blackbirdonline journalSpring 2015  v14n1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Digging into the Dark

What could I possibly have to share about writing that could be of any interest, much less helpful? The little that I know I either picked up as a student, in my reading, or here and there during conversations with others or myself. Poetic wisdom was never revealed to me by a burning bush speaking in pentameter. Even when I was lucky enough at times to have something revealed to me by a person far smarter than me, I was either not ready for that knowledge or too stubborn to accept it and so went on and made my mistakes and learned it the hard way.


It seems to me that one of the most basic things necessary in making art is curiosity. Most of the artists I’ve come to know are endlessly curious people. Their curiosity runs the gamut from the subject of bigfoot’s existence to wondering how and when the word fly came to mean a soaring baseball, an insect, and the place where zippers and buttons hide on a pair of pants.

If you’re not curious about the world, then you’ll never be curious about words. And if you’re not going to be curious about words, then spare yourself a miserable life chasing publications, grants, prizes, etc. Build a bridge, mow lawns, or become a plumber instead—these and any number of other worthwhile pursuits will surely bring you more satisfaction. If you’re chasing fame, get out of the race now. Or don’t.


An author’s materials often seem magical to beginning writers. Legal pads, typewriters, fountain pens, computers, phones, pencils, all appear to have some sort of talismanic power to the fledgling author. I know because I used to believe this. Before I knew what it took to make a poem, I would hunt interviews with poets for the part where they would answer the question about their writing routines and the tools of their trade. There were two things that I didn’t realize until much later.

The first was that no pen or keyboard or special paper was ever responsible for the creation of a single line of verse. Believing so was just as silly as an apprentice carpenter duplicating the toolbox of his master right down to the bumblebee-black-and-yellow DeWALT measuring tape. Just as one hammer is as good as most any other hammer in the world of carpentry, so is one journal as good as any other in the world of writing.

The second realization is that all of these tools—even the hammer of the master carpenter—do have power, but only for their owner. This power is not transferrable. One cannot underestimate the effect of a pen that fits comfortably in the hand in a way that no other pen does or the way that a certain computer screen feels welcoming and warm. Even an agitated genius creates under the spell of a certain measure of calm.

These tools do not create art, they facilitate it by giving us a sense of comfort and ease so that when we raise our arm to strike the first nail into the first board of the poem or story we are about to build, our aim will be full and true.


Genre, school, movement: these are all the jargon of the literary critic who, like the biologist, works diligently to classify what he or she encounters. If an artist is to have any chance at making something that will last—and let’s face it, the odds are long—then we must be like the mole that is ignorant of the phylum, class, genus, and species we have been assigned. Dig into the dark and let others worry about what you are and where you’re going. There will be time enough at the end for the critics to dissect you. Don’t give them a head start by climbing onto the examination table and tearing yourself open.


Some years ago while drafting the first stanza of a poem whose last line I intended to be “until laughter did us part,” something unexpected happened. I had been playing with the extended sentence for some time before this poem, but had never managed to keep a sentence alive for much longer than seven or eight lines. In this poem I decided to push the sentence as long as I could. The result was forty lines, three hundred plus words. While the stamina of my sentence was unexpected, my surprise came as I prepared to move on to the second stanza and that last line I was working toward. I must have watched the cursor blink for hours. I walked away, came back, and nothing. The poem wouldn’t budge. Eventually, I realized that the first stanza was in fact its own poem. Frustrated, albeit grateful to have written a poem accidentally, I decided to start over the next day with the same end line in mind.

The second day began with another long, winding sentence. Thirty-two lines and almost three hundred words later, I set down a period at the end of my stanza and the poem was done. Just like that, the poem sealed shut. That period was like a roadblock I couldn’t get around. Unwilling to accept this, I stubbornly hit return twice and started typing what I was going to force to be the second stanza. A few hours in, I realized that I had simply begun a new poem. Defeated, I gave in to the reality that I was not in charge as I had foolishly led myself to believe and transferred this poem to a new page with the hope that “until laughter did us part” would finally find its home as a last line. And it did. In order to avoid another roadblock period, I decided to stop playing with the extended sentence and just use shorter clauses. Two stanzas later, I had my poem with the last line I wanted. Only, my lesson was not quite over. The poem had problems that persisted for some time until it dawned on me that the two stanzas needed to be separated because they were in fact separate poems.

