considering the other: things that get in the way of writing

by Ren Powell

Every morning these past 2 months, I have rolled out of bed, turned off the alarm and trudged downstairs to my office to set a new alarm. I sit in a beanbag chair and write, by hand, in a journal for 15 minutes. Then I head off to the shower to get ready for my day job. It isn’t that I get anything done in those 15 minutes. It is the principle of ritual.

It’s an idea I got from the choreographer Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit. Tharp explains that her ritual isn’t the morning workout: it is the process of getting up and into the taxi that takes her to the gym. She explains that she actually enjoys the workout, but without the ritual, she wouldn’t be certain to get to that point each day: Other things get in the way too easily.

I wish I could say that every morning when the alarm goes off at 6 a.m., I have hopped joyfully out of bed, looking forward to writing my page of non sequiturs. Some Mondays I have crawled slowly on all fours to the office and cursed a blue streak when there was no ink in any of the pens (all of which I tossed back into the drawer, of course – carving dry and desperate spirals in the margins of my journal with empty pens has become a ritual in itself). But no matter how late I actually get started, I have always prioritized the 15 minute writing alarm. It means there have been days I got to work with damp hair and no make-up. And that is fine. I’ve found that, vain as I am, I am honestly a person who values her identity as a writer — as defined and evidenced by the actual activity of writing — more than her identity as an attractive and tidy person. More than the dignity of matching socks. More than a packed lunch.

Believe me, the 15 minutes isn’t the enjoyable workout. It is the taxi ride during which I establish for myself the reality of my days.

I admire people who manage to get up an hour early to make time for their writing. I may someday choose to try that. At the moment, though, this ritual of 15 minutes is about becoming conscious of how I prioritize my time: what happens when I try to write and the other things in my life that prevent me from writing. Or that I have thought prevented me from writing.

This morning, for example, my pen stopped on the page because I heard the song birds for the first time this spring. They were “twittering at 6:06 outside my window” and I couldn’t think of a thing to write after that statement. I just listened. For a moment, it seemed the birds had returned and the Muse had taken off. Then the garbage truck arrived and idled and strained and coughed and left. These sounds are some of those other things that get in the way of my writing.

This morning’s production on the page looked more meager than usual and I trudged downstairs to the shower and then off to work. To my students: more “others” that take up my time and days and thoughts and keep me from writing.

This afternoon, my time will be filled with grant-writing, something other than the kind of writing I want to do. Then I will have to tidy the house, pay bills, make dinner, prepare lesson plans, quiz the kids on their homework … I have a whole list of other things to do before I can settle down in front of my computer to work on my own poetry.

Who am I kidding?

Do I sit down every single day to write poetry? No. I watch TV. I read magazines. I surf the web. I write in seasons. Like the songbirds that showed up this morning, the Muse will arrive and slip under my skin again, as long as I leave the door open.

I have found that the 15 minutes I spend each morning writing, even when it is nothing more than “can’t stop thinking about the bills, can’t stop thinking about the bills” in increasingly larger script, is like looking out the door each day. Maybe the Muse will come today. Meanwhile all these other things, things that “get in the way” of my writing fall into lines — on the page.

I have forgiven myself for not having the discipline to sit in my office from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and write. Or for not getting up at 5 a.m instead of 6 a.m. The 15-minute ritual has had the effect of making me mindful. I have discovered that the right thing for me to do is not to cut out the “other” things, but to realize the integrity of my life as a poet. It is all this other stuff that I will draw from when the Muse finally shows up and gives me the opportunity for a really good workout.

Who said success is when preparation meets opportunity? Isn’t that also a good definition of poetry?

How do you deal with the other things that get in the way of poetry?

(I actually wrote this post before reading Robert Peake’s column. It may as well have been in dialogue. Seems we might have a mutual muse.)

ren powellRen (Katherine) Powell is native Californian living on the west coast of Norway. Ren has published three collections of poetry and 11 books of translations. She is a graduate adviser with Prescott College’s brief residency MA program and is pursuing a doctorate in creative writing at Lancaster University in England. Learn more at her website.

considering the other: writing for the other? know thyself first

by Ren Powell

As I finish up my final year of graduate school, I have been thinking about the way I have been stymied when trying to consciously incorporate theory into my writing practice. Too often I let academics intrude on my process, rather than complement it. I forgot why I write.

So now I continually return to the Swiss playwright Fredrich Dürrenmatt’s “Some Points on The Physicist, specifically number 1: I don’t start with a thesis; but a story. His notes sit on my desk in a little frame.

Over the last year I have developed a new awareness of not only my writing practice but the impetus of my writing and the consequences it has in regard to form and voice. I have come to understand that I write primarily narrative poems that function rather like lyrics of feeling, in contrast with lyrics of thought or lyrics of vision (with the exception of my experiments with animated poetry).

My poems are characterized by somewhat surrealistic content masquerading as realism. I want my readers to struggle to place the poem’s events within their life’s narrative as a “real” event, just as they would with a familiar but inexplicable feeling of half-memory that can only be described as, “It’s sort of like … .” Not surprisingly, this is what I enjoy reading in the work of other poets, from Dante (no, I’m not kidding) to Brigit Pegeen Kelly.

I am a classical writer in the sense that I believe the function of poetry is to present a mimesis* by which a person can experience the re-creation of a moment in which they recognized the truth. It is not an attempt to evoke an emotional response, an epiphany or confirm or instruct a moral lesson. It is an attempt to evoke an experience of human awareness. (While potentially pretentious, it is certainly not an original ambition.) However, I am also a surrealist writer in the sense that I want the reader to access a universal truth by throwing suspicion upon accepted ideas of reality and forcing the reader to look beyond what the five senses perceive and what logic can conceive.

Although there are poets who freely invent their worlds, for example Poe invented tribes of nonexistent peoples, I am a stickler for accuracy in poems. My tendency to use trivia from the natural world might be termed hyperrealism in that it intentionally challenges the reader’s concepts of fact and fantasy. For example, one of my poems includes details regarding a real parasite that changes the sexual identity and function of its hermit crab host. The parasite is not only a metaphor but a scientific doppelganger for the character in the poem.

A tutor once remarked that my poems had “strange women doing strange things.” Maybe my poems are simply doppelgangers for me? If I could put into prose how I experience the world, I would be a philosopher not a poet.

I discovered that the writing process, for me, is as much one of discovery as one of expression. I will point out that I do not believe this is self-discovery but rather discovery of universal truths. This may sound grandiose; however, I would argue that the lyric poet on a journey of self-discovery also has potential for self-aggrandizing.

I would never go so far as to say that I write for myself, but I do enjoy the writing process because of the cathartic experience inherent in the creation of the lyric narrative. Yet ultimately I write to reach others: to verify my experience as human and real. I seek empathetic readers. Communion. It is a selfish act, and this is my only confession.

What do you want from the others who read your work? What do you have to say to them, share with them? Confess.

*“It was also Plato and Aristotle who contrasted mimesis with diegesis (Greek διήγησις). Mimesis shows, rather than tells, by means of directly represented action that is enacted.”

ren powellRen (Katherine) Powell is native Californian living on the west coast of Norway. Ren has published three collections of poetry and 11 books of translations. She is a graduate adviser with Prescott College’s brief residency MA program and is pursuing a doctorate in creative writing at Lancaster University in England. Learn more at her website.

considering the other: metaphors

by Ren Powell

As long as I have been contemplating my own navel and how I can justify spending so much time with a computer, I have believed I am a poet because I see connections.

Not in the way storytellers see them, cause and effect, incident and influence — but I see how a moth that changes colors to adjust to the effects of industrial pollution in England can be connected to the camouflaging behavior of a victim of domestic violence. Tenuous connections that help me make sense of what seems senseless in the world.

While I know metaphor is not the definition of poetry, and though I have respect for haiku and for Language poets (in the abstract), metaphor is the only way I experience poetry. Probably the only way I experience experiences.

It is an uncomfortable admission to narcissism, either on a personal level or species level, that when I consider the other, I often experience it in terms of metaphors for the familiar. I anthropomorphize not only the dandelions breaking through the sidewalk, but the cracked cement itself.

A sunrise only ignites something in my solar plexus if it is mythologized somewhere along the path from my retinal nerve to my frontal lobe. It is the child dug from the rubble lifted to give us all the hope we need to keep thriving ourselves. It is the Egyptian god Ra rising from the tomb of useless artifacts to shine for 6 hours; magnificent, temporal and bittersweet.

Metaphor leads to metaphor in my mind: sunset. The letter ‘T’ and the finality of its percussive sound, despite the breath that lingers like the magentas of the setting sun; the reds, the blood that fades into blackness.

Isn’t this what we mean when we speak of accessible poetry? James Geary, in a Ted Talk on metaphors claims we speak six metaphors a minute. Many metaphors are very familiar to all of us, the connections easy to make. Metaphors stretch themselves through our subconscious synesthesia: We can skim a poem to see the shape of the letters, to know if the poem is bouba or kikki, whether the overt metaphors are familiar (e.g., sun, blood, tree). We get a feel for the poem even before we have read it. It points to the connections we know.

There are times that, as a reader, I crave this kind of accessible poetry for comfort and confirmation, but most often I need poetry that knocks my expectations out from under me, because that is also confirmation of my experience of the world: I am continually knocked onto my behind — and usually just when I am certain I am on solid ground.

It is comforting sometimes, just knowing I’m not alone in experiencing the world as a complex place: It isn’t psychotic to think lambs and lions may not, and maybe even should not, lie side by side in peace.

As a reader, I have been pushing myself lately to choose poetry that doesn’t immediately appeal to me based on biases and connections I’ve made that are limited in scope and lacking in imagination. This means I’m reading more bouba poems; it means I’m looking deeper into poems with overly familiar metaphors such as sun and blood and tree, searching for poetry that will allow me to break my familiar connections and establish new ones. I am reading poetry of the 19th century and growing as a person. Poetry as nourishment, as these lines from from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” express:

Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Depart not as thy shadow came,
Depart not — lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.

I just hope establishing more connections with bouba poetry won’t make me fat.

ren powellRen Powell has published three poetry collections and eleven books of translations. She is a graduate adviser with Prescott College’s master of arts program and is pursuing a doctorate in creative writing at Lancaster University. Learn more at her website.

considering the other: getting zoned and the joy of socks

by Ren Powell

I have been struggling with the Other lately. Perhaps more rightly said, one of the Others. Not Ms. Perfectionist on my shoulder who tells me my poems stink, the one who takes all my confidence away and sends me to a kind of wilderness for weeks at a time where I swear I won’t ever write another word. But the other Other, the one whose head is as excitable as a freshly opened can of soda pop, ideas like tiny bubbles that spontaneously appear, then explode, leaving my nasal passages a little raw.

My grandmother used to stock her refrigerator with store-brand sodas: orange, cream, cola, grape, ginger and strawberry. Just for me. I am old enough now that my taste buds have turned toward bitter, but I remember the sweet sting in my nose whenever I drank from the glass she’d just poured for me. How I wish I had memories of relishing the sweetness of a peach or a real strawberry. Alas, I do remember biting into a real, worm-infested strawberry, but the truth is, the sweetness of my childhood has a chemical edge to it, a Jolly Rancher strawberry hardness and an angry fizz.

Do I digress? Yes, meet my other Other: the one who, just this instant, has now begun planning a puppet theater production with Jolly Ranchers and cans of strawberry soda that speak in iambic pentameter. The Other will keep me occupied with puppets and socks and Christmas stockings in an endless chain of free associations and ideas for projects that will fizz out as quickly as they appear but effectively keep me from finishing, not only this little essay, but the sonnet I have been struggling with … see, there goes the Other now — off to work on an operetta based on my still-unfinished sonnet.

This week, following the curriculum outline, I tried to explain the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” to my students. The sense of being in the moment during an activity, going with the flow, being in the zone, etc., where one loses track of time and space and our Ms. and Mr. Perfectionist are locked in the broom closet while the muse, or the genius, is free as a flower child or Tasmanian devil.

“Flow” sounds so gentle. “Zone” may be the proper word for me to use when describing my own creative state. My muse is Taz, jumped right off the television screen while I was watching Looney Tunes at the age of 8 or so. I may look serene sitting at my desk nurturing my bursitis, but my thoughts are spinning with such ferocious intention my family has feared that one day my computer will create a vortex that will suck me into another dimension.

