#lessons learned from #NationalPoetryMonth: every prose #writer should feel the power & #inspiration of #poetry.

Featured

poetry-NPM-banner2

Poetry requires a deftness with space and language, a skill akin to lacing. Lacing needs sure fingertips, careful measurements, knowledge of the spaces as well as the threads, their knots, their weaves, none of which I’ve fully understood.

Oh, I’m not putting down prose–a great book requires all these things, too. But there’s something about the poetic line, that tight little collection of words that must balance just-so with the empty space surrounding it, that is needed more in poetry than prose. Studying such rich handfuls of language can only better the prose writer, inside and out.

I can still remember the first poem that shook me. Not a hymn, not Scripture–pshaw, I grew up around that stuff. For the first couple decades of life, that stuff  sat next to the peanut butter, mixed into the pile of bills on the kitchen table, hung on the hook in the hall. Just another part of the day.

College: changes.

For the first time, I was in a place where no one else knew my family. I wasn’t being judged by the actions of my parents or brothers. I was me.  I finally embraced my passion to write and yes, I dared choose story-telling over music. I worked to understand that which mattered inside me.

That which hurt.

For the first time, I spoke to an adult, the college chaplain, about The Monster. His hands. My despair.

Later that same day I was trapped in a poetry unit of a lit class. I didn’t get any of it: meaning, syntax, meter. Hell, I was barely listening. Blah, blah, sentence fragments words, blah, blah. I just wanted to leave, and deal.

Next in our anthology was Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.”

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Every line. Word. Space. Stuck.

Never had words burrowed into me, gripped the pit of me and twisted, fucking hurt as they twisted and pulled–because they were trying to right me. I took that poem to the dorm, and bawled for a long, long time. I still cry every time I read it.

Of course all writers want to grip readers. But there are those, like Hughes, who do far more than entertain, or inspire. They transform us. That transformation may be one of the bloodiest experiences in our souls, but we are, yes we are, the stronger for it.

~*~

College: changes.

I studied literature for a summer at University College Cork. I didn’t really fit in with those who spent every lecture drinking alcohol in soda containers and flying to London on weekends to go clubbing. Nor did I fit with the academics who’ve read Ulysses and/or Finnegan’s Wake twice and sat on the dormitory’s stoop to pontificate nature, economy, philosophy. I spent much of the off-hours alone, wandering Cork, reading Seamus Heaney, doing my damndest not to be a dunce.

I can’t tell you which poem fell upon me me first. “Blackberry-Picking,” I think.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots

Pardon me for being evil, and breaking his stanza. I want to pause it here, because I can feel the call-back of the memory in these lines.
The title seemed simple to me. I should be able to understand a basic description, right? And being the Midwest girl that I am, raised in a farming town before getting shuffled to Milwaukee because God said so, I felt like I could even–gasp–write almost-intelligently about it. Harvest. Rural life. Childhood innocence. Yay, I understood something!

Then something else happened, something that for all my writing aspirations, I had never really considered:

Language.
The first two lines form a smooth sentence, a prosey sentence. But line 3 comes along and says: “glossy purple clot.” Suddenly I am holding something, vivid and bright. Yet “clot.” Why “clot”? Who associates “clot” with delicious fruit? We want blood to clot, I suppose. And there you have it, lines 5 and 6, describing sweet “flesh” and “summer’s blood.” Line 7 builds to “lust” and–hey! The sentence is broken! The space urges me to line 8 where capitalized, separated by the rest of the line with a period, comes the act, the want, the purpose: “Picking.”

Every word Heaney shares connects with one or more senses:

Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
The “briars scratched.” The “wet grass bleached our boots.” I read these lines out loud on the sidewalk outside a bookstore, the buzz over the latest Harry Potter deaf on my ears. The way “briars,” “bleached,” “boots,” roll in the mouth, berries all their own. “Like a Plate of eyes”–a return to the flesh imagery! Emphasized with the association to the murderer Bluebeard, who hoarded wives as the young characters do berries:
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Gah! Not just “grey,” or “silver,” or “fuzzy,” but “rat-grey.” Immediately, we think of pestilence, unwanted, toxic growth. More of such vivid sounds that we can taste against the roofs of our mouths and yet see, all at once: “fresh berries/byre” or “fungus, glutting.” Action moves quickly with the imagery: “fruit fermented”…”sweet flesh would turn sour.” Three words transform what is loved to what is lost.

