Writing poetry is like… yoga?
A yoga instructor friend of mine has this funny student who comes to her yoga studio each day, stays supine in Shavasana (“corpse pose”) for the duration of the practice, and then gets up at the end of the hour and says, “Great class– that was exactly what I needed.” Would that writing poetry could be that easy.
Essentially, for this one student, it’s like supervised nap-time– only with a dozen other people grunting and stretching and sweating on their mats all around her while inoffensive music plays in the background.
Sure, once in a while, fine– go ahead and nap; but day after day? C’mon!
If Carol Ann Davis is correct in saying a poet must strike a “heart open” posture similar to that of a yoga practitioner, I don’t imagine her writing routine involves a whole lot of lying around. She’s a graceful contortionist when it comes to her poetic lines (somehow both broken and fluid), and while some have called Davis’ writing “worshipful,” it’s certainly not an easily-won bliss; her poems contain heart and ache, space and detail. I imagine the little writing yogi in her mind has struck that balance by maintaining a level of receptivity which requires difficult (or at least diligent) work.
Carol Ann, who in addition to being a celebrated poet also directs the undergraduate creative writing program at the College of Charleston and co-edits the literary journal Crazyhorse, was kind enough to take some time to talk about her poetry, her process, and that posture of creative openness.
YRTEOP: In your newer work, you’ve started to use spacing as a substitute for punctuation. How did you stumble upon that technique, and how do poets in general work their way towards stylistic decisions that get integrated into their poetic voice?
Carol Ann Davis: It’s my experience that the form of the poem—the way it comes to look on the page—is something that comes about during the writing process; working with the form is actually a crucial way in which to explore the poem. With the particular form you’re talking about from Atlas Hour, one in which many “tab” spaces are utilized within a single line, it was a result of several things, all working their way into the poem’s formal framework.
At the time I was working on the poems, my children were in the early stages of talking, and so they often spoke in phrases rather than in complete sentences; when I spoke to them, I would do the same, and much of our communication was extremely direct. I became drawn to the succinct and very clear way in which I was able to communicate with them, and when I addressed them in poems I found myself relying on this phrase-built intimacy, this language so direct that punctuation didn’t seem to come into it. Then when I would leave them and go to the office or the library to write poems about other subjects, I noticed the form leant itself to poems in which I engaged with a work of art. The same kind of meditative and direct language was present, say, when I talked to Vermeer (or a Vermeer, or the milk maid in a Vermeer) as I enjoyed with my children, and the intimacy built similarly within the language as the language became denser and the imagery accumulated.
So, the page grew—the lines were longer, and the space was there as a sort of substitute grammar, though in fact the passages are largely grammatically correct; I found the more I used the tabbed line, the clearer I needed to be, the more narrative, if you will. Without punctuation, there was an enforced clarity, and, I hope, a directness and an intimacy that builds, secret self to secret self in the poems.
Anyway, that’s sort of the way I’ve come to think of it after the fact, in the manner of poets who try to figure out what it was that led them where they ended up. At the time, it made the writing easier, and I was enjoying it, and so I trusted it.
Yankees Vs. Red Sox; Beatles Vs. Stones; Carol Ann Davis Vs. _________________?
No way am I touching that—except to say “Carol Ann Davis Vs. Carol Ann Davis”—some days it feels like that. But really, I can’t imagine anchoring any legendary twosome such as those you mention, and besides, doesn’t one end up loving both poles?
August Kleinzahler has described your poetry as “worshipful.” And I’ve heard you say something to the effect of “everywhere you go, the imaginative mind should be able to partake of wonder.” How does wonder (and its expression) differ from joy/happiness? How and why do you think it is important to express that worship with poetry?
I had never really thought a lot about wonder in earnest, but I read recently at a festival and someone said that was the word that sprung to mind when he heard me reading, and I do think I spend much of my time in a state of wonder. Part of it is my natural bent—well, I don’t know if it was born or made in me, but at this point it’s hard-wired—toward worship, toward supplication. I grew up Southern Baptist right next to the ocean, and those two things conspired to start in me the idea that it is a comfort to be small, that it is good to understand one’s place in the world is small, and supplication is just a short hop from there, wonder somewhere in that parish as well. The writing process, too, rewards archest surrender: work as hard as you can, and then bare your neck, give up. That’s when the good stuff happens. This type of philosophy, I’m not unaware, follows pretty closely patterns of mystic (Christian) thought.
As I began raising my children it occurred to me that in the absence of formal religious training process itself was a kind of moral code; every act leading to a consequence, those consequences building in a sort of moral way—although I’m also aware of the heartlessness (amorality) of chance. I guess I’ve gotten off topic here, but suffice it to say I’ve had enough experiences in my life—not least the process of writing—that have reinforced in me that being worshipful has a way of sustaining one. At the very least it makes me happy instead of some other way to be reminded of my smallness and of the wonder that is outside of me.
Is Ekphrasis a kind of intentional way of looking outward with wonder? Or, maybe another way of asking this is—does the act of writing about an existing creation help free you from some kind of internal limitation? If so, how?
