Thursday, March 28, 2019

Practicing Poetry: Walking and Noticing


"You're a poet now!" cries my friend upon hearing of only my second poetry acceptance, and I cringe. I shirk this phrase for two opposite reasons: first, because introducing myself as a poet somehow feels pretentious, as if I am putting on airs of laureates and Keats and the Brownings. How can I claim such a title in a field that demands more learning from me every day, that has many hills but no apex? 

My students and I joke that I'm not quite a poet yet, but I am a "poetry professional." I teach a poetry class at our high school and I tell students they can always come to me with their questions because in this room, in this cafeteria, I am the poetry expert. But it's all relative. 


The other reason I don't like that phrase is the word "now." Publication hasn't suddenly made me a poet, my soul has. There's something inherent to me that makes me see the world a different way, a way that is sometimes more painful and more sensitive. My emotionality has led me to choose to live my life awake to beauty and open to receiving. Words come easy to me, phrases like "the consolation of friendship" and "a lover of peonies" float around in the air around me and become poem titles. And then I choose to fill those poems with things I see and touch, and write them down. 

And what's actually incredible about this is that I'm not special. I make no pretense that these qualities are unique to me; I think that all of us are capable of great emotional depth, specific visions, or perfectly curated words. I tell my students that each one of them can and will write poetry in my class. And I believe it! But to be "poets" in how we see the world, we have to make the choice to walk through the world a certain way, and most people don't. Most people, most of the time, hurry. Most people graze the surface. 

It takes practice, I have learned, to develop the habit of slowing down and noticing the particulars of the world. You can do this sitting at your desk and looking out the window, or closing your eyes as you sip your tea. You can notice snippets of conversation or the way a storm billows. Or, as I find it particularly fruitful, you can walk. 


     photo Nora Pace 2019

I am lucky enough to live in a particularly beautiful neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. These days I can't get enough of the idea that spring is coming. It hasn't been a harsh winter, but it's been long, and I'm so ready to move on to the next thing. I find myself walking more often in the afternoons after school, since the sun is out longer and the weather, while still chilly, is refreshing instead of achingly cold. I'm looking eagerly for signs of spring, searching for the buds on the trees, the first brave purple crocuses, the fat robins perching everywhere. 


No matter what images or ideas I find, I collect them and use them to populate my writing. I've heard this concept called a "magpie essay" in various places, and I like the name though I didn't create it. We are collectors of shiny, pretty things, aren't we? Things we like to fiddle with or remember. 

I've now written a couple of magpie poems, in which I catalogue things I have noticed and try to draw some connections between them. Here's a list of things I've noticed that fit into one poem: 

the twisting of a sprouting weed
the thorns on a tree
eggshells
blue flowers 

snails 
February buds
oval leaves of an ash 

butterflies 
fences with gaps 
telephone poles covered in staples from flyers 
a coy baby rabbit 
a spider weaving her web 
a garden 



How do the things we notice come together into a poem? 

As I write these posts on poetry and nonfiction writing each month, I hope to include a practical exercise or idea for you to try. One of the first lessons I taught to my poetry class this year was the "I saw" poem. Write down "I saw" on 3 lines in a notebook. Then fill them in with whatever you can gather. 

"I saw" is different than "I see" because you can't just look around for the answers. You have to remember what you saw, which means you must choose, somewhere in your brain what you want to include in the record of your sight. Then you may ask yourself, "why did I remember this?" and as you start to choose how all the shiny things collide, you begin to make a poem. 


Here's the latest one I've written: 

     I saw a tree tied with a bandage 
     I saw a tumult of bricks around it. 
     I saw a broken sidewalk that urges slower walking, no tripping,
        a forgiveness for imperfection


photo Nora Pace 2019


Poetry is the art of noticing. Isn't that the thing we most desire sometimes? To be noticed and known. To feel the eyes on us that value and adorn, rather than strip and smirk. Could we not grant this gift to the people around us and to the world? 

Thanks for reading! My posts are published on the 4th Thursday of each month.