The Ghost of Poems Past

October 27, 2013 — Leave a comment

ghost town nvIt’s close to Halloween, and I’ve had this nagging thought on my mind; it has to do with allowing myself to evolve as a writer without being hemmed in by past accomplishments, writing styles, etc. I think of this dilemma as being haunted by the ghost of poems past. One particular poem is both an anchor and a problem for me. It is, in many ways, one of the more successful poems I’ve written (according to editors), which sets up pressure to have all other poems follow in its path, to conform to the style of writing that worked so well this one time. This expectation becomes a weight that keeps me from moving forward. I just found a copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (embarrassingly, I have so many books double and triple-stacked in rows on my bookcases, I didn’t realize that I even owned it), and she wisely points out what a huge mistake it is to try and control your material before it is even written down. That’s what these hauntings are, a gordian knot of expectations that encourage you to control the material or shape it in ways that are preconceived (actually limiting you).

I used to write narrative and image-based poems, and that has been a difficult pattern to break. The newer poems have a different style and subject matter, and will likely be taken by a new group of journals, which means wading into unknown waters and facing a steep learning curve with new editors. I’m excited about the prospect, but it’s tempting to go back to the writing style I know and the journals I am most familiar with. I’m using an old English proverb as my mantra these days, sticking to what’s elemental and not chasing after what’s not important:

Catch not at the shadow and lose the substance.

I’m using Writing Down the Bones to keep me anchored to the substance of writing. More on Natalie Goldberg’s books in the related content.

Twyla Tharp, choreographer, says “If you only do what you know and do it very, very well, chances are that you won’t fail. You’ll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that’s failure by erosion.” Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, is one of my favorites.

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