It was awhile before I discovered the proper amount of gratitude for the gift I had been given; from one line I was given four poems, three of which I had never planned to write. What’s more, I found that I liked the first two poems more than the one whose last line I had so desperately chased. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the poems I have finished—I just don’t like them all the same. Parents who get along better with one child over the others, even though they love them all equally, can surely relate.


Someone once asked me where my poems come from. “My crazy brain,” is all I could think to say. If it had occurred to me, I would have added that I am no more in charge of what ideas escape from that three-pound lump of tissue between my ears than a beaver is when its lighter, but by no means less impressive, brain devises the blueprint for its next home. But where both the beaver and I do have control is in the execution of those blueprints. All we can do is try, and either fail or succeed.

Robert Frost famously said that poetry “is play for mortal stakes.” Therein lies the crucial difference between the beaver and the poet. If the beaver’s dam is poorly constructed, both it and its mate might not survive the winter or marauding wolves, whereas a poorly constructed poem will at worst bore someone to pieces. I can think of no better counterargument to the Auden line “poetry makes nothing happen” that the haters of culture like to trot out. If they would only look in the mirror at the froth around their mouths, they might reconsider their opinion about the power of poetry. Poems and beaver lodges are a mystery, and the obvious is often hidden in plain sight.


Poetry doesn’t owe anyone anything. Ever. Sometimes one book is all we get to write. And not even a good book at that. Even so, how much more fortunate is the writer of a single book than the earnest souls who submitted their work to every venue and publisher for decades until rejection beat the joy out of them?


Charles Wright once wrote, “each line is a station of the cross.” This suggests that each line of a poem should correspond to different, increasing levels of suffering. What are the stations of the cross after all if not a testament to ancient Rome’s highly developed attention to the nuances of human suffering and endurance, not to mention drama. The crucifixion of Christ was a spectacle, one that would have been ruined had the flogging, crown of thorns, and long walk been skipped. Every word and gesture—even every pause and silence—should contribute to the spectacle. Any comedian worth his salt knows this.


Poetry as story is an idea that has been around longer than it has been out of fashion.


One summer when I was in high school, I worked as a stable hand. My responsibilities entailed the cleaning of the living quarters and corrals of a small group of thoroughbreds and miniature horses. I was also expected to maintain the peace. In addition to being snippy with one another, the thoroughbreds also liked to bully the miniatures. I only remember the name of one of the thoroughbreds: Rosita. She was elegant, mischievous, and that creamy shade of brown after bananas have turned.

One day while in the corral, I found myself suddenly caught between the fence and her massive flank. Realizing the danger I was in, I pushed against her and told her to move. She responded by taking a half step toward me so that I could feel a fraction of her weight and power. A few panicked seconds later, she released me and walked off. She had made her point.

A strong image should make us uncomfortable because it presses against our assumptions and our relationship to the world. It forces us to redefine ourselves. It is both a threat and a gift. William Carlos Williams knew this, but many of his imitators did not. They trotted out the same miniature pony to press against a reader. Had laughter been their goal, they would have succeeded. Choose your horses wisely and always examine their teeth. It’s better to be considered rude than a hack.


When I first started writing poetry seriously, I was in the grip of a deep depression. Far away from home and lost in darkness, poetry was one of the few lights in my life. During this time, I received a box in the mail from my mother containing a small dream catcher. Her letter contained instructions on how to use it, as well as an explanation that it would catch all of my bad dreams while I slept. I hung it on the wall above my pillow and thought nothing of it. The next morning I woke to find that my sleep had been filled with dream after dream. This was unusual because I rarely dream. What was also strange was that my mind was now eerily calm. Where before I had felt like everything sparked with the potential for a poem, now there was nothing. It was something akin to having the stars disappear from the night sky. I felt empty, uncreative, and more alone than ever.

