Process notes

Process Notes: The Dolorist Confesses

83º at almost noon ~ no heat index! window open, cicadas doing their thing, home construction noises in the background, the sun delightful & no threat

With lots of busy work under my belt, work for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference mostly, but also some recording of rejections from recent poem submissions, followed by sending out the poems anew, I have turned back to a focus on writing new poems. Lately, I’ve gotten back into the habit of walking, perhaps the writer’s best physical support system. All through history, in both the West and the East, great writers have recorded the connection between walking and writing, and I’ve seen that connection at work in my own past many times. It’s great to be returning to an activity that sparks new poems. (I should note that the spark only works for me if I’m walking without listening to any kind of music, NPR, or audio books. It works when I simply walk and observe, listening to the world around me.)

Because of this recent return to walking, I’ve had several lines rattling around in my head. I knew these lines were the beginning of a political poem, one that, again, records just how exhausting it is to be woke. However, once I put the lines down in my journal and then in the computer, I knew the poem wasn’t finished. It hadn’t accrued that critical mass necessary for survival. This time, I turned to a trusted friend and sent the “wee draft” for a diagnosis. Said friend hit the nail on the head and gave me awesome advice for coming back to the poem in the future. Thanks, friend!

In the meantime, with those lines out of my head and off in the world, I started re-reading (Laynie Browne’s The Scented Fox) and word-gathering. Normally, this sparks lines to form. Instead, it sparked me to remember a thought I’d had while walking this morning. I was thinking about a letter that I needed to write and about how I went into a minor depression at the beginning of the summer, a depression I’m working myself out of thanks, in part, to walking. So, I set down the lines I’d imagined including in the letter.

It wasn’t a lack of funds that kept me
but a lack of fortitude, of fiber.

The poem evolved in couplets today (my native form), and at first the poem was titled after a phrase from Browne’s book. After the poem showed me where it needed to go, that title no longer fit. I cast about. I scrambled. I came up with “The Dolorist Confesses,” but I’m not super happy with it.

Also, I had the poem laid out in three parts with subheadings. However, with only three couplets per section, the headings quickly proved to be too heavy. Then, when I got to the last “section,” I realized that the real ending would need four couplets instead of three. The three sections announced the onset of the depression, described what happened to my body because of it, and then detailed how I started pulling myself up out of it. Now, they are simply one poem made up of ten couplets, still covering the same content. I did use several of the words I’d gathered from Browne’s book, but much of the energy of the poem came from the initial phrase I’d constructed while walking.

Here’s to breathable air and the time to stretch my legs (and mind) in it.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: The 14 Most Common Causes of Fatigue

95º feels like 108º ~ SCUBA weather out there

After two weeks of silence, two posts in one day. Wahoooza.

I’m happy to report that I did meet my goal of drafting a new poem today, as I stated earlier. I wasn’t sure I would, given the chaos of the last two weeks. And therein lies a problem of mine. I tend to convince myself of certain narratives about my own being. One of these narratives is that I must have calm and quiet, long periods of focus, to write. I hold the summer up as WRITING TIME. This summer, I have taken on many new roles at UCA which have meant extending my work off contract (that’s right…I don’t get paid for these hours). This has “cluttered” my life with tasks and problem-solving that have nothing to do with writing poetry (directly). So, I need to break out of my own narrative. Really, all I need to write is a small chunk of time amidst the busy-ness of the rest of life. I’m hoping this realization, this work against my own inner critic, will extend into the real chaos of the academic year. Fingers crossed.

So, after finishing that last blog post, I turned to my journal. I let myself spew for two pages, jotting down all the inner dialogue, all the inner questioning. Then I wrote, “the truth is…” and recorded some more objective observations about my recent days. Finally, I turned to a new page, labeled it, as always, “Tell the Truth” and wrote 4 really horrible lines. I’m still thinking about political poetry, and at the same time, I’ve been struggling with some mild depression and fatigue (of all kinds) this summer. Today, I started writing about headline fatigue and the fact that no amount of “feel good” news can counteract the difficulties of this world today. These were the really horrible lines.

