These days poems come to me through image first. I notice small things: on the road a flattened bird flaps its wings as a car drives by, on the lake two herons trumpet and tangle their necks, a dog coughs up worms. For me this has been the hardest part, I mean the hardest part, of the creative process: listening to the world around you. It takes time to notice the small moments as automatons trying to survive another day—the coffee’s bitterness, the sting of the showerhead’s cold pins before steam and hot water warm the pipes, the cool mint or licorice on a tongue white from sleep. I begin each day with a breathing exercise to bring myself into my body. I used to be a better meditator, but from years of vipassana mindfulness meditation I feel for my breath entering my body, center myself, and then get up.
If I should notice something common that strikes me as either striking or beautiful (whatever that means) I make a note of it in my journal or even my phone depending on where I am, trying to remember to breathe into my deepest part. Too often I suck in my gut, breathe into my chest instead of deep into my belly. Belly-breathing reminds me that I am allowed to take up the space that I do. In doing so I am able to notice more of what’s around me. A kind of connection between breath and image, quite unlike Olson’s treatise on breath*.
Often, I will do some deeper looking into the process or the animal that I’ve noticed. I look for interesting facts on habitat, range, or textured words and phrases that I would never use or think of using. Say I’m writing about humpback whale song, I would look into research databases to see what acousticians and marine mammal biologists have written about them, if there are any structures that I find interesting or compelling. Or if I am writing about some form of history that I’ve been inspired by I would look deeper into it until I can see the ocean floor, a place I can stand. From there I weave a net out of kelp and limu to catch my wild mind, a poem out of subconscious connections.
I tell my students that the “poem” happens during revision—I do not think this is completely accurate, but frequently the poem reveals itself to me through a series of cuts and additions. The process of revision is akin to magic in that it requires a surrender to the subconscious mind. I encourage everyone to approach writing poems as you would perform a magic spell or prayer. Set your intention and lay bare your deepest darkest thoughts and intuitions, choosing metaphor and image to imbue your poems with vitality. Connect with your words. Do not be afraid—you do not have to show anyone your word experiments unless you want to. Be messy. Be a mess. Wield your editing skills as an athame or garden hoe. Your poem is a world in which you, dear poet, have total control.
Or maybe approach writing poems like you would singing a folksong. Make sure that you are singing it at the right time and that the words you’re singing fit the tune. Do you sing a spring song in winter; a birth song at a death ceremony? Do you sing with your whole self? Does your form hold the history for the content? Should you write in tercets to foster a sense of loneliness, three being a lonely number—or is three the number of completion in your thinking? Or do you break your song in couplets that seem to connect emotionally? Remember there is a raga for every time of the day—and if you transgress these timings then do so intentionally. Create a space for yourself. Be your own bird. Do not feel pressure to sing the same pitch, tone, or style as everyone else.
* See Projective Verse by Charles Olson (Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, ed.), 2009.