Hear, Smell, and Touch
When I hear or see the word “delicious” I naturally think first of some of my favorite foods, but the addition of the definite article “the” broadens my perspective a bit – particularly as it relates to Exploring this Terrain: Poems specifically and to my poetry generally. Unlike many other poets I know, I never determine in advance what I am going to write about. Rather, I respond to what I encounter and then attempt to capture it and to share it through language. “O taste and see,” declared the psalmist and great poet David, and that is what I endeavor to do as I experience life. And to “taste and see,” I want to add “hear and smell and touch”…because we humans are constantly reacting to things happening around us that engage some or all of those senses, whether we are aware of it or not. My work as a poet is to bring attention to that, I guess. My most sincere hope was and is that the reader will savor with me the marvelous and unique flavor that can be found in every moment, image, sound that I have endeavored to capture and convey through words. The psalmist completes his line with the statement “the Lord is good.” I believe that too and that that “goodness” is demonstrated in all of creation.
Over the course of my writing career lots of folks have characterized me as a nature poet. I am delighted to accept the designation; but my subject matter and scope of vision are broader than that, I think. I prefer to call what others refer to as nature, creation. All of my poetry then explores one of the various and distinct terrains of creation that define and inform our lives. My book is divided into seven sections, and each of those sections examines a distinct type of terrain – some defined by the typography of the natural, physical world and some by those less concrete, but no less real, realms of relationship, memory, heart and spirit. My hope is that my poems makes these delicious for the reader. A food we call delicious may be sweet or sour, tangy or subtle, hot or mild; similarly, what makes a poem delicious can be as broad-ranging as that.
Because Exploring this Terrain: Poems is a collection containing work created over a period of years rather a volume concentrating on a single theme, selecting the poems to include or to omit was a bit of a challenge. Once I’d made those selections deciding in which particular section of the book each of the 70 poems belonged was also sometimes a difficult decision. I knew that where I placed the poem essentially signaled to the observant reader what I thought the poem was “about.” But poems, like life itself, are complex and multi-faceted. A number of the poems could have been placed logically or comfortably in more than one section. But by going back in my head not just to the writing of the poem but more importantly to the experience that inspired it, I was able to resolve the dilemma.
The most difficult of the difficulties (whew!) I routinely encounter as a poet is finding the right – or should I say best -- last line with which to conclude the poem. I am not exactly sure why this is the case, except that the experience or realization enshrined in a poem never really ends for me. It does for the reader, however, and in that context I often believe that the last line is the most important in a poem.
Of course it can be argued honestly that the first line is of paramount importance because it is largely responsible for engaging the reader. English professors often congenially squabble about the greatest first lines in various literary genres. As interesting and stimulating as that discussion can be, I choose to avoid it. And I don’t think about my own opening lines that much either – because I know that they are most often “given” to me. I don’t mean this is a mystical or “woo-woo” way as some of my friends would characterize it. The first lines of my poems generally come as a simple gift, the consequence and reward of attentiveness to the world around. They are usually triggered by something auditory (like a bird’s song) or visual (like the way the light moves or casts a particular shadow). Unfortunately, those first lines are usually fleeting as well. If I don’t jot them down almost immediately, they vanish as surely as the fog. That is the beginning of the act of writing a poem for me, but only the beginning. What the first line or lines demand of me then are days of recollection and concentration, often hours of research, weeks and sometimes even years of revision before I am ready to present the piece to an audience. So the process can be difficult; but it is a difficulty I embrace because, for me at least, the exploration always leads to discovery and blessing.
In the context of COVID-19, “the great unexpected,” most everything else that was unanticipated seems to pale. Your question, however, was specifically focused on the unexpected in relation to my book, so I will confine my answer to that. There was no how-to manual for launching a new book in a pandemic, and all the conventional means of reaching readers that I’d scheduled– like a launch, book talks and signings, in-person events – had to be scuttled. Connecting with readers face-to-face has always been especially meaningful for me and I do miss it. But I would never have anticipated how creative and united the entire literary community, in all its several roles, would be. Your invitation to be part of your Poetry Friday blog is just one example of the happily unexpected opportunities and support I have received. There was a virtual book launch on You Tube produced by my publisher Paraclete Press that allowed me to engage with folks I otherwise would not reach. There was Poetkind Podcast and there have been other virtual and online readings. During the podcast interview the host Susan Mulder asked, “How can you read poetry during a pandemic, at a time like this?” Reflexively I responded, hearing my own voice before I was even aware that I was speaking: “How can you not read poetry at a time like this?” That was unexpected. But I stand by those words. I thank you for the opportunity to pose and answer that question here and to share one of my poems with your readers. You selected it, of course, and I am pleased with your pick. Its entitled “Certainty,” and if we ever need to consider and hold fast to that which is certain, it is at a time such as this.
During this strange time, and after it has passed, may we all be attentive to and grateful for the certain things that abide.