Writing Around Deadlines

Another brief post today as my copyediting backlog has grown exponentially. I almost think I should change my email address for a while so my boss can’t find me until I get caught up. Needless to say, this is not a boom time for poetry. Though I am still writing every day, I’m producing more than I’m having time to edit, and what I’m producing is fragments, the kind of fragments that will later pull together into poems I can be happy with, but that right now exist as scraps of paper and emails that are only slowly getting copied into my work file.

So for today, I’m going to settle for showing you one such scrap, scribbled initially late at night after I’d copyedited pages of references, then edited whenever I could between manuscripts. I know what this scrap will become. It just needs the kind of time my current deadlines won’t allow.

Here are the words, first draft:

postponing the wrapping of sleep’s caul, the rolling
of sleep’s tight rug, holding your eyes open against
the words your brain whispers in the night, the words you wake
to turn against, a shovel digging, boot firm
against the sharp lip while stars turn
their blind eyes

Even though I was very sleepy by the time these words starting speaking in my head, I knew I had to grab them. Ignoring the muse has bad repercussions – it’s like turning down date after date with a friend and then expecting her to be there when you feel like talking. That voice dries up if you don’t listen. And while I know this makes me sound a little schizophrenic, I don’t know how else to describe it. After years of practise, I now hear poetry in my head the way a musician hears music. And when a new line comes, I drop everything to pay attention.

In this case, when I found the note to myself the next morning, I was glad I had. I immediately liked the images in the lines, even though I could equally immediately see the problems. So far, I’ve dealt with them by extending the images, hoping in that way to remove any echo of cliché. I still have to deal with the missing segue between the being in bed and the shovelling. I know what the link is, but I’m going to have to find a way to make it a little clearer.

But not now. Now it’s 1 am and I still have to finish copyediting 2 pages of a manuscript, proof it, then send it back to its authors. So here’s the current draft of this fragment. You’ll see it again, either here or one day in a book of my poetry.

Staying up late
postponing the wrapping of sleep’s caul, the rolling
of sleep’s rug tight
around you, holding your eyes open against
the words your brain whispers in the night, the words you wake
to turn against, waking to turn and turn, a shovel
in the earth digging, boot firm against
the sharp edge while stars open
their blind eyes, taking light years to remember
your name

As a mental health break during this busy time, I’ve been deeply enjoying Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a stream of consciousness novel about a successful poet going through a time of serious writer’s block. In many ways, it’s a comforting book.

So when I worry about my poems, about whether this fragment can become as good as I want, can become part of a fine poem, I remember what Baker’s character, Paul Chowder says about what it means to be a great poet: “Out of hundreds of poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops. All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling” (p. 101-102).

At the very least, this is my offering to the mulch bed I’m raising. Despite my deadline, I’m still writing.



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