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Little Bee


I love that feeling when I open a book and know before the end of the first page that I’m in good hands. The hands of a storyteller, with life lines and heart lines. The hands that shape the air. The hands that speak with confidence. The hands and voice of someone who knows how to pull the poetry out of the language—without it all falling in a heap on the ground.

I get that feeling when I begin to read a novel by Margaret Atwood. She might frighten me for decades, but she will write a good story well. I trust her.

This week, I’ve had that same feeling reading Little Bee, by Chris Cleave.

I know right away the story will have sharp edges and horror. Say Nigerian girl refugee and it’s easy to know that dots will be connected. But Mr. Cleave opens the story with a narrator and a voice that tell me clearly I don’t know how those dots will touch.

The voice—so important—sounds like a real person. I can hear her speaking. And when he changes the point of view (No! Don’t change the point of view), this new narrator sounds just as authentic in her very different person.

Then we have the poetry—striking images that make the language bloom without turning purple, without suffocating either story or voice.

Here is one I can’t get out of my head, in which the narrator describes an Indian woman trying to make a telephone call from a detention center outside of London:

“She was whispering into it some language that sounded like butterflies drowning in honey.”

Like butterflies drowning in honey.

When I read that, I want to write like that. When I read prose like that, I want to write poetry.

It’s such a gift to be able to write like that, and I feel lucky for the gift of reading it.

What books send you to writing?

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Finding time to write is one obstacle. Finding my way into that rare creative space inside is another challenge. Some days, writing feels like exercise or like mowing the lawn. Other times, the ideas and images seem to flow. I’ve heard several good metaphors for this–divining, digging, going to the well, channeling. But how do you get there? How do you get into the zone?

Do you sit quietly? Do you take a walk, or ride a bike? Do yoga? Or do you read?

Years ago in a workshop, I met a woman who wrote her weekly workshop poem on Sunday. She would sit down with a stack of poetry books and read until around four in the afternoon. By then she was primed, ready to write.

I don’t often read for a whole day, but I find that reading poetry—even just on the bus home from work–is for me the best route into the poetry zone. Any poetry—books, journals—poems on the bus–although some poetry opens me more swiftly and completely. And it doesn’t have to be anything like the poetry that I might write, that I hope to write. In the early eighties, it was Ann Sexton. In the mid-eighties, it was Frank O’Hara. A few years ago, it was Olena Kalytiak Davis (And Her Soul out of Nothing). This last summer was the summer of Louise Gluck (Averno, The First Four Books of Poems). Closer to home, Judith Skillman (Heat Lightning) and Kathleen Flenniken (Famous). Right now, Lynda Hull (Collected Poems).

That’s just the short list. If I stand in front of my bookcase for even a moment, titles leap out at me.

Every once in a while, I hear rumblings about a debate—is it better not to read the poetry of other people? Will it unduly influence your work? I reach for a book or head to the store (thank heavens for Open Books: A Poem Emporium).

What are you reading?

How do you get into the zone?

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