Then, I turned to my old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, through our subscription at school, and I searched “fatigue.” As soon as the results popped up, I realized that I’d spent some time on these pages two and a half weeks ago when last I wrote. So, I opened another tab and thought I’d give Google a whirl. One of the first hits was from a pseudo-medical site, “The 14 Most Common Causes of Fatigue.” This was the typical info-article interspersed with a zillion ads. It listed things like sleep dysfunction, anemia, diabetes, heart disease, depression, etc. and gave very brief information about each.

It struck me that I’d used a headline to generate a poem earlier this month, so I copied down the title and started drafting a catalog poem. In my journal, I didn’t consider the order of my list. Instead, I focused on trying to generate images that would stand for the things that have been making me fatigued lately. One example is a bit about “grass that insists on growing” and the mower waiting there like a truancy officer. Of course, mowing a tiny lawn is no big deal, but I mean it to stand for all the everyday chores that must still be done, even as we try to make positive change in this world.

Once I turned to the computer to draft out the complete poem, I considered order. I actually only used about 3/4 of the list from my journal and created new “entries” once I was on the screen. The screen can reveal soft or clunky lines more easily than the handwritten page. While a catalog poem seems easy on first sight, there are many considerations. The order of the entries should create a kind of forward momentum, and since, in my case, there’s no narrative to the content, this has to be an emotional movement. Also, the poem must transcend the form of a list. In other words, I couldn’t “fill” any of the entries with fluff just to make the number. Yes, 14 was arbitrary based on the headline of the article and I could have cut myself some slack and changed that number, but for the draft I wanted to get there. As with all poetry, concision is the key, and every word counts, so adding more is a tricky business.

Finally, I was conscious the whole time that I wanted this poem to stretch beyond my own experience to encapsulate the fatigue I know so many people are feeling these days about the political environment. While some of the entries in my list are taken directly from my daily life, the others are plucked from headlines (e.g. the famine in South Sudan) to broaden the scope of the speaker. Like most of the political poems I’ve been writing, I’m hesitant about this one. I will set it aside for a few days and return with fresh eyes.

The whole process I just described reminded me, again, of John Keats and Negative Capability. For those unaware, Keats defined NC as when a person is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It struck me again today that the whole process of drafting (of creating any kind of art, really) requires this of us. I had to find a way to set aside the inner critic and my own attempt to control the process. I had to “dwell in Possibility” as Emily Dickinson wrote. Today, I’ll mark my attempt down as a success, as a goal met, regardless of whether the poem makes it to publication or not.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: Transplant

78º ~ rain-cooled, headed for a high of 90º ~ birdsong replacing the thunder

I preach to my students about the BIC method of writing, which would be the Butt-In-Chair method. There’s one sure thing in this world; if your butt isn’t in the chair (which also means switching off the noise of social media and actually giving your body & brain the time & space necessary to go deep), you won’t get anything written. Once again, practicing what I preach has made all the difference.

I did my duty this morning. I repeated my goal of drafting a poem and I sat BIC. I scribbled some ugly lines with no music. I read a few poems. I cast about. I let myself be in the stillness. I continued to think about my current obsession: how can I interrogate my whiteness? How can I make art that might make a difference in this difficult time?

Once again, the key was getting specific. Most of the horrible lines in my journal circle around generalizations, falling into cliché and propaganda. Suddenly, I remembered the feeling, the physical feeling of my white guilt (a sinking and burning in my gut) when I heard family members express their own racism in jokes. I wondered why I had such a reaction and didn’t believe what they believed. I thought of the specific experiences in my childhood that gave me empathy and understanding for those who looked differently than I did. Finally, all of this made me remember coming to the South around the turn of the century and realizing that many native southerners had no idea that outright racism existed in the North. And so the poem began:

In the South, everyone knows Iowa is a pretty
white state, but I have to explain, not
in my hometown

This opening lacks the specific imagery and sound play that I usually rely on, but it does have a kickass linebreak. Because I’m working with some narrative in this draft, I fear I’ve lost a lot of my lyric strengths, so I’ll definitely be going back and trying to up the images and figurative language. This is one of my concerns about writing overtly political poems. The process is very different for me, coming at the poem with some ideas, some philosophy already in place, and I worry about being capable enough as a poet to create that strange elixir that is my goal.

