August 21, 2009

Waking: The Process of Writing the Poem

"The poet doesn't invent. He listens. " -- Jean Cocteau

Recently, I've been doing poetry in performance with Kathy McTavish. It is a blend of composition and improv, based on the concept of deep listening. Pauline Oliveros, a composer, used this phrase to describe a deep attentiveness to the moment. Kathy's ouevre is based on her deep attentiveness in performance--her cello is both a resonant and responsive instrument that draws the listener into its sound. Her cello triggers the invisible procession in this poem:

God Forsakes Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing. -

Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)
Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

This poem is a very good example of deep listening, of being attentive to the moment. Cavafy or God directs Antony away from negativity, the endless chatter of the anxious mind. Useless, he says. Pay attention. An important thing is going on--this loss, this beauty, this gift.

When it comes to writing or revising poems, one of my mantras is "listen to the work." In other words, in its first lines the poem sets up a rhythm, sound, pace, image, pattern, that should be developed within the work. It requires the poet to be attentive, to pay attention, to focus on what has begun and then to bring one's skills with language into play. If one makes a mistake, it can be lucky. If you don't quail or cross it out or backtrack, the mistake could bring you to a new and interesting place. As Cavafy says, "...listen--your final delectation--to the voices,/ to the exquisite music of that strange procession."

When it comes time to read or perform the work, my listening continues. Often, revisions occur on stage because I now hear the poem the way the audience does. Try reading a rough draft poem to your writing group or to a friend. It is likely you will immediately become aware of its flaws. Virginia Woolf believed that deletion is one of the writer's greatest skills.

I prepare for a poetry/cello performance by assembling poems into a narrative arc. Sometimes the arc will be based on something that has been on my mind, "Waking" was a recent theme related to the Rumi poems, my own wakefulness at night, and the idea of attentiveness. I collect more than I'll read and during the performance, I will select the work based on what is in the music or what the music wants.
Each performance is different. The opportunity for performance has spurred many more poems -- because I don't like to bore myself with repeating the same things. I strive for confluence, a flowing like a river flowing, always beginning.