In the past few years—okay, decades—of writing poems, I’ve found myself returning again and again to certain impressions, aching to get them down, but often disappointed by what I’d made. Some moments, no matter how crucial, how wounded or wild and starlit they are—or maybe because of that—resist our re-entrance in words. Because I have struggled so often with certain scenes that keep resurfacing in my work, I’ve worked out some strategies for breaking back into these moments in fresh ways.
While drafting my recent collection, Where the Wolf, some of these methods bloomed into entire sequences drove the book in new directions. I offer up two of them here, in case you have a subject you’re wanting to return to and re-see:
1– Invite in the strange. Perhaps there’s a scene you’ve tried again and again to capture that eludes you. One way you might try re-entering that scene is by inviting in some new strange, otherwordly element, to re-orient the draft around it.
My poems often engage with strangeness, but the first poem in this new book was haunted in new ways. This poem describes the night a family comes apart. It’s a moment I’d been trying to write for over twenty years. I’d almost given up when, drafting one morning, I let a bit of the strangeness of my recent fairy-tale poems cross over into this piece. That is to say, while I was drafting, ghost wolves showed up in the poem’s backyard. It’s actually a little less surprising than it sounds; these wolves had been a part of my dreams since childhood.
When I made room for them in this poem, though, something happened—not only to this draft, but to the next, and the next. Those wolves stuck around. They began taking up space, inviting their wildness and magic into the mix, and redefining what danger, safety, and even story meant in, and to, those memories.
From what places can you pull strangeness into your writing? If inviting it into your work feels challenging at first, try starting a dream journal. Keep a small notebook by your bed (or your phone), and when you wake—during the night, or first thing in the morning—take down odd images that linger from your dreams. Don’t worry about accuracy: allow whatever dream imagery, shapes and colors you recall—animals, weather, odd phrases—to lead you to words and images by association. Follow the flow; fill in the dream’s blanks. When you sit down to draft, open that journal back up, and copy out the more resonant bits. Let them seep into the work you’re doing, even if they don’t seem connected at first. Build bridges to the strange.
2– Ask Someone, or Something, Else to Speak. Persona poems speak from the point of view of a speaker who is absolutely distinguished from the author. (Many poems’ speakers are considered slices of/projections of/adjacent to the poet’s voice, but a persona is a completely different voice—a figure from history or literature, an invented Other, even sometimes an animal or object.) Try recounting your moment, your memory, from the perspective of someone or something else in the room—that’s not you, that’s possibly not even able, ordinarily, to speak.
In my recent collection, it was an easy leap from the wolves that had entered my story to other fairy-tale figures. I was working on poems about adolescence—mine, and my children’s—and was looking for new ways to approach it. One poem in the book, “Says the Forest to the Girl,” allows the woods to speak to the fairy-tale heroine passing through them, giving the forces she struggles through, and against, a voice. What does she fear most from the world around her? What do her fears sound like—what do they talk about when they get a chance? What kinds of threats do they make?
For me, this was a whole different way of writing about what it was like to be a teenage girl—for one thing, it was scarier! It also didn’t rely so much on a literal, remembered place for memory, but used the feelings from particular experiences as fuel for a new setting. (To begin, I might have asked myself: how is a mall or a party, or even a family or an adolescent body, like a dark wood?)
As you play with personae, listen for a voice that might have something particularly surprising, or relevant, to say to your moment. If you’re concerned with how time passed in this memory, maybe the clock in the room could speak. If you are struck by the way childhood changed from your own perspective at this point, maybe a figure from a well-known children’s story could comment on the scene. Focus on distinct diction: what does your speaker sound like? Do they speak formally, use slang? Long, ornate sentences or short, terse ones?
There are many ways to re-enter memory in poetry—through the obsessive repetition of a refrain, the containment of a traditional form, or by telling the story out of sequence. Poetry is not documentary history: linear precision isn’t the goal. Don’t be afraid to make messes and smear the paints in your memory. Invite in your ghosts, comets, and wolves. Then claim, in words, whatever else shows up.
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