Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Joshua Weiner : a writing day

I've been asked if I'd like to write about my writing day, and I've accepted the invitation. So now I'm having a writing day about my writing day.  Sunday, 8:45 am, I've slept too long.  My younger one, in high school, is still asleep upstairs--3 hours, at least, until he's up.  I've moved through a series of mild thresholds to get to my notebook: stretching; making coffee; talking to Sarah about her morning so far, writing--a novelist, she's been at it already today for many hours.  Now she's left with the dog, and I've faced down the Sunday New York Times Book Review, which only includes two books of poetry in its end-of-year round up of 100 "notable" books.  Why do they even bother?  You know none of the editors has read either of them.  A typical writing day might start with a little abject fury.  Given the current political crisis in the U.S. under Trump, it's difficult to even look at the book review after the front page.  (At 54, I still read newspapers out of habit).  I fill the coffee cup, leave the kitchen, head upstairs.  I'll have a few hours here at my notebook, at my desk, writing this piece I'm now writing, or turning to some German language drills (always humbling), reading others' poetry--new stuff mixed with touchstones (also humbling)--with a minute here & there to refill my cup.  10 am.  The little routine is like a path I follow through familiar woods at the end of which is a pond.  I've gone quietly to the pond, and have dropped my line in.  Every morning I get there, it's the same, but as the line unspools and finds its depth, the pond starts to change shape and size, becoming a lake, a sea, a puddle, a lake, etc., its dilation rapidly shifting in random sequence.  I'm waiting now to feel a strike from something below the surface, some kind of tension in the line, a vibration that travels to my fingers.  I may try a different spot, cast out beneath a willow that shades one area of the water's placid-looking surface (really a site of innumerable micro-tensions and imperceptible events), or out to a log, or a bed of lily pads, or someone's old bike that, out of spite or revenge or boredom, got the heave-ho, its bent wheel poking up like the back fin of a metaphorizing fish.  Even if I'm called away from the pond, my fingers stay on the line, a part of my mind alert to the slightest tension or vibration.  The tension I'm waiting to feel, though, is not outside me, but inside, where the pond is; some inchoate affective tension that, once felt, must be played carefully in order to set the hook and get the poem finally on the line.   What sets it?  A few phrases; a key image; a redolent word; a memory released; something that makes the tension more acute, that begins to define it as source and subject.  Sometimes the tension comes from reading poetry, from the build-up of energy palpable in the body, generated by cadenced sequences of good sounds.  Once there, on the line, the poem seldom slips off.  Once there, I'm never not working on the poem.  The key is to get to the pond in the morning and put the line in; otherwise, it's difficult, almost impossible, to start a writing day; I have to wait then for night.  This morning, what set the hook was the image of the line itself, resting on my finger and stretching out towards the water.  10.10 am.  Now, at the pond, with something on the line, I turn away from all other poems.  Only the need to prepare to teach might pull my attention to writing by others, and I will put it off as long as I can.  10.30 am.  Now I feel the poem (or, today, this piece of writing in front of me) coming to the surface slowly, the tension is there, but not the resistance--I feel a tug now and again as it turns back towards home depth, the unarticulated unknown.  But once I can see it below the surface, though it hasn't broken through, it hangs at that level, maybe swimming side to side.  It isn't trying to throw the hook.  We're in connection with each other now, more intimately, more quietly; it's as if the poem wants to see me as much as I want to see it.  11.00 am.  I can do some chores, leave the house without leaving the pond.  I play the line and work on the poem in my head.  I come back to my desk and notebook.  12.00 pm.  A couple more hours.  Now it's 2.00 pm.  The rest of the day will take over: family, exercise, meals, scheduling the coming week.  But my writing day is still happening.  I may duck out and steal another 30 minutes, or 10, or just two.  I am in suspense, waiting for the sun to set, for the family bedtimes to arrive, to release me fully back to the pond.  I'm a night fisher, too.  And in the moonlight, shapes shift, grow monstrous, diminutive, seem to disappear and return changed.  I'll be there till I start to dream, half asleep, before packing it in.  1:00 am.  Those are moments often of little breakthroughs, of the poem rippling the surface--jottings, a new word, a crossing-out.  They are a source of happiness, maybe with luck on the way to joy.  Now Sarah is back, 2:15 pm, the dog has found me, and my writing day has started well.  I will follow it into the dark.  But before that, a Christmas tree, an omelet, a walk, a conversation with my son about his history paper, gutters to clean, laundry to fold.  Disturbances of emotional weather may be weathered; well-laid intentions laid-up; commitments distorted with frustrating results.  Or not.  The day started with real rain, but now the sun is out, it's alarmingly warm for December.  One wonders what it could possibly add up to, one writing day after another, given the situation.  But then I feel that tension, and there's only one release; the function of an organism trying to take it all in while simultaneously in a feedback loop with itself.   This psychic idyll of a writing day at home is made possible by teaching, by the existence, for me, these days, and for a long time now, of a university system; and within it, the humanities (so called); and within that, the studio art programs, including writing programs, that hire faculty, and so forth.  It is privilege, no doubt; and it is also a privilege, discrete, vulnerable, under reactionary attack.  The tension of a writing day includes the tension of that awareness, and the wish to keep finding new ways to create opportunities and support for others to have their writing days.  There are many ways, obviously, to do it, and some that are not so obvious; and many of them are outside that system, or remotely tangential to it, or antagonistic towards it.  If I didn't have my job, would I still have my writing days?  I like to think so, but maybe I'm just flattering myself.  During the physical laboring of a younger body, when I punched the clock, I also had my writing days, which I also fought to have; but with an older body, how easy would that be?  How long can such things last?  How many days like this one will there by for our kids, should they also desire to have such days?   I am thankful to rob mclennan for helping me have this day of writing.

Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry, including The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish.  He is also the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (all from Chicago).   His most recent book, Berlin Notebook, prose about the refugee crisis, was published by the Los Angeles Review of Books (2016), and funded by a Guggenheim fellowship.  His poems and essays have appeared in Best American Poetry, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The American Scholar, The New Republic, Brick, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.  He teaches at University of Maryland, and lives with his family in Washington D.C. 

1 comment:

  1. May you continue to be blessed with the ability to write poetry, prose, musings, and long unpunctuated reflections on writing, rhymed and unrhymed reflections on the world, and the ability to impact the lives of your students and your readers through the words that you share with them.