It's a double-edged sword, seeing one's work into print. Simultaneously, the writer must embrace the text with clarity and purpose to achieve the best re-vision (after all, once published, the work enters a fixed state) and also, at the point of the greatest obsession with detail, let go of it.
Putting a manuscript of poems together is a process unique to each writer. It begins for me in disorganization. Because I reside in individual poems that I write, in order to see the poems as a group, I must pull myself up to achieve and see them in a larger perspective. Not easy. I start by sorting the poems into sets and build sequences. This takes time. It does help that I do regular performance, and each time, must create a set list with a beginning, middle and end. The practice of creating a larger story begins in performance, definitely. The poems are like pieces of a mosaic that I've found will create different stories depending on how they are arranged.
I should add a lot of work happened on a subconscious level. I'm often working with dream images, and follow an image in and through collaborative projects, visual art, other poets' work. I write a lot. I write to process my life experience and to develop my imagination. In a relationship break-up, I was thinking about "don't look back" and I wrote the poem, "Salt," about me and Lot's Wife. It is only later that I connect my own poems of experience and imagination with mythic stories.
The new book, Echo and Lightning, came together out of three well developed sequences. The first was a set of love poems I had called "Fearful Journey." The title is from a poem, "Blindfold." It was an erotic poem exploring Hildegard Bingen's concept of erotic justice, published in The Mother Tongue. This poem was triggered by an invitation to participate in an art exhibit at Northern Prints Gallery. The gallery owner and printmaker Cecelia Lieder, who later published my collection of poems The Mother Tongue, invited me to write poems for this theme. After some contemplation, I realized that the image of blindfold was appropriate for both justice and erotic. While writing, I begin in image and follow it. This sequence of poems became the last section of the book.
The first section of the book is concerned with ecstatic experience, intersection with the divine, cleaving. Cataclysmic grief and joy. The set begins in migration and follows the image of flight into the story of Zeus (in the form of the swan) and Leda. These poems were written over a period of a few years. I was curious about mystical stories. I'd found the Gnostic text, Thunder, Perfect Mind. As a piece of writing, it was electric: a female God, the intense combination of opposites. I began contemplating the stories of myth and the Bible: Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lot's Wife. Each story involved a woman's intersection with the divine. What happened to her, what did she give up? Because I'd been reading the cosmic story for a solstice celebration, the story of the universe, I was thinking about the origin of the universe, simultaneous creation and destruction. Finally, the poems followed a sequence of ascension.
The poems in the mid-section of the book I'd recorded on an audio cd with Kathy McTavish. I called the set "Undertow" because the poems were underwater, submerged. It was all subconscious. Curious to me, at first, but then they made sense. I realized these underwater images fit well after the sequence of ascension. It was the form of a wave, climbing and falling. That overall image was important to the book. One doesn't have ascension without descent.
It was a stroke of luck to find the book's cover image, a painting called "Dawn" by my friend from Argentina, Cecilia Ramon. The image perfectly expresses the themes of migration, love, ecstasy, and undertow.
Now, that book is out. I'm working on a new one, Cloud Birds, that will be out in 2011. This one is now under intense scrutiny as I proofread, re-vision, and develop its final form. Once new work is at this stage, it's time to look ahead to the next project.
I'm generating new poems, playing really. I am focused, but one must also take writing lightly as new work starts to percolate. I'm curious and not too attached. I started a twitter account, and have been using it to assign writing prompts. It's a personal challenge to make an assignment for others and then follow the assignment myself. All teachers should take up this practice in order to stay humble. I like to be entering unknown territory, to be exploring images from experience and dream and artistic works I encounter, to discover ways to tap the subconscious mind. Writing isn't just what I do, it's how I live.