And the ending of the poem…we have this sort of short “o” sound three times in the last four lines: “sour,” “rot,” not.” “Sour” creates tension on two fronts: that growling “r” carries on in “fair,” the positive, the hopeful, only “It wasn’t fair,” was it? And the short “o” of “sour” echoes in the harsh monosyllabic phrase, “smelt of rot.” Damn, such a slamming there. A child, stomping his boots at the unfairness, the inevitability despite the hope the narrator knows is in vain, yet holds in his jars and cans every year: “knew they would not.” The whole last line is monosyllabic, too, words falling like so many spoiled berries one tips from the can onto the ground.

I carried Heaney and all these thoughts back with me to the dorm. No, no tears today, but another epiphany, yes. For the first time, I wasn’t looking at words for what they achieve as a whole. Of course, “Blackberry-Picking” is a story in its own right, complete with characters, conflict, climax. But so much is accomplished in the little things here, too.

Every word written carries a rhythm. Listen with every sense. Capture what you can.

Repeat.

 

 

Advertisements

#Music & #ComicArt Help Fill The #Imagination Room for #Writers

Many students and writing comrades have told me of their need for silence when they write. I’ve never been one for silence; my ears quickly become distracted by any noise, be it a plane overhead, some neighbor’s car door, the heater. This could just be due to the fact I’ve got a squirrel’s attention span.

Or, it could be due to the fact I’m a parent with kids who are always, ALWAYS noisy: cars crash, transformers explode, trains go off cliffs, animals eat each other–they are all of them dramatic, violent little buggers. If they’re quiet, then that just means they’re using stealth to accomplish something even more devious, like treating the oven dials as spaceship controls.

So quiet’s not exactly a writing option round these parts. I need to isolate my imagination’s internal senses with visuals and sounds.

It begins with snapshots, like slides on a projector. Just pictures at first, distant and untouchable, until more slides come, a photogenic click click click of a paperless book. The cassette player ka-chunks and music sneaks into the space, quiet and wary until it meets the beat of the slides and then maybe, if I time it just right, I can jump into the images like double-dutch and land, smack. I’m there. I’m in. And I can feel it all.

While Book 1 of Fallen Princeborn isn’t due for release until next year, I’m already hip-deep in Book 2. New world-building needs arose involving some minor characters, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I couldn’t see their world. I’m just sitting in a blank room of silence, the projector shining this white rectangle of nuthin’.

And with the kids on spring break for two long, LONG weeks, the time to focus my search was not coming. I’d dust off one snapshot of just a character’s arm, or some sort of shadow-blob in the background. The next day I just get a bruise-ish color, but no shapes.

It was so infuriating I even vented to Bo about it. I need something that looks alive, I said.

“Living buildings.”

No, not alive, just looking alive.

“Looking…?”

And in the water. A dark place, but they gotta see where they’re going.

(Oh yes, he’s furrowing his brow through this entire exchange.) “Dark, but…there’s light?”

Yes.

“And that’s supposed to be here, like, on Earth?”

Yes.

“O-kay.”

Hopeless, I thought. I’m stuck forever.

An hour later, after the boys have read about outer space and trucks, and Blondie learned what Roald Dahl’s Mathilda will do to anyone who rips up a library book, Bo emails me a search result of images. Take a look here. Notice where they come from? Comic books.

Duh. Why didn’t I think of this? Marvel and DC both have lords of the sea in their lore: Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Aquaman.

But in studying the Aquaman archive, I find my own shoulders hunching into a “meh” position. I don’t want to make yet another version of Atlantis.

Then two things happen at once: a happy accident, you could say.

First, I open a different file from Bo:

new-atlantis

Click.

The blue. The cold darkness balanced with light. The living feel of the dome and rock…at last, a clear slide! In my mind’s projector I can finally sit on the bench, staring, waiting for the cassette player to come on, or another slide to click into place.

Nuthin’.

Oh, Imagination is shaking the box for the other slides. It’s crawling on hands and knees to search under benches and that sad excuse of a cart with rust on the bottom shelf and a cracked wheel.

Still not found. Not for three. Damn. Days.

On a borrowed computer, I find an album I haven’t listened to in ages:

Dune.

Yes, the David Lynch film, scored by Toto.

