February 20, 2011

The Practice of Poetry: Emptiness

What does it take to write?  I believe it takes emptiness.  In 1928, Virginia Woolf said it took a room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year, the space and time to write.  Helene Cixous, in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, says loss often triggers a writer to write.  First loss, then emptiness occurs that only writing can ameliorate.   

Writing is perhaps a compulsion, a solution to an ache. I’m not sure what brings it on. The cure is writing, but soon after having written, the ache or urge returns. Instead of a vicious, I’d call it a spacious cycle.       

One makes time for writing by clearing a schedule and rearranging obligations to allow oneself a block of time. It doesn’t have to be a lot, even just an hour or two daily.  One does the same to create space. A room of one’s own is wonderful, but for many years, I have worked in a quiet corner of shared bedroom or living room.  Time and space are the prerequisites for a fruitful emptiness.  

One becomes a good writer by being a good reader.  They are two sides of the same coin of quietness. In order to write poetry, I read poetry.  I believe that poetry is a language within a language, and that reading poetry opens a door for me to enter in.      

More importantly, the emptiness or clearing must be interior.  Empty the self by pouring regularly onto the page, and then share what you write with supportive others. Lewis Hyde talks about the concept of pot latch in his book, The Gift.  This is a spiritual wisdom: by giving the gift away, one will keep receiving. Emptying helps clear space inside the mind that can then be filled with what the muse brings.  

A writing teacher, Kate Green, recommended visualizing the muse. In a writing exercise, writing students were asked to give a persona to the muse, to describe physical characteristics and then to identify their muse’s wants and needs. Let yourself by guided by this useful exercise. If your muse wants an empty chair, give her an empty chair. If she wants an orange wall, then by all means, paint the wall orange.  Find ways to please the source.    

The material--what the writing is about--is given.  One writes from the imagination.  Writers write what we write, we write from our observations, obsessions, experiences, longings.  Finding ways to tap the subconscious is useful: write from dreams or associations or intuition. Try aleotropic techniques. Chance.  Play.  

When I say that writing comes from emptiness, I don’t necessarily mean loneliness, a feeling of being left or abandoned.  These can certainly be important sources of writing, but the emptiness can also be peaceful, an emptiness that is pure potential. One cultivates a receptivity.  Without anxiety. One can learn to be present with peaceful non-expectation and gratefulness, aware of being.  It is a state of listening.  

Writing practice helps with this type of listening. It is not so different from Buddhist meditation practice that helps train the mind. The mind is fretful, afraid, preoccupied, distracted. Many internal obstacles must be overcome with patience and compassion toward self. In time, with intention and steady practice, this gives way to peaceful emptiness.  

All of writing is process. First comes receptivity, openness, willingness. Next, vision and re-vision. One must be able to recognize potential in the material and develop and hone it.  One must be able to write with an eye for image and an ear for sound.  Revision is a form of letting go.   

Poetry and process are actually the same. The practice is the discipline of regular writing.  It doesn’t make sense to wait to be inspired, because it is usually in the process of writing that one receives the gift.  One listens to the work and let’s oneself be guided by it in the process.  For me, poetry springs from and feeds the spirit. (The Latin word spiritus means breath.)  The breath of the poem is distilled, intense. For me, it is a beautiful sound meditation that achieves both emptiness and the presence of Being. 

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