Thoughts: Meanderings of a Born Again Poet

This morning I wrote two poems.

The first one was so so. A little platitude filled. Good thoughts, mediocrely written. The second one was, I think, pretty good.  I posted them both.

I tend to post poems as I write them. I write. Rewrite. Prune. Rework and post. Others perhaps, would let them settle and come back to them. There’s some wisdom in that. But I don’t.

I discovered something today. On days I write two or more poems, the first one is always the weakest. I thought that when I wrote today’s poems, and when I looked back a few weeks, it proved to be mostly true.

“Why is that?” I wondered.

As I thought about it, I thought about my process a little. I am a disciplined writer, in that I sit down nearly every day, at a certain time, and write. I write first in my journal, and secondly, I write poetry or essays for my various blogs.

Most days, it comes pretty easily. Like any skill, when you work at it regularly (and I write for much of my work as well.), you get pretty good at it. My journal writing sort of breaks the logjam loose, and away I go.

Except of course, when I don’t.

Some days I am just flat. I don’t have a lot of emotion going on. I am not struggling with anything. Or I am struggling too much with things. The words have to be chipped out of me like carving marble. Slow and painstakingly.

But I write anyway. And often, it’s not my best work. It feels (to me) like the struggle it took to write it. Technically good. But lacking in passion. Like the difference between an English landscape painting by Robert Gallon…

Robert Gallon

… And something by Salvadore Dali:

Painting

The difference, of course, is that by the time I have plowed through writing the first poem, I am loosened up. I am more tapped in. I have plowed through my own barriers and more open to being open.

“Write what you know.” the old adage goes. The first poem is almost inevitably what I think. The second one is what I feel. What I know. And it’s better.

The trouble is, I never know if a second one will come. Some days, all I get is the thinking poem, all technically correct with good, skilled writing and utterly devoid of life. Maybe I am the only one who sees it, but I suspect you guys notice the difference, despite your kind words on both types of poems.

So I post the first one.

You see, when I was in therapy after my divorce, my therapist told me I needed to write again. I had been a writer for much of my adult life and that had fallen to the wayside in the bustle we call life, and I had paid the price. NOT writing had been one of many factors in my coming undone. (not to mention the divorce itself.).

So she had me write. And she suggested I begin a blog. “Having readers, even half a dozen, will tap into your sense of responsibility and make sure you keep writing.”

She was right.

I began my blog, with no expectations of readers, and just wrote and posted. I still do that. Whether or not you care that I write every day, I like to pretend you do. It does feed that responsible gene (Dang therapists, they keep being right.) and keeps me at it. Good days. Bad days. I write.

And I post.

I don’t bank things towards a flat day or a day when might not want to write. I keep no backlog. This makes me trust the muse, God, inspiration, my own skill, to provide something every day. Manna, I call it, like the biblical bread God provided Moses and the Israelites in the desert.

Trusting that something will come, and then acting on that trust, day after day, generally means it comes. That’s true in poetry, and in life in general. So I trust and I write and somehow it works out.

That’s what I have learned. One of the lessons I have taken from the first half or so of my life. Trust and act, day after day, and things work out. I have given up trying to understand why. I am content with the fact that it does. When I write. And as I live.

Good poems and bad.

Just the act of writing helps me. I am glad when someone says something I have written has touched them or was just what they needed. I love hearing that, in fact. It gives additional purpose to my writing. But I write, ultimately, for myself. For my sanity. You guys get to come along for the ride.

Good poems and bad.

So now you know my process. There’s no grand plan. Heck, there’s no plan at all. I just do it. In the moment, whatever happens that moment. I’ve come to believe that writing, in general, is more powerful when it is less processed, and more real, more in the moment, with the emotions overflowing, our skill barely able to contain it. Raw.

That’s the hard stuff, of course. Most of us don’t like being revealing. I know I don’t. But, it seems to do me good. It seems to do some of you good. So even if it does not always feel good, it seems to be a good thing. And I do it every day. My sanity preserver.  One of the things that brought me back from the brink, many years ago.

