Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Meaning or the Muse

Writing poetry is sometimes a hit-or-miss deal. As much as I would like to write in my notebooks every day, I often don’t have the time or inspiration to write daily. When I do sit down to write, I like a quiet room, a clean space to write, and some nudge of an idea. Sometimes, I’ll sit down at the kitchen table, close my eyes, pick up my pen, and hope the muse visits me.
John Milton in Paradise Lost invoked “Sing, Heavenly Muse.” For my purposes, the muse might visit as a song on Pandora or as a friendly Face book posting. Sometimes my sons will encourage me with their whimsical insights into life and culture. What I really want when I start a poem is to tap into some deep emotion, memory or image.
When my father died two years ago, I felt his loss deeply. The result was a poem called “Island Palette” which harked back to his years living on Anna Maria Island, Florida. My dad liked to paint and one morning when I was visiting, he brought out all of his pastels for me to look at. I was so touched by his wanting me to respond to his art. In the poem, I refer to a “a small bird on a branch.” As a young man, my father studied ornithology at Cornell University. Somehow my thinking back to his paintings also reminded me of his love for birds and that found its way into my poem.
Of course, there are poems that somehow write themselves. When my twenty-year-old son, Neil, returned from a month long trip to Moldova to visit his girlfriend, he talked for two hours non-stop about his trip. It had been an arduous journey and he had been afraid for his safety in a foreign country. After he went to bed, I wrote down everything he told me. At the end of my poem, “Souvenirs of Moldova,” I wrote: “The bus drifts and curves/the long endless night/where boundaries are blurred/and the young man wakes/not knowing what country he is passing through/or when he can go home again.”
The pieces of my mind aren’t always linear or orderly. My poems often reflect the scrap work effect of my thoughts, but I love the freedom and “ah-ha” moments when writing. I also love that I have a vehicle to shape my experiences and memories.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Poet's Job: Pay Attention

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” 
Mary Oliver
I have always loved this quote by Mary Oliver and think it speaks profoundly to a writer’s need to pay attention to the world around her. Now that the beautiful colors of autumn beckon, I try to walk as much as possible. The other afternoon I spotted hundreds of tiny acorns peppering the ground. There were also wooly caterpillars sporting their cold weather coats. A neighbor’s chickens were invisible, but I could hear their cluck and chatter as I walked by the house where they are kept.
Will these observations become a poem? Perhaps. Several years ago I wrote a poem called“Wild Turkeys” about a group of turkeys that ambled across our driveway in the early morning hours. In the opening stanza, I wrote:

       a family of wild turkeys
                    crosses the driveway
                    at dawn, the young ones
                    scrabbling along the stones --
                    beaks down, eager for
                    acorns or nuts. The two females
                    dull-brown, strut briskly
                    as they scan for shelter.
                    Soon enough they cross
                    over to woodlands,
                    a flock of feathers
                    disappearing into brush.

This was poetry that came from direct observation and memory, but it was more
than that. I identified with the mothers marching their offspring around our neighborhood. I wanted to shape this moment in time and have it touch some universal experience. Later, in this poem, I wrote:

                    When a young turkey 
                    goes missing
                    the whole flock stops,
                    waiting for the little one
                    to return.
                    Like them,
                    I search the golden fields,
                    the grassy inclines
                    for that one moment
                    when I spot the beloved,
                    the world gone mad
                    with the frenzy of my longing
                    then a stalled breath,        
                    then quiet, then
                    fog lifting
                    over the dark earth.

Here, I extend the image of the mother turkey looking for her lost young one to one of the lover waiting for the beloved. I wanted to take something specific and make it work on another level. There are magical things awaiting the poet in the world and it’s our job to look, to see and to capture it in words.