I certainly think that writing about art is a way of getting outside oneself, of giving oneself over to something else—the wondrous inside the art, perhaps, or just the delicacy and intricacy of reckoning with another person’s vision of something—and it’s also nice that some of the compositional questions (such as framing an image) are taken care of by the piece of art itself, and that new problems are presented to you without your having to think them up yourself, problems such as how to engage with the piece, how to describe it. Some questions are solved and others emerge, which is the definition, for me, of a satisfying experience writing a poem.
But I don’t really think one is ever free of internal limitations; the biggest one, for me, is self-consciousness, which comes in many guises. An anxiety about meaning something, an awareness of subject, a desire to please a reader—each of these is a potentially debilitating form of self-consciousness. Momentarily during the engagement with the art form, I am freed from those aspects of self-consciousness; I’m freed from those without ekphrasis, as well, whenever I’m able to really exist inside how language is working. It’s momentary, though, because these limitations are hard-wired; they’re what make the other uses of language (phone calls, essays, sermons, giving directions to someone who asks me how to get to the 7-11) possible. We’re never far off from viewing language in utilitarian terms, and we’re usually not able to incant ourselves into a state of viewing it (or feeling it) as a medium of art, and so art helps us do that, sure.
Are you sick of being asked, “How do you know when a poem is finished?” I’ll ask anyway. How do you know when you’ve finished revising a poem? How do you know when a word is adding its bit of magic or just getting in the way?
I’m not sick of being asked but I’m sorry I don’t have a less pat answer: of course I don’t really know when they’re done. I just know when I give up on them, when I quit bringing my best attention to them. The failing’s mine, of course. I hope some are in a good state by the time that happens.
Sometimes—and someone, maybe Raymond Carver, said it better—sometimes I can feel myself putting commas back where I had them first, replacing the word I’ve revised with the original. I guess the poem is close to done then, or it has just not really gotten going. I don’t know. I work as hard as I can for as long as I can. There’s a terrific book by James Lord about Giacometti (A Giacometti Portrait) in which Lord sits for a portrait with Giacometti, and every few sittings Giacometti says something like “I’m going to go ruin your portrait now.” I think that’s important—the desire to work so hard that you let yourself ruin something, and then the courage (one of my teachers called it courage) to stay there and keep working. But that’s more about revision, not finishing. I think the trick is to stay in that revision state as long as you can.
What is your greatest difficulty as a writer and how do you cope?
I think the greatest difficulty as a writer that I face is just what the poems show me about myself. Sometimes I learn something that I don’t want to know; often it’s during the process of writing that I found out the poem is telling me something difficult, or unpleasant (about myself or the world).
Once I wrote something about following my children around “like a mongrel dog” after they fled my yelling at them, and that felt disgusting and true. Sometimes learning something from a poem can feel like a punch in the stomach. I cope by knowing—believing, it’s an act of faith—that this work will make me better, a better person walking the earth, better to my fellow humans, not least to my own family—daughter, wife, mother, sister. I want to be better. I believe the work will help me with that, and so I keep doing it.
What surprising lessons have you learned from your experience as an editor and teacher?
I’ve been amazed at what the process of writing has brought to my students, and with their willingness to engage in that process, and their openness and willingness reminds me to be continually open to the transformations the process will give me. As an editor I’ve learned lots of things about how to assemble a manuscript; I’ve enjoyed the community of writers I’ve met through that process, and the sheer pleasure of promoting work I believe in. I guess it does circle back to wonder, finally. I’m in a circle of writers—my students are also in it, writers I publish are also in it—that stretches far back and moves forward into the future. It’s bigger than me, but there’s room for me inside it. That’s amazing.
If the last surviving anthology had one of your poems in it, which one would you pick as proof that you were here? (and why?)
This is another invitation to vanity—such as the question about Carol Ann Davis vs. __________”. I don’t really know which of my poems will stand up to scrutiny, but I love the poem “Upon Seeing the Terezin Children’s Drawings, Two Parts” for what it affirmed about the writing process and how it clarified that my job really is to follow the language as it unfolds, and to observe that language as deeply as I can.
It’s a mirror poem, and the second half, the flipped part, is pure language—I don’t feel I had all that much to do with its power. The first time I read it publicly I read it in the middle of the reading and had to stop afterwards; I was spent, the audience was spent, so the reading ran 25 minutes instead of 40, but that’s okay. It’s a poem that deals with both art and young children, two of my “modes,” and with something I’m growing increasingly preoccupied with, which is the nature of suffering.
I didn’t know much of that going in, but I learned a lot about myself—who I am, what I believe—from writing it.
What advice would you give to someone who says, “I wanna be a poet when I grow up?” Would that advice change if the person was 50, 60, 70 years old?
The thing is just to be writing, to learn about the process through doing it, and to be committed, and then to test for yourself what that commitment means, how deeply it runs. The more you do it, the more it will give to you, and it’s a spiritual test—which is both good and bad—so you have to know that you’re taking on an avocation rather than a vocation.
You have to come into it with that kind of openness; in yoga they talk about the difficulty of keeping one’s “heart open,” and here it’s similar, a posture of the open, of I-might-find-out-anything, must be struck. Every poem requires an all-in kind of commitment, and as you go, you learn what that means. I’m still learning what it means. I’m still swimming inside the enormity of it. And that’s the great part—it (poetry, language, artistic exploration) will always be bigger than me. Isn’t that fabulous?