Most of my poems begin with people and the things and places that matter to them. These offer up details that I hope will make readers feel as if they’re there, but because every word matters, the details have to do more than evoke a setting. Sometimes they’ll create a mood, which I don’t have to spell out. Sometimes I’ll repeat them through a series of poems to set a pattern, and show what’s constant and what changes in a life. In the section of Borrowed Names about Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter, A’Lelia, I mentioned water, beginning with the muddy Mississippi and laundry tubs, moving through the cleansing water that mother and daughter poured over hair as they built a business in hair products, and ending with the Hudson River view from the mansion Madam Walker bought with her hard-earned money.
Marie Curie aimed to keep most parts of her life simple so she could attend to science, but she made an exception for roses. She wore one in her belt at a time when she hoped for a less stark life, and had bushes planted outside her laboratory. Her funeral, as she wished, was held without a priest or public dignitaries, but wildflowers waved in the meadow.
Small things and ordinary moments can also be a source of metaphor. I’m reminded of that in the group of poems I’m working on now. I began needing someone for my main character to talk to while she works beside a river, so invented a girl who often shapes palaces or cities from the mud, sand and clay. An activity I’ve seen a thousand times on beaches. But as I wrote I realized here’s another girl building a safe place for her dreams, a small city in her hands. Which I’m pointing here as metaphor alert, but hope it comes through more subtly in the poems.
Most of us have times when we’re writing poems or stories when we get a little gift from the world. We take the wild blue color of someone’s shirt, the geraniums or the texture of elephant-ear-shaped leaves outside a cafe, the sound of the wind, the tattoo on a stranger’s shoulder, an overheard phrase and put it in our work. Sometimes these just add color or light. Sometimes what we put in gets cut. But there are details or bits of voices that through each round of trimming refuse to go, and these are details that I’ll hunker over longer, ask “why are you here?” and really try to listen. I hang around, which I often call revising. Sometimes the geranium or tattoo turns out to be more than a flower or a picture on skin. The details expand or even explode, revealing another level that will reveal itself in a pattern. They may open like one of those Japanese paper flowers in water, or a metaphor.
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