So there you go. Meanderings of a born again poet.

Have a good weekend. Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

Thoughts: Neither Fish nor Fowl

the gardens of Troy

The reviews are in.

I announced here a few months ago that I had finished my first novel. It’s been making the rounds of agents recently and the reviews are in.

It’s good.

It’s unpublishable.

It’s good, the agents say. Compelling story. Engaging antagonist. Touching. Powerful. All those words a burgeoning author wants to hear from people who are the arbiters of what gets published and what doesn’t.

But, they say, it’s not a novel. Too short. It’s not even a novella. Too long. It stands alone and it’s hard to figure out what genre it falls under.

Novellas, I have learned in my education on the publishing industry, don’t get published. Unless of course, you are already famous, in which case they will publish your napkin doodles in a special edition.

If, however, your novella fits a clear genre (like detective stories, or stories about cats), they might be able to fold it into a collection. But while there is a cat named Leibowitz in my tale, he’s a minor character.  My story, the agents tell me, is unique and wonderful.

And unpublishable.

Now, if it was part of a series, and about 20,000 words longer, there would be a place for it. I, unfortunately, am not one who can pad a 40,000 tale with half again as much again. I am after all, a poet at heart, a pruner of words, not a babbler. In a way, my not-quite-a-book is really just a long poem. Yeah, one of the agents said that too.

So what does a writer of wonderful things that are utterly unpublishable do?

I could can it, but that would be like murdering your baby as soon as it was born.

I could wait until I get rich and famous with some of the other things I am working on, all of which seem to fit the mold – long, clearly definable, and potential series kinds of stories.  And then when I become rich and famous, shove this one down a publishers throat and make them publish it.

Yeah, I’m dreaming.

Or I could self-publish, sell a couple thousand copies and be done with it.  That’s what I have done with my poetry and for poetry, that’s a good run. Not so much for prose. But it would get it off my table and then when I get rich and famous, I could force my publisher to put out a special second edition, along with my napkin doodles.

Yeah, dreaming again.

Or I could just keep sending it to agents. Maybe one, in a fit of madness will ignore all the rules of what makes money and take it on, find a publisher and I’ll become the next “Bridges of Madison County.”.  And in the meanwhile, I can keep getting all those wonderful, praising, encouraging rejection letters.

Hey, I’m not proud, I’ll take praise where ever I get it.

The thing is, this one is personal. And, evidently good. And utterly unpublishable.  It’s like a freak show in the publishing world.

What am I going to do? No idea. Sleep on it I guess. Stand in the barkers booth and call people in “For one small quarter, come see the amazing creature. Neither fish nor fowl, a two-headed manuscript sure to send you screaming in unforgettable frenzy.”

Yeah, you called it.

Dreaming again.

Tom

Poem: Writing Poetry

cb1

Writing Poetry

The words
are supposed to be simple,
a whittling away
of every excess,
a carving of anything wasted
or untrue.

It is a painstaking process,
first finding the demons and angels within,
then naming them,
telling their story.

Hard work
for a shy man,
but necessary
to give the struggle meaning.

And so you carve,
You experiment.
You test each word,
and release them,

only to discover they were never yours,
that they will be re-visioned,
hopelessly twisted
as if seen in a carnival mirror,

distorted to serve the soul
who reads it.

About this poem

It doesn’t read like it, but this poem actually began as a protest against the way newsmakers twist each other’s words and actions, changing words with half truths and twisted truths and an utter lack of perspective or kindness, leaving the truth dangling in the wind, an unrecognizable corpse.

The same happens to any of our words when we put them out there. Those that love us make of them one thing. Those that hate us make them another. It’s a strange way to make a living, writing.

Tom

Poem: Wordless

joy_resize

Wordless

How strange to wake up
without the vocabulary
to express your joy.

About this poem

I have had a wonderful weekend down in Roanoke, full of meetings with dear friends, the making of a new one,  watching my son flourish with his friends down here. So much good.

