“gift poems” and the importance of openness in the creative writing process

My boyfriend and I planned a weekend up north at his cabin in Eagle River, WI. I knew I had a poem due via online submission at noon that Saturday, so we brought a laptop along and I decided I’d dedicate Friday night and Saturday morning to writing my poem. Normally “writing” a poem means working through the final drafts of an already existing poem, but at this particular time, I had nothing written. We arrived at the cabin only to find the water had been turned off for the winter (it was the end of September, “up north season” was officially coming to an end, and we were harshly made aware.) So, we were peeing outside and brushing our teeth at Leif’s Cafe (should out to “Leif” for having the same badass name as my Grandpa) Friday night I spent cutting apart old newspapers from the early 90s that were in a pile next to the fire. There was a strange method to my madness- I was using a revision technique taught to me by Chase Twichell (poet) in a table talk about a year ago. She suggested physically cutting apart your poems to pick out the strongest words, and seeing what you were left with, and how to put it back together. So, my idea was, I would blend this revision technique with the genre of “collage” poetry. In theory, this could have been really cool, and with more time maybe something would have come of it. But i wasn’t quite getting anywhere, at least Friday night I wasn’t, so I collected the most “promising” words, phrases, headlines, and quotes, and carefully set them aside for the next day, where I’d be forced to find a way to organize the mess. The rest of the night was spent drinking wine and playing speed (the best card game, also happens to be the ONLY one I know.) In the morning we went to a coffee shop that had internet and I got to work, figuring the mess of newspaper clippings would just transform into a poem, that they would suddenly become cohesive and poetic and make sense. I had about 7 started poems, none of which where heading in any promising direction. I don’t think any of them were even headed in one direction. So the whole morning has passed and I now hadone hour to submit this poem, the time restraint was giving me anxiety and totally restricting my creativity. My boyfriend sat next to me pretty quietly, letting me do my “freak out” deal (which he’s used to by now), when he offered me a suggestion. “Why don’t you just write about what you’re experiencing, write about being up north.” I rolled my eyes, “I’m not writing a nature poem. That’s not ‘me'” (generalizing this genre as archaic and childish- which some can be.) Annoyed that he would even attempt to understand my writing process, being someone who is not involved in the “art world” (one could argue he’s even in the opposite world, with a job in finance) how could he possibly understand?

I thought about his suggestion a bit;  I thought about the sign outside the cabin, “Ends Up North”, it reads (the family’s last name) and thought it was indicative of this particular season, being the end of September. I’d never spent time in northern Wisconsin other than in the summer months. I expected the leaves to be muted shades of burnt orange and maroon, instead, they were varied colors of neon- florescent yellow, bright orange, fuscia, hot pink. Images too unique and beautiful to not be inserted into a poem (a “wasted poem opportunity” is what a professor of writing may call that sort of unique, unexpected image.)

I wrote the poem in five minutes, or rather, it wrote itself. In workshop (poetry class where the students write work to be critiqued, and critiqued the work of others in a round table form) the following Monday I felt a little guilty, ashamed, responding to the positive reactions I received. I felt like I shouldn’t be taking “credit” for something I almost felt like I didn’t even write at all.

(Sidenote: poetry is rarely this way. Writing poetry is extremely hard work, and yes, there is such thing as a “bad poem”)

I shared my process and the guilt subsided when my professor (Rebecca Dunham) explained these kind of poems as “gift” poem- poems that don’t require the 5, 10, 20 drafts that other poems may endure- and that she’s had similar experience. She related to my feeling of guilt- because nothing is truly rewarding unless you feel like you’ve worked for it. But as a poet sometimes the work you’re doing for a poem isn’t necessarily clear, that is, reading poems, work shopping others’ poems- these things are constantly informing a writers talent without said writer being really aware of it. You wouldn’t write a “gift” poem without working, in some way, towards it, because the tools needed to make it happen wouldn’t exist inside of your mind. You can’t bullshit your way through writing courses, or independent writing even- at least not after your intro to creative writing course- where your professors don’t expect you to have a vast knowledge of poetic techniques and writers, or to have found your “voice” yet. After your intro course there are standards and expectations- and you come to a place where the greatest standards placed on you are the ones you place upon yourself.

Here’s what I learned from writing that poem:

don’t let ideas about what kind of writer you think  you are (or think you should be) or what you should be writing about restrict you, be open to every and all form and genre, you never know what the poem will demand (because poems will, in fact, demand a certain style from you, its up to you whether or not you want to pay attention to that request)

everyone- literally everyone- is qualified to critique you. Someone may see an opportunity for you while you’re too busy focusing on something else, distracted. Or possible headed in the wrong direction all together. I had my nose up at my boyfriend’s suggestions, thinking how could he ever give me advice on how to write? But his advice was exactly what I needed and I’m glad at least a tiny part of me was open enough to accept it.

Here’s the thing, the best poets take the simplest things and flip them upside down or juxtapose the images in an unexpected way or force you to see something entirely different than you’ve ever seen before. Its how a writer says something, rather than what they say (things brings in the discourse of the relationship between form and content- and how they must inform one other) that makes a writer. So if you’re too concerned with being conceptual or intellectual (these are not unworthy pursuits, and as a writer that part of your brain should always be “on” as well) you may miss the opportunities for the concise, simple poems, strong poems that you never knew you could write.

It ends up North

channeling through cigarette

trunk birch trees, the veins of neon

leaves pulse & bleed

thirty degrees came

and went unpredicted

shoreline’s docks reined

house’s boarded windows draw

bareness like body’s

shocked skin after a September swim

crunching gravel dust clouds trail tires

we leave and breakfast’s abandoned fire stays,

seeping into frosting air.


One comment

  1. […] “Gift” poems and an important lesson about the creative writing process (nadinecritiques.wordpress.com) […]

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