Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Regretful Poems

My time at Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers was as blessed as blessed can be. The moment I arrived I had this deep feeling that I was on sacred ground. I had heard about the place from my friend Tonya who encouraged to apply and so I did, not knowing at all what to expect, or what I was getting into. And then I got in.

I had flown across an ocean to get there. Wind blown and bleary eyed, skin still humming from the beautifully traumatizing experience that was South Africa, I suddenly found myself on an island I had never heard of, in the sticks I would soon come to know.

When the resident director Vito showed me around the necessary parts of the 48 acre property and then led me into my quaint cottage in the woods--called Willow-- where i was to reside for the next 5 weeks, I burst into tears. Unbelievable how charming this place was and mostly, I was so so touched. Like the retreat as a whole, the cottage itself was so lovingly imagined and thoughtfully structured. At that moment I understood that I walked into a profound situation. Just the mere fact that I was allowed to be in this space is a testament to my work as a writer. I felt so damn honored. Yes, I think that's the word. I felt like my writing was being honored--not exploited, as getting published can often make you feel, but just plain old honored. And so I had no choice but to honor my writing in return.

Does that mean that I wrote like the madwoman in the attic, hardly coming up for air? No. In fact, I didn't spend more than two hours on any given day physically writing though I hold on to the belief that we are always writing. I couldn't sit down and write for more than that; I simply had too many other things to do. I was busy making collages with Suheir and Danai and Nikki. Taking origami lessons from Mary. Mastering my fires in the stove inside my cottage and for hours babysitting and nurturing flame. Which means constantly restocking my wood from the wood shed. I took long walks and longer baths. I laid down in the green meadow for my daily dose of vitamin e-- sun on my body. I ventured into the woods for hours and picked blackberriee and ate them right off the branches. I examined the slugs on the ground and poked them with sticks. I visited the flowers in the impressive Hedgebrook garden. I climbed up on the ladder and picked figs off the trees. I rode a bike down to Double Bluff Beach.

And I wrote poems.

It had been years since I wrote poems for the sheer joy of it. Something happens when you become a poet for a living, when your art becomes your livelihood, becomes your business. There's also something that happens when you subject your work to hours of scrutiny from people who do not care about your work. After I graduated from my MFA program years ago, I realized sadly that my relationship to writing poetry had altered in a way that broke my heart many times over. For never before had I written with so many other people's voices in my head. I mean shit, my own voices of self doubt were quite enough, thank you. When did writing poetry stop being this hard kind of fun? I criticsized lines before I even had a chance to write them, truncating my creativity. It was as brutal as ripping a tree out of the soil before it even got a chance to sprout.

But writing is such a major chunk of my identity, writing is like breathing, I must write, I must write something. And if poetry was starting to act the fool inside my brain then I had to venture into a genre I knew nothing about, where the voices would not, could not follow. And so my journey began with fiction. And soon after, the book deals threes like tragedies often do. And aside from a long children's poem I wrote for Scholastic along with a few forced efforts that will not see the light of day, I have been writing fiction for the past 4 years.

During this time I often wondered if I would ever write poems again just for the fun of it because oh how I missed those days when I would just approach the blank page with that special fervor and lie down inside my ardent verses. I've missed the poem, I truly have. As much as I have grown to love fiction writing, there's something about the poetic craft that sets me ablaze.

Hedgebrook is a magical place that will always rest in the fondest corners of my memory. It summoned the poet in me to gush forth. I was there exactly a week when I wrote my first poem. During my exploration in the woods, i came across a wild blackberry bush, much to my merriment. It was my first time seeing blackberries growing from their actual know, not in cartons at Whole Foods. And as i began to gorge on the tangy berries, i wipped out my waterproof notepad given to me by Carolyn Forche and scrawled lines as I ate. And that was a divine day. Later on i returned to my cottage and crafted those findings into my first poem, "Picking Blackberries." The magical feeling I missed so much had returned to me.

And I knew then that this was what I had come to Hedgebrook to do. To stretch out, and write poems, dammit, poems about whatever strikes. To resume my deep love affair with truth and beauty. To conform to no one's expectations or aesthetics. To write what I like like Steve Biko. Not for a program, not for publisher, but for myself first and foremost. And whoever wishes to come along for the ride, cool. Whoever doesn't--cool.

And so I will share some of these poems in the days and blogs to come. I call this series "Regretful Poems" for many of them examine the concept of regret in some small, particularized way. But more importantly than that, they are poems entirely about being in the present.

I have written poems about the past. I have written poems from the points of view of others. I have excavated poems purely from the depths of my wild horse imagination. I have written poems to save the world. But in the great tradition of Rumi, Mary Oliver, and Pablo Neruda these poems are purely about Being in the present moment, in this place, at this time, with these people, and just allowing myself to be astonished by life again and its simple gifts.

And whereas so many of my poems in the past made me feel so much older after writing them, these poems served me in the opposite sense, turning back the hands of time and making me feel younger than I had in years, for I was surrounded by the intelligence of nature, and was breathing fresh air again. I managed to retrieve the curiosity I had somewhere along the way lost, the curiosity that children have and lose at our hands-- that precious way of viewing life with this inexorable wonder, awe, and surprise--
ooohing and aaaahing like Smurfs at the darndest things, approaching that blank highway of a page, and driving that pen on a full tank of unleaded magic.