Since finishing Habits, I’ve been trying to get back to writing poetry. I’m facilitating a poetry workshop this weekend in Texas, and although the prospect was at first very anxiety-producing, as I’ve prepared, I’ve gotten more excited about it. Trying to figure out the balance between what I want to say and keeping things open to what will arise within the workshop, I’ve been encouraged by the possibilities. I know, for example, that in all the years I taught creative writing in community colleges, I was never at a loss for words! I could answer questions, respond to work, and enjoy sharing what I’ve discovered in these decades of writing (I finished my MFA in 1991 and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in 1993).
Still, after completing a second book manuscript in 2005, I haven’t written much poetry. What I have is a large collection of files on my computer called “Poemfrag” and the month: “Poemfrag Mar2008″ “Poemfrag Nov2010.” Some of these files of fragments run to several pages, but none of them qualified even as drafts with names of their own. Most of them are rooted in the rich specifics of my life in Minnesota, but somehow none of them became poems. At some point, I began to wonder if I would even recognize a poem if I wrote one.
And so, here I am. My life is quite different– in many ways I am quite different– than I was when I wrote even that second book, finished in 2006. Here I am, looking for a way in.
I only know a few ways: find a phrase or line to begin with and break it open; find a memory and tell it until it takes me somewhere unexpected; find a form and think of what its logic requires (for example, a villanelle requires obsession, a sonnet requires a turn).
I’ve posted three poems in the past two weeks to http://cowbird.com. One I rescued and developed from the poemfrags files. It started with a memory of babysitting. I’m still not sure it can stand on its own.
The second is a poem I’ve wanted to write forever. I’m in a rather unsettled period right now with my faith, and it goes back to another time when my faith was a source of conflict. It is probably the best of the three. Click here to read it.
The third began with a writing exercise I’m going to use this weekend. You might want to try it; it goes like this:
Forget everything you know about poetry and poets. In place of that, try to remember a very early experience you had of hearing or reading language that interested or excited or confused or enlightened you. Maybe it was something you read, overheard, saw on a billboard or sign. Now write the experience, trying to get at what grabbed you about that piece of language.
H is for Harry
I was not yet three when I learned to read
letter by letter, with my mother,
using comic strips from the newspaper.
The first one taught me the letter h.
H makes the sound of huh.
Huh-huh-huh-Harry. The strip
had a picture of Harry running.
His breathing was the letter h: huh-huh-huh.
When Harry was tired he sat on a chair.
The chair was the shape of the letter h.
A letter h to sit on, and letter h your breath.
My mother and I said it together:
And then it was mine, to find in books
and on signs and in the kitchen chair: the letter h.