Guest Post: Poems and Process

Earlier this summer, I wrote about interviewing my grandma with my cousin, Sara Lamers Messink. A poet, a teacher, and one of my first friends, Sara and I grew up bridging the 80 miles that separated us with weekly letters exchanged back and forth. We eventually became college housemates and fellow English majors. We share a mutual understanding and appreciation for those things our family values most: the land, the table, stories. She has taught me to pay better attention to the world and words around me.

Sara and I (a few years ago) on Grandma's orchard.
Sara and I (a few years ago) on Grandma’s orchard.

Sara has graciously offered to share a few poems; below are a few that resonated with me, along with a Q&A about writing and her process.

——-

I phone to say

I’ll be there, Sunday dinner.
Grandma’s reply is wind,
the shudder of trees, birds’
bitter cries.  Like me she cares

little for idle talk, talk
too small to bridge the distance.
The shortening of days,
a chill breaking in.

She asks of a friend, expecting.
I tell the truth: she lost it.
Wait for a lament
that does not come,

just silence first, then a sigh
that shatters miles with bold truth –
It’s for the best.  It knows, the body.
Outside the first leaves begin to turn.

What inspires you to write? What makes you keep going? 

I’ve always felt compelled to write, I think because I have always loved to read and feel a strong urgency to read widely, deeply, and massively.  If I accomplish nothing else in my life except inhaling and digesting books, I’ll be satisfied.   That said, being able to contribute something to the vast amount of writing out there in the world is both an honor and is humbling.  I write to be a part of something a tiny bit bigger than me, in this way.

It’s a challenge to discover new ways to stretch my writing and that challenge is part of what keep me going.  I come from a family with a strong work ethic (yes, workaholics!) and feel guilty when I don’t write.  By this token, then, it can be deeply satisfied just to get some content down on paper, no matter how awful.  A wise instructor and mentor once told me “you’ll have the whole rest of your life to write good poems.”  To that end, focusing on generating material is a way to prevent the “it’s not any good” worries from stopping me from writing at all.

——

Blues on Sunday

You’re at it again,
crowded by peppers, herbs,
oils, pots steaming.
This time a soup:
rich heat, chipotle, cayenne,
this time blues on the stereo,
from room to room it wafts,
sultry pleas and to what
do I owe this pleasure
of staying in, January Sunday night,
snow splayed across the lawn
but no mind, we’re in here, this warmth, this
lovely heat, alive?

The knives you work
like a sleight of hand, garlic,
onion, thyme, tomatoes
diced down, tiniest forms.
I can’t do much but pour
the wine and raise a glass
to vines, black soil, hands that toil,
seared by sun to pluck
this swollen fruit piece by piece
and plunk into buckets
as the chicken stock, olive oil
commingle and scent the air,
flood it, the weight
of the heady voice, horns and sax, wailing
guitar and blustery sadness.
That certain loss.

The “he” who’s gone
and done wrong, left town
with money, with her battered
heart, rent past due,
kids all sick, boss out of line and here
in our small kitchen
the last yellow light of evening
goes and leaves us
warmer than we’ve ever been and
we sink into soup, the blues, its wail, its cradle
stunned with gratitude,
the purest joy we beg
to keep coming.

Can you talk a bit about your writing rhythm? Do you show up at the desk and play/experiment? Focus on a particular project? 

My process depends on whether I’m working in poetry or prose.  Poetry is much slower, but that’s what I gravitate toward.  When I sit down to write a poem, I first spend a large block of time (at least an hour) reading published poems.  This gets my head in the right place.  I like to have lots of uninterrupted, non-structured time for poetry, largely because it takes so long to enter into that mental and emotional space where poems come from.  Ideally, I’ll have four hours or more to oscillate between reading poems; generating new, rough material; revising poems-in-progress; and polishing or ‘picking at’ nearly-done drafts.  I work best when I am working on several poems that are in various stages of done-ness.  I always have lots of projects going at once so that I can bounce back and forth between them – when I run out of steam on one, I take up another.

I find that the more you know and learn and understand about writing, the harder it becomes to actually do it.  I don’t believe in waiting around for ‘inspiration’ to strike – you have to show up and force yourself to do the work.  (I have also been influenced by several writing teachers who have impressed this notion upon me).  With poetry, especially, I have carved out habits and patterns that help me to get the work going: I have to write in the writing room in my house (I can’t work on poems anywhere else) and I work by hand (as opposed to via a computer) throughout most of the process.  It’s not until very late in the game that poems find their way to the computer screen.

When it comes to essays and fiction, I’m less married to single process, though in both of these cases I need to complete an entire “messy” draft of the thing before I do any revision – I’m not a revise-as-you-go type.  Right now I’m working on a second novel and have borrowed a lot of ‘rules’ from the National Novel Writing Month (which takes place in November each year) guidelines: I set a target word count and don’t quit for the day until I’ve reached it.  I love being in the middle of many projects at once (all in various stages of complete-ness) because it prevents me from getting bored and helps me return to each project with refreshed vision.

——

I Never

got to see them kill the chickens,
my grandparents’ farm eighty-some miles

from home.  Though some summer days
I helped feed, the coop a gray half-dome

tin igloo, low and strange,
that bright tunnel all straw and sticks.

The water they drank floated in plastic jugs
sliced to halves, there was corn they’d jab at,

pounding wings that kicked up dust and straw.
Cousins told me of the killings, how some Saturdays

they’d do as many as half a dozen, hand out
fresh hens to aunts for Sunday dinner.

Grandma tearing feathers from hot bodies
like tangles from a comb.

It was the way the legs still ran after the head
was severed that amused my cousins most,

that panicked race-without-a-finish-line,
survival-of-the-fittest in reverse.

I never saw it but can see my grandparents,
hands careworn, easy with the blood,

the mess, the stench – none of it too crude
to manage, the picture as real to me as

our grandmother, those same summer months,
pressing milkweed to our hands as we walked

through orchards, tugging back the petals
down to the bumpy pod, saying Look:  

These could be fish if we really wanted
them to be.  And we never dreamed
of arguing.

 

How does the process and practice of writing impact you personally? Do you write for an audience? Is there a feeling or maybe even a word that describes what meets you as you write?

Well, I write for myself, primarily, and not for others.  I never once think about an audience or reader when I’m drafting.  I write because I have to do it and feel compelled to do it, and it is satisfying to (finally) do it well.  Publishing is not all that important to me, especially when it comes to poetry (it’s publish or perish in academia, so my motivation to publish there is mainly career-related).  I’d rather make effective art than publish it at all.  I do benefit, of course, from feedback from others – that’s a hugely essential part of the process.   I’ve not yet published any fiction, but do hope to.  My motivation here is to meet the challenge of producing effective writing.  If others read and enjoy it, that’s all the better, but I’m not dependent on a reader – or a reader’s approval – to keep going.  It sounds trite, I know, but it’s the intrinsic reward that pays off the most.

That said, writing – whether it’s poetry, fiction, or nonfiction – is a way to understand your world and to wrestle with the dissonances in your life.  It’s a way to work toward making sense of things that cannot be articulated in any other way.  Writing provides an opportunity to put the rest of life on pause, to step out of the endless, busy stream of life and to reflect and ruminate on the larger picture, on the important things.  It’s a way to record and also think through the various phases and stages of life, which I’m grateful for.  Making art is one of the most spiritual things you can do, at least this has been true for me.  It forces you to be honest, but also connects you to something bigger than yourself.  

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