At sixty, I find myself returning to a place I have not been for many years – a place of joy. As a person, I am loving it. As I writer, I often struggle to find the right words.

I’ll get there.

Tom

Poem: Strange Forges

Shelborne 3_resize

Strange Forges

My mother taught me
to never let them see you sweat.

To never leave your blood on the table.
To discretely hide your scars so effectively

they became invisible, a strategy that worked
for the first fifty years until

there was no place to hide any longer, until
you were more scar than man

and your pain became a sideshow
with the carney barkers shouting to the rubes:

“Come see how the mighty have fallen! Come see
the living dead in their last days.”

drawing a crowd who looked on, not in horror,
but compassion, who saw in you, themselves

and wrapped their wounded arms around your almost corpse
and kept you warm when your heart felt cold.

And so today, you may see me sweat. You may see me bleed.
Not for the audience, or the horror or the spectacle,

but because I have finally learned wounds not only hurt,
they heal.

About this poem. 

Why share pain? For pity? For Drama? For (fill in your thoughts here.)?

We share pain because it heals. It heals us, and at times, it heals others as well, giving the pain purpose.

The picture was taken at the Shelbourne Museum.

Tom

Thoughts: Sanity, whether I want it or not

dark sky
I am sitting at my favorite spot at West Side Station, sipping my second cup of really good coffee. I have no idea what this post will be about, or even if it will be fit to be read.

Writing has been hard for me recently. It is not for lack of things to write about. Far from it. Every moment of my days seems full of fodder to write about. Events, people, places, emotions pile up like last week’s newspapers, each with its own story, each with its own lesson.

And, I have come to realize, that is a bit reason I write. I write to figure things out. I write to extract lessons from my life. I begin my days with a routine that includes journaling.

I have journaled since I was in college. My mom got me started, giving me an empty journal one Christmas and telling me that she felt like it would be good for me. And it has been. At times in my life, it has been my private madhouse, where I ranted and raved about my life. (I still do some of that.). I often say I want my journals burnt when I die, or I will be portrayed by anyone who reads them as a madman.

In reality, it was where I let the madness out and corralled it and left it so that I could go through the rest of my day relatively sane.

I stopped for a while, in the last years of my marriage. Like so many healthy things in my life, I slowly let it go over time as other things, the prosaic, responsible things of life took over my time. All those things were good in themselves – a high-powered career, active in the church, a great house with a few acres to maintain, my marriage, my kids. I won’t blame the lack of journaling for the marriage’s end, but there was something missing in those years. I was not taking the time to reflect, to connect my own dots.

And that is what writing lets me do. It helps me see things I don’t seem to see when I don’t write. It helps me carve through the noise and find the music in a way nothing else seems to do.

I began writing again at the urging of my counselor. It was so hard. I was so rusty. The habit of thirty years had become moribund and stiff. It felt awkward, forced. And mostly, it was pretty bad. All the skill at writing, at tapping into my emotions and putting them into words had left. I felt like a teenager, struggling to find the words for the things I was feeling.

She had me begin by keeping the journal. She had me begin by reflecting over the feelings of the day before. What had I felt? Why? It was sort of a list at that point. “I felt happy when this happened.” I felt sad when this happened.” Honestly, reading it was like reading something a four-year-old wrote.

Over time, I got better. My list of emotions grew longer. They became better defined. I wasn’t sad, I was discouraged, disappointed, struggling. And I began to add more to each emotion I felt. I would tell the story of what had made me feel that way. I would ponder why it left me feeling this way or that. I would delve into the past, wrestle with my actions, look into my soul.

Poetry is my best medium. When people ask me what I do, they are generally looking for what I do. But if I were honest, I would tell them I was a poet. Poetry sings to me. Carving an emotion out of an image, slowly paring back the fluff to find the essence is something I wrestle to do in my life, and poetry is a just that for me.

