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Learning Curve

“When I began writing those poems I had had the dream that I would celebrate my sixtieth birthday with a book of joys, a book speaking of fulfillment and happiness. But on the final re-reading I saw clearly that is an elegiac book and that the seeds of parting were in it from the beginning. This is where poetry is so mysterious, the work more mature than the writer of it, always the messenger of growth. So perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are.” — May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

A poem for me begins with a phrase that swims its way up from deep within my body, or a snatch of conversation that tumbles over and over on my tongue, or sometimes even a method—a collage poem or something excavated from someone else’s text. But it never starts with an idea. There is no plan for what I will write. Though I know I will discover something in the writing, I do not know until the words are secure on the page what my question is.¬†Writing poetry—and actually all of my literary writing—is like speaking in tongues: I let go and let my better self takes over, the part that never strays from its intimate conversation with the Creator. I remember when my first chapbook was published how shocked I was when everyone said that the poems were so sexual. It took years for me to see that the poems I thought were just a celebration of music and musicians who moved me were also poems about hunger, about longing, about wanting to be touched. In retrospect it’s clear that the person I was then—caught between my fear of intimacy and my equal fear of being in relationship—would puzzle that out on the page. Writing is my way of thinking, it is my safe place to feel and my safe place to reveal myself to myself.

I have always thought my best poems were the ones I didn’t understand. I instinctively know that the logic of them makes sense, that they are “right,” but I usually can’t articulate why I feel that way, what is so right about them, or even what I am trying to say in them. Over time I’ve found that those poems, the ones where I almost can’t decide if they are successful or not, are usually the ones in which I’ve made some huge leap forward—in style, in understanding—and it may take months, and sometimes years, for me to understand what the attempt is.

Poems are mysterious creatures to me. I am suspicious of high school teachers who claim that what is going on in a poem can be assessed with multiple-choice tests. While I agree that there are many poets who are better at probing the mysteries of their poems than I am—I am not the type of reader (or writer) who needs every metaphor to be logical or every motive to be crystal clear for a poem to be satisfying—I also think that even the most ardent sleuths of their own work are, at most, just giving their best guess of what the poem is about. And that to me is the most joyful part of writing, that the more we write, the more still there is to be discovered.


Spoiler Alert: This post is all about my period.

Last night my period started, which, after approximately 33 years of fertility, is not exactly news. Still it feels momentous because it may, in fact, be my final period ever. As I have been warned by my doctor, he may not be able to save my uterus when he removes the fibroids, and if my uterus goes so does my period.

I don’t remember if I was 10 or 11 when my period started but I do remember I was in 5th grade. Mrs. McGrath was my homeroom teacher, and she walked me down to the school office where she exclaimed to the secretaries, “One of my little girls just became a young lady.” One of the secretaries—yes, that is what we called them back then—opened up a cache of emergency supplies and out came a sanitary napkin that was pretty much twice the size I was. Not only that but it was the kind that was designed to be worn with a sanitary belt. I made do with two diaper pins instead.

Later that evening, my mom gave me the talk. It went a little something like this.

Mom: Do you know how you get pregnant?

Me: (tentatively) By playing with boys.

Mom: That’s right.

To be fair, my mother remembers the conversation rather differently, with her version having a little more detail. Whatever the actual exchange, I got the gist. Given that I’ve spent most of my adult life either as a virgin or celibate, with only a handful of years of being sexually active, I’ve never really paid that much attention to my period. Sure it’s annoying but I never worried much about tracking as I didn’t have to worry about pregnancy. I figured it would just get here when it got here. It’s actually embarrassing the number of years (and by years I mean decades), it took me to pay enough attention to realize that my body actually gave me plenty of signals when Aunt Flo was arriving to spend a few days on my couch.

I did, however, finally notice a few years ago that the several days a month when lines of poetry presented themselves unprovoked by prompts or any my usual poet’s tricks coincided with the days preceding my period. So while I don’t exactly look forward to the physical mechanics of menstruation, I do look forward to that time when, for whatever reason, I seem to have greater access to my creative spirit. I sometimes think about the Old Testament prohibitions that say women must be separated from the group during their cycles. I’ve come to believe that it’s less about cleanliness and more about giving women a time apart to fully engage with their creativity. Even as the body physically cleans itself of the unused mechanisms of physical creation, the mind itself shakes off and shakes out the lines, the scenes, the characters that have been waiting for fertilization. Some land on the page, some are reabsorbed to gestate a little longer. Yes, I realize I’m willy nilly mixing my metaphors here, but hopefully you get the point.

I wouldn’t say that I’m scared that my creativity will suddenly disappear if I no longer have a uterus and get a period. But I am mindful of the metaphoric implication of giving up that place in myself that was designed to harbor life.

I’m not sure how to write my way out of the end of this post, and I guess that’s where the TBD comes in. The poems will still be there hidden in my body, I will still be capable of creation regardless of which body parts I may or may not possess after surgery, and while something will be lost, I am expectant that out of that loss, something else will be born, some new metaphor for creation that I’ll only be able to hold onto if I’m capable of letting go.

