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When to Write a Poem (When Not To)Conference at Home , Susanna Heller

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine was hospitalized in a local mental health facility during a severe manic episode. My friend is a poet, and usually she does what all poets do when they are ill or sad or happy or in love or confused or embarrassed or whatever: she writes. In fact, when she was younger and more reckless, sometimes it was the shimmering, jagged-edged stirrings of a manic episode that seemed to prompt her to her most vivid work. Sometimes she would allow, she would even invite, this manic muse into her daily life of discipline, of remunerative work, and daily medication, and let it take her where it would. But sometimes it would take her just too far, past expression into a kind of terrible, dark silence. This was one of those times.

So she was voluntarily hospitalized, and given strong drugs to pull her back from the—literal—edge, for she had been sitting on the fence of the high balcony off her 17th floor apartment when a friend of her worried sister's arrived and talked her in. And after awhile, in the Nova Scotia Hospital amongst the mentally halt, lame and blind, she began to come out of that hopeless, silted-up place into words again. Not well enough yet to leave for home, but missing the monthly poetry-writing workshops that she and I had been attending together, she made a bold proposal: since she couldn't come out into the world to meet those of us who regularly gathered to discuss our poems, we would come to her.

And so we did. Six or seven of us poets trooped anxiously (poets are often anxious) one Tuesday evening into the Nova Scotia Hospital's communal lounge. We met up with our dear friend, who was still shaky and ferociously pale but—we were thankful to see—very much herself, and sat down in a side room around a table to read and talk about our poems.

The door stayed open according to the rules of the hospital, which offered an invitation of sorts for other patients to wander in as they so chose; many of them did. While I was reading my own poem, one patient, a small, shaved man, sat nearby, rocking back and forth and moaning. (Or, wait: was that one of the poets?) A huge woman in a fuschia muumuu peeked in to growl every few minutes. Our friend, in a brave, drugged daze, managed to make the most useful and cogent comments of any of us, and we listened to her attentively. An attenuated girl of twenty-something in shades of gray leaned against the back wall with her hand over her eyes.

I remember all those things and I remember this: that every poet in that room was both intensely present to the extraordinary moment we now found ourselves in, and yet somewhere else entirely. For we were each already feverishly planning, certainly imagining, the poem we would soon write—must write, were chosen by the gods to write!—about that very meeting. Because this experience was the true stuff of poems. It was just like real life but more so! And if it weren't enough that we were conducting a poetry workshop in a—say it, a mental asylum—we were all also aware that this was the very mental asylum where the mother of Elizabeth Bishop, that parton saint of 20th century poets, ended up spending the rest of her life after going mad when EB was five. Hence turning EB into a poet!

The only problem was that, in the end, and after true and valiant effort on our parts, the poem(s) just wouldn't come. Not the good poems, anyway. Not the ones that we would end up keeping, sharing, publishing, the ones that would surprise us because, whether they came as gift poems that just flow, or effortful poems that take days-months-years to craft, they were not really the poems we had thought we were writing.

It's hard, if not impossible, to end up with those poems, the good ones, when you've started out to write A Poem.

Here are a couple of my own poems that turned out not to be at all what I had thought they'd be. Until they were.

1) Many years after my friend's bout with her illness, I was besieged by a pospartum depression connected to the birth of my daughter. Feeling the first stirrings of wellness, but almost more comfortable with the muffling effects of deep depression, I wanted to write again. Specifically, I wanted to write about an incident in which a nurse at the Seattle hospital I had given birth in had told me I would soon become very depressed—she could tell "the ones" who would, she said—and how I had believed, irrationally no doubt, that this is why I had fallen so far and so fast. But I couldn't write the poem I held so firmly in my mind, no matter how hard I tried. Every time, I ended up writing a cleverly line-blocked prose treatise on what it was like to feel really awful. I wasn't getting getting anywhere except, as each new attempt proved more pretentious than the last, to feel even more really awful. But then one day I was on the phone with my poet friend, who still lived in Nova Scotia, and she said to me: just look out the window and write about the first thing, the very first thing, you see. Do that instead.

Here in the Rain

. . . the constant squirrel disappears between shades of grey,  
daft smoke of a rodent waved on by the immensity of his tail.  

So apt for disappearance he scurries and tumbles like a hyperactive ghost,
but suddenly stops still ‑ becomes stillness ‑ beside the citron flower. Single bloom

on the bush, yellow but bolder than that, an ancient hot gold not diffuse  
like sunlight, petals soft to the touch but wholly defined by the hardness  

of . . .whatever color has brought the squirrel back from ghost land  
to the world of real things. Unmoving. Look.  

He is terrified.  

And there I had it. Not the poem I had meant to write. And yet, really, it was.

2) I was reading the poems of a man I had studied with as a teacher long before I believed I could write poems. I hadn't thought of this poet, his work, for years until I happened by chance upon one of his poems online, and then began to read—re-read—almost all his poems. God, he was a gorgeous poet! He did things with long poems—heartbreaking, expansive things—that I so wanted to do. I yearned to create my own version of the meandering, arduous, Baroque journeys he undertook through charged landscapes. I wanted more than anything in the world to write a poem about a time from my childhood in a way that would embody that time, and return it to me with all its meanings enlarged, but intact.

Trudge, trude, trudge through the poem I lusted after. I tried a different childhood incident. I gave up on my attempts at the poet's fearless free form style and tried a few tricks of rhyme and meter to give my poem some highway signs. Finally, in high dudgeon, I remembered that I didn't even like this poet. Well, not as a person, anyway. Well, maybe I had liked him, or at least I'd admired him, but he had been just  so . . . so. . . well, so much the person who had lived the life that would let him write the poems he wrote.

I stopped trying to write a poem after him, and wrote this one, instead.

Still Dead

Ten years ago you were finally dead, not really
for the first time. Before that I knew you for awhile, but it turns out
not at all. You were a force, a name, and I was young. Back then

I got stuck each time you came near, mute
girl trussed in an accidental web as you'd dip toward me
with your seamed face, air of casual or was it causal debauchery

mild amusement and ultimate indifference that fit me

like a bespoke suit. Not even a morsel for your afternoon snack, I was
too small, too stunned to bother with as you ravaged your own
design each day, smoked, snorted, invited your death

and then got up early again to seduce the tender students grasping
at the threads you threw, the ethereal girls made beautiful to you
in that they weren’t afraid of how close you were, how awful it felt,

that closeness, how it was not glamorous, not
pretty, hardly even bearable, but every word
you wrote was another coin for our vigil.

And here, I'll do a real disservice to myself as a poet, and just leave it to Emily Dickinson.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---

All poets know this poem, keep a lamp shining, when awake, on the knowledge therein. It's so true it's almost  . . .. Well, it's just true. But somehow we often forget when we sit down to write that poem we've been dying to write, about that thing we so want to write about: we can't do it this way. The real poem—the one that gets written anyway, despite what we've planned—takes us by surprise each and every time.