Are there any topics we cannot write poems about? Can we write about love or death or the soul or suicide or any other abstraction when Shakespeare and Dickinson and Frost and Plath have covered that territory so well already? Can we write about the funeral of our grandmother with her cold hands folded as if in prayer? About losing one’s virginity under a barnacle infested pier with Randy Tempoco? Can we write about walking down a sandy beach at sunset with seagulls squawking after having broken up with a partner who is a total shit heel? Can we use the term “shit heel” in a poem and still be well-regarded by our peers?
I say yes to all. I say yes, but under one condition: we do not write to impress. Often, much of my writing time is taken up not by writing, but rather by daydreaming about how blown away so-and-so might be with the breathtaking, new way I’ve described a man’s nose, sagging as if it were an eggplant on a vine. Or the reaction of the reader to a poem about the death of beloved pet, how his eyes will cloud until a single tear rolls saltily down his cheek. That’s when I know I am stalling, because instead of focusing on the blank page, I am thinking about how amazing it will be, once it’s actually written. At the same time, I have to remind myself that much of what I write will get whittled away in revision. The important part of writing is the act itself, at least in the beginning. For this reason, at the start of a project, I can write whatever clichéd nonsense gushes forth, using tired language and imprecise imagery and leaving out the details that matter. Write, write, write.
Then, I leave it for a few days, or move on to another piece that needs work. In revisiting the writing, I’ll often find that it’s better than I remembered, and also worse. I will have described someone’s face as withered and prune-like, or relied heavily on abstract words instead of concrete descriptions. That’s when the hard work begins, first with the act of cutting away the flourishes or trickery, and then getting back to the subject’s precise essence. The fish’s scales are not like rainbows, of course they are not, they are “like ancient wallpaper,/and its pattern of darker brown/was like wallpaper:/shapes like full-blown roses/stained and lost through age” (from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”).
It is as if I cannot get to the good stuff without first writing the bad. I cannot write about the death of my grandmother without telling of wilted flowers and the head-ache-making smell of magnolias and the flickering candles and the clicking of rosary beads. So, I start there. Instead of trying to force it to be great for my invisible reader, I strive to remember the details of moment, such as the cranky toddler in front of us who sprawled across the pew, showing us her flowered underwear during the Hail Mary’s. This description might not make it into the final piece, but it will be the start of getting to the heart of the moment, so that I can remember it exactly as it was, and not how I think it’s supposed to be.