Explicating the Poetic Process

Explicating the Poetic Process

My writing process saves a fair percentage of time
for self-doubt and lack of artistic confidence.”

By Amy Nawrocki, WTP Guest Writer

It starts with an encounter. There is a notarized mammal, a dead serpent, and a preserved misspelling. Then a mythical flash of inspiration, the grabbing for tool and template, and the clumsy yet magical act of documentation. Just like the muses prophesized.

The platypus understanding why let the ringneck go.

I wouldn’t say that there is a masterpiece in front of me, but there is an origin story, and making sense of evolution is a good aim for the poet or zoologist. Begin with the mistake.

When my husband and I moved into the new house, we spotted some writing chalked onto the basement wall, next to the circuit breaker. The words, printed elementary-school-style, weren’t the only leftover decorations abandoned by the owners. The writing says simply “The Platapus” with asterisks and arrows for emphasis decorating the space immediately around it. Literary snobs that we are, we giggled at the misspelling and wondered about intent.

The original owner was an expert woodworker and used the basement for his workshop. We can still see the outline of drafting machines and a few divots where some tool or another fell hard. The retiring fire chief, he also left a series of Smokey the Bear posters, one with backyard birds, another identifying the leaves of common trees, another naming snakes found worldwide, all with “protect your home” or “think” in the caption below Smokey’s face. So, he was no stranger to wall art.

We have since redesigned the erstwhile woodshop into our own workout room, adding a squat rack and bench, dumbbells and balance ball. A vintage World Gym poster with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face contorted in concentrated effort has joined the gallery. The platapus, too good to erase, has remained a humorous mock-mascot.

One Sunday morning in early spring, we wandered down for our weekly lifts and found a small snake dead on the floor. This wasn’t the first time we’ve come upon a dead snake in the house; sometimes live ones get trapped in the lower room of our split-level. Our ever-vigilant cats let us know when one is stuck in the baseboard heater. Since a few seasons of “snake-away” drizzled outside the perimeter worked inconsistently, we’ve given up on trying to keep them out. They’re babies without full knowledge of how snaking works. This one, already stiff and inflexible, had only one identifying mark: a thin red necklace.

So how did the platapus meet the snake? Not exclusively in the imagination, not only on the page. In medias res delivers the characters into an already shaped scene. But poems—short, long, narrative or lyric, fixed or open form—never begin with the first line. And misspellings never make for good copy. We swept up the little guy and gave him a good burial, but I couldn’t just let him go.

I heard the words in my head first. Between the spark and its extinguishing there are only seconds, and I needed to see the shape of lines before they faded. I was re-writing already, testing the diction and considering the syntax. I could have scribbled the idea in a notebook, but instead I grabbed a piece of weightlifting chalk, a “hunk” really, neither sidewalk thick or classroom skinny, talcum-fine in texture, awkward in feel. But adequate for transformations. Platapus would become platypus, not with a cross-out, but with a new chapter.

The
platypus,
under standing why,
let the ringneck
go.

In the moment, the pieces fit together in what I thought was the essence of brevity and perfect creative concentration, the epitome of Coleridge’s edict, “the best words in their best order.” I was impressed with myself, by the ease with which the lines came to me, the puzzle pieces laid out and fitting magically into their places. Almost a haiku. Maybe an aphorism or epigram. It’s something, right? A spark, after all, is a spark. Fire starters.

There is no beauty in the image as a mural art. There are patches of glue, which might have held a mirror or poster before it was ripped down or moved. There are seams and ridges. In writing the words that my mind mapped out, I had to negotiate these abnormalities, so the first comma is spaced awkwardly after a glue tear and “under” is separated from “standing” by the crease between cement. Another glue strip interrupts “st” from “anding” and the “n” in ringneck is too thick to be easily recognizable as “n.”. Can these lines be understood without the wall, without my clumsy penmanship?

I like the poem, and repeat it like a mantra. But quickly, I began to sense that my self-congratulatory awe is overblown, especially for so few words. It doesn’t take a harsh critic to see that the words are completely nonsensical, automatic writing, hardly craft or poetry. Leave it as a flash? Cross it out and move on? Maybe it is the start of something longer. Yes, add depth, make it more understandable. I really like it’s brevity and specificity but will anyone else? “If,” e.e. cummings advised, “at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.” Can one line be the poem? Which of us—the poet, the wall, or some far-away audience—is the one who wants more.

Like most poets, my notebooks are full of idiosyncratic, spur-of-the-moment lines and unfinished renderings of whatever happens to be going on outside a coffee-shop window. Boiled down, these kinds of writings are both excuses and practice, and somewhere on one side of the spectrum or the other is where creativity lies. I want the permanence of concrete, though I’m equally intrigued by the transience of chalk and the roughness—the work in progress aspect—of the textured wall. Chalk is punishingly erasable, but walls are meant to stick around. Is it a draft or is it a poem? Let it go or leave it behind? These aren’t the same options.

