Monday, December 29, 2008

What Blocks the Poems?

I read in the current The Writer's Chronicle that Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts for the past six years, will leave his position in January. He will then direct a new arts program at the Aspen Institute. This will be a half-time position. Gioia says that he achieved most of the goals he set out to do for the NEA, but now looks forward to more time for his own writing. Not that he hasn't been writing; he has been, just not poetry. He says that he has not published one poem for the past six years!

Reading that shocked me. Six years is a long time to go between poems. I get antsy and weird-feeling if I go six weeks without writing anything new. But I do often go those six weeks or more without any new poems. I don't like it, but I've kind of accepted that as my particular process. A period of activity followed by a period of no activity. I like to think of the fallow periods as a time of gathering, of observing and storing up new material that's just waiting for the right ripe moment to unleash itself on the world.

I realized as I read the article that something about the work Gioia was doing must have run counter to his creative urges. And I wondered about my own counter agents. It occurred to me that I've been in one of those do-nothing poetic periods. Recently, my husband was in Florida for five days and I had the whole house to myself. I cleared off the kitchen table where I do most of my writing. Each morning I sat there with a cup of ginger day and scribbled down something. All bad somethings. Not a poem materialized. It wasn't that I wasn't writing at all. I was. I wrote a substantial article and a book review. But my poetry brain was in shut-down mode.

Maybe the pressure of Christmas shopping? Knowing I ought to be at the mall pushing myself to the counter. How about you? What stalls you in your poetic tracks? What conditions need to prevail for the poems to come? Is it possible to cultivate those conditions?

Maybe if I'd looked out the window and seen something like this:

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  1. I know exactly what you mean. I began revisions on a poem starting 12/11, and had not returned to them until yesterday. Granted, I didn't write anything new in that pattern, but it felt good to oil the gears, and listen to the cogs begin their rotation again. I believe you're right about the Holiday shopping. Working a retail job combined with purchasing gifts prevented me from putting pen to paper for the last few weeks. Although, I cannot imagine a stretch of six years. It's nice to know I'm not the only poet whose ship docked for Christmas.

  2. Gioia may not be a good measuring stick here. I have a feeling he comes from the professorial planet of poetry, academia at its best, whose standards are almost astronomical for the writing of poetry. These very very very lofty standards
    prevent one from just beginning a poem on a whim, a la O'Hara on the Staten Island Ferry. It's both sad and, I guess, commendable if you like that style.

  3. If I don't write a least a bit each day I begin to have breathing troubles.

  4. I love the image of "a cup of ginger day"!

    In my writing, I'd have to draw a pretty hard line between not publishing anything for six years and not writing for six years. For me, writing in no way guarantees publication (ah, that acceptance thing).

    I do find that when I'm not coming up with anything I want to pursue as a new poem, revision keeps me from those breathing troubles S. Thomas Summers mentions. But then, there's the carving out time even for that.

  5. Alex--Gioia's background is in business. He was a high level executive with, I believe, General Foods.

    Joannie--Of course, "ginger day" is a typo--should be "ginger tea," but I'm leaving it. Will think of it as one of those fortunate accidents and will think about what a nice thing a ginger day must be.

  6. Ah the great gift of a good typo!

    I do find that if I'm in another writing mode, (techncial output for work, or example) the poems wander off to another corner of the cranium. The best way for me to combat it is to carry a recorder and speak alout whatever bits of line and phrase do happen; in the transcribing of these later, I usually find enough to work with.

    Interestingly, being alone equates to being unstimilated for me. I'm better with short bursts of quiet between episodes of chaos, as long as I maintain the discipline of using them.

    Which, of course, is a bear during the holidays.

  7. I think that "time around time" is important for good poetry. You need time to just putter doing something else (for me, preferably something with my hands) so that your mind can get into that stew-y place that poems arise from.

    Also, if I don't feed my head with others' poetry or good prose, I seem to starve. I'm a high school teacher, so I often get too busy correcting papers or making lesson plans to have any chance to read something non-work related or find time to just stew. I do find that if I go more than a week or two without writing something poem-like, I start to think I'll never write a poem again. sigh.

  8. I know it's not totally novel, but the latest edition of Poets & Writers magazine has a great piece writen by Kim Addonizio on poetry exercises that inspite. Good look writing in '09!

  9. Thanks, All, for these great responses. Scott--I've tried the daily thing, but it didn't work for me. I'm just not a daily kind of poet. But I know that feeling of itchiness well when things start rumbling inside, telling me it's time to hit the desk.

    David--I already have days when I walk around talking to myself, but it's usually cursing out those who've done me wrong. Can't get any poems out of it.

    Erin--I was a high school English teacher for 25 years and left early because I needed to use up more of my energy on my poetry. I can't say that I write much more poetry, but I do many more poetry-related activities (such as this blog) and I now do other kinds of writing. I loved teaching until the day I left, but I have no regrets about no longer doing it.

    Michael--You must be reading my mind--as well as the same magazines. I loved Kim's article and plan to do a blog post about it in a day or so.

  10. I wish I could remember which poet said that as she (I believe) completed each poem, she felt no certainty that she would ever write another. Which is how it is for me. I have to wait for the poem to creep up and mug me. Only then can I get on with the job. I'm currently waiting for the next blow, which, of course, may never fall.

  11. Hi Diane, I'd love to read a blog post on Kim's article.

    May your year ahead be filled with creativity, love and extraordinary adventures.


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