Sunday, July 19, 2020

FOLLOWING THE CURVY PATH

Looking back at the early days of my participation in Deborah Hurwitz's "Productivity for Perfectionists," I found the place where I had begun what is now my chapbook, "Portal of Light."  It all began with a poem I wrote for my son one morning when I was journaling, looking back over many trips we had taken to the San Diego Wild Animal Park since he was born.  I called it "Serendipitous Expeditions," and the final scene was one in which he is now 5 inches taller than me and we discovered a new place to eat, where we could overlook the giraffes and rhinos. It was the first poem I had written since my husband died that was not overshadowed by grief; it was a simple moment of giving thanks for each of the vignettes of times we had had together there.  
I began to wonder if perhaps one of the ways out of the depths of my sorrow isn't gratitude, and I began a new poem that I called, "The Gate of Gratitude."  As I began to work on it I slowly realized that this was going to be a different kind of poem than I'd ever written before, undoubtedly longer, and "The Gate of Gratitude" began to seem narrower and more prosaic than what I started to envision. I wrote in October of 2018 that I was starting on the last section, but as I continued writing, and then my daughter Mary began to offer her critiques, I realized that I was writing an entire chapbook rather than just a poem.  The first time I submitted it to a contest, it was only 15 pages long.  That version was declined, and I am now grateful that it was, and the poem first became "Portal" which has many more variations in meaning than just a gate, and eventually evolved into "Portal of Light."  I then added an entire section that included a vision of a ziggurat, based on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Sennacherib's probably more historical gardens erected on a ziggurat and memorialized on some bas reliefs in an English museum.  
I was also studying the Song of Songs or Canticle of Canticles from the Old Testament.  I am embarrassed to say that I briefly thought of calling my poem "Canticle of Panicles," but fortunately quickly realized how ridiculous that sounded for a serious poem. My poem included many flowers beyond "a loosely branched inflorescence, especially a branching raceme" (The Free Dictionary). I was looking at Song of Songs as a canticle to both human and divine love and the contrast and intertwining of the two, particularly in my own life since losing my beloved husband.
I began just by checking with Mary to see that I had gotten the facts correct in my section on her year in Israel, but once she began to critique the poem, she took a much greater part in its formation, telling me that I needed to expand sections on several of her sisters as well as her brother, that I needed to add some additional poems about my beloved, from when we first met, until our last kiss.  I tried to get out of the emotional exigencies of these suggestions by making major revisions to a poem I had in three different versions describing a staging of Midsummer Night's Dream that he and I had seen that was groundbreaking and astonishing.
She told me that was not at all what she was looking for, and I wrote the additional poems, but we went through several additional meetings, when I tried to keep my poem, "Midsummer Night Nocturne," in the chapbook until she finally convinced me that it really didn't belong. 
I thought of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's comment that you have to murder your darlings. I didn't actually have to kill the whole poem; I submitted it elsewhere, but she was right that it didn't belong in the chapbook.  However, as I proceeded to write new poems and send them off to her, I realized she was challenging me to better writing, and to sounding deeper emotional depths than I had done before.  I finally sent the current revised version to her but with no sense that it's "almost finished" as I had each of the other times I sent her the whole chapbook.  Each of those times she would say she really liked what I sent her, but that I needed to write more, or change things, and we're still debating about whether the ziggurat section needs to come out.  This time I interwove it with verses from Song of Songs and new poetry, so we'll see if she comes back with minor changes, as I had expected in the past, or if she blows it all up again.  However, her comments are almost always so like arrows into the bullseye that I am extremely grateful to have such a knowledgeable and well-educated critic whose comments have always led to a greatly improved piece of work.  She has a unique vantage point as well, since not only does she love doing critical work but she also can speak as someone who was intimately involved in the narrative that runs through "Portal of Light."  Together, we are cracking open the chapbook to let in more and more light.

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