The poem fell into four, five-line stanzas, and does go on to explore several specific, key moments from my childhood. It juxtaposes those moments with older relatives making what they considered “jokes” but were really moments of racist othering. In those instances, I’m afraid, I always remained silent, and I hope that by trying to tell the truth about where I come from, about my own silent complicity, I might be taking a step in the direction of interrogating my own skin, in making a tiny difference by (eventually) sharing the poem through publication.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: Little of What We have Believed has been True

85º feels like 94º ~ dew point 75º (in other words, unless you’ve lived in the mid to deep south, you’ve never really felt humidity) ~ sunny but the trees are so fully leafed and green that I write in shade, the birds call out all day, the cat begs attention

This morning when I sat down to write, I was thinking about writing from headlines, as I did yesterday. Again, I’d checked into the world via my phone before even getting out of bed (I know, I know, this is not necessarily a good habit!). Sure enough, a friend had posted about an event at the White House yesterday, where four astronauts were present, but only the three men were thanked. Sounded like a good lead, so I went in search of information. Turns out the bigger news was what a weird press conference it was, and the woman astronaut, Sandy Magnus, presented a reasonable explanation of why she was not thanked (not there as an astronaut but as an executive director for another organization). So, that fizzled.

I turned then to my email inbox and read the poems there for the day (Poem-a-Day, Poetry Foundation, Writer’s Almanac), which then led me to reading my weekly dose of Brain Pickingswhich featured a refresher on Wallace Stevens’ The Necessary Angel, and seemed a moment of synchronicity as Stevens wrote about the role of the poet (his word for all artists) in troubled times. I fell headlong into the excerpts provided by Brain Pickings, having read Necessary Angel 15 years ago and having been stumped by much of it (I have trouble absorbing philosophy & theory). In any case, this time, I couldn’t stop taking notes and making connections. Two of the biggest lines for me were “events…have made the ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement of people in the intervals of a storm” (ellipses mine) and “Little of what we have believed has been true…” (ellipses Stevens).

With five pages of notes, I thought, yes! This is it for today’s draft. Come on: intervals of a storm? Yes! I even thought that I had so much energy for the draft that I didn’t need to start in longhand, so I turned directly to Word and started typing. Big mistake. I typed several really terrible lines and deleted them. Tried another tack and deleted those, too. It all sounded like propaganda, and none of it was based in my reality. So, I took a deep breath and went back to my handwritten lines in the journal, and I asked myself to “tell the truth.”

Stevens sees the artist as the “necessary angel” who can meld imagination and reality, that the artist should not turn away from reality, not escape it by going fully into the imagination. On the other hand, Stevens also notes that the imagination is necessary to the artist, and they can’t turn completely to reality either. In thinking about all of this and asking what my truth is, I discovered, again, my white, upper-middle class guilt about my ability to turn off the news, to move through the storm unafraid for my own life, afraid for the lives of many of my friends for sure, but not for my own. I started thinking about what causes me to avoid the truth, and I struck on this.

Body & brain are wired to walk away
from pain. Sharp & Hot among the first

The poem goes on, in lines about this same length, to admit that I “evade the daily news,” but that I can’t completely escape the horrors going on all around me (in which I also include climate change). Obviously, Stevens is in the title, and I bring him back in the last third of the poem when I claim, “I never asked / to wear the wings of a necessary angel.” I confess that I’m exhausted and that I don’t know where to find the energy to resist. I think the ending needs work, but I’m happy with the draft, both content and form. In this case, I have another single-stanza poem (so unusual for me!) because the poem, while still lyric rather than narrative (as is my norm), works on a much more logic-based level than I have in the past. The syntax is normal, and the sentences all directly relate to the previous and the next. Who am I? Sonnets and villanelles in May/June, now column-like, single-stanza work? Through it all, the elements of sound and imagery hold me together and channel my voice.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: A Being Admitted as Heir

