I’ve been asked to write a poem. My husband is putting together a show, with songs by him and poems by me. He’s already got all the songs lined up, and all but a few of the poems. That’s because I let him have not only the thesis I wrote for my MFA, but also the three-ring binder holding nearly every poem I ever wrote, whether worth saving or not.
There is no poem about a stream, and he needs one. So I’m trying. Writing on demand is hard.
It’s been a while since I wrote a poem. After graduating from my MFA program in early 2008, I was all fired up. I sent out some poems I had already written, and I wrote some all-new ones about whatever came to mind. Some were published, some were returned. I was happily shocked when two medical journals accepted my work, and one of them insisted on doing a podcast in which I read two poems and was interviewed by an editor. Talk about nerve-wracking. But it was good. It was all good.
I kept writing, and filed them in my computer by year. It’s easy to go back and see how many I wrote each year, and how their numbers dwindled.
I can make excuses. If you’ve been reading this column, you know that seven years ago (hallway through my poetry-writing studies) I started getting daily migraines. Since the most predictable trigger of my headaches is staring at a computer monitor and – oh, the irony – my preferred way of writing poems is on the computer, I often feel that my poetry writing is pretty much doomed.
There are things I can do to hold the pain off while I continue to tap away at the keyboard. I can turn the page color a nice, soothing gray. I can wear my special rose-tinted anti-migraine glasses. I’m doing both those things right now. Is it helping? Not really.
I could try typing with my eyes closed, the same way I walk on a treadmill almost every day. But the point of walking on a treadmill is just to keep upright and moving, and if I hold on to the side bars, I’m fine. Most keyboards have little nubbins on the “f” and “j” keys to help you keep your fingers on the right keys, but there’s a problem. Unlike this essay, a poem depends greatly on how it looks on the page. Line breaks are important. Line breaks are essential. I love playing with line breaks. I can’t do that in the dark.
(This is where I apologize profusely to any blind people having this read aloud to them. I know I could be among you someday, given my family history of macular degeneration. I hope I will deal with that gracefully, but I’m not betting on it.)
So, back to the poem about a stream. Right now, I’m doing what most poets do – thinking about what I could say, free-associating about the topic, looking deep into my heart and soul to see if there’s anything there about, you know, streams. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. Three streams I have known.
The first is a stream that meanders out of a lake in Minnesota. It’s so small, you can walk from one side to the other in your bare feet. I have pictures of my parents and sister and me doing just that. We got quite a kick out of it, because if you follow that stream to Iowa, you have to drive a car over a bridge to ford its mile-wide waters. You know its name: Mississippi. So that one holds promise as a poetic topic. The fact that I have those photos, one of which shows my dad holding my mom’s hand as she navigates the water, lends it a resonance more profound than the river’s darkest depth. I don’t remember how each of us was feeling and acting that day, but I can imagine.
Another stream-grown-large is the subject of a much later photo. Picture this: A man with his blond hair gathered into a ponytail, facing not the camera, but the water. This water has traveled a long way, not meandering but tumbling, roaring down from snow on the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, into Estes Park and down through Big Thompson Canyon. The first time I saw the water in the canyon, I begged my boyfriend (soon to be my first husband) to stop so I could dangle my bare feet in its waters.
I learned a lesson that day: mountain water is icy cold, even on the hottest summer day. I would learn other lessons later, after our summer wedding. So there you go: ingredients for poem #2.
Finally, a third stream that ran by a cabin we stayed in last summer. Piney Creek, in Story, Wyoming, was the loudest creek I’d ever heard, even though its path was horizontal. I took a video with my iPod to post on my Facebook page, so my friends could hear it, too. Closing the door each night, the sound disappeared, though the water never stopped pounding. Maybe – as my husband says – there’s a poem there. Maybe – as I often reply – there is not. Do I look like a poetry vending machine?
Each poet works differently, but the good poems are just that: work. I can say this much, though. I feel quite a bit more hopeful than I did when I sat down to this gray computer screen. Even if I don’t get any poems out of it today, I managed to find this essay.