Friday, March 23, 2007

Poem Seeds: Findings Poems In Your Journal

Copyright©2004 by Violet Nesdoly

I recently picked up Natalie Goldberg's book, Writing Down the Bones, and read,

"Sometimes I discover poems in my notebook that I did not know I had written……"

Natalie's idea came as quite a surprise to me. For years I viewed journaling as self-therapy and writing practice. On the rare occasion I reread what I’d written it was to confirm things like the date we sold the car or to find details for my Christmas letter. The possibility that poems might flourish in my recitation of birthday gifts and Thanksgiving dinners seemed optimistic.

I decided to give it a try—and I was surprised at what I found in my journal. Follow these steps to set up your own ever-productive poetry garden.

Begin Keeping a Journal
If you’re like me, that’s something you’ve done for years. If this is a new venture there are hundreds of resources to guide you as you begin. Here are three for starters:
Keeping a Journal

Now. . . go, get started.

Write Regularly
Perhaps not daily, but try to make a minimum of two or three entries a week. Write about a variety of things. I find the entries that work best as later poem material are ones where I’ve been honest and gritty. You don’t need to be overly mindful of punctuation, spelling, writing in complete sentences and other mechanical niceties. But do attend to details. Be precise in description. Name things. List things. If the feelings you’re experiencing remind you of something, name that thing.

Wait, Then Reread
Don’t reread your journal immediately. You need time to distance yourself from what you’ve written. Most of us are unable to judge the quality of our writing—or our thoughts, for that matter—without the benefit of time and distance. But after a month to six weeks, reread your journal to look for poem ideas to highlight or circle.

Natalie Goldberg says:

"…As you reread, circle whole sections that are good in your notebooks. They can be used as beginning points for future writing or they might be complete poems right there. Try typing them up…”
What kinds of things should you save? Here are some rules I follow when I look for poem ideas. I’ll also show how I developed the journal bits into poems.

Trust Your Instincts.
Select any passages that snag your interest - even if you can’t identify why. For example, I highlighted the following passages:
Nov. 8/98
The day is west coast vintage fall perfection, with faint haze in the high sky, making the light a little golden. To the north, peeking through breaks in houses and trees, are the dark denim North Shore mountains, tops obscured by masses of rolling blue and gray-tinged cloud……Yesterday I passed a tall Japanese maple dropping its crimson leaves onto a cedar shrub beneath it……

March 27/99
“Today dawned bright and sparkling… But, true to predictions, by afternoon the gray vapors were moving in and now it’s damp and feels almost cold enough for snow. Don’t know how all the blossoms stand it…Despite the inhospitable climate, more and more flowers are bursting out—trees of tight rose buds one day expand to pink lace confections the next. Drab forsythias have now come to life with graceful arching branches…From the shy pink-blue lungwort blooming in the shade of my Japanese juniper to showy azaleas and rhododendron, the season’s show is underway…”

Nov. 3/03
“Feel somewhat like I’m being plowed.—as if God is plowing places in my heart that have never been plowed before—virgin soil…As circumstances plow my life, I am exposed. The furrows that are cut expose areas of stubbornness, resistance, self-will that I know shouldn’t be there.”

October 28/86
“Am concerned about an attitude that came out again this morning. She (my 3-year-old daughter) dislikes prayer. She was complaining about an earache…I suggested we pray about it but she objected most violently. She also objects to prayer at bedtime…How does Christianity become a relevant, daily, wash’n’wear belief system without one bringing it into the everyday occurrences of living, like praying for a sore ear?”

Examine Your Writing
Now look closely at what you’ve selected to see if you can understand what makes it interesting to you. Work on that angle as you write the poem. Here are four things I found in my journal excerpts and which you can look for in yours.

1. Metaphors or similes that can be expanded into entire poems.
In the November 8th entry, I realized I liked the idea of mountains wearing denim. That got me thinking about other ways I could bring in fabrics and clothes. In my final poem “October Fashion”* I dressed morning in crisp cotton and smoky tulle, the mountains in denim under fleece, the park in a shawl of embroidered leaves, and the cedar shrub in green boucle accessorized with a red leaf applique.

2. Lively word rhythms and juxtapositions.
When I reread the March 27th entry, I felt a pulling and movement in the language. So I worked on refining and enhancing what I’d already written. “Spring Revue”** in which I tried to capture spring's inevitable advance, was the result.

3. Interesting ideas that invite further exploration.
The thought of being plowed by God in my November 3rd entry got me asking: What does He plow with? What does He find? How does He deal with the obstacles in my life? What’s the purpose of this plowing anyway? The poem “The Plowman” resulted.

4. Descriptions of events that evoke emotion.
Though I reread the October 28th journal entry years after writing it, it still took me back to when I was a new and inexperienced mom. I relived the concern I felt when my innocent little daughter refused to do something that was sacred and essential to me. As I wrote the poem “I Don’t Want to Pray,” I tried to express the longing of a parent who wants their child to meet the Jesus of the Bible.

