Last week, in the creative writing classes I teach, we read Richard Hugo’s essay “Writing off the Subject,” and then I asked my students to write a poem in the way Hugo describes: starting from a particular idea, following the lead of one’s inner voice to end up at a new idea, a new place, something one hadn’t planned to say (Hugo implies a method like that in his discussion of “Autumn Leaves”). I followed the same instructions, and below are two free-writing drafts before the final (for now) draft.
But here’s the difficulty, of course: the real writing process is in my mind, and what’s in the drafts below is only the residue. Since my mind during freewrites tends to work associatively, I can’t explain why one thing led to another. And I can’t describe why I ended up with the poem I did, except to say that it felt right, it felt interesting. It might not even interest me later.
A student brought up a good question: when does an artist ever know when a poem is ready for publishing on a blog? I don’t really know, I said, thinking out loud that the costs are low, which encourages publishing, but is the poem worth sharing? That answer requires thinking about what readers might appreciate, but also about being willing to send writing out that isn’t perfect. I guess my answer for these things below is that the creative writing process is mysterious enough, and fascinating enough, that I want to discuss it, and these are at least a model, if a poor one.
(The two freewrites were hand-written, but the final poem was composed via word-processor. This freewrite started from the prompt word “surge,” given by a random word-lookup technique — picking shards of words out of newsprint that had been through a shredder — and an image/memory of a finger being jammed while playing basketball came to mind.)
Surge into the top joint, the basketball did, and rough skin slid back into my hand and pores spread open, air met body, lines decline to limit the me from the sky — the nearby sky the air-ocean we are pressed down by – impressed – tender is the light that strikes us – surge, the burst surges out from me and yet I stay the hand, the skin the sh!t box – swipe the keen face of the tandem bike rhizomes – strawberry marmalade takes tokens from toad
(I took “rough skin” and “tandem bike rhizomes” from the previous freewrite, and then tried to let go, encourage words to come to mind without being too particular about which words got written down. It’s a process skill that has taken me a while to get good at doing.)
Rough skin slid back into my hand and pores spread open. The world – the air confronts an enemy, the closed sealed entombed world of the blood – the inner sanctum where air is blocked – and tandem bike rhizomes – and air is the enemy, air is the enema, and toads kill the healing vice – the red rice bucks company plans – the rough skin slid again (over?) my hand – pores opened, veins poured open, the blood leaks like a radiator, like a brake line, and I push and no resistance – the blood leaks out – it’s under pressure inside, like a break line, like a family – the air is the enemy but the body pushes out the blood – the air-skin boundary – where I stop – leaks into air – where a r becom – I likes into a r to become “air” – where I becomes it
Final — for now — draft:
I liked the image of the air-ocean and the body-air boundary, but wanted to be more concrete, less philosophical here, and so I went with a description of an event that really had happened to me days earlier, which event-image had been in my mind as I had written earlier about the body-boundary. This poem is blunt, which was an intentional — at this point in the process — choice of voice/mood, and so I was restricting my word choices to one-syllable ones where possible. When I am less self-restrictive, more automatically voiced, in my freewriting, longer words tend to come out (see my recent poem, written the same week, using a similar process, called “The Whistle of Heat“). I made a choice to use spare language here, to show as rawly, bluntly, physically as possible, the action — with my impulse to make interpretive associations held in check.
The stainless-steel paring knife
splits my thumb where it
a tough tomato skin.
Blood comes to the air.
A paper towel
the blood drop
as a red dot.
This was where the poem stopped as the class period ended, but I was feeling like there could have been more added to it. I’m not sure more was needed, I’m not sure what the more would be, but I remind myself that poems don’t need to be long — I’m just not sure I’m entirely satisfied with this poem being short.
But I do like the simplicity of the images: skin being split by a knife, blood “comes” (“oozes” or “spurts” didn’t seem right, nor did the idea from earlier of blood under pressure seem interesting in the end) to air, and the implication of the verb “record” — that the body may not keep the record of the blood, blood being temporarily and not permanently liquid, but that the paper might — our bodies write themselves into their surroundings, the 3-D drop of blood becoming a 2-D stain, etc. As I talk about the poem, I could associate further, but this poem’s strength, such as it is, comes from being minimal.
Of course, this demonstration can’t really be a tutorial of how to write a poem — a new poem, at its most creative, has no model, and so is a new island, so this demonstration cannot be imitated the way other modeled skills can be. And writing about a process like this feels like that quote about how writing about music is like tap dancing about sculpture (or various other activities). A new poet must figure out her own process. But as a teacher, I’d hope to give at least an idea of a path — those suggestions seemed to help me, I recall.