When you ask me to revise a poem you ask me to meet again the Muse who seldom responds to invitation. She comes in suddenly through the door left open, announcing Her presence with words that have never sat together before. She says what She has to say and goes quiet; goes away or gets broken down into elements of the universe that I absorb without an intent.
Where am I to find this forceful genius?
I’ve been told to look for Her in spaces in-between words and lines, rhyme and rhythm, movement and breaks, language and sound. But I don’t find my Muse there; I find a key in a foreign language to a map that She drew.
Is She hiding in the white glow that lights my keyboard when I switch on my workstation? So, I should work and work and work on my verses. Or, is She in the deep breath that helps me ease into sleep? Then, I should breathe and breathe and breathe with my eyes closed to trick her into appearing. Perhaps it’s She who is the trickster: a mirage; a playful spirit that whispers in my ear. In which case I am cursed with the burden of loneliness.
With or without Her it seems it’s going to take a lot of time to re-see a moment that no longer exists, to re-write it in a way so that it exists forever.
I am beginning to grapple with the abstract idea of “completion” in creative writing which seems even murkier when talking about poetry. I read recently that “a poem is not truly finished until it has been seriously revised” and also “be wary of a poem that appears to be finished“. Statements that, as an amateur with 8 weeks of formal education in poesy, I find contradictory.
I need to also say that the poems you have been reading on my blog are not “seriously” revised. They have been written quickly, in a matter of an hour to a few hours if the form is tough (the Sestina, which is one of the hardest forms, took me about 12 hours). These poems are here more or less as they came to me. Now I am considering that all of this work here is a) probably unfinished, which is not a bad thing as, Da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned” and b) not good, trite, tripe. It’s making me question the quality of my natural skill for this art form. Though at present I am depressed by the thought, I am hopeful that I can see this as something to learn from; that all this self-doubt will make me a better writer and that it is a natural process. I hope it happens sooner rather than later because my Muse seems to have gone into hiding for fear that I will doubt Her every word and I cannot sleep because thoughts only She can give birth to have grown louder in my head in her absence.
I have received only love from this wonderful blogging community, for which I am immensely grateful but this post is not about wanting an ego-boost. At this point I just want to learn from you, specifically about the role of revision in your creative process. Any and all thoughts are welcome from everyone, poet or not. Who knows who might be inspired by your comment!
Here’s an example of the creative process of the great Walt Whitman,
Summary of the manuscript (from Boston Public Library)
Written in Walt Whitman’s own hand, this early manuscript version of To a Locomotive in Winter shows Whitman’s creative process as he revised and reworked the poem, changing words and even pasting paper overlays of new passages until he was satisfied with the result. This manuscript poem is dated February 23, 1874, but Whitman continued to modify the text and it was considerably altered when published in 1876 in Two Rivulets, a companion volume to the 1876 edition of Leaves of Grass. This poem was republished in the 1900 edition of Leaves of Grass, well after Whitman’s death.
I lost my dreams in between these mattresses
we share. The gap is pressed against my spine
and I wake up feeling disjointed. Sensory
elusion, recession at this gorge-made of bed sheet-
marking our sleep, where dead cells accumulate.
Vertical blinds open at one slat allow
light through without interference to light
the room in grey tones. My right-foot heel
is stuck in the enveloping gap between
our mattresses. I bend my toes in unison
and then stretch them out to get blood going.
I lost my dreams in between these mattresses
we share. I stretch my arm over on your side
to feel the impression of your body and it feels warm.
My arm flails ruffling the sheet and your duvet is far.
In an awkward angle I find your pillow,
and I bring it to my face and inhale your new-age
man musky sweat smelling of AXE power and Gucci
‘Made to Measure’ and this gap between our
mattresses widens as I shrink. I fall into it helpless
remembering your curved spine for which
I’d cross this gap each night.
I lost my dreams in between these mattresses
we share but grasp at this illusion of poetry
I found in waking up without you.
In Art that lives on expression of dead subjects his genius shines. With each hard brush stroke he claims a retinal cell and soon my vision is conquered. I see scratches of a forgotten soul emaciated and under hardwood floors, of loneliness. He has scratched in the face of a mother and her newborn.