Which, I think, is why it’s coming slow right now. It could be about of depression sneaking in. Depression can do that during the holidays. But I don’t think that is what is going in. I think I’m just in an even-keeled place right now. Nothing is gloriously wonderful or unbearably hard. It’s all kind of flat. And flat does not inspire. It’s hard to write about flat.

Oh, I could write about a memory. Or a speculation. And I could do it pretty well. I am fairly talented and fairly skilled. I can craft good words out of most anything. I do just that out of my work as a copywriter. But when writing personal things. I am not a storyteller like some of my friends. I have a sense of humor, but I’ll never be a humorist. I am a poet. I am a watcher and a wrestler and a wonderer. I don’t do well with flat. There needs to be passion, whether it is positive like love, excitement or joy; or negative like grief, pain or loss.

Even when I write prose, which comes easier but I don’t do as well as poetry. There is a different discipline to prose that is hard for me. Now and then, like my recent post about community, or some of my writings on depression, the emotion kicks in and I do pretty well, but mostly my prose feels… well….. flat.

I am writing a novel, and I am near the end. It’s taken me a long time to write it. Like many things I write, it began one way, and it is ending as something else. I began with a story, something very abstract, just an idea of something that might be interesting. But somehow, as I have moved forward, it became less a story than my story. And it went from easy to write, to hard. A couple hundred page prose poem, with me trying to strip everything down to its essence.

That doesn’t work in novels, I think. Or at least, it’s hard. In long form writing, whether it’s a series of stories or a novel or a non-fiction book, the details matter, but in a different way than in poetry. In poetry, you are being blatant in making every word count. In a novel, every word counts but in a different way. They build a fabric, a background that has to be more subtle, more all encompassing. It’s like the difference between creating a 30-second ad and a two-hour feature length film. There are layers after layers. A hard thing for me to do after spending a lifetime peeling things down to an essence.

I am also nervous as I finish. I have people tell me that I expose myself a lot with my poetry and essays. Maybe I do. I don’t think about it much. But in a longer form like a novel, I feel far more exposed. I only just realized that. The story is not mine, but the emotions are, a couple of hundred pages of them. I far prefer to expose myself in dribs and drabs. It’s safer. You can always stop if it becomes too hard. You can always withdraw. Not so in a novel.

But then, much of the past ten years has been about fighting the urge to withdraw. That’s my nature. And became more my nature after my marriage and my life came unraveled. What I wanted to do is just crawl in my hole and quietly wither way. People do it all the time. They gently disappear. It’s painful to disappear, but it’s safe.

At least, it feels safe. It’s not really. Not if we want to live, not just exist. Not if we think we are placed on this earth to help others, which I do. And so, slowly, oh so slowly, I have stuck my head out of my shell. I joined things. I talked to people. I began to listen to the world around me. I began to listen to myself and share. And I wrote and out it “out there”. It was hard then, and it is hard now. I suspect it will never be easy again.

And so I write. Because it is and always has been part of my path to sanity. Because now and then, my words resonate and help someone.

And that is worth being uncomfortable for. That is worth the discipline of writing even when I don’t feel like it.

Like today.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

Poem: The Bad Poems

horse 1

The Bad Poems

You save them,
every failed fragment
and distorted rant.

You save them on scraps of paper
or in dark corners of your computer,
the bad poems

out of joint, discordant,
too painful, to vague,
awkward reminders that practice does not
make perfect,

They are the ones that are broken,
too preachy, too sultry or silly, the ones
that never found an ending

and hang out in space, poetic stutters

that drive you mad with their almostness,
their promise,
their misguided hope that somewhere
there is art and hope,
that they are the seeds of something magnificent
or at least useful.

You go back to them from time to time,
and piece them together like a Frankenstein puzzle,
whole, but always somehow
missing the essence, and so

you put them back in the drawer,
a hoarder of words and emotion,
towards the day you might need them
again.

About this poem

I really do save all my fragments. It is a good thing computers came along, or I’d need to build a new wing to the house to hold all the bad poems on paper scraps.

Tom