As a kid, I only paid attention to the film when Captain Picard and all the good guys with the weird blue eyes rode on giant worms and blasted baddies into smithereens. The music was super dramatic with its drums, choir, guitar, orchestra. The first minute here should give you a sense of that (Ignore the second minute with the creepy kid):

Way, way back, in the corner of the storage room, Imagination digs up an old cassette tape. Something eerie. Distinctly awed. Cautious.

It was from Dune.

I start skimming the tracks, and by God, I find it.

Ka-chunk.

Imagination turns up the volume. The slide deepens. I step forward, as cautious as the choir. The rhythm is slow, deceptive. Imagination nudges me into the minor harmonies and invisible currents. Will I tangle them, ruin their power? Will I fall, bloody the ground?

I might.

But it’s a risk worth taking, every time.

 

#writerproblems: Feed the #writing Flame

Let’s face it: some days, we’re burned out.

God knows I am.

From 4am until 10pm, life is a steady stream of to-dos: grade papers, get kids up, get daughter to school, work on author platform, stop Biff from shoving cars into the fridge, feed twins, get them to school, try to rewrite that &!#@ scene for the umpteenth time, get daughter from school and rush over to the sons’ school, drag Bash out of mud-slush sandpit, scramble a supper, dishes, laundry, bedtime stories, pay attention to spouse, answer student questions, crash.

Repeat.

How in Hades do we keep going? How, in all the needs of family and work, do we find a way to keep inner flame burning?

With a fresh box of matches.

34043886Light the Dark is an amazing collection of essays gathered Joe Fassler, who’s interviewed dozens of writers for The Atlantic. Each essay shares “a moment of transformative reading,” as Fassler puts it–a line the writer read, and is inwardly changed. I was skeptical to read the book–I barely have time to read the novels I should be reviewing. How the heck can I read something for me? Ridiculous.

Buuut I figured I could give the first essay a go while the boys mucked about in the library. Aimee Bender’s “Light in the Dark” shared the physical and spiritual elation felt when memorizing Wallace Stevens’ poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” She had heard the poem at a funeral, and its first line–“We say God and the imagination are one”–stuck with her. And me.

There’s something beautifully enigmatic about that line: It contains what feels so expansive and mysterious about the imagination to me. I love the way it treats the imagination with an almost religious reverence.

Which is just how I feel about imagination. It is a sacred gift, one not to be denied or squandered. God has given me many hard blessings, but He also gave me something that I knew was special: imagination. Before I knew how to make letters, I knew how to create worlds of adventure, of stories fantastic. And when I learned to make words, I knew them to be powerful, worthy of respect, just like the Scripture I memorized from little on.

And then, too soon, I’m nearing Bender’s conclusion:

That’s the thing I want to do in my own writing: present words that act as a vessel for something more mysterious. I know it’s working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath the verbal, that mysterious emotional place…

Yes, I thought. Yes, that, just so. To know another writer struggles to find that place of power, of strength beneath the words…the writing life did not feel quite so charred.

I had to try another essay. Just one more, before the boys drove the librarian around the bend (again).

Sherman Alexie’s “Leaving the Reservation of the Mind” floored me. Floored. Me. He shares the context of his world:

There is always this implication that in order to be Indian you must be from the reservation. It’s not true and it’s a notion that limits us–it forces us to define our entire life experiences in terms of how they do or do not relate to the reservation.

I felt the whiplash of memory: the moment from my first year of graduate school when my parents criticized my writing for not putting faith in a good light. For not sounding “nice” enough about it. For having a harsh, raw tone about life in the ministry. How dare I.

For years, the guilt stuck with me. I wasn’t writing about what was appropriate, what fit. I come from a Christian family. I should be setting a good example in my church, teaching good Christian children how to write good, Christian things. Smile sweetly, bring the cookie bars for fellowship hour.  Be content.

No.

We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

I left the library with Light the Dark. I had to. Not just because the boys were shouting over checkers next to the old curmudgeon at the stamp table, but because I was reading words that burned me deeper than my imagination. This isn’t just about craft–this is about living. Literally, it’s the writing life: these authors are sharing the moments words branded themselves onto their internal skin, and shaped their futures.

And now here I was, blasting Tron for the boys and humming off-rhythm inside because for the first time in ages, I could feel a spark of hope, of need. A microcosmic brightness just between the gut and the lungs. Oh yes, it is cosmic, and it will come from me, from you, from all of us who live for words, burning sacred, to light the imaginations of  tomorrow, and every tomorrow thereafter.