74º ~a line of pop-up storms moving north to south, an oddity, radar-indicated rain non-existent on the ground, our days are reaching the 90s now

Yesterday, I started reading Safiya Sinclair’s amazing book, Cannibal, and I hope to post reading notes about it in the next few days. (I’m only halfway through.) Born in Jamaica, Sinclair looks closely at postcolonial identity and focuses both on the personal and the historical. As I was reading, I was struck by an early poem, “Pocomania,” in which the speaker addresses her father, using “father” as anaphora. It opens:

Father unbending father unbroken father
with the low-hanging belly, father I was cleaved from

In Sinclair’s poem, the speaker deals with a tense, difficult relationship, just as I have been doing. In fact, at one point in the poem she writes, “Father / and his nest of acolyte women” … “Mother and I were none of them.” I had to stop reading for a minute to catch my breath.

Even as I read the poem, I knew I wanted to write one using the same repetition, but this morning, approaching my desk, it struck me, again, that I’ve written little of my mother. So, I sat down to write a mother poem, using the structure Sinclair presents. Sinclair’s poem is one long stanza filled with long lines, and jam-packed with electric images that expose a flawed man who caused his own child to hurt. I tried for the same long lines, the same electric images, but I was working with a healthy relationship, and that changed a few things.

There is a place in Sinclair’s poem where the speaker implores, “Father forgive my impossible demands.” I didn’t draft my poem line by line to imitate Sinclair’s, but I knew I wanted to include such an asking for forgiveness. In my draft, this occurred in line 7, and I wrote “Mother forgive my silences.” Because of the content of that line, it begged to be set off by itself, so I ended up with a 6-line stanza, followed by a single line, then another 6-line stanza and another single line of asking for forgiveness. Then, I started in on another 6 lines and I came up short. I have no idea where this poem wants to go or how it wants to end.

Here’s the issue: poems about difficult things have built-in conflict, which means they have a built-in need to end, to resolve, even if they are largely lyric (image based) rather than narrative. This poem about my mom is a poem of praise, an ode (although not in the formal sense), and I’m struggling with how to resolve it. It is pure lyric, so there is no narrative to wind to a close. I confess that I hit the wall with this draft, and today, the wall won. I had to save & print the draft unfinished, which takes a bit of the shine off the moment.

I’m going to seek out some poems of praise and check out how they end. I’ve always known that “happy” poems were harder to write than difficult ones (for me at least), and here’s the proof, again.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: Wrestling My Father in the After

75º ~ the aftermath of a satisfying 20-minute downpour, the drip-drop sounds of trees shedding water

I hesitate to post, as the work of today’s draft imitates that of the last father sonnet in many ways. Yes, the sonnet appears to be the frame for this content, and again it was necessary because of the painful nature of the truth-telling, because of the need to address these truths in small measures. While these poems expose my father’s imperfections, they also expose me as an imperfect daughter. As someone born with the need to be “practically perfect in every way” (and with the required big ego as well), I’m always pushing up against my need to be liked. Yet, in writing these poems, part of my “tell the truth” mantra must include how I portray myself.

As you might have guessed, these poems have a lot to do with harms done, and I find myself wrestling with ideas of placing blame and of forgiveness. The content of the poems comes both from real life and from reading about the idea of forgiveness. In this way, I hope the poems open up from being personal to being public, if you will.

Today, I didn’t need to read much from others, and I didn’t need a word bank (as I haven’t for this type of poem). Instead, I needed to write a lot of really crappy lines in my journal. Crappy not for what they had to say but for how they said it. I stumbled on an image that resonated, but couldn’t get it to fit. I heard my squirmy internal editor say, “Stop forcing it. You’re done writing father poems. No one wants to read them anyway. You’re just whining.” So, I turned the page and tried to write a poem that would, perhaps, explain who my father was in my rounded details. Sure, I got eight semi-decent lines out of it, but they were lifeless.