One’s eyes are closed and the other’s opened in terror. They are a beautiful, pristine and hypnotic striking blue of a whirlpool.
The dreary sombre browns of the mother’s face and her strangling embrace of her child; her long bony fingers that grasp him and her thumb behind his back to: hold his spine? or to press a nerve? One can guess.
It is the rosy life of the child that blushes on the edges of the scream. He is locked within the frame of the portrait with no release. His left palm stretched and pressed. His thumb hooked and too far away from his parted red lips to provide a comforting suckle.
Where is the child’s right hand and in what position under this shroud of smothering darkness?
I can only wonder at Egon’s fingers.
I love Egon Schiele’s works. I felt their power first-hand in the art museums of Vienna. I went there primarily to admire Gustav Klimt’s paintings and designs and came back being more profoundly impacted by Schiele. I had never experienced such rawness and vulnerability in a painting before. Schiele broke all social rules and didn’t do it as a gimmick. He lived a life of loss and died before he could enjoy commercial success. The “Dead Mother” series, to which the above painting belongs, is incredibly moving. If you are ever in Vienna please visit the Leopold Museum to enjoy Schiele’s masterpieces.
I will always take offence, as though its
taking is my right, in that
one word I seek I believe to be
the Rosetta Stone
of your understanding of me.
You should have never spoken.
But I don’t know what
You had said for the fog to close in.
It was white. Yes, raging hot white.
You must know what I spoke
While I was under its spell.
I can’t seem to tell; I felt controlled
Down there, that crafty mist of misery made me
Twist my words into ropes to hang us.
Can I take back my words,
Unspool them somehow?
I have surfaced now
From a deep chasm of hate
And boiling taunts.
The air up here, freshly roasted and brewed
With an aftertaste of sulphur.
The continents are shifting, you are
Drifting away from me.
Fridays are too nice to feel elegiac so this is as deep as I wanted to tread the grief-filled waters. Sorry Writing 201, I will not lament (too much) on a Friday! However, I’ve always enjoyed testing metaphors. I use them as scaffolds to construct a thought. I still have much to learn about using them effectively. At times I build the scaffold too high for my thought to reach or too low to complete my thought, then the construction ends up looking shoddy and costing me too much. But you live and you learn, eh? Here’s another poem I wrote to practice the usage of figurative language (metaphors and similes) and meter; and one where the fog coloured my perception of life.
This post is inspired by a wonderful photograph for a brave little Red Admiral butterfly taken by Derrick J. Knight. Its wings are tattered but that didn’t stop it from coming out to enjoy the sunshine. What a magical moment, made permanent on film! Thank you Derrick for sharing this with us. I also owe you the title of this poem. You will find Derrick’s post with the photograph here. I’ve tried to match the shape of the poem to Derrick’s butterfly to the best of my abilities (well, what an hour or so of effort would allow for at least).
Here’s what a full-bodied Red Admiral butterfly would look like:
This is my first attempt at Concrete Poetry and it’s a tough form! Thank you Writing 201…
Situated usually at the start to grab notice, Undulating with the tone, a poem’s voice Breaks in first, second or third but Just so you know it is a mere toy, a ploy Enacted to lull you into feeling. It Can, based on timing, be real in Telling what the poet’s being is dealing with. Over the course of many hours of Reading poetry with its personage deceiving Oscillations of meaning occur, when Both sides of the coin are considered. Juxtaposing the “I” with you or “You” with the poet Enhances the mirthful trouble of annotating Convoluted thinking. The question, at last, I pose is: Trust a poet’s biography or her verses?
Since I started writing poetry, which was when I was may be 7 or 8 and I composed a little rhyme about the change in animal activity when winter is approaching, I’d always written in first person. I had also always written from my personal life. This is ironic because that first poem, which went something like, “Mr. *something* and Mr. *something* are running here and there; We see the *something* collecting fruit and the fox behind the hare.” (yes, I have forgotten that rhyme and my cousin helped me with it), was written during my vacation in the boiling heat of coastal southern India. It seems that my very first ditty had nothing to do with my actual life. From then on, however, I wrote from what I was experiencing and my voice was always a defiant “I”. It was also how I interpreted others’ poetry. An “I” is always the person who wrote the poem.
