The reading pile beside my bed includes, these days, The Armchair James Beard, Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems, Chase Dimock’s Sentinel Species, Lessons of Darkness by Alan Catlin, and a collection of short stories by Tess Gallagher, The Lover of Horses. On the floor beside my bed (because there is never enough room) is B&N’s handsome collection of Tarzan novels, and a women’s magazine from 1916.
On my desk, among the Kwan Yins and Ganeshes, colored pencils and saline sprays, is volume one of the collected lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat. Along with his comments about each early show are some writing tips that I am scanning for anything that might be applicable to the work of poets.
I list all these influences because from time-to-time folks ask me where I get ideas for poems. All of the above may or may not inspire a poem, but they do put me in a receptive frame of mind for such suggestions. I have a small pile of paper scraps on my desk that have one or two words written on them. “Lydia Roberti.” “Eliz. Schuyler Hamilton.” “Pacific.” Last night, I even scrawled a few notions on the back of a chapbook from Etsy:
-Packing Anne Sexton
-RW: Chalk, Marker, Crayon, Brush
Unicorns are the roses of poetic symbolism, in and of themselves perfectly beautiful, but by now overused to the point of nausea. Still, something made me want to run with the idea, the legends, the symbolism of virginity and its value. I believe Chase mentioned unicorns in one of his poems, which are deeply accessible and intimate. The bit about packing Anne Sexton stems from a dream I had. I was packing up things to take away with me, with some urgency but a lack of terror about the situation. Of all the poets that now occupy my main bookshelf, my subconscious mind thought of Sexton’s work. This has inspired me to re-read her poems again, reliable high art in a genre that can sometimes overwhelm one with self-serving mediocrity.
I won’t say too much about Mrs. Hamilton, only because that poem is still percolating. I’ve already mentioned her in one poem, and read enough about her to know she deserves a Broadway production of her own. There is a delicate object that spins around my brain that means to force my continued contemplation. And so it will.
Just as prayer disrespects those who really make things happen, I don’t consider the writing of poetry as foreign words being channeled through me. There is a complex network in my head of memories, opinions, slanted humor that collaborates constantly, even while I sleep. There are almost 60 years of sensory input to prance around in between these ears. I suspect a lot goes on at night—this is why morning is the best time for me to write. Before I’ve checked my email, paid bills, or brushed my teeth, if I am so moved I sit down and begin to write. I rarely lift the pen from the yellow legal pad while I get this first draft down as quickly and solidly as possible.
I have been doing this long enough to have passed through many phases. Once I thought it was possible to make a living as a poet. I made some progress towards a Masters degree. I spent time sending work out in an organized frenzy, hoping something somewhere would stick. It was once possible to spend three or four nights a week out at open mics. But I began to slowly tire of the routine. The poets’ voices around me, for the most part, began to repeat themselves, and probably mine did as well. I jumped into workshops, but despaired when instructors offered no insight. And yet I have continued to write, with intermittent breaks for pandemics, grieving, illness, and the need for a break to practice non-verbal arts.
I find a more relaxed atmosphere these days. Live readings will return eventually. I will send poems out when I can, and am deeply satisfied when they find a home outside my laptop. I enjoy reading them aloud, but it’s almost not a requirement anymore. If any fame finds me, I will probably long be ash. And I publish my own chapbooks, sell a few at readings and online. Enough to keep my printer full of ink. Enough to keep the pile of books beside my side of the bed at an acceptable height.