I was first asked to join the “My Writing Process” blog tour by the brilliant writer Rolf Yngve, whose “Chasing the Wolf Tone” is always fascinating. Since that time, I’ve been amazed to read the wonderfully diverse, thought-provoking posts by other friends and acquaintances – such an inspiring variety of style and personality! The questions were pre-set but the answers range from the witty to the deep. I’m honored and delighted to be in such vivid company! Especially that of Tania Pryputniewicz and Marlene Samuels – thank you both for linking to this post!
What am I working on?
Right now I’m working on a series of poems that go deeper into the experience of aging as expansion, rapture, rupture, explosion into wholeness. Woman With Crows included a group of poems that celebrated the joyous freedom and “lightening up” that come with age, but after “The White Queen” something changed and voices have begun to speak from further out, deeper in the experience. Sometimes it’s terrible, as in a poem called “Dementia” which just came out in Tupelo Quarterly 3, and sometimes it’s wonderful, as in a poem called “Red Clay Crazing,” which came swaggering and shouting all in a rush at the AROHO Ghost Ranch retreat last summer.
I work a lot with archetypes, fairy tales, myths, especially myths of the feminine journey. Lately I’ve become more and more interested in the great mystery school traditions, including the Oracles at Delphi and elsewhere, which were originally goddess oracles. “Dementia” is, at one level, about the Pythia, the Delphic Oracle. Many figures appear again and again in my poems – especially the goddess Inanna, who descended into darkness and returned. She’s asking for the whole cycle to be told and maybe I can write that now, at last.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m older than many poets and I’m finding it very interesting. I think young writers are sold a bill of goods about getting out there and getting published and being in a huge rush. I started late, so I had no choice – it’s too late to change my stripes or even try on other stripes for size, which is a great blessing. All I can do is try to write more and more like myself.
But the real surprise is what amazing riches are here in this time of life we are taught to dread. We all fear it so much we can’t even look straight at it – the time of loss and dissolution, of forgetting the names of things and being terrified of what that means, of being un-beautiful and invisible – but it’s also juicy with new sensations and experiences. I would never have guessed that when I was thirty.
I write mostly from inside the body, by feeling what is outside of my physical field as if it were inside me or as if I were inside it. So there is almost always that basis in sensation, feeling my way out from inside through sensation. And sound and rhythm are very important to me, dance is very important – the dance of the lines, the sounds and mouth-feel of words, the rhythms of a poem, its pulse and breath.
My poems are meant to be spoken, chanted, or sung, and need to be heard and breathed that way. So I’m getting more and more interested in the possibilities of video, percussion, movement – of finding a way out from behind the podium.
Why do I write what I do?
What else could I write? I wrote a mystery novel once – got all the plot straight (which wasn’t easy, for me) and developed some quirky, interesting characters including a great dog – I really miss that dog – and revised and polished and took it to a mystery writers’ conference. Several wonderful writers and agents read it, or parts of it, and basically what they all said was, Well, this is beautifully written and I love it and all that but you’ve got to have a murder in the first three chapters, not halfway through! And all these descriptions of the smell of chaparral and the feel of swimming in the ocean are just ducky but no one wants to read that kind of stuff in a mystery novel!
And since the chaparral and the ocean were the parts I liked, I figured I’d better just focus on poetry. So that’s what I did.
In the end I think we can only write what we are. We want to have that conversation with the vastness of our own being. If I write praise poems to myself and the earth, it’s because late in life I have found so much to praise.
How does my writing process work?
I like to write by hand in my notebook in the morning for half an hour, more if there’s time. Or I like to walk for a couple of hours in the morning and record myself talking. Then later in the day I transcribe it into my notebook. Usually there are pages of brain garbage to empty before I start anything that could be called “writing.”
Later, sometimes weeks later, I read through my morning pages and transfer phrases or images that seem to have a lot of energy or resonance to another page – usually an entirely different notebook. And I start from the phrase or image and just write from that for as long as it takes until it feels I’ve exhausted the energy.
The next phase is cutting out everything except what feels really alive, and transferring it to the computer. I revise and revise. Sometimes it just never works and I have some poems I’ve published that I regret, because I knew they hadn’t become what they wanted to become, and I wasn’t up to it yet. Now maybe I would be, but I have new things that interest me more.
The poem goes through stages of realization which I usually think of as going from private to public to Being. It begins in my unconscious, pouring without reservation out onto paper, but from that point on I work consciously at this absorbing and demanding craft to create something else: the experience of the poem, which is a communal experience. And then, sometimes, the poem takes over and speaks for itself, and it doesn’t belong to me anymore, or anyone but itself. That’s what I mean by Being.
