jeannineatkins (jeannineatkins) wrote,
jeannineatkins
jeannineatkins

Writing Poetry about the Past

I’ve long been haunted by a line from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” http://poets.org/m/dsp_poem.php?prmMID=15654 “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Moore begins: “I, too, dislike it…” though she doesn’t catalogue what she finds annoying about poetry. I like verse that makes me wonder, but not that make me think “huh?’ while feeling no one has any idea of how to clear up the muddle. I like poems that wake up my inner eye, the way Moore’s do, and I like plenty of real toads. I find my own small creatures by researching history, while the imaginary garden, for me, is creating a setting where their beauty, spotty patches and all, can better be seen.

These days I’m writing some new verse based in the past, which makes me think back to how I wrote Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, and Marie Curie. For those of you interested in process, here’s a short version of a long story.

1. I found people I wanted to spend a long time with when I read biographies of Marie Curie and Madam C. J. Walker. I noted that they were born the same year, but was even more fascinated by their close but varied relationships with their daughters. I wondered if an artist or writer might have been born in 1867, too, and after some meandering, found myself in my daughter’s bedroom, holding the pale blue books she’d loved.

2. I read everything I could get my hands on about these three families, taking note of dates, but also images that related to themes that grew more prominent as I read. Traveling, of course, was important for Laura Ingalls as a child, though after she married, like her mother, she longed to settle in one place. Her daughter, Rose, inherited some wanderlust, and went first to California, then to Europe, while her mother stayed home. Water was a recurrent image in the life of Madam C. J. Walker. She spent a lot of time with her hands in laundry tubs, then washing client’s hair. She spent much of her life near the muddy Mississippi River, then moved to a mansion overlooking the Hudson River. Scientific investigation ran throughout the life of both Marie Curie, who won two Nobel prizes for her work, and for her daughter, Irene, who won one. I weaved images such as radium’s blue light and beakers through their poems.

3. The poems in Borrowed Names are written in three sections, and when I got stuck on one, I moved to another. Writing about a time one daughter was thirteen, or about her first fight with her mother, or the day she left home, made me think about what that was like for one of the other daughters, so I went back to that section with new inspiration. While I liked recurring moments, I also wanted variety. So, for example, while I show the reactions of the daughters of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Madam C. J.Walker to the deaths of their mothers, I chose to end the section about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose with them collaborating on books that changed history.

4. I bore down on research, then lightened my grip on my pen to let the poetry happen. Then I pressed close again, checking facts and sequence, before easing up to keep my eye out for new connections. I went back and forth, making a mess then cleaning it up, feeling as if things were getting a little bit clearer every cycle. I wrote, I cut, I wrote, I cut and cut and cut asking: Is this poem necessary? This line? This word? For me, writing poetry means taking some chances, risking being misunderstood, then revising like a mad woman grinding an eraser into rubbery dust.

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit: http://randomnoodling.blogspot.com/
Tags: borrowed names, poetry friday
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  • Metaphors

    Sometimes I wish metaphors weren’t often taught as their own unit in elementary school. It makes them seem sort of precious, like a necklace…

  • Deepening

    I’ve been revising some poems, which means while I trim and polish, I’m also kicking up dust, going deeper, a tricky term that…

  • Poems in the Greenhouse

    Yesterday was the perfect day to smell lilacs and pass under the white blooms of dogwoods on my way to the Smith College Greenhouse. The museum…