I turned the page and thought some more about the whole situation, about where the pain resided & why. Then, I wrote:

What bothers me most, Father, is the silence
surrounding your sins, the way we were made to pretend

And then, I had my way in. Turns out, that image from earlier, the one I couldn’t get to fit, fell right into place by the fourth line. I’d say “magic, presto” but that’s not how I’m feeling. It was harder than that. I dug & I scraped to find the truth, gravitating to couplets and finding my instinctual internal rhymes (mostly slant). Then, I got to about 12 lines and realized I was nearly there, yes, working in the sonnet form. I went back and tweaked, condensed some so I’d have a bit more room at the end to get where I needed to go. Rest assured the only things deleted in the condensing were the overwritten bits (dear me, I love those adjectives! and still fall prey to over-explanation). Working in the sonnet form forced me to think in ways I don’t normally think about the purpose of the draft, of what I wanted to leave the reader with at the end. Of course, I think of this when working in free verse, but it’s a less focused thinking. Perhaps I’ve more to learn from this tried & true form; perhaps I’ve more father-daughter truth to explore within its frame.

Yet, there’s a weight to all of this. So why do it? Why bring up painful memories that hurt me and my remaining family? That’ something I’m wrestling with as well.


Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: Petition ~ after Malinda Markham

73º ~ bright sun, but the house so well-shaded that it remains on the verge of chilly most mornings like this

This morning’s desk time was a bit hither & thither. I did not do such a clear job of setting my goal before bed last night and repeating it this morning. I let emails distract for a bit, and truth be told, let a few emails, a text, and a phone call interrupt in the last few hours, but still, I have a new draft.

No father poem today, although I did start a really terrible, forced draft about the death of the father of one of my best friends, a sudden death that happened about 6 months prior to my dad’s well-forecasted dying. I was even counting beats, but the poem petered out after the first burst of energy, and I dithered. I decided I would simply word gather from a favorite book, and I wouldn’t make it a goal to write a poem. Given that I’m freshly back to drafting, I wanted to let myself off the hook for churning out a draft. Instead, I would just sink into the words.

I’ve said this before, but for me it bears repeating. When I want inspiration to jumpstart my writing, I must go back to a book / poet I’ve already grown to love, a trusted source. Of all those books on the to-read shelves I mentioned yesterday, a very few will make it to that inspirational stack. This does not mean that I won’t find poems to enjoy and admire in most of them. I will; however, inspiration requires a much deeper connection fostered over many re-readings for me.

Today, I turned to Malinda Markham, a poet gone from us far too young, and her 2nd (and last book) Having Cut the Sparrow’s Heart. To word gather, I read a poem slowly, usually starting at the beginning of the book, and revel in all the reasons I am inspired by it. Then, I steal 4 – 5 words and smatter them across a blank page in my journal. I intentionally separate words from an individual poem. I do this for multiple poems until the arrangement of the words on my journal page begins to suggest connections (I circle and arrow) and lines begin to form. Here’s a picture of what today’s page looks like.

Usually, I need about twice this number of words, so that there is very little white space left. Yet, today, I was inspired by a specific poem of Markham’s, “Petition,” and my word gathering had already suggested my own direction. Markham’s poem ends, “On the day I am narrow as glass, / you be the sun do not let me grow cold.” I heard “On the days I am heavy leaden, / bid me swallow the chemical thorn” and began to draft. No, I don’t suffer from the same kind of debilitating depression as Markham did, but I do take an SNRI for a milder case of depression and anxiety. The idea of an antidepressant as a “chemical thorn” meant to “wake” the speaker is the heart of the poem.

Today’s draft is back in my comfort zone of free verse with plenty of intense imagery & sound and no shackles of pentameter. Okay, the shackles serve their purpose, I admit, but it was great fun to simply let the lines expand and contract organically while I measured pace and sound with white space and end-stopped versus enjambed lines only.

It’s interesting that the father poems seem to be rooted in the plain speech of my first book, and of my youth, while this new poem today reverts to the lyricism and conversational baroque of my third book. Content drives form? Yes.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn