Taking notes

Sometimes I get so dramamatic. Know what I mean? I think it’s insufficiently-focused energy, leaking out in words. I’m full of power, brilliance, wit and tenderness (hehehe, I’m so fine), but I hold it back most of the time. The more I hold it back, the more likely it is to leak out — gracelessly and mercilessly — like a stream of toothpaste from an overheated tube with a loose cap.

I like to be graceful. So I’ve been learning to pay attention to that need-to-get-something-out feeling before it turns ugly.

When I feel it, usually I’m outside, taking a break at work, or walking near home. I carry a cheep (sic) Bic pen and a folded piece of paper for just such moments. I’ll start a rough of a poem as notes on the piece of paper. Later, I type it up. That’s when it starts to take on form. When I type, I don’t look at my notes. Making the notes is enough to start a complicated, and somewhat unconscious, creative process rolling. My fingers take it from there as I type. Maybe the notes turn into something, like this first cut of a poem:

While you sleep, / cicadas’ fiddles / rise and fall, / a crow, calling as it goes, / flies southwest, / and rain-grey redwood / offers its sweetness / to the sun. / While you sleep, / the offshore breeze / mingles roses with salt, / as eddies of leaves / and white-winged / butterflies / with yellow spots / picturise / mountain-ash trees’ / rustling song. / While you sleep, / the summer wind / ties heat to its back / and makes the haze and clouds / that say / no boundaries / have a chance to stand, / while you sleep.

When I read a first-cut poem to myself, it’s always wrong. A first draft is usually too emotionally heavy in some places, inconsistent in its point of view, and it has metaphors that don’t always work, or are trite or cliched. The sound and beats are wrong. The rhythm and texture are wrong. And more. This used to bother me, but now it doesn’t. No worries. The first draft is just a first step.

After the first draft is typed, I take a few hours away from it — or a few days, weeks or months. The creative process continues, subliminally.

When I finally go back to the first draft, if the material still feels powerful to me, I’ll get to work on it. I’ll cut it back as many times as I have to, and restore some of it too. It’s interesting to see what happens when I cut it back, almost down to the bone — how it asks to have some softness and irregularities restored. I keep a private Blogspot.com blog (you can have as many of these as you want — all free — and some can be private and others not), called Shikara, that has the first one-to-four drafts of almost any poem I’ve been working on for the past three years. That way I can go back to the freshness (and flaws) of the original expression.

As I edit, I sometimes use Natural Reader’s free software to read my words back to me. Boy oh boy, can that catch phrase, grammar and punctuation flaws! See, the reader software takes one sentence into its memory at a time, and determines how to read it — where the pauses should be, how long to pause, how the voice should be inflected — based on the whole sentence (or lines, if it’s a poem). It’s amazing to hear how the digital voice’s readings change as I edit. When I get it right, the digital voice reads it right.

And when I’m being not truthful enough in my writing — too melodramatic or holding back — I listen once again Frederick Seidel reading a few of his poems. His readings are an amazing experience. I guarantee that three days after hearing Seidel read his poems for the first time, any writer will write a little differently — both prose and poems.

How to find these resources?

Reader software from NaturalReaders.com
Frederick Seidel reading a few of his poems at NYTimes.com

And, of course, either Blogspot.com or WordPress.com for free blogs that you can set as private, to use for work on drafts.

The sense of being on the right track that I get when I use these methods — edit edit edit, digital reading aloud of my work, and when I’m out of the corral, using Frederick Seidel’s readings of his work to get me back in — makes writing less scary, less purely subjective, less living inside my own brain case and nowhere else. None of my originality is lost when I use these tools. I’m still the artist. The tools are little chisels, that’s all.

In the case of the first-cut poem above, it’s been through its edits process. It’s pretty much finished. The process took a week.

One of the things that happened with this poem is it became three stanzas, then the first two stanzas became one, then the first stanza became a social occasion with nature, personified in various guises, running the show.

This is what it is now:

While you sleep, / cicada songs rise and fall, / a crow flies in / from north-northeast, / calling as it goes, / redwood’s / hidden sweetness / kisses the air, / a harbor breeze / carries in drinks / of bruised roses and salt, / and eddies of leaves / and white butterflies / shadow-dance a casual piece / called / This Is How Ash Trees Rustle. // While you sleep, / winds tie heat on / like sails, / and running high aloft / shred fire / into pale haze, / softening / boundaries between / here and there.

Jeez, was that a lecture? Well I guess it was. Need to take a walk! As Johanna Harness tweeted the other day, “…and push the reset button on my brain”.

P.S. My poem above, titled While you sleep, is posted on my poems blog. It’s a NYC 2009 monsoon rain outside. Going to take the walk now.

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