Process: Notes on Competing Priorities

WaterhouseUlyssesButt

Okay, so yesterday I wrote a poem for which I am using the working title Odyssey, because it ended up being about Odysseus and Penelope. Let me unpack my process.

Inspiration: Something my yoga teacher said, because, duh, Erica Magro Cahill. “The intimacy of a beating heart inside your beautiful skin…”

Part 1. The image of my heart peeking out from behind my sternum on an x-ray of my esophagus and larynx.

Problem: The point I want to make is about the heart but suddenly my larynx is involved.

Solution: When we sing, we don’t think about the bits of our body we are singing with, we think about the heart and what it does and wants. This leads to the idea of singing comfort to a “fearful, feral/cornered self within another body contained in skin, the reverse of Siren song.”

Part 2. The image of the skin as a map, marked by scars, wrinkles and ink. Using the concept I got from two separate students last semester that it helps when you suffer from depression to tattoo a message or symbol on your body to remind you that life is doable. This allowed me to use the line that Sir Terry Pratchett quotes in his recent nonfiction book, A Blink of the Screen, which he attributes to G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist, for they already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” But of course, this is wordy and I already have the map, so:

Application: “Even tied to the mast, straining against our good sense,/We remember: Here be dragons. Reading our skin,/We recall, relieved: Dragons may be slain.”

Part 3. I need to get from Odysseus tied to the mast back to Penelope waiting on Ithaca, fending off suitors with her ten-year-long craft project. I start with the sail as a reminder of our fate as it is woven by the maiden, matron and crone: “We weave what they give us/Into something of use…” I transition to Penelope’s weaving. In the original, she tells the suitors that she cannot marry anyone until she finishes weaving her father-in-law’s shroud.

Feminist Revisionist Mythmaking: (Okay, here is the fun part!) I turn the shroud instead into a 1) tapestry of 2) Penelope herself as the matron Fate weaving and unweaving a tapestry of 3) Odysseus’s ship. “She turns its prow repeatedly/Back toward Ithaca. With each reweaving,/She brings the hero that much sooner home.” With this I take the power of the Fates and the Gods who are pissed off at Odysseus and give it to Penelope, making her thwart all of them and get her husband back sooner. Very meta.

Part 4. Now the first three parts have had relatively even stanza sizes: 1) 3 stanzas of 6 lines, 2) 4 stanzas of 4 lines, and 3) 4 stanzas of 5 lines. That is just the way that it worked out. When I started Part 4 I had a big long stanza that I did not know how to break. I had two ideas when I started the section: that all of us are all of the things I have discussed: “ship, map, compass, sail;/…the perilous waters and the sweet,/ Populous shores of home… ” But I also wanted to talk about fate and choices and somehow get some closure back to the x-ray. Further, although I did not hew the line, I was pulled in the first three sections toward blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, I suspect because the topic is Classical Antiquity and Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (the Latin name for Odysseus) is in blank verse. But when I broke that first stanza of this section in half, I found that both of them started with a middle length line, followed by lines that got longer, followed by lines that got shorter: kind of like waves going in and out of shore! Nice… Then I noticed that the first was six lines and the second fifth: kind of like my verses were ebbing….

Solution: ALWAYS FOLLOW ARTISTIC SERENDIPITY. (Repeat after me: I meant to do that!) All I needed then were two more stanzas with a similar tidal/ebbing structure, so I ended with:

“How hardy this tremulous heart

Peeking around the mast, not deaf to these

Lyric-less singers, the waves assembling,

Disassembling, dissembling…

How impotent the gods

Who made us like themselves: willful,

Changeable, immortal.”

waterhouse_penelope_and_the_suitors

Waterhouse, John. Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891. Penelope and the Suitors, 1912.

6 comments on “Process: Notes on Competing Priorities

  1. Widdershins says:

    Well certainly dragons can be killed, but, a – why would anyone want to, and, b – there’s always a bigger dragon! 🙂

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  2. Dina Honour says:

    !!! (Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?). This one hit me hard today. I’m about 1/3 of the way through completing the 2nd draft of my first novel, in which the main character is Penelope in name and in deed—not the faithful wife part, but the weaver part, and not of thread, but of tales. I was slightly obsessed with Greek mythology for most of my university days, and knew that it would come back to haunt me somehow–it’s always featured in my writing, if not in reference/story then in name. Anyway….as I was looking something up today, it hit me once again, how no one did anything in mythology without the help of a woman, who was often of course, discarded, left to be pecked to death, cheated on, killed etc. etc. And now I am rambling, but you know when your head is full of things and ideas and then you randomly come across something that taps into those and you truly wonder about the notion of a Jungian collective unconscious and the hive mind? That.

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  3. I’m impressed you could track down the process this specifically. Go you!

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  4. Given that I teach freshman comp at Northeastern U and deal with LOTS of process problems with grad students at MIT, I am ALWAYS thinking about process. This blog just allows me to unpack it to show other people how the work of poetry gets done.

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