A week of this went by during which I sadly passed from one muted day to another. The hope that I might become a writer was gone. All the while, my dream life had been more vivid than it had ever been. It took five days before it occurred to me there might be a connection between these two extreme states. Without hesitation, I threw the dream catcher in the trash. The next morning after a night of no dreams, the world spoke to me once more. My imagination was alive again, as it had been before.

What I took from this experience is that while surely patience is a virtue for any artist, you have to be grateful for every moment and write everything that occurs to you to write. Whether your work fails or succeeds doesn’t matter. The point is to do it and appreciate it because tomorrow you might step on a four-leaf clover and it will all be gone. Death one day ending my life in art is not what worries me; rather, it’s the premature loss of this great gift that has been given to me and that has brought me more joy than any one person deserves.


Ezra Pound proclaimed, “Poetry is a centaur. The thinking word-arranging, clarifying faculty must move and leap with the energizing, sentient, musical faculties.” The conscious and unconscious must unite and move as one in the making of art. One can surmise that if an artist is merely a rider, the work might feel over determined and uninspired. If the reverse is true and an artist is the horse, what is created might seem sloppy and emotionally indulgent. Of course, the world of art is rife with exceptions. Melville seems more bear than horse, while Goya more horse than man. A genius is a beast of another color. They can break the rules because it is their right.

But for us mere mortals, a centaur is a sufficient challenge: such a union of emotion and thought is suitable for making interesting art. The best we can do is squeeze with our legs the barrel of our horses tight enough so that when we run and jump, stop, start, and go again, we do so as one heart and one mind.


It used to be that I would casually sit down and dash off the first draft of a poem easily. I would then over the next several months revise until it was done. Something changed when I gave up writing year-round in order to better manage my energies as a teacher. The first time I sat down to write in late May, as the two past semesters of teaching were becoming a weak memory, I stalled. No poetry came. I looked back over the notes I had taken for poems I wanted to write and tried to find a poem whose subject would be easy to engage. Days went by and I dipped in and out of books, took long naps, watched Seinfeld marathons, and mostly walked to my desk and then walked away.

When that first line was finally anchored, I moved on to the next. Unlike in the past, I found myself no longer able to move on from one line to the next until I had fully revised the previous lines. I had never revised while composing before. In order to keep track of my changes and be able to work backwards if I hit a dead end, I began numbering the files—Poem 1, Poem 2, etc.—so that by the end of the first full draft of a poem I might end up with a file titled Poem 72. While all of this was unfamiliar territory, I trusted the impulse and followed obediently.

But this was not the only thing that was new. I was now hungry—famished, in fact. It didn’t matter if I had eaten a heavy meal before sitting down to write, my body demanded food. And so began the frenzied process of hunting the kitchen for raisins, apples, granola bars, chips, peanuts, etc. And I wasn’t looking for just one of these items; it was all of them and more that I would consume. When they ran out I would resort to eating slices of bread. After realizing this was not going to stop after a month, I made sure the apartment was stocked with healthy snacks so that I didn’t balloon by the time the fall semester began.

The other odd thing that changed is that when I was writing in this ravenous state, I was also hot. By the time I would knock off working on a poem for the day, my shirt would be soaked with sweat. I don’t know what my temperature would rise to, but it was enough to make me feel itchy all over. Before that summer, I would have never imagined that ice water, tank tops, and a towel for wiping the sweat from my face would be necessary for me to write a poem.

Maybe someday someone who knows more about the body than I do will explain it all to me. Regardless, I don’t need to understand it anymore than woodpeckers understand their compulsion to pound their beaks ten thousand times a day, every day, until there is a safe place to bring something new into the world.

Years from now it will probably all be different. For all I know, I’ll be draped with blankets because I’m freezing and using a recorder to compose my poems. My only hope is that I have the good sense to keep embracing the change. And to be worthy of it all.  end  

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