Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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Awake in Discomfort

Questions have always come much more readily to me than answers. Given this fact, it probably makes sense that most of my writing starts with a problem or an unanswerable question, something that I am stuck on or troubled by. There’s this wonderful quote from Lucie Brock-Broido: “My theory is that a poem is troubled into its making. It’s not like a thing that blooms; it’s a thing that wounds. I had a terror I could tell to none, as Dickinson would say.” I fully subscribe to this theory; I come to the page to wrestle, ask, and dig at splinters. I also began as a fiction writer, which means that a poem is just as likely to open from a setting or character I’m interested in as a line, image, problem, memory, or argument ringing in my head. Growing up, I used to dream of being a doctor or a professional cellist, and the start of a poem feels both like making an incision and beginning a piece of music to me.

I’ve long been a nocturnal creature, and most of my surges of creativity seem to happen between dusk and daybreak. Part of this has to do with quiet and darkness—the softness and feeling of intimacy in those hours—as well as the strange, dreamy language and images that bubble up at night. I am also an extremely distractible person who needs quiet and isolation to focus intensely—pretty much the only music I can listen to while reading or writing is instrumental (with the exception of Gregorian chants). I’m most anxious when I am alone, and that anxiety is an easier threshold into language for me than the consolation of others’ company: I need to be a little uneasy, awake in discomfort, in order to read and write. I also love to have a touch of the sensory during this process—bitter tea alongside a burning cedar or Macintosh candle, a worn flannel and the glow of a lamp or fairy lights. I keep a stack of poetry books, novels, and nonfiction on my bedside table and beside my favorite armchair, since I like to spend at least a couple of hours reading before I sit down to write.

Some of my best poems have also been set off or punctuated by walks or runs: wading through the cold, prickly shallows of Lake Michigan; jogging the gravel roads near my grandparents’ house in Wisconsin; flying past farms, ditches, taverns, and shadowed woods. I get both images and a sense of rhythm from these journeys; I have a journal, a Word document, and an open file in the Notes app on my phone where I jot down images and lines. Mostly, I use a perpetually open Word document as a sort of sandbox full of language and ideas—and let it swell, sprawling with drafts, fragments, and half-finished poems. I usually have one of these documents for each season, which I return to, fishing out language, reshaping, cutting, adding to the mess of it night after night.  

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