Over the weekend I spent several hours at the mega-chain coffee place near campus (I know, I know... but now that many of the students have left for the summer, it's a pleasant novelty to be able to go there and actually find a seat), reading and writing. And it occurred to me that lately, say for the past couple of years, I've found it much easier to draft poems when I'm somewhere other than home. Looking over the poems I drafted this weekend, I realized why - it's that when I'm out in public, things happen. People walk past, the weather changes, unexpected music comes on the radio. Things I didn't choose and can't control.
Allowing those things to drop into the poem when they feel like they belong, without trying to overexplain what they're doing there, is a technique I've been enjoying lately. Sure, I could do it at home, but (despite my cats' best efforts) home is a lot more predictable. I love hearing a snippet of conversation, or a ringtone, or seeing a girl wearing a shiny blouse with butterflies printed all over it - and letting that image fall into the poem. I love letting go of the need for tight control over the poem's arc enough to let unexpected things fall in and shift it. Most of my writing life I've written fairly linearly (is that a word?), this happened and then this happened and then this; or at least, I saw this and it made me think of that. For years and years I kept a tight rein on my poems, tried hard to steer them. (Who me, control freak? Uh...) And I overexplained, that's for sure. Learning to let the world intrude and let unexpected details fall in and just be there has been, I think, a great exercise for me.
I was first aware of doing this in Provincetown a few years back - now there's a great place to find some interesting details to fall into your poems! I'll share a poem that was pretty heavily shaped by this kind of attention, which turned out to be one of my favorite writing-process experiences. I started writing it while sitting at a table in the window of the Adams Pharmacy, watching it rain outside, watching cranky wet tourists go by - and then some people with a dog walked by. The dog had his head high, carrying a toy of some sort, looking absolutely and utterly delighted with himself. A dog with treasure in its mouth. And that moment of serendipity & unexpected joy completely changed the direction of the poem as I was writing it.
When I left the Adams Pharmacy I had a prose paragraph thingie. Here's an early draft:
There are things that are mine, and things that never will be. You for one, with the wet loam of your gaze turning away. This day, just past the turn of summer, minutes shorter now than yesterday. It’s cliché to say how quickly a life can pass, but on this morning in my forty-fourth year it’s a question I can taste, the salt sweet shore of it. The time we take to turn away when we could be absolutely still. A red car on a rainy day, driving slow on Gosnold Street. A dog with treasure in its mouth. Everything that passes by : I want to wave my arms and make it halt : just hold there for one moment, hold. Weathered blue framed windows, voices saying yes, the words that water says. Rain comes down harder, generous, saying yes, yes to the black and shining street.
I left the pharmacy then, intending to go get some clam chowder at the Lobster Pot for lunch, but they weren't open yet - so I wandered over to the Provincetown Public Library (which I adore) and settled in to work on revising for a while. My hair was damp from the rain and I had to take my rain-spattered glasses off to work, which became I've salt in my eyes, in my hair. I'd briefly picked up Lucille Clifton's Blessing the Boats when I first got to the library, and something about the tone of the title poem was resonating in my mind as I worked. Other things in the poem had been poking at my attention for the time I'd been in Provincetown - cormorants, the blue frames around the windows of a B&B across the way from the one where I was staying - and those details found their way into the poem as well. I didn't walk out of the library with the poem in its final form that morning, but it was pretty close, actually.
Here's the finished poem as it appeared in my chapbook Breach:
Everything I’ve lost, refused, or left behind
comes flooding in like dead things on the tide.
What is ever really gone? The name for this light is yes.
Drifting ghost nets, lost at sea, entangle the unwary beasts
that thrash against the current and the dream
and I’ve salt in my eyes, in my hair.
There are things that are mine and things
that never will be. You for one,
with the wet loam of your gaze turning towards home.
On this fogged-in morning in my forty-fourth year
it’s a question I can taste, the salt sweet shore of it,
the time we take to turn away.
A red car on a rainy day, driving slow on Gosnold Street,
a dog with treasure in its mouth.
Everything that passes by: I want to wave my arms,
to hold them wide like cormorants’ wings:
just hold there for one moment, hold.
Weathered blue framed windows, voices saying yes,
the words that water says.
Rain comes down hard now, generous, saying
yes, yes to the distant shore,
to the black and shining street.
-Anne Haines July 2005