title yet, but I’m wavering between A Diamond Ring and Don’t Say a Word. I have had the idea for the book for six or seven years, and I knew that if I ever wanted the space in my head back, I had to write it down.

The story is told from varying points of view, but mainly focuses on Shari, a young woman from a troubled background who is quickly approaching her wedding day. As the day of her wedding draws closer, someone begins leaving unusual “gifts” on her porch. She knows that the person leaving the gifts is the same man who killed her parents and kidnapped her sister twelve years before. Trapped by the hope that her sister will be returned to her, she is forbidden from saying anything about her childhood to her fiancĂ© or anyone else.  
Davin, who met Shari briefly when she was vacationing in England some years earlier, is the only one who knows anything about her childhood. He meets up with her in her new hometown by accident, and is caught in the game between Shari and the kidnapper.
As the wedding draws closer, the two have to work together to search for the kidnapper and find Shari’s sister without tipping their hand.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t major in fiction writing ;) But with some time and work, I think it will be an interesting story.

Question three is a much easier one for me to answer. I am a writer for whom notebooks are vital. When I’m writing fiction, I can type directly on the computer screen because my thoughts move quickly and I know I can come back and clean it up later. But when I’m writing poetry, I absolutely cannot write anything without having a pen in hand (I prefer PaperMate M ball points. Black ink is a must, and there has to be a cap on the butt end of the pen, otherwise it feels too short and I push my hand so far forward I get a cramp). My favorite notebooks are college-ruled single subject Studio C designs (proceeds go to cancer patients) or notebooks with designs on the pages or homemade paper. I keep notebooks everywhere: in the car, by the bed, in my bags, on the desk, on the end table, on the kitchen counter, at my parents’ house, in my purse, etc. I take notes on my phone sometimes, but they must be transferred to a notebook.

My poems start with a thought. It might be a great line: “I am foolish and not so foolish / I’ve been called half a child all my life.” It might be a thought: Why do we build such giant houses? Are we trying to take up all the space we can get our hands on including the air? or If time were a person, how would he act around us as we grew up? How would we see him? and I write into it. Most of the time, I have to write and write and write and write before I get another idea or great line to surface out of what I’m thinking. Other times, I can write something down and realize that there’s a decent poem there.

I have a lot of trouble getting started sometimes, so my favorite thing to do is go down to the river or the lake, sit on the rocks, and listen. People have a tendency to think that poets are a bit strange. I once had someone tell me “Oh! You’re a poet! Does that mean I’ll see you dancing in the park singing to all the flowers?” And the answer to that is, well, maybe yes. When I’m sitting by the water, I’m looking at the insects; watching grass and trees sway in the wind; seeing the birds fly over; listening to the various sounds of the water, wind, songs, buzzing bugs; and feeling just as diminutive as they—dwarfed by the mountains, the height of the sky, the size of stars and planets. (This is beginning to transition into question three). I can’t help being amazed by how small I am, and yet that I am not insignificant.

In one of my writing workshops, a fellow poet told me that he looked forward to reading my poems because I would reliably have bugs and “belly plants” in them. He looked forward to mentally getting on his hands and knees and taking a close look. I tend to focus on little bitty things because I think the little bitty things matter, whether it be an empty-handed ant, a starling in the woodstove, a splitting cherry on a branch, a cheerful moment in a grey day. So when I have writer’s block, I go where the little bitty living things are. (Which, if I don’t clean house soon, I won’t have to go far to find…)

I send some of my poems to someone to read right away. Others I keep close for a while. Still others I put in a folder on my computer and forget about until I am perusing them ages and ages hence. Sometimes I print those for a rewrite, others I consider a closed chapter (though on another poem tour I’ll probably pull them out again and excavate the heart of them).

I do my best rewriting when it is dark outside and I have a mug of tea in hand. That’s one reason I like winter so much – it gets dark early and stays dark later into the day, prime writing hours for me. I start best with grey days, as those are the ones that get me thinking the most.

I am an insecure writer (what else is new…), so I don’t like to inflict my poems on other people. Thankfully, people such as my mentor, Leigh, Heidi, and others are trying to shove me out of that. Therefore, my process is very slowly expanding to accommodate more submissions, and soon *gulp* simultaneous submissions.

One last thing and I’ll pass the baton…not really sure to whom because I was asked first and I didn’t ask anyone (whoops) so I’ll beg one of my brilliant, lovely, writerly friends to take up the challenge.

I will answer the questions regarding writing process, why I write, and how my work might differ with one more thought—recently, I read the opening essay and a few poems from Carolyn ForchĂ©’s anthology Against Forgetting. The book is a compilation of “poetry of witness,” poems that are written during and about times of atrocity. Reading that book, I not only got some ideas for my own poems but also got to thinking about the difference between American poetry and International poetry. Our poems tend to be confessional, inwardly focused, and desperate to give a little grain of unusual truth. International poetry (such as in The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris) is often focused on telling the stories of others, holding tragedy up to the light and letting a little hope shine through it, and revealing universal truths built on smaller truths that the poet writes into them. I’m not picking on American poetry, and I’m not saying that no American writes like that. I know quite a few who do. But reading these two books changed my attitude toward some of my own inspirations, and I am experimenting with writing poetry from a slightly more selfless perspective. I guess we’ll see where it goes.

All the best, and write on!

1 comment:

  1. I love these answers! I agree that poetry needs pen and paper rather than technology. I'll make you a bargain: If you keep pushing forward on that novel, I'll start writing poetry again. :)