Poetry Just Keeps Opening

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When I started to study poetry about eight years ago, I wasn’t thinking about the implications it would have on my Christian faith. I was clumsily writing along, trying new things with words that felt stupid and frivolous and unproductive, trusting some vague impulse that I was learning a language that was somehow already inside of me.

Over the past year, I’ve started to realize that the socially-disadvantaged genre of poetry is actually everywhere around us. It isn’t wearing knee-high socks, sitting the bench. It’s in our popular song lyrics, our slang, political speeches, and Netflix TV shows. It isn’t usually recognized as poetry, so we often miss it.

In the same vein, it’s easy to miss the breadth and depth of poetry in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets spoke almost exclusively in poetry, because it was perhaps the only way of writing that allowed them to describe the world according to the way they saw it–a world ridden by judgement and hope–a world that was ending and beginning. In essence, they saw a world full of complexity and tension, a world whose mysteries could not be easily pinned down.

Further, in looking more at the gospels, it recently struck me that Jesus spoke in parables, which are like little poems. He used the power of images to do the work that words alone cannot: a mustard seed planted in a field, yeast permeating the dough, the narrow gate, a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.

I find it fascinating that God, the creator of language and the entire universe, chose for His official book to be highly permeated with poetry. One could potentially conclude that poetry is God’s language, that poetry is the language of the Kingdom. Jesus said, I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world. It’s like He knew that poetic language was the only way to communicate the hidden things, which happen to be the big things in God’s economy.

In light of this, I find it so weird that the churchy-world and the artsy-world seem almost diabolically opposed. Sure, poetry is a wild animal with an affinity for ripping open new realities and new ways of looking at things. The church, the political world, or any other structured institution is perhaps scared of that wildness. But, isn’t that what Jesus was all about? Challenging the current structures, speaking in new ways, seeing the world through new eyes?

What would happen if we were to bring poetry back into the modern evangelical church? It might get real gritty and interesting! It might get as scandalous and inappropriate as Jesus!

I was recently listening to a wonderful podcast with Walter Brueggemann–theologian, professor, and prolific author–about his book The Poetic Imagination and the connection between prophets and poets. He says,

What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, is it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation, and then it’s deathly. So, we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that’s healthier than that, you’re gonna have to take time to sit with these images and relish them, and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame, otherwise you’re just gonna be left with these dead formulations, which again, is why the poetry is so important, because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close, until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power. So, more metaphors give more access to God…and it’s amazing how in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, there are just endless metaphors. What a metaphor or an image does, is to invite you to keep walking around it, and looking at it another way, and noticing something else. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

So, what does this mean? Well, maybe the way we experience the transformative power of God on a personal and global level is as basic as reading poems and trying to write them. Geez. It’s so simple and so small, kind of like that mustard seed Jesus was talking about.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it?
I am making a way in the 
wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
-Isaiah 43:19

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courage

I’m in the thick of working on the aesthetic statement for my thesis. It feels like an overwhelming task–to put to words what I find valuable and meaningful in poetry, how my own work reflects that, and how it fits in with the larger conversation of art and artists. I’ve been looking back through the books that have inspired me over the years and picking out the pieces that I’ve held onto. A few quotes have stood out to me–ones I thought were worth sharing.

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“…the courage to be an amateur.”

We hear a lot about courage in the new year. We want to be brave, or to do big things, or to try new things. We perhaps want our story to look a bit differently, to get out of old patterns that might not be healthy. The thing that stands out to me though, is that this change doesn’t happen overnight. It occurs over time, over the accrual of many mistakes. It’s a long process and progress is slow. And perhaps, mistakes are not the enemy.

This is a passage from the book The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young. Dean Young adds on to Wallace Stevens’ statement, saying,

“I always tell my students not to worry about originality; just try to copy the manners and musics of the various, the more various the better, poetries you love: your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.”

Young also writes,

“I don’t believe in writer’s block, writing well is very easy; it’s writing horribly, the horrible work necessary to do to get to writing well, that is so difficult one may just not be willing to do it.”

I’m seeing a theme here…it requires courage to be an amateur, to make mistakes, to do crappy work. We can’t get to where we want to be as people or artists without it. This requires vulnerability, taking chances, trying new things, and being ourselves. “Our genius is our error.”

