Once, I asked workshops of undergraduate and graduate poetry students to complete the following statement: “Learning to write poetry is like ….”
The undergrads chose similes involving eyes and hands and minds. They said writing poetry is like “making a patchwork quilt” or “looking for something in the junk drawer.”
The grads said learning to write poetry is like “swimming naked in the dark” or “being blindfolded and guided by a dwarf through a strange house.” For them, the whole body was involved, they couldn’t see where they were going, and it felt risky.
The striking contrast between the groups made sense to me. The more I worked on composing poems, the more convinced I’d become that good poems did not originate in what I thought of as my self-possessed mind.
I keep journals in which I, at times, draft poems as a listening practice. When I’ve forgotten what’s there, I’ll read the notebook and tag interesting bits. Then may begin a surrender to more listening and drafting, over and over—editing and revising the poem as it emerges—tightening, finishing. Discerning. Making choices.
The poem which ends my collection Glass Float grew from a few lines in a notebook. “It’s winter the gods love” started with what are now its title and first two stanzas. I had no idea where this poem would go. It’s now ten stanzas of three-lines each.
* * *
IT'S WINTER THE GODS LOVE
high and windswept
where rivers begin and snow whirls like Saraswati circling
Brahma, his lust
growing five faces to keep ten eyes on her
but that comes after mountains
moon, sun, an ocean of stars – after darkness and light differ
* * *
In the iceberg of consciousness, the vaster realm lies beneath the surface of day-to-day thought. That’s where we discover archetypes and myths. If we share a collective unconscious, is it surprising that images, metaphors, and stories drawn from that level resonate with others?
* * *
Art is suggestion; art is not representation
Last fall, Daphne Marlatt took time from a writing retreat to bake a peach crumble for our book group’s meeting at my place. I’d spent time making the main course. While we were chatting in the kitchen about doing this, we discovered we both enjoy listening to music while cooking. Then I said—“but I can’t listen to music when I’m writing.” Daphne immediately agreed, saying she had to turn inward and listen deeply when writing.
Me too. That inward turn and attentive listening is, for me, essential to the writing process. I think this is true whatever genre you’re working with.
My grandfather, who was an artist, would have agreed. The prose poem that begins Glass Float ends with one of his dictums.
* * *
My grandfather taught me, when he gave me painting lessons,
that there’s no such thing as a concavity in nature: when you study the profile of a valley, it’s made up of convexities.
I saw this was true when I made contour drawings, verboten to
glance down: my pencil moved as my eye did along a periphery.
When I finished and looked at the paper, my drawing would be little hummocks – some longer, some shorter – linked together.
My grandfather also said, Art is suggestion; art is not repre- sentation.
* * *
Deepening your attention: You cannot energize what is not relaxed
Yogis go within—attempt to bring intelligence to every layer and element of the body—to concurrently go without. Faeq Biria once told us in a yoga intensive that “you cannot energize what is not relaxed,” and then guided us into some of the deepest relaxation I’d experienced—of tongue, palette, throat, Eustachian tubes, inner ear, eyes, skin, brain, spinal cord—as well as the usual relaxation of muscles, joints, and so on.
When you attend to something in a relaxed state, it can become all you notice. Seer and seen merge. The poem moving through you, taking form in your words—its music noted—becomes itself as it is your experience.
The inner ear is not just an organ for hearing: it also provides balance, equilibrium and orientation. The grad students who felt they were swimming in the dark or climbing through a strange, potentially dangerous place could not see what was coming next. They had to use their whole bodies, and especially their inner ears, to experience the poem. For them, learning to write poetry was a process of deepening their trust in water to float on while swimming, in a dwarf who was guiding them, in the parts of the iceberg of consciousness below the level of normal thought. They had to let go and allow themselves to be supported and lead.
During November 2014 I was one of perhaps eighty international students who attended classes with Geeta Iyengar and other teachers at the Iyengar yoga institute in Pune, India. I then stayed on—and was joined by another 1,200 students from around the world—to attend Geeta’s ten-day intensive, Yoganusasanam. As a daily writing practice while in India I drafted short narrative poems I thought of as “topical pieces” in my journal.
Geeta Iyengar urged us to bring intelligence to all parts of our selves at once. This is part of a prose poem I drafted after a class with her.
* * *
Pay attention isn’t the right message, she explains. It’s not a single focus.
Spread intelligence to all parts at once – be aware of toes and
hips and navel and neck. They say this is impossible, but you
must spread consciousness skin to soul and soul to skin by de- centralizing mind.
Watching her you realize – this is how Geeta teaches. As if you,
the twelve hundred students in this gym, are parts of her multi- tudinous self.
Then the soul, the self, she explains, is stable, becomes sober –
and broad. The individual self or soul is not caught in its shrinking pond. It joins the river again, flows again, comes alive.
* * *
Making the dark visible
Tomas Tranströmer says in “Elegy”
Friends! You drank some darkness and became visible.
Physicists tell us reality is oddly subtle. What’s present and apparent is alive with dark matter. In his Massey Lecture, Neil Turok says “quantum physics teaches us that, in a very real sense, we all live in an imaginary reality.” To calculate quantum physics, mathematicians use imaginary numbers. Dark glasses help us see in blinding sunlight.
If a poem is an energy moving through you into language—something latent becoming kinetic, a thrust manifesting as a ball that could thunk into a catcher’s mitt, your whole body is going to feel you receive that energy.
If the yogis are right, and you cannot energize what is not relaxed—to go deeper with your poetry, you need to relax.
