Beautiful day for a poetry event, I think! Taking a break from the book fest near my parents’ house to type this up at the local cafe… there wasn’t time to read whole poems, but I did a snippet of a prompted one that we were given, and it seemed to be well-received. And at one point we talked about description and outlining the setting of the poem, which got me thinking about self-reference. It’s one of my favorite brain-breaking topics which is difficult to do in poetry, at least; do you remember the quantum poetry prompts from some weeks ago? I’ve read my share of Douglas Hofstadter’s work, and I’m enchanted by it, but I’ll spare you the really wacky stuff that would be nigh-impossible to get into. We’ll just be mildly self-referential this time.
This week: “strange loop”
Part of the charm of writing poetry is the ability to transport yourself to other locations with the swipe of a pen, not to mention slip into some other story of your life, bring in lies as details, etc. And as I’ve said before, I’m a believer in breaking out of the habit to cherish it the more. Bear with me on this one. Before we get started, you may wish to find somewhere to write whose mood you want reflected in your poem. If you want a comfortable poem, choose your usual writing spot; a meditative poem, choose somewhere quietly interesting; an uneasy poem, go somewhere you’ve never been.
Begin by free-writing for five minutes about your space, place, and location. I separate these three because they have three different senses. “Space” is the physical and emotional feel of where you are: bring in the senses and the gut reactions to construct the cafe/bedroom/park bench/wherever. “Place” conveys the social and cultural information summed up by where you are: what does a cafe suggest? What does one do in the bedroom (yeah, yeah, I know you’re thinking it)? And “location” gets historical and geographical: you can think in terms of GPS coordinates or town, state, and country, as long as you’re honest with what weight those things have for you. Let these three levels resonate with you, both from your experience and from your intellect. I could say:
Space: cafe table with whorls in the wood like waves, scent of steamed milk, 4 Non Blondes on the radio, the black plastic chair hard underneath me
Place: local cafe, social zone for the town’s artsy writer community, quaint little building with a lot full of flowers on the corner, somewhere to meet people and create together
Location: South Jersey, homeland, reassuring and familiar, full of the SJ dialect “a”-sound I love
All my memories in this cafe interact with all the other cafes of been to. This cafe’s place in my mental map of South Jersey is heavy with significance. Et cetera.
Once you have fleshed out your location with some free-writing, begin to write about yourself for another five minutes. What are you wearing? How are you feeling, physically and emotionally, today? Are you eating or drinking something? What was the last word you said to someone else? And get more interesting with the inversions of the usual questions you might ask: what are you not wearing, that you always do? Have you just gotten through some physical or emotional feeling that you needed to overcome, or do you feel the threat of one coming on? What are you craving right now? What was the word you didn’t say? Try to stay away from generalities – no zodiac signs, or ages, or unchangeable features like eye color – and live in the moment. Here’s me:
I’m wearing a black shirt and my favorite jeans with the patched knees that my mom gave me for Xmas. Sipping a butterscotch latte, thinking about a sandwich for lunch. There’s a bit of a headache (from caffeine withdrawal), but it’s wearing off. I’m wearing the bracelet the Fellow gave me, mismatched earrings, and a pendant from Greece. But I didn’t bring the MetroCard that’s always in my pocket, as I’m not in NYC.
The final piece of this free-writing puzzle is to write about the action of writing. We’re getting a little bit ars poetica here: if you’re not familiar with the term (which is just Latin for “poetic art”), it’s often used to describe what I like to call meta-poetry, writing poetry about writing poetry. This can be really trite and saccharine stuff (we’re trying to avoid that), or simply a very personal moment that you’re letting us into. Do five more minutes of free-writing about the process itself. Write about how you think I’m a jerk for making this prompt more complicated than it needs to be, write about the keys on your keyboard that don’t work so you’re avoiding those letters, write about the hue of the ink from your pen. Describe those moments of writer’s block; describe equally the moments of inspiration, even if they’re only two words long.
This is where it gets weird. What I want you to do with these three chunks of writing is to create a cycle with them: think rock-paper-scissors, where the chain can just keep going on forever. How do we do this? You don’t have to get super fancy and deep, but simply allow yourself to build up the scene with elements of where/when you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. (The “why” and “how” is what will seep in, with luck.) Do allow yourself to jazz up your metaphors and images a little bit. I might start off with something like this:
I am tapping out a sonata on the laptop,
nearly ready for its first flight. Perhaps it will be
a guiding-bird, stained on its crown with one
butterscotch drop fallen from my unspeaking lips.
Jersey light comes in through the closed window.
Jersey voices tug at me in many different directions.
I am pausing for a moment to stroke the “s” key
and cannot tell why it makes the whole
of gravity feel different.
But the mug still sits on its flat lacquerwood beach,
and the cupbearers pass in and out, unhurried…
So: there is writing, then cafe, then Jersey, then writing again, then cafe again… I tried not to think too much while writing this, so that I could try to pull out some themes and all. The idea of feeling unmoored while in a comfortable place is starting to gel from it, I think.
Which leads me to my final two points, both of which I’m borrowing from the poetry workshop earlier. First, the theme of this poem will be like rock candy. Fill the lines with your freewriting, like it’s sugar-water; then dip the idea of creating an ever-revolving loop with the pieces, like a piece of string or a stick, into those images. The poem will begin to crystallize around it, and the themes will begin to appear as you go, so that you can tweak it by the end. And of course, you’ll want to go back and edit, not the least of which because: this poem can get LONG. Note the capital letters. More than likely, you’ll end up with more than you expected or wanted, and the real challenge here is going to be trimming the fat down to the lean. (Of course, if you like epics, keep it as it is; but be merciless.) You want every word to be worthwhile, something that will add to the cutting-deep of a poem.
Play around with the ideas in here, and the beauty of this exercise is that it can be repeated with infinite variations at almost any time and place. Come back and share some of the fruits of your labors, and maybe you’ll see that while we’re all strange loops, some of us are stranger than we thought.