Over the last few weeks my judgement has changed drastically. I now know that the voice of a poem is a “speaker” employed by the poet. It may be the poet’s actual being but in many cases it a fictional amorphic voice that a poet inhabits to speak of his/her experience as objectively as possible. It has helped me find better expression, delve deeper into my own psyche and importantly get my message on paper without the block that I face when trying to articulate my fears. There are of course many great confessional poets (Sylvia Plath for example) who have the tremendous talent and courage to paint their difficulties in true colours without having to rise above it. (I don’t think Sylvia Plath had a choice in that matter.)
My “I” is changing in its subject and its objectification. It’s allowing to me make characters out of my speaker, to approach poetry with an eye of fiction. I am also approaching my prose with an eye of a poet. I am used to cross-disciplinary scientific research and I’m surprised to have never considered such crossovers to occur also in the literature. (D’Uh!) Right now I am imagining you wonderful writers (who have learnt “how to write”) reading this post and smiling and shaking your head in a kind parental way. I am growing up. I am standing right now at the door frame of deliberate writing, next to my growth chart, and there is a new notch being added…I have grown an entire inch! How exciting!
However I think I’ll find that my family members will always be perturbed by any personal pronoun in an even mildly troubling poem. (Literary device? What is that? Is that something you can use to call us for free?) I suppose I would have to tag my poems as “fiction” as and when required to avoid some anxious messages from my mother. (I love you mom. I miss you.)
Here's my confession: I have travelled about 10 times around the earth on Swiss rails. Approximately 400,000 km. I have spent more time on these trains than I have with my friends and family. I can't go into the Whys and the Hows. It wasn't an easy life but it surely was an interesting ride.
I don’t drive. I have a driver’s permit, from India, but the day I received it my Dad told me that he would never let me take the car out. He feared that I wouldn’t be able to handle Indian traffic by myself, that I was too nervous. Also that the majority of the population behind the wheel is male and just seeing that I am female is enough for them to harass me. Thus, my license is now a decrepit old plastic card with my face on it, that’s turning white on the edges. It hasn’t seen the light of day in close to a decade. Practically speaking, I can’t drive.
I use public transport unless someone is kind enough to drive me to the place I wish to go. When I moved to Switzerland I realized immediately that I was in a privileged position. The standard of transportation facilities in this tiny country that has just 8 million residents is remarkable. The country runs on time (and on money), like no other place I have ever known. I had never before understood punctuality in its intended meaning until I started using Swiss public transportation, which is ‘Be on time indicated or get punched in the gut for missing the meeting.’ If the bus is to arrive at 8:04 and the driver sees you running towards the bus stand 20 meters away at 8:04 he’ll not wait for you. You are late! He will not wait because it is disrespectful to the people in the bus who were on time. He is doing his job by following the rules but you still feel like punching him. In these ways I learnt what it means to be Swiss – orderly, law-abiding, disgruntled by the system at times but still proud and very much adherent to the social norms.
My personal and professional lives in Switzerland were at two ends of the central railway line. I bought the GA/AG – Generalabonnement (de) or Abonnement Général (fr) – the brilliant and expensive travel pass for residents that let’s one use any mode of public transport to go almost everywhere in Switzerland. Some premium mountain passes and tourist traps are not covered but the GA holders get a discount. If used regularly the holder comes out the winner. The GA/AG card also lets one experience and appreciate (after a while) that those who hold this pass are under a self-imposed gag order. Also the reason why I call the GA the GAG pass. They usually take fixed lines at fixed times and hence there is no talking or ooh-ing or aah-ing. They work. Or sleep. Or catch up on the news. If a ‘foreigner’ or a teenager or a tourist is seen yapping away on the phone or chatting loudly about the beauty of the Swiss landscape during rush hours then s/he will be stared at. That’s the rudest thing to happen to you in a Swiss train: the Swiss death stare. I know because I have done it. I have tried using my mind to get the person sitting opposite me to shut up, and it’s almost always failed.