How I work…

While I love reading other people’s “rules for creativity” (check out Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist) I don’t think of myself as having any particular such list. Or at least I didn’t until yesterday. I ran into my friend A who is so excited about a new writing project that she can’t stop talking about it—in that infectious way that makes you want to be part of her project in whatever way you can. The more I thought about A’s project, the more I thought about how inspiring it is to be friends with someone who’s so creative. Which made me realize that the people I seek out and get along with best are those that are actively creative, whether or not they are professional artists. I also realized that though I don’t usually articulate them, I do, in fact, have a set of principles that surround my art practice. I’m not sure this is an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that seem most apparent to me.

Surround myself with people who are actively engaged in living a creative life. One of the reasons I love my day job is because I spend a great many days getting to talk to and interact with artists, some of whom I’m interviewing, and some of whom I work with. There’s no greater boon to my arts practice than an invigorating conversation that leaves me inspired and ready to dare. And while I do happen to meet a lot of practicing artists in my line of work, living a creative life isn’t restricted to those who are artistically gifted. Give me your museum goers, your theater lovers, your nesters who can’t stop rearranging the furniture and hanging more art on their walls. You are who you hang out with. (Check out today’s post on art is fear for a really good take on this idea.)

Plan. I’m as surprised as anyone at my #2. Despite the fact that my day job depends on my ability to plan (and plan b and plan c….), I’m actually not a fan of planning. I want to write poems as they come, on whatever theme, whatever schedule, whether or not it fits with what I’ve already been working on. And I also try not to consciously think too much while I’m writing. I write much better, I think, when I act on instinct, and allow the poem to be as much of a mystery to me as any other first reader. Last year, however, I spent a great chunk of time immersed in Hermione Lee’s brilliant biography of Virginia Woolf. And what struck me—in Lee’s book and also in Mrs. Woolf’s own diaries—was how much thinking Mrs. Woolf did around her work, really thinking through what effects she was going for, in what order she wanted to write things, etc. So when I knew I had a poem-a-day challenge coming up last November, I tried out the planning thing. Which in my case turned out to be a great deal of thinking about general subject matter (love poems) and how I would handle the days I really had nothing to say (found poems from interviews with a certain actor). While I still felt free to write what I wanted and how I wanted, having those two guidelines in place made a huge difference, and I wrote a new poem nearly every day. Ultimately, I think that for me, planning is about anticipating stumbling blocks so you can sail right over them without breaking the flow when you’re deep in the writing.

Pay attention to how I work. The fall before I turned 30, when I’d been seriously writing for a few years, I somehow managed to win a winter writing fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center, one of the most prestigious writing and visual arts fellowships in the U.S. When I arrived, I was one of only two of the ten writers who didn’t have an MFA. Instant intimidation. I also had a tendency to wander the streets of Provincetown—going to the library, checking out the used book store and the record store and Norman Mailer’s house—while pretty much everyone else holed themselves up in their studios emerging only as the sun set and our evening shenanigans (by which I mean drinking) began. Even though I was writing, the fact that I was doing it in fits and starts, in between devouring huge stacks of books and wondering if I should buy a pair of Blundstones, clearly meant I was doing it wrong. I mean I’d go whole days (and weeks) without writing much more than some journal entries. I was surely a fake and didn’t belong with the real artists. Luckily, the poet Carl Phillips was a visiting writer that winter, and somehow I ended up out at dinner with him, a dinner at which he professed to being a binge writer. He’d write a chunk of poems at a time and then go fallow for weeks or months. Despite the fact that he wasn’t at a desk every day, the number of books—really good books—he has to his credit was proof that he was indeed the real deal. I will never be that writer who spends hours at a desk. Heck, I don’t even really like sitting at a desk, period, it makes me feel trapped. I need the freedom of physically wandering, even if it’s only from one end of my apartment to the other, to set my mind free to wander toward the poems that are waiting. It’s fine to try out other people’s work habits (see #2) but ultimately I believe we each have to figure out what best supports our art practice, whether it’s painting overnight while everyone sleeps, like my painter friend S, or writing in bed like H, or something else that works for you.

Set up play-dates with my muse. I know you’re not supposed to sit around and wait for inspiration, but, let’s face it, starting with inspiration sent from the heavens is way preferable to staring at the blank page when you’ve either got nothing or too much of everything to say. But I’ve learned that there are certain sure-fire things that will provoke a poem out of me—reading other people’s poems and visiting visual arts exhibits. I actually don’t read a lot of poetry because reading a poem to me is a call to write, and, quite honestly, when I come home from work, I want to play, not do more work. That being said, I can barely sit still through most poetry readings cause the right turn of phrase, the exquisite image, and I want to get to work on my own stuff. I mean I have yet to get past the first poem in Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead cause he brings on the muse and how! As for the museum shows, well, there’s no other way to say this—the paintings (or sculptures or photographs) talk to me. It doesn’t always happen, but there are certain shows I walk into and my neurons just start firing. It happened with the last Cy Twombly show at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Richard Diebenkorn show at the Corcoran this summer, and when I saw Holly Bass perform a piece at the (e)merge art fair. It’s as if this conversation starts up in my head over which I have no control. All I can do is listen and try to get it all down. I should add that when I encounter visual work that makes me act in this way, it’s actually kind of freaky because the poem doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how I’m consciously experiencing the work. I thought the Diebenkorn Ocean Series pieces were luminous and joyful, yet the poem I “heard” was about a couple breaking up. (I also used to get creatively turned on by live music, but since I left Chicago that rarely happens…sigh…)

So, those are just a few of the ways I keep my creativity flowing. I’m curious to know how you stay creative.

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