Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
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Different Lyrics, Same Melody

I tend to read as a writer and write like a reader, which is to say that I am greatly inspired by the poetry of others. Nothing urges me to write more than reading an achingly, breathtakingly good poem. As a teacher and editor, I value my role as advocate/promoter as much as I do my role as a poet. In fact, I sometimes see little difference between reader and writer, particularly when I consider the way good writing invites readers to participate in the work. Reading, too, can be viewed an act of creation. We engage in a kind of “writing” when we read, as we visualize and imagine—when the poet’s thoughts and language move in our minds. Poetry allows us to supply context through our own associations with words, allows us to bring to the poem our own memories and experience.

While emotion and lived experience occupy a central place in my work, memory and feeling, as they exist in the world outside the poem, are unruly at best and overwhelming at worst. Other poets’ work frequently provides helpful examples—a framework, foundation, or scaffold—upon which I can build my own poem. My analytical side often prompts me to examine the way a poem operates; I like to understand its mechanics—the line breaks, syntax, the rhetorical twists and turns. If it moves me, I ask: How did the poet do that? What if I gave it a try? And sometimes, in the work that results, perhaps our voices may be heard simultaneously—a discordant duet, or one sung in harmony. A tune with different lyrics sung with the same melody.

I don’t really follow any particular kind of writing regimen—no midnight, candlelight, or billowing blouses for me. In fact, I’ve tried to become a little less precious about the act of writing by cultivating what could be called a “perpetually writing” state of mind. I’m attempting to shift my thinking away from seeing writing as separate from living, as a task for which we must make time. Though I can’t say I’ve been completely successful or that I’m constantly composing on paper or in my mind, I can say that I’ve been a bit more productive while stopped in traffic, brushing my teeth, or flopped in a lawn chair in the backyard. Equipped with a pencil and utility bill, my checkbook, a magazine, whatever I find, I jot down observations and ideas like Doctor Reefy, a Winesburg “grotesque” from Sherwood Anderson’s story “Paper Pills.” But unlike the doctor, rather than stuffing these “little pyramids of truth” into tattered pockets, I round them up, and often they’ll find a suitable home in a poem.

This isn’t to say that my poems don’t involve some kind of process, but that process varies from poem to poem. Like most poets and writers, I experience the world in an open, porous kind of way, seeing everything—from tetherballs to traffic cones—as material for poems. I always remind myself to make moreobservations and fewer judgments, to provide more description and less analysis. Though I hope my work makes connections and provides ways to view and understand the world, I find that when I start from a place of “knowing,” it blocks the path to discovery. At first I try to focus on things instead of what those things might ultimately mean.

Writing for me is both an act of expression and communication, a negotiation between reader and writer, as well as an act of self-discovery—a way of knowing my place in the world. While firmly rooted in reality, something happens when experience becomes poetry, in that collision between observation, reflection, and the transmission of thoughts into words. My poems, while informed by experience, involve to some degree imagination, fabrication, and a healthy amount of speculation. I write about desire, but also about what scares me, with poems rising from anxiety and fear. That said, I’ve been told that my work deals with serious subjects in playful ways, and I believe some of that comes from what could be called “playing on the page.” However, my poems, while at times irreverent, come from a place that’s sincere.  

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