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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Writing in the Body

When I was a kid I thought books chose us. I thought we were adopted by our favourite stories, poems, songs: Loving foster parents that domesticated us to the world.

Like waiting for a soulmate, I thought the books I read were the ones I was destined to read again and again. They came along serendipitously with well timed messages. The classics taught me that first times are erroneous; they're really for all times. The moderns showed me that we are all fucked up - sometimes beautifully, heart wrenchingly so.

I thought words were people, too, when I was very little. I would empty my mind and just let the words choose me, I would take their hands and walk with them for awhile. I'd make new friends every day socialising constantly as I did with dictionaries and their compendiums.

I still do this today. I first "write" in my head. For many, the first association to writing poetry is usually a poet hunched over a desk using writing tools such as a pen or pencil and some type of writing pad or notebook, or computer keyboard. But what if the tools were taken away? What if the poet "wrote" in his or her head?

I thought I was the only one to do this, but I discovered this is a method used by the well-known poet, Marie Howe, in her writing workshops. Students are given the homework assignment of creating a poem by thinking or talking it out without writing it down or recording it in any way. They are given 24 hours to do it, after which they return to class and recite the poem.

It's recommended that the deadline of 24 hours (or less) be followed, since it creates an added tension to the writing and has a defined end, a limit that, similar to writing in form, can help spark creativity. Planning to recite the finished poem at a reading will boost the adrenalin (in the same way as a deadline) and make the writing even better.

This form of writing "in the body" has been labelled as a different kind of writing tool; it is an aid - and it doesn't have to be part of a poetry workshop. Anyone can do it. It might sound impossible, but it actually works, even among those who are convinced they can't do it.

To me, it's inconceivable to do it any other way. It's also very useful. There have been a few times when I've written something and because of a technical glitch it's gotten lost. I just take a breath, and write it again from memory, often reciting it out aloud to keep it alive.

If you think about it, poetry arose as an oral tradition. In order for it to be passed down from one generation to the next, messages had to be in a form that was memorable. That encouraged the use of rhyme, rhythm, music, repetition, and other devices that helped it endure.

In the same way, composing a poem in the head is likely to make it tighter than if created on the page, with fewer extraneous words, or dead wood. The reason is that writing it from the head encourages the poet to get to the essence quickly, and in a way that can be remembered. A good warm-up exercise is to memorise a poem by a favorite poet. William Butler Yates is my go to; I feel as though I am a chosen child of many of his works.

One suggested way of enhancing writing in the body is to compose while walking. While a poem written in the mind can be done however and wherever the poet chooses, there may be an advantage to walking while composing; some renowned poets have found inspiration by walking. In some cases, the content of the poem includes scenes they encounter along the way, such as Dante's three-day stroll through the afterlife.

As discussed by Billy Mills in "Poster Poems: Walking", the act of walking itself is a means to poetry. A key example of this is Walt Whitman, "the walker-bard par excellence" whose "Song of the Open Road" is emblematic of much of his work, which conveys his sense of the liberating power of walking.

Similarly, taking a stroll while composing a poem in the head may provide stimulation from nature, people along the way, or other scenes. I treat it as meditation. The rhythm of walking itself may help free the mind, enabling the poet to write more powerful poems. It could also help with writer's block.

If I have a hard time getting started, I try this method to open up to poetry in new ways and allow the "inner poem" to find its its own body and voice. Every writer needs to loosen up sometimes and get out of a writing rut, and this meditative, walking method can help poets take the leap and provide new outlets for their creativity. At the very least it will help get oxygen to the brain.

Writing good poetry requires the mind to be alert and open to new possibilities. Writing a poem from the head can seem scary, like being on a trapeze without a net, but it's worth the try. The result may not only produce a new type of writing, but serve as another way to access poems that, otherwise, may never see the light of day.

After all, walking through life is its own type of writing in the body. Poetry and poetics are just one expression of its form.

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