Joan Mazza, “Writing a Poem a Day”
Since December 2011, I’ve been writing a poem every day. To help me stay on task, I send my poems to friends who have agreed to receive them by email. No obligation to read, no need to respond unless moved to do so. Knowing I’ve made this commitment and that people actually expect and want to read what I write, I am more likely to deliver. A little structure and accountability helps. Occasionally, these friends will jump on and write too. Or they’ll make suggestions for improving the poem, elevating it from its mundane start.
After a while, every writer discovers what rituals, disciplines, routines work best for the creative process. What I’ve discovered is that my process isn’t always the same. For each book I’ve written, my planning and writing schedules were different. Although I write mostly in the morning when I’m most alert, I now know I can write any time of day or night. If I wake up and have something in my head that might be worth getting on paper, I grab a notebook or turn on the computer. Regardless of the hour.
Some people need a lot of time to let the phrases, images, and ideas buzz around in their heads before they sit down to write. I prefer to write something, however poor, and then work on revisions. Producing a lot of work guarantees that some of what I write will be good, even if most is junk. And I have the delight of occasionally writing something I think is quite good for a first draft. The more I write, the more frequently I produce quality work. Like practicing scales on the piano, my skills improve.
My theory is that pledging to write a poem every day keeps me in my “poetry brain.” By that I mean an attentiveness to detail, observing what moves me, listening to people’s voices, tone, and words, and catching phrases that carry a charge. If I’m inclined to say, WOW, then I know there’s a poem ready to pop. I jot something down in the notebook I always carry. My goal is to write something that’s relatively complete in one sitting. Your mileage may vary. Maybe it’s a good start toward something longer. The poet Stephen Perry says, “You can’t revise a vacuum.”
Some days, I spend twenty minutes or less. Other days, hours. Longer, if you count the mental meanderings. I’ve learned that more time doesn’t necessarily mean better writing. I’m amused by my friends who write back, “That’s a winner. Send it out!” I know I just dashed that one off because I was running out of time.
Every day, I begin anew. I might read the news and see if something catches me, or just ponder what is in my mental foreground at that moment and hope to land on a metaphor. More often I stay with the personal— my old obsessions and recurrent concerns. Still, the poems surprise me. I protest, I didn’t mean to write that!
Writing in this way, I’m frequently appalled by what I reveal and hesitate to share the poems. I feel naked and vulnerable, mortified by my petty mind, neurotic fixations, and anger.
Surprise! Those are usually the poems my readers like best, the ones that get published and praised as being strong and powerful. Others recognize their petty impulses, resentments, and weirdness, and they thank me.
The more I read and write poetry, I develop my craft. Paying attention to sound, diction, image, metaphor, emotional tone in the work of favorite writers pays off when I’m writing my own work. I improve just by writing steadily and being willing to revise. But for first drafts, the pressure is completely removed. You can’t expect or demand a good poem in thirty minutes. So just write. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird tells us to “write shitty first drafts.” The task is to get something down, no matter how mediocre.
I don’t know the form when I start out. I’m most likely to write free verse, but I have bursts of writing in traditional forms: sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, even sonnet crowns. Not in thirty minutes, for sure, but certain subjects seem to call for form. Sometimes, I write a few lines and I say, “Oh, I’m writing in rhymed couplets. I’ll stay with that.”
As I said, by writing or making other art, we discover what works best to keep us creating and improving. For now, writing a poem every day works for me. For months, I wrote imitations of poems I liked and that worked too. You can try it for a week or try it for a year and note its benefits. By doing this or changing it, you might figure out a method to keep yourself writing instead of waiting for inspiration to strike from outside. That might be too long to wait.
This essay was previously published at The WriterHouse blog.
I look in my desk and jewelry box for safety pins,
remember them in the middle drawer of the sewing
cabinet left behind in the last house. No sewing room
in this one— a cardboard box, jumbled contents
of those drawers. Spools of silk thread, pastel ribbons
for a project never started, packets of needles folded
in black paper from Mother’s millinery days.
“I wish she could see me here,” I say aloud, habit
of long solitude. Mother is dead twenty years.
A roll of lace, hand-tatted, but by whom?
“I didn’t make that,” Mother says, snatches it
from my hands. “Someone spent hours of her life
on this.” I leap backward, ready to run. Mother says,
“Can’t you make me a little coffee? Oh, put some
lipstick on. You look like you’re dead.”
Published in the Ouroboros Review, Spring 2010
Farmhouse on a Hill (a villanelle)
You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there. —Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Missing person, kidnapped child? Which one died?
Town folks read the skimpy facts and worry.
What secrets do these lovely, green hills hide?
Beyond the shapely trees, a county’s pride,
this place holds stories. Easy to bury
a missing person, kidnapped child. Who died?
Cold-eyed man who takes his latest young bride
to live and die in this old house. Don’t query
what dark secrets these rolling, green hills hide.
Wide porch, red barn, a charming paradise. Surprise!
when a question spills an outraged fury
caused by one missing person. Kidnapped? Died
here? From what you guess, there’s infanticide,
abuse, neglect, incest. This land’s eerie
with foul secrets that rolling hills can hide.
Far from town and laws, no one hears your cries.
You slipped. They claim you drowned to any jury.
Missing person, kidnapped child? Which one died?
Oh, what secrets these lovely, green hills hide.
Published in the Journal of Kentucky Studies, Fall 2013
Joan Mazza has worked as a medical microbiologist, psychotherapist, seminar leader, and has been a Pushcart Prize nominee. Author of six books, including Dreaming Your Real Self
(Penguin/Putnam), her poetry has appeared in Rattle, Whitefish Review, Off the Coast, Kestrel, Slipstream, American Journal of Nursing, The MacGuffin, Mezzo Cammin, Buddhist Poetry Review
, and The Nation.
She ran away from the hurricanes of South Florida to be surprised by the earthquakes and tornadoes of rural central Virginia, where she writes poetry and does fabric and paper art. www.JoanMazza.com