I am lucky enough to teach a subject that fascinates me and I flow or spin in the zone through 20-minute sessions with individual students. I have to set a timer or I would carry on all day. Sometimes some of the students flow along with me, or we are caught up in each other’s vortexes like a Venn diagram for creative collaboration. Other times they are dying for that timer to go off, and I wade reluctantly from the flow myself. Can’t be selfish, after all. It’s like trying to enjoy a chocolate cake while someone whose mouth is wired shut watches. And her stomach is growling. And she is really only listening to my terrible accent so she can do a parody for the school revue next month. And she thinks my new haircut is unflattering … . When Taz leaves, Ms. Paranoid enters.

As good as the required textbook is, I have a few quibbles with the presentation of flow.

First, as a teacher, I find the list of things to do so that you can be in the “flow” less than instructive. Take Number 2: Be strongly engaged, almost ecstatic. Helpful? Just be “almost ecstatic.”

Oh, and here, take this Just Say No to Drugs pamphlet home to read, too.

Number 3: Have an inner clarity, know your goals and the way to reach them. If I am going to evaluate and guide my students along a path to inner clarity, someone better send me some special glasses and a very clear map.

My real concern is that the book doesn’t tell the students that, though experiencing “flow” or being in the zone may guarantee creative work, it doesn’t guarantee great, or even good, work. I am certain of this. You see, I live more than half my life in the flow or spinning in the zone and have comparatively little quality work to show for it.

I have been driving the same route to work for a decade and still get lost on the way to work if I am composing or brainstorming while driving. The last time this happened my teenage son was in the backseat and was then 20 minutes late to his Spanish class because I was totally lost on the flat farmland of Jæren, Norway. Five minutes from home. And he was laughing out loud. Probably in part because he isn’t sorry to miss Spanish class, but also because he empathizes with my zoned-out joy. It may not be quality work, but it is quality joy. It is something he has said characterizes me — being joyfully zoned out most of the time. And he has assured me that it is a good thing — most of the time. When it doesn’t make him late for school, or me late for work.

Number 7: The activity itself must provide a feeling of being its own reward. I’ll take that a step further — it must be its own reward. If the experience of flow is dependent upon an other’s approval, then I would say you haven’t really gone with the flow. I tell my students not to let grades affect their experience of performance or joy in the creative moment — the same way I remind myself that a rejection notice doesn’t void the joy of being zoned.

Elizabeth Gilbert has given a TED talk (linked here and embedded below) about genius being “the other,” not ourselves. She explains how poet Ruth Stone described her muse as a train that thunders through her and she simply transcribes the genius (ca. 10 min in).

Well, my muse is not as orderly. Or maybe I haven’t learned his language properly yet.

On second thought: Maybe I don’t really “flow” at all but simply have a narrow river and an inability to do two things at once?

It is a bit like orgasm, isn’t it? Reading all the Cosmo articles and listening to all the testimonials of transcendent sexual experiences and suddenly wondering if you’re missing out on something earth-shattering?

It is very much like a sexual relationship: You can’t be certain what quality of physical evidence you will have to show for it, can never be sure how you compare to other lovers, and you have no idea where he’s been the last week when he never answered your calls.

On the other hand, I can selfishly enjoy being zoned out, knowing Taz is always content with his sock puppets. At any rate, I wish he would leave me alone for a few days so I could get some work done.

So, who’ve you been seeing these days?

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ren powellRen Powell has published three poetry collections and eleven books of translations. She is a graduate adviser with Prescott College’s master of arts program and is pursuing a doctorate in creative writing at Lancaster University. Learn more at her website.

considering the other: i hereby confer upon you the title of poet

by Ren Powell

One of the awkward quirks of social media is the occasional crossover of cliques. A few weeks ago, I stumbled on the blog profile of one of my theater students. He wrote that he considers himself an actor,“although” he knows he “really isn’t one yet.”

The fact is I saw very little of the student the first months of school this year because he was acting in a supporting role in a television mini-series. He has been acting in professional children’s theater productions for a large fraction of the modest number of years he has spent on this earth. He has performed for audiences and for cameras, and I am assuming that, for the latter at least, he was paid real money for doing so.

So when is he a “real” actor? When he has a degree from a particular school? When an actor’s guild gives him a card? When he is smugly satisfied with his skills and doesn’t give a prop what anyone thinks of his craftsmanship or talent?

Or will he be disingenuous and, accepting the academy award for best actor, say that he hopes he will one day be able to consider himself a “real” actor, thus ridiculing anyone without an award on the mantel who calls him- or herself an actor?