The times I took the train outside of the main GAG hours (yes, that’s what I am calling rush hours) something remarkable happened. I ended up conversing with interesting strangers and also noticing the strangest of behaviours. If you, the reader, are from any other country you’d probably think I am making an Alpine mountain out of a Marmot hole. But you’d be mistaken. It’s normal in your part of the world to talk to people sitting next you in a bar or a bus or a plane. It is not so normal here. Swiss people respect privacy above all else. Why else do you think there are so my famous people living here? Along with the tax benefits they get anonymity. I feel oddities should be recorded. So here’s my collection of the best meetings I have had on the Swiss trains,
Never judge a book by its cover
I read, more than most but less than some. If I know I’ll be out of the house for more than 2 hours then I carry a book with me. I take books to weddings. It is no surprise then that I read on the train. It’s a normal habit. A lot of people read on Swiss trains. Nothing extraordinary. Except, the books I have read has led some very cool people to talk to me. The first book is Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk. It is one of the best memoirs I have read. I was so engrossed in it that I was unaware of a very handsome young man who’d been staring at me (and the book) for a while. When I looked up he had the broadest smile and told me how much he loved that book. He went on to suggest Snow by the same author and we had a very brief chat. It isn’t a ‘Wow! That’s such a cool story’ story admittedly . But it was the first time a stranger had spoken to me in a Swiss train. Until then I had always felt a little out-of-place and rather oppressed by the silence. I was too mindful of the social protocols and was always on edge. That man broke a stereotype for me that day. I began to relax more.
Some time later when I was reading an Indian author (I forget whom) a South Asian gentleman who was seated opposite me introduced himself. He wanted to talk about the book and the author. We started chatting easily. He was clearly a very well-educated man who knew his books. We started talking about movies based on books and then he asked me if I had seen (this was a few years ago now) Game of Thrones. I said no but that I’d heard of it. (HBO right? I love HBO.) He went on to tell me about George R. R. Martin and The Song of Ice and Fire. I wasn’t convinced, since I hadn’t read a fantasy novel since the Harry Potter series. He insisted I read it. I did and fell in obsessive love. We kept meeting on the train, we had the same hours it seemed and we started talking about new books, movies and TV shows. He introduced me to Anime, to the great Hayao Miyazaki. I would have never known the wondrous beautiful world of fantasy art if it wasn’t for him. I still can’t believe that this one stranger has unknowingly made my life so much richer. I am more open to new genres of literature because of him.
My final story is my most special. One Saturday morning I was stretched out on an empty seat in a largely empty train with Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry. An elderly Swiss gentleman walked by looking for a vacant four-seater. I suppose he wanted to stretch out too. I straightened up when I saw him but he moved by too quickly to have noticed. I kept the book on the serving table and was rummaging through my bag when I heard, “I know this man”. I looked up and it was the old man. He said, “I know this man who wrote the book. Stephen Fry. Funny man.” He asked if he could sit down and I couldn’t have been happier. I think he saw that he had shocked me with his confession. He introduced himself and went on to tell me that he had been in London for many years where he had the opportunity to work with Mr. Fry. He told me that he charges £10,000 per talk in a scandalised tone. “Such a smart man.”, he said. Yes, indeed. All I could do was nod vigorously trying to soak in every bit of information. I now felt so close to Stephen Fry. I was star struck.
Then the conversation went on to our daily lives and he happily spoke about his life in Switzerland, his social work, his love for the quiet life in Bern and his distaste for the big money and bad service in Zurich. He bought me a coffee from the mobile snack bar! That one coffee has meant more to me than so many fancy meals in fancy places here in Switzerland. It was a random act of kindness shown to me by a Swiss stranger. A couple walked by whom he happened to know. They joined us. He introduced me to them and then I let the three of them catch up. I read for the rest of our journey together. Soon it was time for them to leave and as he departed he apologised for not having spoken to me more. I hope we meet again someday. There is always so much talk about this country being unfriendly to immigrants and passing right-wing laws. Whenever I get offended by such propaganda, the black sheep and crow ruining the pure white Swiss cross, I remember this elderly Swiss man and I reason my way out of generalisation.
