To do: Laundry and poetry

basket of laundry

Clean laundry waiting to be folded

Last week, I mentioned Robert Lee Brewer’s suggestion to make a list of daily activities to do in May. So far my list has a few gaps in it, but it’s mostly filled in.

But when I took another look at my list, I realized that a lot of the activities focus on to-do items–kind of my poetry version of laundry and grocery shopping. It includes things like sending out poems and picking a poem to go take to my poetry group and reading Smoking Poet submissions and writing this blog post.

Those activities help me get things done–but maybe I need a second list. I want to get things done, but I also want to focus on craft–how you open yourself up to new ideas, how you generate work, how you stretch and cut push and pull and gently nudge that work into focus, into the kind of poem you want to write.

What kind of poem do I want to write? One that grips me and leaves a note in the air–one with music and a story and knock-out imagery. One that the reader can’t put down. One that an editor wants right away!

I think about image and metaphor. The startling. The unexpected. I guess those two mean the same things.

Lately, I think about the poems that tie a personal experience to a universal experience–sometimes a personal experience of a big and terrible event, like Katrina or 9/11 or the Hanford nuclear program. I haven’t had those personal experiences–and I’m very grateful for that, as grateful as I am to the people who have and who have written those poems. So how do I write the kind of poem I want to write?

When I think about the kind of poem I want to write, I often come back to “Upon Witnessing My Mother Impossibly Blossom Above My Father’s Deathbed,” by Kevin Stein. I first encountered this poem in 2005, and I keep coming back to it.

This poem tells a very personal story–and a story that moves easily into universal experience. At the same time, to me it’s even more poignant because it’s told by an observer–a son who is at this moment the center of his mother’s and father’s lives and at the same time outside of the bond between them.

So she fluffs his pillow, adjusts the blinds,
      and blankets the word no one will say.

The interweaving of old sayings twisted and turned–words that are almost right but not quite–emphasizes both a familiarity and the sense of being in an unknown territory.

… Franklin says a word
      to the wise breaks your mother’s back.
No, a needle a day keeps the doctor away.

And the music–and the way it moves from image to image.

Creek creek, the floor says, like water through
      oak woods. Creak creak, it says, little strokes
fell great oaks. She leans to him as the red rose

I can think about craft and talk about craft (I like to do both!), but the best way for me to get closer to writing the poem I want to write is to read the kind of poems I want to write–and this is one of them.

What kind of poems do you want to write? How do you get closer to them?

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