I have been off the road for 3 weeks. During that time I have not only started teaching a new adult literature class at the Downtown Writer’s Center in the PRO Certification thread, but I have been reconnecting with my own writing in conscious ways that I have not had time for in a long while.
The combination of prepping for the weekly discussions of the poets I have selected for my course and the ability to commit some time to poems is delightful. I am loving the intentional and detailed read of four unique collections of poetry. I am also quite consumed by two new poems of my own as I allow them to evolve with tender prodding and constant review.
I am in love with revision work. That is the craft of writing to me. The first draft has everything to do with the poet’s soul. The revision has to do with knowledge, intention, and ardent listening to the poem’s request more than what the poet needs (or thinks is needed) from the poem. Each read, each word deleted or changed reveals more and more of the potential. It should not be hurried along. It should be understood. The poem actually knows what it wants. In our need to be done, to publish, to fulfill self-imposed quotas of work completed can sometimes overshadow the maturation process of a particular piece. Be prolific, yes, if it is the correct choice for the individual writer. Pushing a poem out the door before its own maturity is not necessarily wise.
What is the rush?
The poem is what matters. Not its destination. Not the accolades. The poem and every word, every nuance, every caesura are what matters. As NC poet and educator Allan Wolf proclaimed in the early days of the Slam, “The points are not the point…The point is poetry.” The implications of this statement stretch through all aspects of the poet’s journey.
At some point, not too long after I returned to my identity as poet and discovered the Slam, I was struggling with my long-ingrained habit of writing poems that were strings (often long) of short lines, mostly four or five words, if that, trailing down the page. I suddenly became aware of all the space available on the page. The sculpture, the profile of the poem attracted my attention. This was when I started to employ visual punctuation rather than graphic, using negative space to create the pauses in thought and breath that are symbolized in the comma, period, semicolon, etc. I described it as being freed from the prison of the left margin.
As I became involved in Slamming, I had a profound opportunity to change, mostly driven by the need to fill 3 minutes. It takes a heck of a short poem to capture the judges. Once I found my way to what has become sort of a signature piece by being urged by my teammates to combine two related poems that ran a minute each, give or take a few seconds. The challenges of capturing all the shifts in performance were enough of an opportunity but then to determine how to use the page as an indicator was not actually solved until I was working with Kate Cahill, who designed my first book, Coaxing Nectar from Longing. Kate showed me ways of using the space on the page to visually chart the tonal changes. It was remarkable and the success on the page is due to her astute vision. I am ever grateful.
In the past couple of years, I have been involved in writing prose as I coauthored Our Difficult Sunlight with Quraysh Ali Lansana. This was a new venture in putting forth my thoughts in an articulation that would help those in the classroom connect with this art form. Added to the shift of consciousness as well as style/genre was the collaborative process we had embarked upon for this book.
I am driven by deadlines and I can produce under pressure. We produced a lot of words. In fact, we turned in one hundred pages more than the production budget would sustain or indulge. Most of the ranks were axed. This collaborative process was expanded as we took the completed first draft to our publisher and entered the peer review process. I realized that I had moved from a solitary endeavor, to a partnership, then to a team effort, each member bringing a set of expectations, understandings, requirements, and aesthetic imprints. At times these elements were opposed to each other. There was negotiation over every word in that book, one of the many reasons I am tremendously proud of Our Difficult Sunlight.
I have been self-conscious of the fact that my higher education is incomplete. Without the completion of even my BA, there have been walls I have never been able to surmount. Now I realize that I have done the same amount of work, just in a different arena. I have three degrees to validate that work, my three books. Coaxing Nectar from Longing was my BA. Eleven years later, I accomplished what I view as my Master’s thesis, The Doom Weaver. Now, after more than 10 years of practical research, much reading, interviewing, and flying by the seat of my travel pants, I have completed a project that has been comparable to a Ph.D. with the dissertation to support the learning. With ODS, we underwent an extremely comprehensive peer review process before we agreed that the book was ready, with copious edits required after combing through the many comments and perspectives, the interpretations of not only what we had written but what we had articulated, or attempted to articulate. No vowel was left unturned.
And now the book is out. I feel what I can only respond to as a mild post-partum depression but I can easily distract myself with various projects and deadlines, as well as all of the book promotion that we need to do.
In the past few weeks, I have been writing poems. They have been patient while they have been steeping in the back caves of my brain. The poems are surprisingly long. This is in part a natural direction based on the narrative that they are expressing and the form they have chosen, that of the letter. I have proven to myself a certain level of competency I have in prose and expository writing with the completion of ODS, as well as maintaining this blog, although I have a lot of freedom here, a great deal of autonomy. With the blog I can also address a more immediate output and thought process so I do not worry each word in the same way I do with my other writing.
There is another thing I have come to realize: through the immersion in prose, I now find that I have broken out of the prison of the 40-line poem. Sometimes a premise, the source of inspiration needs more than a single page. The same attention must be paid to each word as it earns its way into the whole, no matter the length.
I feel that I am maturing to meet my own expectation, if not exceed it. Transiting from teaching children and teens to working with adults is a considerable change in focus. I am loving digging in deeply to investigate pure craft-driven expressions. I will learn as much as my students but that is why I do what I do. I live my poet’s life with a dread of complacency. I feel it is a sin for any artist to be complacent in their own work. But what is more important, I do live the adage “Teach what you want to learn.”
Thanks again for following my blog. I appreciate your consideration of my words and thoughts.