life, poetry, writers, writing

Bass fishing and Poetry

My sons and I catch a lot of bass. There’s a pond behind our home where we catch them (sometimes over and over again) and then release them. We’ve used lures, live bait, and a whole host of other options. We’ve also caught fish in all four seasons. When the cold weather comes, we just fish deeper to reach the warmer waters where these freshwater species tend to hang out. Welcome to Florida.

But one thing I’ve noticed is true for both poetry writing and bass fishing: The moment you stop trying so hard is the minute success visits. It never fails — if I’m “concentrating” on reeling in a monstrous fish, my line will stay slack for hours at a time. When I’m lost in a daydream about something totally unrelated to fishing, however, suddenly I’ve got more bites and tugs than I could ask for. The same is true for poetic inspiration; if I’m trying to “force it” too much (or be too “literary”), you can bet that future poems will stay safely in the cattails of my mind, away from any lure I may be jiggling to get them to emerge. But if I just go about my ordinary day-to-day tasks, epiphanies will come.

This observation is common among writers I know. When they go to literary retreats, workshops, conferences, and similar venues, they find themselves lacking inspiration, partially because they’re looking for it too hard. Only when we allow ourselves to relax, wander, and flow will we be visited by first lines or great ideas. There’s plenty of research to back this up too: Daniel Pink and other scholars have long known that creativity is maximized by mental ease and comfort rather than stress.

So, what’s the message? In writing as in fishing, let the good things come to you. The biggest bass and the most impressive poems tend to surface when we kick back, watch the clouds, and allow nature to take its course.

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poetry, Uncategorized

Epiphanies, part 4: The Epiphany While Reading

booksA while back, I decided I hadn’t read enough Marcel Proust. To better equip myself with his viewpoints and his genius, I began reading his work with serious, scholarly depth. My intent was not to generate my own writing, but to better understand his so that I would be able to utilize his philosophies in academic endeavors.

The pleasant surprise of this “new” reading material came when I stumbled across the phrase “…kaleidoscope of darkness.” Immediately my mind began to whirl and hum with the possibilities that this contradiction provided. I turned the phrase into a first line, and wrote an entire poem inspired by it. Then, I deleted the first line. I still owe a pretty debt to Proust for his inspiration, despite his words’ disappearance from my work.

Lots of poets have moments like these — they’re reading a happy piece of summertime fiction or an article unrelated to anything literary when one certain phrase or circumstance elicits the poetic response. Maybe a memory is stirred, or perhaps an idea is initiated because a unique turn of phrase strikes the creative core just so. Whatever it is that lights our imaginative fire, those epiphanies had while reading can prove to be some of the strongest, and produce work that is often the most rewarding. No doubt this effect is why generations of poets have told younger ones to read, read, read. The more exposure one has to others’ original diction, the greater the likelihood for inspiration becomes.

Hmmmm…I suddenly feel like I could know a little more about John Stuart Mill — signing off for a while, friends. Until next time, READ.

poetry, Uncategorized

Epiphanies, part 3: The Reflection Epiphany

1990, Central Park. Chorus class trip with Mr. Barlow.
1990, Central Park. Chorus class trip with Mr. Barlow.

Every decent writer has some key memories that, when recalled much later, prove to be fertile ground for literature. Whether it’s a childhood recollection, a happy vacation from adolescence, or even a school-related flashback (see photo), every memory holds the potent possibility for springing to life in new writing.

In this case, I never really considered the smaller details of that New York trip from decades ago. While there, we had to ride buses to various venues. Being the small-town boy that I was, I had no familiarity with tokens and procedures related to mass public transit. As a result, I held onto my bus token instead of depositing it rightfully.

While digging through my sock drawer recently, I found that old token, and a million memories of that trip came flooding back: Broadway musicals, FAO Schwarz, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and so many other sights and sounds were generated by this one tiny piece of metal.

When I sat down to write about it all, however, I dismissed the tourist traps, the typical big-city experiences, and all the fluff of a trite “cultural shift” poem. Instead, I began to focus on the minutiae of that one moment, getting onto the bus without paying all those years ago:

NYC Apologia

Mr. Bus Driver, I didn’t know
where this metal disc was supposed to go
in 1990. I faked the deposit:
no token, just motion before taking
an inconspicuous seat beside classmates.

I know you don’t believe me.
Neither do I.

A bronze and silver guilt memento:
City of New York Transit System raised letters
round as a steaming manhole cover. This passage
pressed around an accusing bull’s eye – target
of my crime: petty theft by a small-town minor.

 

The piece in all its particulars, I believe, is far stronger than a “big picture” poem that tries to capture all the landmarks and sensations of a city too large to do justice in a single piece. Many years ago, Richard Hugo wrote a nice little guide to poetry entitled The Triggering Town. He encouraged poets to “adopt” a town they knew nothing about, approaching it as though they were someone who’d lived there for years rather than an outsider. This practice, he wrote, would allow a writer to generate new ideas and material. Indeed, it has worked for countless poets throughout history. New York was not my “triggering town.” But, its sensations, its differences, and its expectations from more than 20 years ago certainly gave rise to a piece that is unique. Only through artistic distance are we able to see some things for their truest significance. Like old farmhouse windows, the warps and waves in the lens of time give rise to pictures, that, while not totally accurate, make our human experiences more meaningful. The lesson for poets and writers everywhere? Look back to look forward.

poetry, Uncategorized

The First Line Epiphany

shakes

Scholars might argue with me, but I would be willing to bet that an awful lot of William Shakespeare’s writing began when he had a sudden realization of a great first line.

We poets know how it is: You’re mowing your yard, taking out the trash, or doing some other mundane chore when suddenly WHAM-O — a great first line just sort of strikes like lightning. You write it down in your pocket notebook, and when you come back to it later, that first line serves as a catalyst for some much bigger piece.

Sometimes these first lines survive in the final draft, sometimes they don’t. No matter why those primary words strike us as they do, they almost always reap great rewards. Even if those initial ideas get culled, the work they produce tends to be refreshing, inspired, and original.

Sometimes the first lines occur because of weird word combinations; things like “nuclear neurology” or “concrete coffee” tickle our fancy. Other times, it may be a random statement from a stranger that rings with a certain poetic something.

One time, a student of mine informed me that “The ice cream trucks in our neighborhood only play Christmas carols.” While the exact iteration of his words didn’t survive in my later poem’s final draft, the concept of a summertime ice cream truck tooling about playing “Jingle Bells” was too irresistible to refuse. It became “Merry Summer,” a sonnet-like piece written from the perspective of a boy waiting to hear the warbled yuletide tunes of the dirty, somewhat questionable ice cream truck.

First line epiphanies are some of my favorites. There’s always such a bright hope and a brilliant promise that comes with an entire line coming into consciousness. When we have a start, we’re obliged to build toward an end. Think I’ll go mow the lawn and see what strikes…