Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 7, 2010

Writing Poetry about the Past

I’ve long been haunted by a line from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” “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.

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  1. So much to reflect on here. I love the idea of real toads in an imaginary garden, and enjoyed taking your (abbreviated) writing journey with you.

  2. Love this post! Even your explanation of process reads like poetry :)!

  3. Thank you, Jeannine! While I was reading your (GLORIOUS) book, I kept shaking my head in wonder, thinking, “How in the world did she do this?” And now, ha! I have answers.
    I’ve been recommending BORROWED NAMES to all my friends. I can’t say enough good things about it. Fortunately, your writing speaks for itself. 😉

  4. from Laura Shovan
    Thanks for the great writing-process post, Jeannine. I’m in this bearing down/lightening my grip place with a novel-in-verse right now. Lots of deep breaths.

  5. Thank you so much for this post! I received my copy of BORROWED NAMES two days ago and am already a third of the way through it (and the first night I read it, I found myself searching for more information about Rose Wilder Lane, because I was intrigued by what I’d learned and wanted to learn more). It’s been the perfect book for me to read on nights when I’m caring for my little girls on my own, because I can read a page or two and feel as though I’ve read a chapter — so much great detail to absorb, and so much to think about after reading each poem, too. I’m looking forward to reading more this evening!

  6. Thank you! I know those imaginary toads in real gardens haunt me…

  7. Thanks, Jama!

  8. Yup, now you know all my tricks!
    Seriously, Melodye, thank you for spreading the word about Borrowed Names. That makes me feel wonderful.

  9. Re: from Laura Shovan
    Oh, yes, should edit to add: and breathe. Good luck with your novel-in-verse: that’s a pretty nice phase to be in.

  10. Thank you, Jeni. It is lovely to hear that a page or two can give you satisfaction in your busy life.

  11. “I bore down on research, then lightened my grip on my pen to let the poetry happen.”
    This is beautiful and so inspiring, Jeannine. Thanks for giving us a peek into your creative process.

  12. Great post! Of course, since I used Marianne Moore’s poem to end National Poetry Month, I enjoyed that connection, but it was also fascinating to read about your process.

  13. Lorraine, hope your day is inspired!

  14. Kathy, maybe you nudged that poem back up to my mind, where it ebbs and flows, so thank you. It was inspiring to read your April posts. And I’m glad you liked hearing the shortened version of my process!

  15. Jeannine,
    Thank you for a behinds-the-scenes look at your poetry process. An enlightening post.
    Laura Evans
    all things poetry

  16. “I bore down on research, then lightened my grip on my pen to let the poetry happen.” Beautiful, Jeannine. And it’s wonderful reading this behind-the-scenes post at the same time I’m loving your book. Thanks so much for sharing this part of the process.

  17. Great post! Thanks for the peek into your process!!
    Your book was my pick for the Summer Reading series at Choice Literacy:

  18. Thanks, Laura! It was fun for me to think about what I’m doing now and back a few years!

  19. That’s cool that you can read the book and a bit about process at the same time. I wrote a longer article about process for the online journal Hunger Mountain, which should be up soon. I’ll be sure to let you know!

  20. Mary Lee, thank you so much for putting Borrowed Names on Choice Literary, which looks pretty fascinating. I like the way they compiled it with different readers. I’m going back there to take another look, and add to my reading list, I expect!
    Have a good weekend!

  21. Please do!

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