On prompts, comfort zone, and the bag of tricks

The other night I was talking with Sara in the hall after struggling, excruciatingly, with the prompt about “going home and letting it loose” involving letting “mother-tongue” and the sounds of speech at “home” come into the poem. Now it happens that when I write, almost all the time, I have a lot of noise in my head that amounts to ongoing criticism of myself, my process, my progress, the particular words or lines I’m penning on the page. The intensity of this interior noise can make it hard, to put it mildly, to hear negative feedback on a poem. Particularly if it doesn’t seem to come from a place of appreciation for the effort.

So I had been thinking about letting this inner critic “go” (as if it were that simple), which is probably different than letting it loose, but oh well. Now, when I tried to “go home” with that, all I could hear was the sounds of my mom screaming at me, her tongue seeming to try to take me apart, to tear out by force the fault she had found in me. So getting that voice, or tongue, into a poem wasn’t helping me let anything go, or loose–I couldn’t/can’t get far enough away from those sounds.

Anyway I was talking to Sara and Ross and probably others about this in the hall, and I noticed that when I can’t find my way through a poem, can’t really land inside the process of writing, I fall back on my moves, my bag of tricks. I can feel myself phoning it in as the expression goes, trying from the outside, from a distance, to make a poem happen. Now, I don’t need a prompt to have this problem–I can have it on any day of the week, just give me a pen, my notebook, and an hour to try to write. But prompts, with their awkward, imposed set of parameters for the writing to start from, make the bag of tricks particularly tempting. Maybe it’s all that training from the umpteen years of schooling, being in the workforce etc: to generate, to get a product out, regardless of how tired, cranky, or sick one is… There you are, in unfamiliar terrain, with someone else’s constraints pushing you out of your comfort zone, and feeling a need to make it happen–and voila, there’s the bag of tricks, the familiar moves that give some vague sense that maybe a poem is taking place out there somewhere.

Silence, patience, waiting; these would seem to be the correctives. I strive for them, but it doesn’t seem likely I will anytime soon be able to write without resorting, without knowing it or without knowing how to not do it, to such fallbacks. Which brings me to the issue of revision, but that will be for another post.

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