I read the list of future topics from my first on-line journal
(September 2004) and saw "Where do poems and/or paintings
come from?" It is a question posed most frequently at readings
and openings, and it is usually asked in the spirit of healthy
curiosity. However, my fondest memory is of one friend I had
known for many years, but who had never read my poetry. One
day, she finally did and asked the question, adding quickly,
"You look and act so normal!"
I like Christopher Isherwood's above quotation because it is
an apt description of the constant search for a subject in poetry
or art until it finds you. How do certain images,
impressions, and experiences from each day and night sort themselves
out and end up becoming subjects in poems and/or paintings?
Why do some images linger or haunt? An oversized three ring
binder holds all of my poems, which are at several stages of
the drafting process. I have eight booklets with pictures of
over 300 paintings, also at several stages of the painting process,
but were resolved enough to warrant documentation. I will focus
this month's journal on the origin of my poems; a future journal
will be devoted to the question, "Where do paintings come
To begin the search for the origins of my poems, I looked at
my bulging black binder, which is divided into tabbed sections.
The sections were a major clue. I returned to poetry writing
after many years and had accumulated a few dozen in a folder.
One day, I was curious to see how I could group them. This is
a behavior associated with a common graduate school condition
known as "sorting (and resorting) your data to see what
you can learn." Over the years, I have added and deleted
categories, while poems migrated into other sections or disappeared.
If writing is a way "to find out what I am thinking about,"
(Edward Albee, "why write" from Shoptalk) then
the contents of the binder might reveal the pattern of my inspiration.
Here are my current tabbed categories.
ONE - Poems about "the world out there" are inspired
by the news; the majority come from the newspaper, usually print,
but sometimes pictures take on the power of a haunting. These
are the stories or pieces of information that get caught in
my emotional net, and won't go away until I write something.
I no longer have to go to an old red binder where clippings
were stored. Now I get to the word processor fairly quickly
to begin a draft. A few subjects I have written poems about
are Bosnia, Iraq, a flood in India, serial killers, Pol Pot,
September 11th, the homeless, and a local bank robbery.
TWO - Poems about "the pull of nature" are inspired
by experiences, conversations, observations and imaginings connected
to people interacting with lightning, gardening, storms, anthills,
birds, cold weather, astronomy, bee behavior, and lilacs.
THREE - Poems about "family and personal history"
form a category that is widely shared by poets and writers who
believe that we should "write what we know." To paraphrase
Flannery O'Connor, if you manage to survive childhood, you have
enough to write about all your life. Death and illness, as well
as everyday struggles and successes, become motifs in these
poems because we are in so close to the action. The challenge
is to step away enough to have it "developed, carefully
fixed, printed," as Christopher Isherwood said.
FOUR - Odes are the slimmest section of the binder. If there
is pure joy out there and I find it, I write an ode. So far,
poetry, love, writing, and jewelry are the subjects that have
allowed me to fly above bleaker landscapes.
FIVE - Ars poetica is a poem dedicated to answering the question:
"Why write?" Every once in a while, I try to explore
that question in a poem. I think there might be a bigger problem
if I stop trying to answer it.
SIX - Don't be put off by the name of my last category, ekphrastic
writing. It is simply writing about art. The largest and oldest
genre of ekphrastic writing is poetry, and it is the thickest
section of my binder. Sometimes I write about my own paintings
(Judy's Journal February 2005). Because my life's ambition is
to visit every museum in the world, I will always be in the
presence of a potential poem. I go, I look, I may connect, I
write. The ekphrastic poem needs to be more than a physical
description of a work of art; it relies entirely on the connection
the poet makes. Recommended reading: James A. W. Heffernan's
Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery
(University of Chicago Press).
The subject of December's journal will be the Istanbul Biennial.
I will be visiting and luckily, the Biennial will be on. I'll
be there with open eyes, ears, mind and notebook in hand. If
you have any comments or questions about this or any journal
entry, you can email me at email@example.com. I'd be happy
to hear from you!