Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 10, 2010

Collecting and Trimming, Words and Wreaths

I just read a great interview with Ted Kooser in The Writer’s Chronicle (Oct/Nov issue). Our former poet laureate refers to John Berger and how artists draw. “They begin with their concentration mostly on the subject beyond them, but at some point the drawing itself becomes of more interest, and the subject falls back.” Ted Kooser says this is how he often writes, beginning with a person or place that drops back as each word on the page starts to direct the next.

I notice this happening with me, too. Some of the facts I find from research become sort of like the dots to connect on one of those old connect-the-dots drawings (do they still make those?) Of course there’s more freedom when composing, but the positioning of facts and key objects gives me a frame. For instance, learning that Marie Curie gave her daughters green nets to catch butterflies was an image that haunted me, partly because of the gift of the detail of green. When writing Borrowed Names, this led me to pore over books about butterflies around the world, pick up a book by the famous French entomologist Fabre, and study pictures of Paris gardens, thinking about the sorts of butterflies the Curies might have caught. Some of what I culled became dots or glimmers that directed one poem, then flashed briefly in another.

So you can see why there are more cross-outs and arrows than words on many of my drafts. I try lots of images before finding the right ones, then the work becomes about how they will connect. I need to start out with a lot before finding what looks good, as I said to a writer friend on Sunday while making wreaths. Ellen admired the bushiness of mine. I said this was how I wrote, going for broke, and leaving the clipping for later. The colors of the spruce and hemlock tell you if, that day, in your eyes, they want red ribbon or holly berries or pale dried grasses or a glittery band of stars. And the particular butterfly you set in a poem, or the particular words for that butterfly, suggest who might be watching or running in another direction, or what could happen once the nets are put away. It doesn’t much matter who or what inspired a poem, once I start keeping an eye out on where my own words might lead.

Soon I’ll pick back up Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual, and I think my favorite volume of his poems, Delights and Shadows. In the Judith Harris interview he speaks of its themes of delights in a field of darkness. “Every activity in life is undertaken with death observing from a distance… At so many feasts, we find ourselves setting a place for the dead – ‘Oh, don’t you wish Aunt Mabel were here?’ – and the nearness of death lends the food savor.”

And I’ll wonder if I should trim the wreath on my door a bit more. Nah. My friend worried that the stuff on her leaner wreath would blow away.

My husband said, That’s what’s supposed to happen.

The world is windy. Dried grasses or blooms fall off, like memories or extraneous facts. But the green circle will hold for a while.

Since I posted a picture of my somewhat out of control wreath a few days ago, now I’m posting Peter’s. A nice balance, I think, of wild and in-hand. And for more Poetry Friday posts, on Emily Dickinson’s birthday, pour yourself more tea and visit: http://jamarattigan.livejournal.com/492549.html

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Responses

  1. Another beautiful, insightful post, Jeannine. You write such poetic prose!
    Didn’t realize it was Emily’s birthday today. I, too, love the bushiness of your wreath, your approach to writing, creating.

  2. A Poetry Repair Manual? There’s a detail that makes me happy!
    The world is windy. Dried grasses or blooms fall off, like memories or extraneous facts. But the green circle will hold for a while
    Beautiful.

  3. Sigh. And, again, a sigh. I love your blog.
    I love the going for broke, and the subject dropping back as the words tumble ahead, pointing the way, and I love the dots and glimmers flashing, and Aunt Mabel.
    And did I mention that I love your blog? And when is this book of essays that you and Peter have been talking about going to appear? I need it next to me, all under one cover. Under one cover, of course, until you have enough for part two.

  4. Ah! You have given me the perfect present for a student of mine who will graduate this year. The Poetry Repair Manual! Thank you!

  5. Thanks, Jama. I think this birthday calls for an extra scone, yes? Here near the queen of poetry’s hometown it’s a dreary nine degrees. It must have been gingerbread that helped her through December.

  6. The title of Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual (which I just realized I got wrong, and will now fix above) first grabbed me, but beyond the title there’s such practical and elegant advice not just for writing poems, but writing anything, and not just for beginners. And it includes some wonderful poems.

  7. Thanks for the signs and nudges, Toby. Wishing you a quiet and inspired and evergreen-smelling weekend!

  8. I do think this is a perfect present, as while it’s somewhat directed to novices, it bears rereading by anyone who loves language. What a kind teacher you are. I love the title even more in its correct version which is The Poetry Home Repair Manual (now corrected in my entry! Blush.)

  9. Oh! I really liked the incorrect title, The Poetry Repair Manual.

  10. After a rather hectic week, this post is a lovely little meditation to read and mull over. I love this quote:
    “Every activity in life is undertaken with death observing from a distance… At so many feasts, we find ourselves setting a place for the dead – ‘Oh, don’t you wish Aunt Mabel were here?’ – and the nearness of death lends the food savor.”
    I’m going to find Kooser’s book and peek into it. 🙂

  11. Any of Kooser’s books are well worth a peek! I’m sure you’ll find good words to mull. I hope your weekend is less hectic.

  12. What a lovely, seasonal, effective metaphor. I don’t need to make this an LJ memory, because (as the best metaphors do), it is so vivid in my mind.

  13. Kathy, you’re very kind. Have a great weekend!

  14. love this post!
    and your beautiful wreaths… what a nice tradition, to build them together with friends

  15. Thanks, Jen. Hope the holidays are staying fun at the bookshop, and glad you can celebrate your son’s good news!

  16. I’ve always wanted to make a wreath but have never gotten around to it. That sounds like a fun winter project for me to attempt with my mom visiting.

  17. I love Ted Kooser. Had the chance to take my girls to a reading a few years ago. He’s so lovely.

  18. I found this poem in your post:
    “My friend worried that the stuff on her leaner wreath would blow away.
    My husband said, That’s what’s supposed to happen.
    The world is windy.
    Dried grasses or blooms fall off,
    like memories or extraneous facts.
    But the green circle will hold
    for a while.”

  19. Oh, Mary Lee. You are so kind. I think, though, if this were a poem I’d need to find another word for extraneous. I don’t know: four syllables doesn’t seem quite right!

  20. Thank you for this post, Jeannine. I got so much out of it–your lovely wreath pictures, insight into your writing process (love the details you shared from Borrowed Names), insight into Kooser’s process, a book recommendation (I haven’t read Delights and Shadows and just put it on reserve–I love the idea of reading hand in hand with Poetry Repair Manual, which I do own and love), and lots to think about!

  21. Oh I adore your wreath’s birth story, how your wreath-making matches your poem-making. Thank you, Jeannine. You make a beautiful season.

  22. Thanks for all the enthusiasm, Laura! I think you’ll like Kooser’s Delights and Shadows. I was so moved by his poem (in this volume) At the Cancer Clinic, and sighed and smiled over A Spiral Notebook.

  23. Amy, thank you for your kindness here and at the Wordswimmer blog. You make a beautiful season, too.


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