When we speak of courage, we tend to think of doing big things for big causes. But sometimes, courage is simply putting something out there, again and again. Just keeping at it, whatever it is, growing in the process. Most of the time, the growth is so slow, it is only detectable after you’ve put years of work in.

Here are a few more gems, written by Richard Hugo, another poet:

“When you have done your best, it doesn’t matter how good it is. That is for others to say.”

“An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance.”

“What a silly thing we do. We sweat through poem after poem to realize what dumb animals know by instinct and reveal in their behavior: my life is all I’ve got. We are well off to know it ourselves, even if our method of learning it is painfully convoluted. When you write you are momentarily telling the world and yourself that neither of you need any reason to be but the one you had all along.”

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Ok, back to work. I hope these tidbits encourage you today!

remains of the day

It’s Friday night. Not a normal time to write a post. But here I am, at my computer, unwinding from the day and “de-bulking” my thoughts. A haphazard and unplanned post. Random thoughts with no correlation, other than this is how my brain thinks…

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Ren and I were back at the doctor today. This little dude has a very strong immune response–>skin inflammation–>excessive itching–>open wounds–>resulting infections. The above scene felt familiar this morning as we sat in the office waiting for the doctor. We had already read all of the books, played all of the kid’s apps on my phone, and eaten all of his snacks. Taking selfies was a last resort for entertainment. He’s back on antibiotics and high-octane band-aids that he can’t pick off in the middle of the night. I am thankful for modern medicine.

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Christmas:I have a love-hate relationship with it. I love it from the time I wake up until about 3pm. Then I’m tired…and the school parties, the traffic, the pressure, the presents, and the low-quality milk chocolate get to me…and then I hate it. But then I get a moment to sit down and journal and I read a verse like John 2:14, and I love it all over again. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. God among us, on earth, mingling and saving humanity.

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I had to Google “Duck Dynasty” yesterday because I am clueless about these sorts of things. All of these social-religious-media-driven controversies make me want to tune-out even more and perpetually bury my head in poetry books.

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from “For Annie” by Joseph Millar

Speaking of poetry books, I’ve been reading Joseph Millar’s collection, Blue Rust, and loving it. He is one of my favorite contemporary American poets. I first discovered him after reading this poem in Billy Collin’s anthology, Poetry 180, and then coming across a few of his poems in other journals. I love how Millar writes about ordinary life, ordinary moments, the way he enters a poem in one place and exits in another, and his gentle and precise way of experiencing the world.

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I took the above photo today. A scene from my dining room. Perhaps it will be my next still life project? These colors cheer me on gray winter days.

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Motherhood is hard in a way that no one can prepare you for. It is hard in a way that you wouldn’t want anyone to prepare you for. It is so all-encompassing. There is no part of me left untouched by it. There are days when I feel that all of who I am has been squeezed out and I wonder what is left. Perhaps the biggest struggle for me in this is the feeling that there is no end in sight. It is chronic. People always say, “Enjoy it…it goes by so fast.” I know this has to be true, but it doesn’t feel true, for the most part. The time that it does feel true is late at night, when the hard work for the day is over and I wander into my children’s rooms to kiss their cheeks as they sleep–as they are quiet and unconscious–and I think to myself, “Wow, enjoy this, freeze this moment, you will someday miss this.”

I think of the quote–it’s not verbatim–but it goes something like,

“I don’t like to write…I like to have written.”

Perhaps that is true of many things. Putting in the labor is, well, labor, but looking back on the accomplishment is priceless. And perhaps that is why I love “to have written”–it is a tangible end product that is frozen in time–a symbol of labor and love. Raising children is less tangible and one often wonders if there ever is an end product. Where does the work go? When are you ever “done?” Is there a way to know if you are doing it right or not? What kind of impact do your actions have? The answers to these questions may not even reveal themselves until our children are in their mid-twenties and seeking a therapist to deal with their childhood issues. But even then, that’s not a black and white indicator of whether or not we were good parents…because we ALL have issues…and mostly likely would all benefit from therapy.

I think about all of this, but then I come full circle, back to the moments when my children are content and asleep, back to Millar’s poem and the final stanza, and hope that maybe, just maybe, I am doing an okay job…

There’s a song women sing
you know all the words to,

to make a child stop crying and sleep,
a song to make a grown man forget.

