I pay attention to any poem that uses strategies I’ve yet to try. I regard such a poem as a teacher and like to challenge myself to employ its strategies in a new poem of my own. My poem, “Signs,” came into existence in this manner. I’d fallen hard for Carl Dennis’s poem, “A Blessing,” from his new book, Another Reason (Penguin Books, 2014). I was immediately attracted to three elements of the poem: 1) Dennis’s use of infinitives to structure his poem, 2) the absence of figurative language, and 3) the poem’s positive spirit.
So I set out to write a poem that uses a stream of infinitives. Dennis begins, “To be able to trust your eyes…” I began, “To find yourself in the park…” This strategy of beginning with an infinitive turned out to be an act of liberation. One infinitive led naturally and quickly to another. The poem poured out of me.
I wrote that first draft fast. The crunch of time is, for me, creative. It prevents me from thinking too much. It allows me to surprise myself, to occasionally be outrageous. Then I spent many hours revising—eleven drafts but still just about one-third my usual number. My principal goal during revision was to make the poem wholly mine, not a mere imitation.
Since Dennis doesn’t use any metaphors in his poem, I went in the opposite direction. I brainstormed a bunch of metaphors in the margins of my third draft. Then I plugged the successful ones into the poem and tossed out the rest. In draft #5 I found my form, not Dennis’s single stanza but couplets.
I wanted my poem, like Dennis’s, to be a happy one, in contrast to my usual inclination. But as I was doing the first draft, dark moments kept sneaking in. I let them in. I was excited by the tension between what the poem wanted to do and what I wanted it to do. While neither philosopher nor preacher, I liked my poem’s eventual suggestion that it is possible for someone who has known great sorrow to lay down that burden and find happiness. I hadn’t known that that was where my poem was going. I hadn’t planned on saying that, but when I said it, I knew I’d needed to say it. It felt right.
I usually sit on a poem for at least a month before submitting it, but I sent this one out once it felt done. And miracle of miracles, it was accepted by the first journal I sent it to—Tahoma Literary Review—for their inaugural issue. That, too, felt right.
Read Read “Signs” in our current issue, or listen via SoundCloud.