Poems on Demand (#2)

I used to resist committing to poetry projects, refusing to even discuss current work (as talk can resolve creative problems that the writing itself needs to work out), and stiff-arming people who wanted me to produce poems for particular occasions.

If I did try them, all my attempts felt forced; I mean, the process was forced, so the results must be, too. Right?

After decades of this approach, I wrote a piece for my brother’s 50th birthday that didn’t suck. I did it again for my sister. (Don’t hold your breath you other 5). Were they “good poems”? What’s your standard? Were they “publishable”? What’s your venue? Let’s say that each served its audience, but I wouldn’t publish them as that would expand the purpose and audience. (Stay tuned for musings on standards of evaluation.)

More recently, a composer named Will Wickham was commissioned to write an art song for a former student’s Senior Recital, and wouldn’t it be nice if both the lyrics and the music came from Amanda’s alma mater? I agreed to allow myself to try.

The discipline of allowing is more important that the discipline of intending. I write often and produce much, but as William Stafford says in “A Way of Writing,” a lot of it is not good. He says,

most of what I write, like most of what I say in casual conversation, will not amount to much…It will be like practice. In conversation I allow myself random remarks–in fact, as I recall, that is the way I learned to talk–so in writing I launch many expendable efforts. A result…is that I am not writing for others, mostly; they will not see the product at all unless the activity eventuates in something that later appears to be worthy.

Growing up Catholic and having engaged in meditation for years, I like the word practice. It’s not just rehearsal to get it right or preparation for later when the activity “really counts”.Practice is a commitment to engage, a willingness to begin again, and a habit of showing up and keeping on showing up.

That’s why it’s not publication that makes a person a writer. Writing does. Am I a practicing writer?

So I practiced writing this art song. I mused and wrote, I discarded much, but I felt that movement of metal shavings gathering around the magnet. I didn’t have it but thought I might get it. Eventually, I completed a poem (not lyrics) and Will set to music and Amanda sang the hell out of it.

The next year, as part of a Year of Water project at Corning Community College, where Will is a prize-winning teacher, we collaborated again. This time, I spent the summer open to all kinds of experiences of water–lyric descriptions, historical monologues, philosophical explorations. Again, it was a process of allowing and following, rather than intention and forcing. At its heart was trust. Will created Where Sacred Waters Divide, the performance of which was a collaboration of professional and amateur, student and community, word and song and instrumental, visual art and dance. (See the dancers and one of Will’s instrumentals at 14:30 but you have to watch Rose read as heart of “Flood: At the Fire Station” at 51:00)

These experiences lead me to question the tyranny of the lyric poem requiring the lyric intensity of the “overflow of powerful emotions.” I’m all in favor of spontaneity and being inspired (and revision), but what’s the role of building something larger? Poetry has a long history of sustained effort, like H.D.’s Trilogy, Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, long narrative poems and epics down through the centuries. Many epics are called “ambitious failures” because they don’t all pan out, of course. But neither do all “inspired” poems.

There must be a different process for returning effort and attention, for renewing and sustaining a creative project over the long term.

How do novelists do it? How about sculptors or painters working on large scale works? How do theater companies rehearse the same play for weeks and then perform it for (hopefully) longer?

I’d love to hear from others on this.