To tell about “my writing day” is, for me, a tough request, simply because it is rare that I spend a whole day writing. This essay would be better titled “My Writing Moment.”
I wrote poetry in high school and in university, but I didn’t start getting serious about writing poetry— or writing poetry that I considered to be good— until the year right after undergrad, when I was teaching English in a cram school just outside Taipei. There are many possible reasons for this: I was getting better as I aged and wrote more; without the crushing demands of full-time school, I suddenly had a lot of extra intellectual energy to channel into poetry; my first time in a foreign country proved wonderfully inspiring. Whatever the cause, I was suddenly writing more poetry than ever. In a year in Taiwan, I would produce almost as many poems as I had in four years of university, and much better ones, too.
That being said, I still wasn’t having a lot of what you’d call “writing days.” I worked 6 days a week, and on my days off, I travelled, or rested, or socialized. Though I was writing more poems, overall I was writing less than ever, even going weeks without an entry in the diary I’d kept since I was 12. It’s always seemed a cruel irony to me that once you have something worth wanting to remember, you suddenly have much less time and motivation to record it in your diary (by contrast, now, while quarantined, I am turning out more pages than ever, but there’s never anything new to report).
Many of the best poems I wrote— or, the poems of mine that I’m most proud of, like “Ephesus,” “Ruth,” “Kamchatka” or “Dictionary”—were written on the sly while teaching.
Picture me, in the class. I might be teaching little ones, leaping and prancing around, singing songs, trying to hype the kids up while simultaneously trying to keep them from boiling over during games, speaking in silly voices, making funny faces, and sweating profusely. I might be teaching big kids, standing awkwardly before a group of teenagers who would rather be playing video games, teasing and roughhousing with each other, catching up on their homework, or, most likely, sleeping. I’d be trying to get these kids interested in the subject of this week's dry graded-English textbook reading— what did the students at the world's oldest universities study? Can dogs see colour? How do Deaf people communicate? What are linguists doing to preserve languages that have very few remaining speakers? Sometimes there was no enthusiasm to be had; at other times, we might have a disagreement and I might find some of their opinions distressing. I remember being particularly glum when one sullen thirteen-year-old boy told me that he thought any language that could not sustain itself naturally should be allowed to die out— it clearly wasn’t useful anymore. At the time, I thought perhaps he was displaying the arrogance of someone whose mother tongue boasts over a billion native speakers. Later, I considered he might simply be an overworked trilingual middle schooler who was thinking, God forbid there be more languages on this earth that you might try to make me learn. I did manage to generate a bit more interest in teaching the students to introduce themselves in ASL, but that might have just been because the activity provided a respite from learning to use ESL.
I know it seems like I must have been far too busy in class to be writing a poem. I, too, when I picture a “perfect poem-writing environment,” picture a wide desk, a carafe of coffee, a leather-bound notebook, an empty schedule, and silence. But what I consider my best poems of that remarkable year were never written like that.
I frankly have no idea how the ideas for poems first popped into my head. Maybe sometimes, I found the textbook readings a little more interesting than the kids did. It could have been something a student had said or done that inspired me. Most likely, it was some aspect of my life outside the classroom that kept needling into my mind when I was trying to work— foreign teacher drama, last week's tumultuous Sunday trip, sorrowful meditations about the sorry state of my love life. Whatever the source, I would get something in my mind that I would be itching to set down, even as I prepared the kids to sing “Wheels on the Bus,” or look up vocab words in the dictionary.
By this point, it had sometimes been weeks since my last poem. Every time I went for a while between poems, I’d be thinking, that’s it. I’ll probably never write another one. Sometimes I would even write a despairing I-shall-never-again-write-a-poem poem (the irony was always lost on me). Now, all of a sudden, I’d have another one ready to burst— sometimes two or three in one 90- or 120-minute class.
But of course, I was at work. I had to wait.
I would usually wait until either I had assigned a worksheet and the kids were busy writing something down, or when a musical schoolbell called the ten-minute half-time break. During breaktime, the kids were supposed to come and recite their lessons to me, to prove that they could spell or conjugate irregular verbs, but usually they would just clown around, go to the bathroom, and eat snacks. Occasionally a teenager would shyly slide up to me and want to discuss a newly released K-pop song, or some kindergarteners would want to engage me in a few aggressive rounds of rock-paper-scissors, at which they would openly cheat, and I would pretend to be grievously offended. If, however, everyone had decided there was something more interesting to do than socialize with their foreign teacher— and there almost always was— I would pick up my lesson plan book and pretend to be making notes or doodling. Really, though, I was scribbling out the bare bones of a poem.
