Our Voice

While in the final stages of putting together my thesis last spring, another poet helped me out by reading my collection of poems.  I didn't know this poet well.  Actually, we'd only met one day when I drove up to Park City to pick her up so she could do a reading at BYU.  We shared a lovely drive down Provo Canyon and a little hike up Rock Canyon, some curry with other professors after the reading and a few exchanged emails in the weeks after that.  I think she's pretty great, and I respect her work, so I was grateful when she agreed to meet up during her last days in Utah and read over my collection with me. This poet hardly knew me, but she pointed out something pretty vital to the crafting of work that matters, to both the creator and receiver.  We sat over a chocolate mud pie and she began reading the stack of poems.  I, of course, was a nervous and didn't quite know what to do with myself as she hmmmmed, and scribbled notes, and turned pages.  After she finished, she went through each poem with me and pointed out what was working for her, and what wasn't.  The most surprising thing to me was that all the lines and thoughts that seemed to work best were the ones I had almost cut out through obsessive editing. The ones I was embarrassed about being too sentimental, too obvious, too much written just the way I would say it.   The lines that moved the poem forward, that gave it heart, surprise and stability were the ones that were most in my own voice.   Not that the other lines weren't mine, they were.  I had spent dozens of hours carefully crafting and re-crafting them, I knew them like family.  However, there were some lines that I wrote thinking that I was saying the thing that everyone was already thinking, that my thought would be too familiar to give credence to.  I thought that surely, everyone has already thought this 1000 times, why would I put it here?  There were other lines that seemed too comfortable, like the worn blue blanket my grandma used to keep in the chest behind the couch; they just seemed too easy for me to write.  These were the lines written in my own voice.

As a caveat, we talked a lot about the term voice in my graduate program; we talked about how we disliked it.  It seems that we sometimes substitute the term voice so we don't have to think further about what that terms actually means or implies, as if we will all instantly become epic writers if we only listened to the inner muse and listened to our 'voice'.  Really, writing is tough work, and chiseling out that voice from all the other stuff is pretty hard to do.  We have to condition our voice, work to make it dance with our intellect, teach it, feed it with knowledge, facts, and experience, let it write and write and write, let it speak out loud to know what it really sounds like, and then, I think we have to learn to trust it every once in a while.  

In my poetry collection, I had nearly scrubbed my poems clean of that 'voice', the ones that is the first thought in my head, the one that seems most obvious to me.  Interesting then that Jill, the poet who read my poems was able to pick out every line that managed to stand its ground and stay in my poem.  She circled them and wrote in big letters, 'More of this!  This is where the poem begins to mean something!'  I realized in that short session in the middle of a crowded restaurant patio, with Remy sleeping in his carseat, and me, a new mom, poet, artist, just trying to figure things out, that sometimes, or probably more than sometimes, it is important to say the thing you think has already been said.  I realized that the thoughts and connections in our heads are often not as obvious to everyone else, because, of course, we all have different brains, holding a myriad of different experience, memory and paradigms.  I guess that is why I love poetry: we work and work and work on this little thing, then bring it to the table and say, 'here is my experience and my idea, do you want to think about it with me?'  And of course, as language is a pretty meager means to actually convey something exactly as the way you understand or question it, you will still be sole owner of your experience and understanding, but at least you may have moved one or two steps closer.   So, I've been thinking a lot about saying the things we think, out loud, just to say it and see if it really is as obvious as you feel. I think we need to say things and write things to get them clear, to understand ourselves. Then try saying it to someone else, try writing it, experiment with it, challenge it.  I think it's easy to rummage in cliche's because we are afraid to say what we really want, or maybe we are being lazy, or maybe we've just never said it out loud and so never realized what a treasure of a thought and idea it really is.   Try it today, I'd love to know what happens.

After all this poem talk, I'll leave you with one here. 

Ode on Forgiveness

I wrote it out five times
in just one week,
my apology.
I wrote it in longhand
and on the computer.
Some days it was blue
like the lonely light that emanates from a glacier.
Some days it was pink
and pregnant with memories
whose birth we would never witness
together again.
Yesterday for a few moments
it was yellow,
like the color one might expect
of the words hope
or thank you.
Or the color you see
when you’ve gotten up
early and hiked a mountain
just to see the sunrise.
The color not anything new,
not anything we haven’t seen before.
But in that moment,
the way sunlight peaks up and over the crest of the world,
reminds us that we are so small
and that the world
has been spinning all this time.



kathy w. said...

Thank you. Truly. I needed to read that this morning.

Allison said...

I don't know you but I have a lot of your art in my home and I just found your blog. Your poem brought me to tears tonight, so profound, so beautiful. Thank you for sharing.