Friday, February 25, 2011

Navel Gazing by Lisa Cihlar

Navel Gazing
By Lisa Cihlar

"Most poets write and publish far too much. They forget the agricultural good sense of the fallow period. . . " Irish poet Michael Longley

April is National Poetry Month and like many poets I write a poem a day.  In June a friend of mine suggests another 30/30 (30 poems in 30 days) and I jump on board.  I am a prolific poet even when not writing to challenges.  That noted, there comes a day in mid-summer when I begin to feel as if everything has been said.  My brain echoes empty.  It is time to step back and begin observing.

Close focus becomes the thing.  How does a bumble bee climb into a pink and white hollyhock and become covered with pollen? How do green beans manage to hide on the plants through five pickings and mature into full-size dry pods?  And the yellow and black garden spiders that come out in August to build their webs with the zigzag down the center making them look so much bigger than they really are; is that lemon yellow, or smiley face yellow on their abdomens?  These are things I need to see firsthand, year after year.  As a poet of images, my brain needs to re-catalog so that I can get things right on the page.   Think too of other poets you know who are masters of observation.  Elizabeth Bishop’s “Big Fish”:  his brown skin hung in strips/like ancient wallpaper or Mark Doty’s “A Display of Mackerel”:  like seams of lead/in a Tiffany window./ Iridescent, watery.  James Wright, Deborah Digges, Robert Frost.  I do not know if these poets took breaks from writing to just observe, but I know from the poems that they were indeed studying their worlds intensely.

It takes time to study things closely.  Not only the natural world, but the world of human relationships too.  You probably lived with your parents for at least 18 years as a child and young adult.  You are the best expert in the world on how that relationship worked and how it formed you and is still forming you.  That is your PhD in human behavior.  Call your current relationships continuing education.  Take time to study things and consider the past, maybe take notes, this will all inform your poetry.

I also need to saturate myself in other writers’ poems.  I read poems all the time.  To be a good poet I believe the writer needs to read a lot of poems, ones they like and ones they do not.  When I take time away from the writing I read even more, poems that are new to me, and poems that are not.  I memorize lines that I love.  I feel a need to say Do I dare to eat a peach? over and over to myself and to anyone within hearing range to make that rhythm part of my soul.  I need to find out for myself if the chickens and the rain glazed wheel barrow are really all that important (they are!)

Recently, I found myself taking an unintentional break from writing.  A medication that I was on was squashing my creativity.  The anxiety this caused was horrible.  I felt sick to my stomach every time I sat down to write and nothing came.  Taking an intentional break is a different thing all together.  You can even schedule it so that you have an appointment with the paper in exactly the number of days you choose.   Never call it writer’s block because you are not blocked, you are opening yourself to the world.

Not working on a poem every day is freeing and it builds up a kind of pressure that makes pens and blank paper look so inviting.  My hand fondles ball-points, clicking them over and over.  When I begin to get so annoying in my habits that I make other people crazy, it is time to begin again.  September feels right—back to school, the end of summer, leaves starting to color up, and birds flying frantic, practicing for the trip south.  Now I will write.  

**Lisa J. Cihlar's poems appear, or soon will in numerous journals including: The Pedestal Magazine, Green Mountains Review, Qarrtsiluni, elimae, and Pirene's Fountain. In 2008 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in rural southern Wisconsin.  She raises more tomatoes than she can possibly use, yet she always runs out of the ones she freezes sometime in March.


Amanda Hoving said...

Wonderful essay, Lisa! I started as a poet, but then gradually branched more into fiction. I missed it too much, though, so dabble with it when I can.

Your words are inspiring. Navel gazing indeed. :)

Christi Craig said...

I agree with Amanda, Lisa, what a lovely essay. I don't write much poetry, but I believe those close observations can inform my stories. I love your idea that our years at home qualify as our PhD & each relationship after is continuing ed.
And, I could go on and on.

Thank you for sharing your experience here.

Lisa Jean said...

Thank you Amanda and Christi. And indeed, I think taking a break can be good for all kinds of writing.


Lynn(e) said...

this post made me think: a poem each day?
so my goal, write a novel in twenty days--writing 10+ pages a day..with a full time job.

thanks for the goal! (i also think i may try the poetry goal next month too!)

Lisa Jean said...

Lynn(e) that 20 day novel! You go Girl! LOL. But a poem a day is highly doable. You should try it in April.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Yay for the twenty day novel! :)

Lynn(e) said...

@Lisa Jean--thanks! i was just joking around with my friend and he was like "you're crazy if you try it!" and i read that as "do it!"

@Rebecca--yey indeed! It's day 17 today, and I just passed the 50,000 word mark! Three days to go!

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."