Sometimes I would pick up my lesson plan book intending to doodle, and the doodle would turn out to be words. I often wrote in my own “code,” English words written phonetically in the Cyrillic alphabet (I had taught most of my classes how to use Pig-Pen code, so that was a no-go). Eventually, I either got tired of the effort of writing in Cyrillic or forgot enough of the letters to make it unhelpful, so I switched to simply writing in a corner of the lesson plan in cursive. Cursive writing was as good as a code, anyways; I knew even my Taiwanese co-workers likely wouldn’t know how to read it. The gist of the poem would get scratched out as fast as I could, often in multiple patchy stanzas, joined precariously by arrows. Then, the bell would ring again, or the fastest students would be finishing their worksheets and putting their hands up for me to check their work, and I would quickly change my face, from Poet back into Teacher.
After class, I would collect my pay at the front desk, play a few more rounds of rock-paper-scissors with some stragglers, and either walk home, run for the bus, or bum a ride on the back of someone’s scooter. On days of torrential typhoon rains, I would likely call an Uber. All the while, I’d be thinking of the poem, just the bare ghostly idea of it— I’d have forgotten all the words, but I could think of the feeling, of the shape of the cramped box of text, of the lesson plan that surrounded the poem on the page. No specific details remained in my mind, which was full of impressions of the lesson, of the bus ride, of the lights and signage of the city flashing past, of the sweat running down my legs into my shoes. I knew that when I pulled out my lesson plan book to re-read the poem, it would be a surprise to me, as if it had been written by someone else. On the walk, the bus ride, the scooter or in the backseat of the air-conditioned and ambient-music-filled car, I’d simply be full of the satisfaction of knowing there were a few square inches of crabbed text squirreled away in my backpack, and I had written them, and they might be good. The satisfaction of knowing I did have one more poem in me, after all— even if it was just going to be the one.
I’d get back to the foreign teachers dormitory around 9 or 10 pm, and the other teachers would be getting back around then, too. We’d convene in the common area, stretch out on the sticky leather couches waiting for whoever’s bus was slowest, and then we’d all go to supper at one of our favourite open-late restaurants in the neighbourhood. After supper, there were usually errands it’d been too hot to bother doing during the day; for example, the fruit-market near the dorm was overpriced and we knew it, but the fact that it was open 24-hours meant it was the favoured place for foreigners to pick up containers of sliced dragonfruit and watermelon, bags of passion-fruits, or papayas as long as my forearm for dessert. Often, this would keep us out and about until after midnight. Over supper, and then over fresh fruit, we shared funny stories from our classes, complained that we ate pho too often and that the trendy new barbecue closed too early to ever make it there, or planned next weekends adventures based on what the weather was supposed to be like, whether or not we’d been taxed or paid our electricity bills this week, and whether anyone had bronchitis (usually someone had bronchitis).
All the while, I’d have the poem in my backpack at the back of my mind. I would try not to be unsociable, try not to be more eager than usual to turn in for the night, try not to make it obvious that I was itching to shut myself into my concrete box of a bedroom, where I could fold myself onto my cheap rice mattress, tear through my lesson plan book, and transfer the scribbled poem onto Google Docs. I’d fix it up a bit, add a line to smooth a transition, and rearrange the stanzas, but usually I found it mostly whole, an Easter egg I’d discovered intact with only a few chips in the paint. I’d sleep that night under my air-conditioner unit, roaring and dripping condensation onto my legs, staring at the moon through my dusty window, happier and more contented than usual, relieved to know that I still had poems in me— I had not, in fact, run out.
Stapleton Nash is a poet and English teacher from Vancouver Island, Canada. She began her writing career while living and teaching just outside Taipei, but now lives with her family in Canada once again. She has had poetry published in Necro Magazine, The Literary Mark, Amethyst Review, Mookychick, Lunate, Nymphs, and Dear Reader Poet, as well as in anthology projects from The Bangor, Teen Belle and Castabout Lit. She is a regular contributor at Headline Poetry and Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @StapletonKNash.