Waiting for the poem to arrive is like waiting for a butterfly to land and stay still.
By Shelley Widhalm
Writing poetry is all about form and discipline, or is there more to it, such as invitation, invocation and imagination?
After attending Loveland poet Bhanu Kapil’s workshop earlier this month on “Writing the Poem Before It Arrives” at the Loveland Public Library, I realized I’d been leaving out an important aspect of my poetry practice.
I write a poem a day. I write poems when I feel inspired. And I write poems to practice form from short haikus to odes and the occasional sonnet.
But I never thought about prewriting poetry, engaging in exercises of the imagination to set the stage for a poem’s arrival.
“You’re receiving whatever comes. This is your writing. This is for the poem,” said Kapil, who decided to become a poet in 2003 and now works as a part-time instructor at the Naropa University and Goodard College’s low-residency MFA program. She is the author of several full-length poetry/prose collections, including “The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers,” “Schizophrene” and “Ban en Banlieue.”
Kapil began the 2 ½-hour workshop with a meditation and exercise. She asked that the lights be turned out in the library’s community room and the 30 or so poets close their eyes and imagine that it’s nighttime in the middle of the daytime.
“We’re in a space with other poets who have a desire to write, a feeling to write before (the poem) arrives,” Kapil said. “Make contact with your imagination. Shift time with your body. Make contact with the notebook life.”
Kapil asked the poets to imagine changing their time and location to that of a sea cave, while still keeping their eyes closed. To get there, she had them visualize being somewhere in the plains and grabbing the desire to write and tucking it somewhere, while also noticing the sounds, feel and shape of things and the birds, vegetation and flowers in the environment. She mentally took the poets into a sea cave, and then had them open their eyes, draw a circle with what they thought about placed inside the circle, and then write a poem. The result is what has arrived, she said.
“It’s a connection with a near image and something you’ve been carrying with your writing,” Kapil said.
I drew a lopsided circle that ended up looking like a clock with a swing flying from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. and my flip-flops flying off with ocean waves at the bottom lifting off at 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. At 8:30 a.m. is my sun with my notebook at 10 a.m. and a bird in flight that also looks like a cross at 11:30 a.m.
I wrote a poem that starts off: “Jump onto swings/ lose flip-flops/ ready to go to the sea’s edge/ no time clocks or check in …”
After writing, we traded poems with a writing partner. Mine said that all off my images are off the hour, the way childhood play is. The last lines of my poem are about letting go of the sea cave to fly on my swing, “my feet reaching to that sun.”
Kapil had the poets engage in a second exercise, but I had to go to work, doing the opposite of my fun, childhood play. She called it the “Completely Imaginary Experience in the Library,” the idea of bringing together fragments or pieces of notes and ideas into poetic form.
One way to do so is by taking a pilgrimage in your own environment—Kapil has 12 questions she travels the world with and keeps asking and answering. She asked the poets to find a book in the library and use lines from the book to respond to one of the 12 questions.
“Ask a question and let your hand drift to a book,” Kapil said. “The poem you write is a response to one of the questions. Include one word or fragment from your notes. And also attend to that message from the book you open. You really have to commit, and then integrate it that way. Write toward that line.”
The poem that comes cannot be entirely controlled but comes out of the process, Kapil said.
“It’s something that wants to be written,” she said.
The workshop and a reading the evening before were sponsored by a number of poetry groups known as the Community Poets, including the Columbine Poets of Colorado, Northern Colorado Chapter; the Friends of the Loveland Public Library; The Writing Lab; the DazBogian Poets; and several community sponsors. The workshops are held twice a year in April and August.
“For her, there’s a whole ritual doorway into the place from which we write from,” said Veronica Patterson, Loveland poet and a member of the Community Poets. “She was describing it from the sea cave, where she writes, which I loved. It’s not writing from the surface, but how to get to a deeper place in ourselves.”