This said, I have to admit that it is far easier for me to write when I am away from home. I love writers’ retreats, especially with my own beloved “flamingo sisters” writing group, and at the AROHO women writers’ retreat at Ghost Ranch every two years. Irresponsibility sets me free! Perhaps this is something women writers especially need – to be somewhere that (even if they wanted to) they can’t fix it, find it, buy it, clean it, remind anyone about it, make a phone call about it, enter it in a spreadsheet, or pick it up for dinner. Ahhhhhh.
PASSING THE TORCH!
Here’s the best part of this whole “My Writing Process” Blog Tour – directing what I imagine to be a magic busload – no, a magic cruise ship! – of writing process tourists to the wonderful blogs of my friends Lisa Rizzo, Esther Cohen, Louise Crawford and Elana Bell.
Lisa Rizzo is a delightful poet, middle school language arts teacher, and world traveler. Her image, arms victoriously upraised in what we call the “Lisa Rizzo posture,” graces her FB page and is frequently imitated by others.
I first met Lisa at AROHO Ghost Ranch in 2011 and since then she has cheered my heart and made me laugh and inspired me – most recently with her gift for crystalline, resonant haiku.
Lisa was born in Texas, grew up in Chicago and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the chapbook In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011) which was just (glowingly) reviewed in The California Journal of Women Writers. This year, five of Lisa’s poems appeared in Aspiring to Inspire, an anthology published in honor of Women’s History Month.
Lisa blogs at Poet Teacher Seeks World – thus connecting three major threads of her busy life.
I also met Esther Cohen at Ghost Ranch in 2011, and renewed acquaintance through The Haiku Room this year. Always Esther says the word that magically transports us out of the box and into a world in which “poem” is an active verb. Because I could never say it so perfectly, I am going to quote her biographical email to me in full:
“Whenever I am in a room, especially a circle in that room, when I am teaching, or when I am speaking, and it becomes time to Say Who You Are, to tell a sentence or two of your story, or three or four, I always feel like I am a tongue tied participant at an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting, and although there are hundreds of sentences I could say, maybe even thousands (I have lived for a reasonable and unreasonable number of years by now, through some decades) I become speechless. The usual sentences don’t seem quite right because my path has been so peculiar, so full of event and unpredictability, so random and dense, that I don’t know how to tell you about that in a sentence or two.
I have always been a writer. My first published interview, when I was the editor in chief of my seventh grade newspaper, The Peck Observer, was actually with Jane Mansfield at Grossingers Hotel. She autographed a matchbook which is still on my desk. Jane and I stood side by side in an official photograph. She looked amazing and I did not.
I wrote all through high school and college and the 40 years (!!!) after college. But I did not earn my living writing. I worked for Bob Marley, then in book publishing. I ran a gallery in SOHO and spent 20 years running Bread and Roses, a non-profit cultural program for working people. I am a union activist, a teacher, a poet, an essayist, a secular humanist, novelist, and a woman getting older.
I have had many literary agents, and one Armenian husband. I have a son named Noah, and he is actually married to a woman from Capetown with the amazing name Chesray Dolpha. I like to believe there is nothing I can’t write about. My five published books include two novels, a book of poems, a humor book with the amazing Roz Chast, and an edited collection of photographs called Unseenamerica. I want to write five more.”
The third writer I want to introduce here is Louise Crawford, founder of the delightful Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, a popular Brooklyn Blog started in 2004. A writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, she was the Smartmom columnist for the Brooklyn Paper from 2005-2010.
Louise is the author of two unpublished novels: Searching for Bio Dad and The Last Sublet. She is also the author of a book of poetry, Five Ten on Tuesday, as yet unpublished. A publicist for authors, she runs Brooklyn Social Media and is a passionate advocate for people and projects she believes in. Louise also runs a monthly thematic literary reading series called Brooklyn Reading Works at the Old Stone House, a museum in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
And lastly, my friend, the astonishing poet Elana Bell, who blogs (and performs, and teaches …) at elanabell.com.
Elana’s first collection of poetry, Eyes, Stones was selected by Fanny Howe as the winner of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award and was published by Lousiana State University Press in April 2012. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Edward Albee Foundation, and the Brooklyn Arts Council. Her work has recently appeared in AGNI, Harvard Review, and the Massachusetts Review.
Elana leads creative writing workshops for women in prison, for educators, for high school students in Israel-Palestine and throughout the five boroughs of New York City, as well as for the pioneering peace building and leadership organization, Seeds of Peace. She was a recent finalist for the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, an award which recognizes and honors a poet who is doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. Elana also teaches literature and creative writing at CUNY College of Staten Island and curates public art installations with Poets in Unexpected Places.
Watch this marvelous video of Elana reading and talking about poetry.