Getting stuck

In my graduate level poetry workshop courses, we are required to put out 11 poems over 13 weeks, which breaks down to really one every week excluding 2 holiday breaks. That’s a lot of output, so a drafting routine is integral.

Unfortunately, many times in the last couple of years, I have started drafting a poem thinking it would be done by the day of workshop, only to discover that I’d hit an obstacle and couldn’t write anymore, yet the poem felt far from done.

I encountered that this week. I was writing that swallow/hawk poem and I got to about six tercets, and then I included a line from the original text, “the very woods and rocks pitied her,” and had no idea where to go from there.

Richard Hugo in his Triggering Town talks at length about how we have to let a poem go where it wants to go. “A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or ’causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.” In the case of this particular poem, I feel obligated to keep going on and on about Philomela and Tereus reinvented as the swallow and the hawk. I’ve already opened up the door to go a little weird because hey, birds raping? Yet, I’m stuck. Hugo says that as soon as I stop having anything to say about the triggering subject (the myth of Philomela), then I should start talking about something else.

One suggestion Hugo makes for getting off the triggering subject is to use words for the sake of their sounds. Instead of getting stuck in details, like making sure to say that the town welcome sign is green, I should focus on using words that sound better in the poem, so if it would sound better to use the word “mauve,” that town welcome sign should be mauve. Similar with the tongue being ripped out in my poem, maybe it would be better for some other thing to happen to the swallow. The same thing with form. Right now, my poem is in tercets, but I could also change up the form to free it a bit more, to play with space.

John Bensko also says that sometimes you just need to throw the baby out with the bath water. I know sometimes that I get so stuck on some part of a poem, a line, an image, a character, whatever, that I don’t want to get rid of it, yet it may be the one thing that’s really holding the poem back from getting where it wants to go. That might be the case with this one. The Myth of Philomela might be holding this poem back, but we’ll see.


3 thoughts on “Getting stuck

  1. Aha! I wrote about a dozen poems on the subject of Philomela and Tereus (and of course Procne) when I was in grad school the first time in my twenties, and that was the beginning of what became the “Becoming the Villainess” manuscript. I felt like I kept writing the same poem for a long time. Then I went through, decided which poems I liked best of those, and revised/kept the ones I really liked. Sometimes we get stuck on a subject for a reason, and writing a bunch of poems helps us see what we’re really trying to say. For me, the movement from the victimization moment to the transformative moment seemed really important. You can’t really make yourself stop writing about a subject, and why censor yourself? You’ll get something good out of your writing one way or the other.

    1. Ha! No wonder I’m attracted to your work. Birds of a feather write poems about brutal rapes? Or something like that… Philomela attracts me for both the brutality and the strangeness of the solution: Tereus becomes a hawk that still hunts swallows? Glad to hear your obsession turned into a beautiful, coherent work.

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