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the creative process

There are many artists who argue that the key to success is just sitting down, everyday, and doing the work, regardless of whether or not you feel inspired. I think that this is a great discipline, and it’s a practice that I’m trying to instill in my own schedule. I can’t always afford to sit down daily. Raising three children and tending to the myriad of associated details makes this difficult, but I’m learning that it is realistic and fruitful to set two to three mornings aside each week to “do the work.”

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I’ve been working on my MFA for an embarrassing amount of time. I started back in 2008. To my credit, there have been a few children, an adoption, and several moves wedged into this time frame, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to work at my own pace. I am finally finished with my coursework and I’m slowly plugging away on my thesis, so the end is in sight, but somedays it still feels like I will never finish. I fear that I’m not a great finisher, especially when it comes to things of a creative nature, so I am determined to prove my inner voices wrong and just get this thing done.

In the process, I am learning how to make my creative efforts a part of my life as reliably and unemotionally as any other task, whether it be feeding my children or taking out the trash. It’s easy to think that creative work is somehow superfluous to life, and therefore, should responsibly be dropped when life gets crazy. It’s taken me years to realize that my overall wellbeing is benefitted by regular times to let my creativity out. It doesn’t seem that our culture respects the fine arts in the way that it does, say, business or law or medicine, so I think that in-between the lines and starting at an early age, we learn that creativity is extra and elective. There is some truth to this, of course, and I realize that when one is in survival mode, creativity gets trumped by more immediate needs such as food and shelter. But when we are in a place where the needs on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Triangle are getting met, I think it is wise to challenge the idea that creative efforts aren’t a true human need. They may not generate much monetary income, but in the economy of the human spirit, creative efforts are rich and rewarding. They speak to the soul.

I hope to start unpacking some thoughts on the creative process in future posts, and I would love to hear what helps you in your own creative endeavors. I suppose it looks different for everyone depending on their brain chemistry and life circumstances. At this season of life, I don’t have all day to spend on my creative projects, so I am realizing that it’s important for me to “get in the zone” quickly. That way, I can utilize most of my time actually producing rather than staring blankly at the blank page.

Being “in the zone” for me translates to coffee, music (something moody, melancholy, and soft), good sleep, my journal, and a stack of books. Sometimes I like to get out of the house and work at a coffee shop, but sometimes I like to work at home. As long as there are no screaming or whining children demanding attention, then I’m good to go! I usually have some sort of prompt to get my thoughts going, whether it’s a photo I’ve taken (images, in general, yield a wealth of ideas!), a quote I read, a poem, etc. Holding onto all of these sources of inspiration has been helpful–being more intentional about storing these tidbits away for my next work session helps me plan how I want to spend my time. My journal is scattered with random, one-line musings that I hope to some day explore further.

One of my favorite writers, Donald Miller, says to “write where the wind is blowing.” This has also been huge for me. Whenever I feel pressure to just work on one thing, my imagination tends to start shutting down. Therefore, I love giving myself permission to have several projects going at the same time. (The challenge, then, is choosing which ones are worthy of finishing and actually finishing them!)

In the same vein, I have wondered if keeping this blog is a distraction–a form of resistance in finishing my thesis–but I am realizing that keeping this blog actually helps me unpack and unload my ideas in a way that keeps the creative juices flowing. It’s been important for me to remember that I don’t need to limit myself, and that spending time on something that I “shouldn’t” be writing or painting will somehow link back and inspire the thing I “should” be doing. Nothing is wasted. Most of my ideas for poems come out of left field and at times I least expect, so keeping my options open has been beneficial for me. I came across this graphic the other day and it concisely expresses this same thought:

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The more I engage with my creativity, the more I feel generating inside of me. The more I release it, the more it fills back up again. I am learning that the creative process is circular, not linear. There is no end. Everything is connected.

I was talking with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. She is a writer but also has a day job, so she doesn’t always have a lot of time to spend on her own projects. She writes bi-weekly for an online publication, though, and she says that this habit helps to keep her creativity going. The articles she writes aren’t always what she would choose to write, but the act of sitting down and writing fills her creative bank nonetheless.

So, all of that said, what practices facilitate your own creative process? Do you have a process or a routine? What has helped you to progress and produce as an artist?