Friday, October 15, 2010

Journal Poems

My handwritten journal, where most of my poems begin, especially when I'm on the road, camping, or otherwise out in the wild and away from electricity and its amenities, is a 8x12 unlined artist's sketchbook. I've used lined journals in the past, since I've kept a journal for going on 30 years now, but for the past few years, I've liked these large-format unlined artist's books because they allow me to draw, do calligraphy, write, or mix it all together. I do drawings as well as journal entries and poems in this journal when I'm on the road. I also do drawings and writing at home, too. Not too long ago, for example, I spent a morning at a local coffeeshop, did a couple of drawings, and worked on a poem.

Just for fun, and total self-indulgence, here are two photos of my journal, showing the two-page first draft of a recent poem from the current series, that unnaming that takes us.

I note, looking at this first draft, how the title and the poem's center actually came last, almost as an afterthought. That's not unusual, actually. Sometimes you just have to start writing, not knowing where you're going, and not knowing where you're going to end up.

As I've said before, the title often comes last. I don't always know what the poem is "about," or what it's going to mean, when I start out. I follow the brush. I set out along a path unknown. I trust my intuition.

Sometimes I start with a simple image. Actually, I often start with an image. Poems often begin with images that come into my mind, like dreams, or like visions. I go on from there. Poems, especially haiku, also often begin with things seen during the day: a unique view, a certain slant of light illuminating the otherwise familiar, the shape of the land in the wild places far from anywhere.

Contrary to popular opinion, creativity is not a scarce resource.

It's infinitely available to all of us, all the time. The only that ever stops us is ourselves. Lots of folks don't think they can be creative, possibly because someone told them they were incapable of making art back in their childhoods, and just as often because their ideas about being An Artist are popular hokum that seems alien to their everyday lives. That's a misconception. We live in a universe full of creations new and unknown waiting to be discovered every day. We live in a place of infinite discovery. It's a mistake to believe that it only matters if it's human-oriented, or made by humans, or human-centric. I cultivate the garden around my house in part because it provides me with endlessly changing visual inspiration. All I have to do is go out and see, and things start to flow.

Writing a poem, just start with something. Don't pre-plan too often, or too much. Poems don't need outlines or footnotes; some poets do work that way, but it's not necessary, it's only one way to make a poem. Believe no poet who tells you that there is only one way to make poems: what they mean is that's the only way that they can conceive of making poems.

Just start with something. Look around you. Find an image to start from. Then go from there. You might throw away the first half of what you write, as just warm-ups, but at least it got you started.

It's self-indulgent of course to show a couple of poem pages from my own journal. I use them as an example, however, of the writing process I'm describing herein. This is a poem that I just started. I started with an image. By the end of the first stanza I knew what the form would be: five-line stanzas in a moderate-length, flexible line. Although, when the title came as an afterthought, I also realized that the title would change the form, and so I modified the poem's form at the last moment, as well. I added two single lines framing the five-line stanzas of the rest of the poem; each of the lines complete a line before; the first line completes the title as though it were a line in the poem. This was all afterthought. Yet now it seems inevitable. That's what happens when you follow the brush: form reveals itself during the writing. What you have to do is pay attention, and trust where the brush is leading you.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

No, of course there are many approaches to writing poems and I wish when I was young and pliable more poets had been willing to write about how they wrote. As it was I muddled around, found a style that suited me and I’ve pretty much stuck with it for years. I think if I do have a failing – and this applies to anything creative I’ve ever attempted – I’m not very good at just doing it for the fun of it. I set my targets high, probably unnecessarily high. If I start to write a poem my goal is to write a great poem, something that means something. The notion of having a bit of fun with words doesn’t really work for me. There are a couple of poets whose work I read on a regular basis who post mostly small bits of fun, puns, plays on words and I love them but the snooty poet inside me thinks he’s above all of that. I was the same with my camera and to a certain extent it took much of the pleasure out of photography for me. Looking at some of the truly great photographs that there are kicking around I now realise that what we’re calling ‘great’ is often just fluke; they’ve run off an entire roll of film and just one happened to get it right. With digital I can now work like that – cost was always a major consideration back then – but I still can’t shake the desire to produce meaningful work.

I could write a lot more poetry than I do. So far this year I’ve completed 11 poems. They’re 11 good poems mind. I’m a bit set in my ways though. If I don’t think something I’ve done matters then I don’t see the point in it.

5:34 AM  
Blogger Dave King said...

Fascinating - as these things always are. As a matter of interest (or not) my titles invariably come last - often by a long way. Apart from that there's little consistency. A poem may be sparked by an idea, but more often it's by a line or a phrase. Sometimes by an image. After which the order in which things came is anyone's guess. I never plan. Quite often the structure is a late decision.

5:51 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, I think your method works for you just fine.

I agree about how reading what poets write about how they wrote is often very valuable. It can give clues to method, but more importantly it reveals that poems don't burst into being fully formed and perfected. Every poet has some sort of method.

I read a lot of poets' essays, both in terms of reviewing literary matters, but also about their own processes. I have built a real collection of books on creativity and writing; the ones I find most interesting are not the how-tos as much as the ones in which poets just muse, just wander across a topic, sometimes revealing a great deal about their process in the meantime.

Again, I think your own method works for you. I agree that you set the standards very high, and try to achieve greatness each time. I agree that that could be creatively inhibiting in some ways. I've written here before about writing études, the way pianists practice scales. I don't set out for greatness with each poem, I just write—but that's what works for me. I think all methods that get you there are valid.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Sounds like you and I have similar creative habits, Dave. The main difference being that I think you're more oriented to the word, if as you say a poem is sparked by an idea or a phrase. I know that I'm a very visual person, so it's almost always an image that sets me off; something I see, or respond to having seen or felt. In the end, I don't suppose there's a huge difference, though. Whatever sparks us off is perhaps less important than that we ARE sparked off.

11:13 AM  

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