Wednesday, November 12, 2008

FSPA Keynote, "Poeticus Interruptus," Part 1 of 5

This and the following four entries recreate the script from my keynote address at the Florida State Poets Association convention. In addition to new material, my talk includes text posted in prior blog entries, so some sections may look familiar.

I'll post the audio installments catch-as-catch-can. I'm on dial-up at home, so am taking advantage of my library's high-speed Internet to upload the audio.

Poeticus Interruptus
(or: Is that a poem in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)
Keynote at the Florida State Poets Association Convention (theme: "A poem in your pocket"), 18 October 2008, Part 1 of 5

FSPA Keynote, "Poe...
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Elissa Malcohn at FSPA Convention


Thank you very much. And thank you all for coming!

First off, I'd like to thank Bob Blenheim for inadvertently providing the title of my talk in his Of Poets And Poetry article from the March issue. In essence he put a title in my pocket, which is a propos to the theme of this year's convention. And thank you to Caroline Walton for asking me to give the keynote.

First, I want to make sure that everybody has a gift bag and handouts. Has anyone not gotten a set?

You are always carrying a poem in your pocket. Poems also get into your socks, your laundry, the glove compartment of your car, and the dust bunnies your vacuum sucks up. Poems float in the air and grind into the dirt. They are diamonds in the rough. The raw material is always there, waiting and ready to be harvested and then to be polished.

We are, in effect, surrounded by riches, whether we are aware of them or not.

I have never met Tampa-based writer Lary Crews. But he had a series of posts on an online discussion about "Writer's Block." He listed 18 ways to overcome it, and those 18 ways are in your handout.

I won't get into all of them here, but they included making false starts and starting anywhere, writing a letter and writing about being unable to write -- because, after all, that in itself is writing. There's brainstorming, otherwise known as cluster thinking or free-association, which is almost always the way I write articles, including this presentation. There's creating a suitable environment at home as well as abroad. For me sometimes that means simply taking a walk or getting a cup of coffee at the Fresh Start bakery a mile from my home. There's writing consistently, whether you feel up to the task or not and no matter what comes out -- what I refer to as the "love your crap" approach, and I'll get to that approach a bit later. There's working on several projects at once and there's changing your style of writing, just to get out of a rut. Sometimes I just have to play, without any grand, overarching goal in mind.

The one pointer of Crews' that galvanized me was his simple assertion, "Tell yourself writer's block doesn't exist."

It's simple. It's succinct. And it's empowering as all get-out. Because writer's block is a phrase invoked over and over, so many times that it becomes a habit. It becomes a kind of shared consciousness, a presumed reality that goes unquestioned.

Writer's block doesn't exist. Never did, never will. It's an illusion and it's a dirty trick and we don't have to take it any more.

Writer's block doesn't exist. I'd like everyone here to take a deep breath and let's shout it out together…Ready?


How'd that feel?

Natalie Goldberg tells the same thing in a slightly different way in Writing Down the Bones when she talks about practice. She writes, "Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing. It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice. When you write, don’t say, 'I'm going to write a poem.' That attitude will freeze you right away. Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, 'I am free to write the worst junk in the world.' You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination."

I started drafting this address in July at Readercon, a literary science fiction convention outside of Boston. The convention included a speculative poetry workshop, where we all wrote haiku -- or, in this case, scifaiku -- on the spot, over a period of about five minutes. It was play, but it still exercised our poetry muscles. After writing mine I literally walked around the Burlington Marriott with a poem in my pocket, a little, rough draft, fudged into 5-10-5 syllables, that read

water into wine --
alien microbe works a miracle --
rosé rain dances.

and again…

water into wine --
alien microbe works a miracle --
rosé rain dances.

That's what I wrote because when facilitator Mike Allen began the exercise I was noticing the water pitcher on his table and let my idea congeal from there. The poem appears on the SFRevu Internet site accompanying an article on the workshop.

It's a fluffy poem. Meatier poems can take longer to write because there are more layers to get through. There's word-smithing and there's soul-smithing and both of them make me tear my hair out. But while I'm tearing my hair out I'm still writing, even if it's gibberish.

One of the panelists at Readercon was Michael Swanwick, who has won multiple awards for his writing. He provided my favorite quote of the conference, during a panel on rewrites -- which can apply to poetry as well as to prose. When someone in the audience asked him, "How do you know when something you've written is ready to send out?" he answered, "It's not perfect, but you know you have to become a better writer in order to make it perfect."

I love the humbling, yet positive spin that sentence contains.

Here's Natalie Goldberg again. She writes, "Often I will stab many times at something I want to say. For instance, you can look in my notebooks from August through December 1983 and see that I attempted several times a month to write about my father dying. I was exploring and composting the material. Then suddenly, and I can’t say how, in December I sat transfixed at the Croissant Express in Minneapolis and a long poem about that subject poured out of me. All the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity – a bright red tulip shot out of the compost. Katagiri Roshi said: 'Your little will can’t do anything. It takes Great Determination. Great Determination doesn’t mean just you making an effort. It means the whole universe is behind you and with you – the birds, trees, sky, moon, and ten directions.' Suddenly, after much composting, you are in alignment with the stars or the moment or the dining-room chandelier above your head, and your body opens and speaks."

Again, that's from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones.

Your gift bag includes a pen and a little, pocket-sized pad. I'd like you to take out the pad right now. The pen is there if you need it.

I'm not going to ask you to write a poem, though if you do, that's great. Just spend a minute writing anything, even if it's a shopping list. Don't even try to finish it; it's just going to be for a minute and all I'm asking you to do is to to put ink on the page. I'll tell you when the minute is up.

Part 2

Covenant, the first volume in the Deviations Series, is available from Aisling Press, and from AbeBooks, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Territory, Borders,,,, DEAstore,,,,, Powell's Books, and Target. Deviations: Appetite is forthcoming. The Deviations page has additional details.


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