SBB: Swiss Bafflement Bonus
A Swiss rail staffer who worked the mobile snack bar would always stop by my seat, blocking the path for those wishing to move around. He’d want to exchange pleasantries with me loudly to the annoyance of others. I would get the stare. At some point he’d leave and I’d cower inside my book and smile weakly at my neighbours. (He he. Sorry. He’s a friendly guy.) I guess he saw me frowning too often and decided I needed a friend. I can’t understand why else he’d do it!
The iPad guy
There was once a man on the SBB CFF FFS
Who loved to show off I must confess
He’d buy all Apple products in triplicate
And take off the dust jacket for effect
He’d then proceed to sit next to you
And open his bag as if on cue
He’d put one iPad on the ground discreet
Then wait for you to kick it with your feet!
Every time. Every single time I have met this man he’s done this. I have seen all the upgrades of the iPad at my feet. I couldn’t help but tell this tale poetically.
People never cease to amaze me!
I didn’t think I could ever put a positive spin on my lack of independent mobility. For a while I have been telling people that using public transport keeps my carbon footprint low. What it actually did for me is keep my human footprint really high. I would have never guessed when I first came to this country that the one place I would meet people not affiliated to any part of my life would be the one place that has no address, is regulated but sees no boundaries and all the while is very Swiss. It has been all about the journey.
Note: I was approached by the wonderful people over at meetingsbooker.com to write a post on my favourite meeting place. The Swiss rail stories seemed like a perfect idea. They are all true. This is not a sponsored post and all views are my own.
You would need a shirt
to cover up at the beach. A true
layer of warmth sadly does not suit
any season. The daily rite
of razing what is sire-
d not of your own volition is sure
to rub anyone the wrong way. Tire-
some products, apparatuses for a suite
bathroom – are sophisticated but hurt-
ful to a natural hobbit from the Shire.
I am trying something new. Sometimes prompts and normal styles feel mundane and I need a fresh challenge to push my creativity. Enter, Terrance Hayes. He invents new formal constraints to write interestingly about very human subjects. I haven’t read his works (yet); just the one poem: Nuclear, which is a perfect example for an ‘Anagram poem‘.
These poems are adopted from the word games that we find in newspapers. The rules are:
End words must be derived from four or more letters in the title.
Words which acquire four letters by the addition of “s” are not used.
Only one form of a verb is used.
Crafting this poem was a very enjoyable experience. I found it stimulating to have to speak about the subject with the words that are derived from the subject – there is something very Cubist about this affair.
I haven’t made any surprising inventions here (and hope to get better with practice) but I was surprised by how my thoughts could weave around designated words and still not lose their intentions. Is this what it means to be led by the horse and the road?
Update: Judy from lifelessons blog chose this as her prompt for the day (thank you so much!) and has brewed a brilliant Anagram Poem of her own, with a twist. Make sure you read it here.
Nananoyz from Praying for Eyebrowz has also attempted an Anagram poem and made the challenge even trickier. A brilliant composition. Have a look here.
There are moments in life, rare ones, when you feel utterly connected with the inanimate. You cannot believe that something that can’t move, is as still as that pen that refuses to write your words for you, has moved you. I had one of these moments last night. I didn’t go looking for it but this journey that I am on led me to it. Sort of like when you turn a blind corner and a lush garden in bloom with all your favourite flowers meets your unfocussed eyes to make you suddenly aware that you had been walking with a purpose. The air becomes still and the moment is etched in your mind with a smile that surprised even you. Then come the tears almost instantaneously, tugged by the engine of this thing that is not moving but is slowly gaining momentum. How are you not transported then to another realm of consciousness? How are you to resist the implication of these connections? It is all inevitable. It happens because the black on white speaks of all the grey in you and what is dead in terms of life is more alive than all the real you see.
Thank you Mary Oliver for a poem that may just have saved me,
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Copyright @ 1986 by Mary Oliver. First published in Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press. Reprinted in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Beacon Press.