Where Do Poems Come From?

The quaint euphemistic way we once talked around having “the talk” with children about the birds and the bees is at least metaphorical, even poetic in its tip-toeing.

Here, I want to play a bit with a slightly different version of “the talk”—specifically walking through where poems come from.

It was a Friday afternoon, and I found myself alone with friends all somewhere else even though we usually congregate at the local brewery on Fridays.

So I came equipped with a book, Acceptance by Jeff Vandemeer, as well as a lingering dose of depression and anxiety. This seemed an ideal opportunity to inject a few pints of the seasonal beer just being released.

I also came with my constant companions—anxiety, introversion, and solid doses of ADHD and OCD.

It was mid-afternoon so only a modest crowd was there mulling around and the band had not yet begun. My introversion runs in a way that this sort of public space allows me to disappear and be nearly relaxed. Once the crowd grows and especially when live music cranks up, the same space become the worst sort of hell for me.

To appease my ADHD as I read, I slipped into my smart phone surfing that annoys my intimates because I am apt always to be doing several things at once, giving off the impression that I am not in the moment with any one person. Ever.

And then it happened.

I was scanning through Instagram, where I follow several artists, and saw a post by Valeria Ko:

hanging clothes

The painting of a woman in only panties, from behind and holding a laundry basket outside near a trailer, immediately prompted these words:

we buy an RV
and then unceremoniously we leave

somehow we reach the desert
where we park for days

because we have been watching
on the couch Breaking Bad

Let me pause here to stress how this represents at least for me where poems come from.

This scenario holds several elements that I find are consistent: the presence of creative works (reading volume 3 of Vandemeer’s science fiction trilogy, Ko’s artwork), a sudden burst of lines of poetry that seemingly just come to me, and not a small dose of sadness or depression.

Many poems of mine begin in some way while reading, viewing a film, or listening to new music; visual artwork is also a powerful trigger [see Fisherman and The Siren (vortex of desire)].

Poetry, unlike my blogging and scholarly writing, always comes first as inspired words, phrases, and lines; in other words, I never sit down to write a poem.

The poem itself initiates the writing.

Some who know I am a poet and read my work have noted as well that depression and sadness seem to rest next to my poetic output. I must confess that seems fair.

Now, back to the writing of this poem*.

Mornings can be fertile times for poetry to call, but typically, my first move with a poem is to type the inspired words or lines into notes on my phone and then email that to myself to work on at the computer.

I often will continue to run through those lines in my head, incessantly and often that repeating causes the poem, or story, to grow.

In this case, I knew I had a good bit of time alone and would not be at the computer until the next day, likely, so I did something I think I have never done before; I began drafting the poem right there on the notes of my phone.

Drafting a poem includes after the initial rush of inspiration a recursive act of discovering what the poem wants to be (in terms of content and story as well as craft) and then writing and revising to meet those unfolding demands.

A few initial ideas were the repetition of “we” and then “some” in “somehow” and “some times.” I considered for a while having “we” in every line but let that slip eventually.

The central purpose of the poem appeared to be my associating an RV and the desert with the series Breaking Bad, which I have been re-watching.

The artwork spoke to my essentially visual nature, but it also challenged me to think about, as someone who read the poem noted, the voyeuristic motif that is present in the painting and my poem.

As I drafted, I returned to the Instagram post and discovered something truly stunning: The painting itself, as Ko notes, was “[i]nspired by @joshsoskin photos” (see here and his web site).

A photographer inspired a painter who inspired a poet—all of which depends on both the intent of artists and the co-created meanings of those viewing/reading the art.

What is the intended tone of the painting? Of the photographer’s image? And then how does the intended story I created resonate with any or all of that?

The original idea and the focus on “we” soon became subsumed by the imagery of the poem, specifically the desert scene.

The first title of the poem was just “we,” but I eventually revised as “we (deserts),” editing that to “we (desert)” since this narrative is clearly about one couple in one desert—a singular event and a poem about being alone while also existing in a way that is the antithesis of lonely.

Some key elements revealed themselves and became the focus as I read, reread, and drafted: the couple as voyeur and watched (man inside, woman outside), the concept of being alone as a couple and that being a state of freedom, and the overarching reframing of a desert, not as barren or oppressive but as a refuge, a paradise.

My poetry tends toward narration more than narrative, but this poem clearly was meant to be a story with characters and setting. But I also seek an economy of language, inspired always by Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”

To say the least possible for the greatest effect—so two stark images of the woman (grounded in the painting); adding “cacti,” “sand,” and “brush.”

Also along with the voyeur/viewed problem I felt compelled to focus on stasis (man) and motion (woman) while keeping the dynamic of the couple both something I was celebrating and problematizing.

How to end a poem is always a challenge, one that typically comes to me in a similar way as the initial lines—I simply feel it, both the sense that it is not finished and then that these lines are it.

The turning point for this poem being finished was “people i suspect don’t know/a goddamn thing about deserts” and imagining this couple in the desert during the longest daylight weeks of the year (so the 14 hours detail).

I enjoy being able to talk about and through a poem once I have made it public and can hear others respond. Doing that led me to describing this as a post-apocalyptic poem, the apocalypse not some nuclear holocaust but the act of this couple: “we buy an RV without a plan or map/and then unceremoniously we leave.”

An act not away from anything but toward their being entirely alone and together, free as the woman seems to be in her complicated image of the painting—the gendered domesticity outside and partially clothed while being watched by her lover.

As much as I was motivated by the opening lines—that I still love—and the narrative, I am mostly haunted by the next to the last stanza, and wondering what do people know especially about being happy, about refusing to sit there alone instead of holding tight the one you love.

* we (desert)

But what if you discover that the price of purpose is to render invisible so many other things?
Acceptance, Jeff Vandermeer

we buy an RV without a plan or map
and then unceremoniously we leave

somehow we reach the desert
where we park for days then weeks

because we have been watching sometimes naked
on the couch Breaking Bad

we realize we are o so alone
except for sand and brush

on warm bright mornings i watch
you outside hanging clothes

sometimes wearing only a shirt unbuttoned
other times only panties soft tan like your skin

i do not run through the door and sand
tackling you cradled in my arms to the ground

because my chest is overfilled with this
so that everything seems to be spilling from my eyes

and once you turned seeing me through the window
curtsying and opening the shirt with a smile

people i suspect don’t know
a goddamn thing about deserts

or being all alone as we are
with 14 hours of sunshine and cacti