Yes, the wall as medium is problematic. But the roughness may actually be lucky victories in lettering and line spacing. Syntactically, the poem has three parts—subject, verb, object, with a participial verbal phrase set off by commas. But structurally it has five pieces.

The
platypus,
under standing why,
let the ringneck
go.

The transitive verb hands off its object before it has completed its meaning, which is how a carpenter or therapist would say it: let the thing go, not let go the thing. The lines are broken and indented so the flow is dependent on sentence structure. Rhythmically it echoes a haiku; visually a jigsaw alignment that suggests a hidden acrostic—with “h,” “p,” “d,” and “l” lining up, and “y”, “t,” “t”, “g.” lining up. But these are not subliminal tea leaves; just eight words. I give in to the chalk’s gracelessness, but I built those syllables with meaning.

Without context, the “best words in their best order” are suspect. I have to tell you about the initial misspelling otherwise in the pun on why is lost. I know the poem’s success is in its quasi-literal interpretation of each word. There is no whole without the parts. The ring neck is real, or was, but the platypus is purely symbolic and contextual. A snake carries its metaphoric meaning across cultures and time. But the platypus? If you have to explain it, I’ve told my students, it doesn’t work, but if you can’t explain it, it never will. The poet is free to make choices, but she should be able to justify them, not for the sake of context, but for the sake of craft.

In one explanation, the platapus finally understands that it has been misspelled the whole time, so it understands something nearly existential in its root: What am I if my whole being is wrong? Have I ever really known myself, if my self is a mistake? With or without the misspelling, this is at the heart of the real-life platypus. Am I a duck? Am I a beaver? A mammal, reptile, or water fowl? How quickly the mind goes from “unique” to “a mistake” when self-image is involved. The mistake, in this case, now becomes two-fold—a home owner’s misspelling and the zoological perception of the platypus as a misfit. A venomous mammal that lays eggs, a platypus will nurse her babies.

Evolutionarily, platypuses are the sole survivors of their genus and family. A banished angel and a cursed beast. Who would make such an abomination? Why?

Enter the ring neck (also misspelled, now by me). Banished from soil and sun, it has wandered into a concrete dungeon. My three-line epigram memorializes an epic battle, the struggle between two outcasts. The ring neck is born again, released from the treacherous clutches of the flat-footed platypus because (wait for it) understanding why, she has decided to spare the tiny snake.

That I can explicate its meaning doesn’t confirm its artistic merit, but it’s a start. Analysis makes the artist question herself, and this is how it should be. This is the art of revision—a search for meaningfulness through the eyes of a critical audience. Maybe that last word should be “ringtail,” the ringtail representing the platypus’s true evolutionary self—its origin or what could have been if that “mistake” had worked itself out through natural selection. Maybe what has been let go is its original racoon or lemur stripes. I can make that choice—change ring neck to ring tail. It’s a darling I might need to kill. After more than a momentary pause (hours into weeks), I keep ring neck, not because it was the first choice or because it represents the real-time truth of the scene that became the poem. The snake’s role, understood or not by a reader, adds ambiguity, I hope.

My writing process saves a fair percentage of time for self-doubt and lack of artistic confidence. Poems are hard to sell in a world which auctions off street art but peddles e-books for less than a dollar. For poets who are trained in exploiting the spaces between the lines, it’s hard to find audiences who fear the unsaid. “I like it,” I hear, “but I don’t really get it.” I’m not understanding why you wrote it that way. While a poem seems aptly suited for the fast-paced digital world, fourteen syllables are easily swiped away without an image to anchor it. If paper is becoming extinct, I’ll take the wall. But I still have to own the words, and I do care if their subtlety makes them too complicated. Understanding why I find these words so intriguing is part of my process in articulating why I write in the first place.

The words are scribbles, and the messy wall is a bonus, but they came together with purpose. We leave the graffiti in its place out of a sense of kitsch, quirkiness, because we are writers, and in our world, walls need art and poems need homes. For this platypus, that snake, and these existential questions, these are my best words in their best order.

Amy Nawrocki is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Reconnaissance, published by Homebound Publications. Her work has appeared in such venues as The Connecticut River Review, New Millennium Writings, Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Sixfold, The Poet’s Billow, and Lay Bare the Canvas: New England Poets on Art. She is also the co-author, with her husband Eric D. Lehman, of three Connecticut history books, including A History of Connecticut Food and Literary Connecticut. Their column “The Ark of Taste” appears in Edible Nutmeg. Amy’s latest book The Comet’s Tail: A Memoir of No Memory is available from Little Bound Books. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Bridgeport and lives in Hamden, Connecticut. 

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