So next time you find your poem plot looking more like winter than spring, take a trip through your journal to gather some fresh seeds. As you give yourself to the task of collecting, planting, nourishing and harvesting the poems you’ve already begun there, you may find your poetry garden is always in bloom!

*Published in Capper's and Prairie Messenger
** Published in Time of Singing, Spring 2004 as "April Show"
(This article, which I wrote some years ago, is online at Utmost Christian Writers. Check out the links on this page for more instructional articles on the craft of writing poetry.)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Book review - I Am the Poem

Title: I Am the Poem
Author: Alvin G. Ens
Publisher: Ensa Publishing, with Trafford - 2005
Genre: Poetry
ISBN: 1-4120-5886-4, perfect bound, 96 pages

When I heard that I Am the Poem had won a 2006 Word Guild Award in the "Special Books" category, I was thrilled but not surprised. For this slim collection of poems and essays about poetry by Alvin Ens – a lifelong reader, teacher, and writer of poetry – is indeed a winner in more ways than one.

The book is divided into five main sections titled: "Reread," "Hear," "See," "Imagine," and "Communicate." A short manifesto-type essay heads each section with poems following.

In the prose pieces we see Ens the poetry teacher at work. He lays out for the reader in easy-to-understand language his vision and standard for good poetry. He explains how a good poem should reward the reader even after multiple readings. He maintains poems should be satisfying orally (even when they don’t rhyme) as well as intellectually. Further, he explains how they should paint images and symbols with a fresh brush (including the way the words are typeset on the page), should spark imagination, and should not be so abstruse as to mean something only to their writers.

In the poems that follow each essay Ens reflects, with humor, wisdom and cleverness, on personal and modern life.

Ens’s humor makes his poetry a lot of fun to read. Some of that humor emanates from his subject matter. "Discover the Cow" poses the whimsical suggestion that if brown cows give chocolate milk, black cows must give "licorice juice / and ugly like dandelion sauce." Another essential aspect of humor comes from his ability and willingness to laugh at himself:

"And most of all, golfing helps me learn
to keep my head down
when I swing
and especially when I’m asked
my score." *
(from "Joys of Golf")

Personal poems with their wealth of wisdom about family relationships are sprinkled among the collection. I find these compelling even in their understatement. Who cannot hear the pathos in the first lines of "Rookie Card:"

"you are gone
like a traded hockey player
to reappear on the roster
of some other team... "

and "Commiserate":

"How do we take you
grown child
in our arms
on our laps
to kiss it better
to comfort..."

In "Owed to Irene" he sums up:

"I owe to Irene
in the free verse of life
a time of rhyme,
and in the paradox
of twenty-five years of two shall be one
the oxymoron
of the lasting moments of happiness.
In the conflicts of life
I her friend and she my peace."

Ode to Irene. Get it? That is vintage Ens – word-play all over the place! His cleverness with words is another characteristic of his poems. Here, for example, are a few lines that begin to dice the concept of postmodernism:

"the very age decries itself
painted into a lexicographer’s corner
as postmodernism
to follow modern
is to fall off the far side
of nothing...."
(from "Post Nonsense")

In another place he grapples with the idea of normal:

"... Normal is
and pleasant;
is below.
does not have
an above;
it is itself
above abnormal..."
(from "In Pursuit of Normal")

Concrete poetry is another specialty of his. Throughout the collection Ens does not shy away from playing with the look of words on a page – as explained in his essay "To Be Seen." His poem "The Vowel" is typeset in the shape of an E, "Treadmill" in an oval, and "Auditory Oddity" uses font variety – bold font, going to regular, then overstrike and finally gray scale till the words nearly disappear from the page – in a poem that tells about what it feels like to go deaf.

Though Ens’s Christian faith is not mentioned as overtly in these poems as in his first volume Musings on the Sermon, its presence is still there in a foundational presupposition way, as hymn lyrics in "The Loop," and the mention of God in "Snow White," "Mud," "Cursed Is the Ground," "Of Parabolas and Parables," and several others.

If there is a fault, I would say it is in the way some of his poems, with their short lines, seem choppy and are challenging to read smoothly, packed as they are with tongue-twisty words:

"In this world of
supersonic jets
the ubiquity
of fiber optic messages
and the contemplation
of intergalactic commerce..."
(from "Scree")

But this tendency, noticed here and there amongst the abundance of fine poems, is an easy one to overlook. In fact it, along with Ens’s ability to elevate the most prosaic activities into poems (like taking a shower – "Rain Dance", watching slugs – "Slugs", getting the wrong change at a fast food restaurant – "Rip Off", and digging dandelions out of the lawn – "D Day") only helps us identify with him as a fellow mortal.

As a light-hearted collection of poems that is both accessible to the occasional reader of poetry and a pleasure to the afficionado, I Am the Poem is definitely a winner in my books too.
(*My apologies to Mr. Ens for not formatting the poems as they appear in the book. I don't have the html skills for that. Sorry.)