For decades now I’ve been journaling and drafting poems in notebooks of various sizes. The early days were dominated by old steno pads with spiral bindings at the top. Lately, it’s pocket-sized artist’s sketchbooks, stacks of black unlined Moleskins, and a bulky collection of yellow legal pads.
Some of the older entries no longer make sense to me. Oh sure, an insight probably existed at one time, but now they seem more suggestive than informative. Nonetheless, in the oddball self-generated advice department, the old notebooks come reasonably close to being entertaining.
Build your own Aeolian harp.
If you can’t hear the music, the words are too loud.
There’s a lot to be said for a beautiful surface.
And my favourite, the one I never get tired of.
I also have scraps of paper lying around on my desk, some to remind me of projects I’ve been meaning to do (The Sound of Our Town: Kingston Poets Writing about Kingston) and some to remind me of the proper attitude to bring to the work. Enjoy. Let go. Be wild. Trust. Then there’s a sliver of the spirit of 1968, channelled through Chrissie Hynde. Demand the Impossible!
Any advice we poets give ourselves is bound to be flawed, and it seems unlikely we could dredge up better advice for anonymous others. What are the chances my judgement would actually improve, just because I have an audience? Despite these misgivings, better stand back. Here it comes.
To start, you want to look for a poem-shaped hole. Choosing a subject, looking for inspiration, doing piles of research, that’s all well and good. But what you aim for is the poem and the poem is a wily, elusive creature. Spend your time watching and waiting. Look carefully at your surroundings. If you’ve got the patience you will perceive a space where the poem ought to be. Just the right shape, the right moment, the perfect environment. For unexplained reasons, some poem that ought to exist, right there, doesn’t. That’s what you’re looking for, the missing item. The poem that deserves to be.
Now, listen. You can almost hear the words breathing softly in the dark.
Forget that nonsense about finding your voice. Who told you that you only had one? Who said you’d lost it? You are not finding your voice, you are finding your freedom. The voice will be ready and waiting for you when you need it. Trust.
But what if, deep inside, you are still finding yourself? Well of course you’re still doing that, silly. We all are. The poets worth discussing are the ones always questioning themselves, always on the road to a different identity, always prepared to doubt and second guess. In fact, the very talented Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, holds that we writers create a different self for every book we write. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/17/kathleen-jamie-writing-book-self Before composing the poem, you should really compose yourself, in both senses.
While you’re composing the latest and greatest you, bear in mind the following tiresome, unnecessary identities.
Although you love to party and tell yarns afterward, you are not Charles Bukowski. There was only one. He’s dead. Trying to imitate him just makes you look like Rob Ford.
You are not Gertrude Stein. Modernism is 100 years old, dude. The phrase “Make it new” first appeared during the Shang Dynasty in China. (Translation: a long, long time ago.) Don’t worry about making it new, make it better. Or better still, make it beautiful.
You are not Northrup Frye. You do not embody the Great Tradition of English Literature. Or if you do, you obviously don’t live anywhere near me. Most of us are on the edges, far from Cambridge, Oxford, and the validations of pedigree. The edge is now the middle, the minorities are the majority. You and I and the places we inhabit are now the centre of the world. Let’s just open our eyes and tell the truth.
You are not Emily Dickinson. You will not be discovered when you are dead. If anything is going to happen, it’s up to you and you must do it now. Besides, post-mortem fame sucks. There’s no sex, no conversation, not even any bookstores. Eternity is a hotel room at the airport.
Lastly, for goodness sake loosen up. It is a truth universally disparaged that a man who writes a poem has automatically put his manhood into question. Deny it all you like, people. Most of the world thinks we’re pansies, weirdos, and eggheads. Know what I say? Fuck’em. Bring back beauty. Make your poem the most gorgeous experience ever. The sound, the imagery, the drama: put it all in and crank it up. Self-expression is not a classroom assignment, not a therapy, and definitely not a sign of narcissism. It is life and it should be alive, and we should shove it in their faces.
Expression and creativity make us incredibly vulnerable. Some will hate it and us. Ever notice any similarity between homophobia and the anti-arts attitudes of our contemporary philistines? Could it be something beyond a mere coincidence? Let’s not pander to the bastards by trying to write “muscular” prose, let’s not worry about whether our poems are virile. (Christ, whatever that would mean.) You were born to sing, my darling. Now, steady on. Breathe from your diaphragm, open your mouth, and sing.
Eric Folsom lives in Kingston, Ontario and currently serves as Kingston's Poet Laureate. He has some poems in a chapbook, Northeastern Anti-Ghazals, from above/ground press. He identifies as bisexual. He doesn't understand hockey at all.