I have to admit to having a preoccupation with this question. The past decade, I have traveled quite a bit. Every time the airplane approaches the runway and they hand out the landing cards, I get a rush of panic. I stop at the blank that follows the word occupation. Poet, like actor, seems to be one of those titles some of us feel ridiculously self-conscious taking upon ourselves. I am occupied by poetry. I am trained to write poetry. I do not make a living writing poetry. Two out of three dictionary definitions isn’t bad?

The years that my tax form read self-employed, and published a book, and earned enough royalties to buy new shoe strings, or received a grant, I proudly wrote: Writer.

Why not poet? To be painfully honest, because I worry about what people think:

Poet = A person who writes poetry?

Poet = A person who publishes poetry for other people to read?

Poet = A person whose poetry is published by people who have authority within academia?

Poet = A sensitive soul?

Poet = An inspired spirit?

Poet = A rebel with a cause?

Poet = A total flake, a suffering romantic, a person who can’t be trusted with small children or sharp objects?

And just when I think I am in a place where I know the other to whom I am presenting myself and think I can comfortably claim the title as my own, I get sideswiped: This summer one of my doctorate advisers said, “I know you want to have a career as a poet someday.” My defenses jumped to attention: I almost choked on my indignation, my CV …  and my own hypocrisy — I thought I was having one. (Glad I’d written “student” on my landing card that morning.)

I have heard people I respect say the oddest things when it comes to the question of who is a poet. One woman I know calls herself a “poetry practitioner” because she thinks “poet” sounds too fancy. But “nurse practitioner” comes to my mind, which makes me think of poetry as ministering to the soul, something I would be very uncomfortable claiming to do.

Many people have told me they feel that the title of poet is something they should not take upon themselves, but rather something that should be conferred by others.

OK then: By whom? Is it appropriate to ask them to consider you for the rubber stamp? Or do they tattoo it on your hairline? Is there a pageant to enter? (Is there a swimsuit competition?!) Can one be stripped of the title when a residency term is finished? When the journal, zine, blog has dissipated in the ether of cyberspace? When you no longer think the world sucks and have no need to refill your prescriptions?

I am going to make this simple. I hereby confer upon us all the title of “poet” and will schedule appointments to tattoo everyone — base of the skull only, please. I can begin this weekend.

Right now I need to get to class. My student may have earned more money as an actor than I did this year, but he still has some things to learn. And so do I.

Sign up below for the tattoo.

ren powellRen Powell has published three poetry collections and eleven books of translations. She is a graduate adviser with Prescott College’s master of arts program and is pursuing a doctorate in creative writing at Lancaster University. Learn more at her website.

read write poem news

  • read write poem napowrimo anthology
    June 20, 2010 | 1:36 pm

    The Read Write Poem NaPoWriMo Anthology is still in production. Selection, placement, layout and copyediting are taking longer than anticipated. Thank you for your patience. I hope to have the piece completed in July. For those who have emailed asking if they can be included, the May 7 deadline for submission of work stands. Those who met that deadline will be included. Please check the post on this site listing who I received submissions from by that date. If you submitted your work by the May 7 deadline in accordance with our guidelines and your name is not listed, send an email to info (at) readwritepoem (dot) org.

  • read write poem napowrimo anthology
    May 5, 2010 | 3:09 pm

    Remember that Friday* is the deadline for submitting work to the Read Write Poem NaPoWriMo Anthology. Check out the guidelines for submission in the main column (to the left). On May 8, we’ll post a news item listing everyone we’ve received work from. If you submitted work and your name is not on that list, please let us know. Thanks!

    *I initially said “tomorrow,” but I meant to say “Friday.”

  • napowrimo congratulations, and a reminder
    April 24, 2010 | 12:05 pm

    It’s the final week of the Read Write Poem NaPoWriMo Challenge! Just 7 days left. With that, a reminder that Read Write Poem will culminate with the anthology featuring work from those who complete the challenge. A post with details for submitting to the anthology will be published May 1. Be sure you remove any information from the site that you want preserved — such as group content and personal messages. Those elements of the site will be removed May 1 as well. The main site will remain up as an archive.

  • ‘underlife’ tour at january gill o’neil’s blog
    April 20, 2010 | 8:11 pm

    January Gill O’Neil’s virtual book tour has moved to her site and is underway now. Check out the lineup at Poet Mom.

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