This is tricky because most of the time we’re not relaxed. We’re under pressure, juggling stuff, trying hard, running on automatic. Plus, as writers we’re trained in the constraints of how to use language properly. What if we’re hearing a way of putting language together that isn’t proper?
One way or another, the first step is to let go of the need to write well—at least for early drafts when you’re trying to hear what might be there and sensing a poem is growing.
Here is the ending to a poem I drafted after a heritage walk early one morning through the core of Pune’s old city. A painting on the wall of one mansion celebrated three and a half heroes: three who won wars plus another man who worked to build a just and healthy city. But he did not fight wars, so he was only half a hero.
I wondered what counts as courage today.
* * *
HALF A HERO
Wars. Empires. Uncountable contradictory ancestors passing on
codes. Like your microbiome in the unseen murky depths of your bowels, influencing what you take to be human.
* * *
And then, there’s the issue of obsessions
It’s hard to discover, let alone trust and voice, what’s occupying us and holding our attention, especially when those occupations are deeper obsessions. We’re afraid of not sounding good. Being hurtful. Mistaken. Naïve. We’re afraid of being naked and visible. We’ve been taught to keep up appearances, stay out of trouble and save face.
Obsessions are like rivers. They may drain a large territory. Think of people who’ve followed rivers through mountains, across plains, out to an ocean. Sometimes, an obsession provides a route through masses of stuff.
We don’t always want to admit to our obsessions. But, they’re valuable to writers.
You might think we’d know what we’re paying attention to, but sometimes our obsessions are so habitual that we scarcely notice them, or—possibly—they’re less than conscious. I find recording dreams helps me get a sense of what’s preoccupying my dreaming mind.
It rarely seems like a good use of our precious time to practice relaxation—especially when we want to write something and don’t know what it is or how we’re going to do it.
But...I think most writers would agree, we like to surprise ourselves: it’s rewarding when a poem articulates something you recognize as true but hadn’t put into words before.
During the years when I was caring for my husband with Alzheimer’s, I was so caught up in day-to-day grief, frustrations and chores that I felt out of touch with my deeper self. That was when I instituted a practice of recording dreams (training myself to remember them) and then drafting a proto-poem from the dream. I still do this, but not as obsessively.
This is a poem from Glass Float that began as a dream.
* * *
AT YOUR BACK
Your boots are slipping on wet rock – but someone behind you holds you tight, lifts you.
You climb effortlessly uphill, not quite carried. Don’t know
whose feet grip granite, whose legs move yours, whose arms support you.
Maybe it’s not a person. Maybe it’s a cyclone. Foam tufts on branch tips, foam dunes on the beach below.
Like a spider, like an octopus, like yoga, maybe you have eight limbs: four employed daily out in front, four harder to see.
Propelled as if by wind, you don’t count steps or breaths.
* * *
Consciousness and intuition
Here are three excerpts from a narrative prose poem in Glass Float that tells a story about a woman I know finding her husband’s hearing aids. He’d lost them while cutting down a couple of trees and clearing brush.
* * *
She went out. Sawdust all over the place. Rounds on the ground.
She stopped thinking and let her feet take her. When prompted,
squatted down. Reached out a hand, dove into the sawdust,
closed her fingers on a hearing aid. The first one. Repeated the
process and came up with the second. It hadn’t taken all that long.
She says, I’m absolutely clear it wasn’t me who found them. My body was just an agent.
* * *
Later, I read on the BBC that Daniel Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, says:
… human genius is the result of millions of years of trial and error—throughout the evolution of life—and that consciousness is the brain’s user-illusion of itself and no more real than the image on the screen of your phone.
And in the poem, I reply:
I don’t think it matters how we explain it. What I recognize is the visceral click—the embodied knowing—and the attention to what is not produced at the level of habitual mental ruts. Yogis call these ruts samskaras: the subtle impressions of past actions so ingrained in us they alter our body chemistry.
There are many voices in Glass Float. Yet, each of these poems is from my point of view. They are filtered through my memory, feelings, experiences, and discernment: what sticks with and in me, what becomes and shapes me, what arises from within me though it has roots without.
Our language, imagery and craft pass through many mouths, minds and bodies before arriving as tools we can use to make a poem.
From the long to the short of it
Here’s a teasing question: Does the germ of a poem pre-exist in a deeper level of consciousness, one that isn’t mine though I have access to it in a liminal state like dream? Might a poem have a soul that has been embodied otherwise?
My skeptical guess is that, as an entity, the poem does not pre-exist before I translate what I’m sensing into words and images.
But maybe a poem’s intentions and relationships—the possibility of that poem’s becoming and the materials it will incorporate—exist in a strangeness and darkness which feels both risky and intimately embracing. Sort of like sub-atomic particles and DNA, common to all other forms animate and inanimate.
When the writing goes well, I disappear into it. Happily. In order to stay responsible to the rest of my life, I set timers.
What I do is listen—with what I think of as my inner ear though the dualities of inside and outside have disappeared. My conscious mind listens to what my unconscious mind offers.
* * *
says the baby, looking out the window at snowflakes
the old man tears up
of the human animal — to speak, to weep
are you moved by words — by tears
* * *
Jane Munro’s sixth poetry collection Blue Sonoma (Brick Books) won the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize. A member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs, she’s been a professor of Creative Writing at several universities in British Columbia, taught many informal writing workshops, and read her poetry to audiences across Canada. For more than 20 years, she has studied (in Canada and India) and practiced Iyengar Yoga. In 2012, she moved back to Vancouver—where she grew up and raised her children—after spending 20 years living rurally on the coast of Vancouver Island.
* * *
Jane's newest collection Glass Float (Brick Books) is available April 1
here on All Lit Up.
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