Once upon a time, I saw a periwinkle making its way back to the ocean as the tide rapidly retreated. I had no idea these creatures left such lovely signatures behind. This is how poems began for me, with an image that would not let me rest.
Then, my students and I started the Poetry Stand (see my blog entry Free Poetry, Really ) for further information, and, for the first time in my career as a writer who teaches writing, I asked these young people to do something I had not done before: to take an order for a poem and to write the poem on the spot. For free.
To be fair, I decided to make myself take the kind of risk I’d asked them to. I started by sending out a few emails to close friends (okay, so maybe I cheated a little) telling them I’d like to write a poem for them and asking them to request something — anything. I widened the circle to other friends, book club people, blog readers, etc. To date, I have written poems about sheep, about dementia, about the fall from innocence and swingsets, about forgiveness and the possibility that, someday, we might be able to have movies made of our dreams and many other topics I would never have chosen myself.
Suddenly, poems did not begin with an image. Instead, they began with research. I found Bible passages on what it means to forgive, specialized words that had to do with what happens in our brains when we dream, photographs of brain cells transformed by Alzheimer’s, and really creepy facts about sheep.
Where previously an image had held me hostage, now research set me free. How fun it was to become a student first, poet second; to wallow around in facts and new words until I found something that felt like a beginning to me.
Sometimes, when we write, we sound too much like ourselves. Again and again, we tap the usual reserves, but other people’s ideas and a commitment to attempting to use them, helped me try things I had never considered.
These days, I do a little of both: my own inspiration from those haunting images, and the requests of people who, in most cases, have never had a poem written exclusively for them. I hope you’ll try it.
This is the poem I wrote that began with the image of the periwinkle’s trail.
Plum Island and Back
You come here expecting things in pieces:
the fractured, fleshless shells of mussels,
crab-backs abandoned by soft bellies, a claw.
You come expecting flight over dunes, terns
diving, the confetti of aerialists mad for sky, herons
lifting from the marsh, trailing legs, trailing ropes of water.
You don’t come expecting poetry, nor love, either,
things you feel you’ve had enough of. You expect —
no, you hope — for nothing grander than relief.
But the periwinkle lays out a path to the sea, a ribbon
in the sand his thin tribute. He has this house to move,
this exaggeration of spine, the only bone he knows.
It helps, it must, to have nothing to compare oneself to.
He can’t know the work ahead, but you do. You wish
the tide back in for him, you wish the moon on his side.
The second is a link to a poem that was requested by my good friend and fellow writer, Holly Robinson. Holly wanted a poem about Plum Island with an emphasis on the way it’s currently eroding. As a bonus, she published it in her novel, Beach Plum Island. You can read that poem and a preview of Holly’s novel, here.