Sunday, March 14, 2021

CROSSING THE FINISH LINE

For two years I've been hammering away at a poetry chapbook. I changed the title several times, and it has lengthened from 15 pages (the version I sent to a chapbook contest, which I am glad it didn't win) to nearly 50 pages.  It had begun with a poem I wrote about our son, which was the first poem I'd written since my beloved husband had died, which didn't have the shadow of my grief cast over it. I thought that my gratitude for the times I had spent at the Wild Animal Park with our son throughout his life was a good entry point for the new life I was trying to create for myself as a widow. At some point, I decided to ask my daughter Mary, who had been an English major and who had started to work for a Ph.D. at UCLA, to look at what I had written so far.  At another point, I decided to include some quotations from Song of Songs (or Canticle of Canticles) in the Old Testament. Mary took her "assignment" very seriously and began giving me some in-depth critiques of what I had written. She suggested I take out some of the poems I'd included. In the beginning, I resisted many of her ideas, but as I began to trust what she was saying more, I started to listen and then act upon what she recommended.  Then she told me that I needed to expand a section about one of her sisters. Next, she commented that I should write another poem. After I did that, she told me I should write one about meeting and falling in love with my husband. That was bittersweet and difficult to write, but she was right. I thought of adding some other poems I'd written, but she pared those down.  Then she told me to write another poem about my husband's death.  I rebelled then, but eventually gave in. She kept adding to what I needed to write, and in the background, we had a running battle over the ziggurat which I had made the central structure and theme of the whole chapbook, which she kept telling me I needed to take out.  As I added more of the layers that she had proposed, I could gradually see that the ziggurat was in fact out of place; some day it may be its own poem, but I had to deconstruct it out of the chapbook, and set a more biblical scene, primarily Jerusalem.  She gave me a few more poems to write and I wrote one of them.  Then she told me I still needed to write the other one she had suggested. I countered with the fact that the "Way of the Cross" was implicit in the poem I had written about the Biblical scene set on the road to Emmaus, but she kept pushing me on the second one.  Finally, the day after I had my second Covid vaccination, and she gave me flowers to celebrate what one of my grandchildren calls my "Super Power," I sat down and started to write "Via Dolorosa."  It started as many of my poems do, as a tangle of lines thrown on the page just to get my ideas down, without much rhyme or rhythm or structure.  My ending image involved a window, but I couldn't seem to make it work, and I wasn't getting anywhere with rewriting the whole poem.  Finally I mentioned to one of my coaches that I was thinking of actually asking Mary to give me some advice on the poem before I'd proceeded any further, which was contrary to how I have worked on any of my other poetry. She encouraged me to go ahead and call Mary, which I did as soon as I finished my call with her.  I read the last bedraggled lines of what I had so far and explained what I was trying to do with the window.  She agreed that the idea of the window didn't work. I asked her if I should use a door.  She paused for a moment and then said, "What about a portal?"  Since the title of the chapbook is "Portal of Light," it was as if she had turned a key in the whole body of work and it illuminated the direction I should go.  I started with the end of the poem, which I also have never done before, and reworked it from there.  I set a timer for 20 minutes so I wouldn't be overwhelmed, but by the time it rang, I was immersed in Kairos--that sense of time out of time--and I worked steadily for three hours and had a completed poem at the end of it.  I emailed it to Mary, and later that evening, received her response.

I was so excited to see this email- I was telling Elizabeth earlier how amazing it has been to watch how quickly you have been writing one challenging, compelling poem after another during the past year.

What is so great about this is not just bringing the title into the poem explicitly, but also that this poem also is the moment where we see the colliding of the two worlds, 2 types of poems- personal and biblical for the first time.

I think congratulations are in order- I have some minor recommendations for this and your final poem, but every piece is in place- no more poem assignments! This is so exciting to see it all together at last. I am so impressed with the way you were willing to write, and rewrite, and let go, and write more, and let go of more.

And we can celebrate this weekend in person!!! Hurray!!!!

We can be together this weekend at last since I have been fully immunized against Covid. We have been waiting for over a year to be able to work on our scrapbooks together, and she told me a few days later that it was my persistence in having her work on her album with her photos from her year in Israel that helped her in looking at the parts of my chapbook that were set in Israel as well. So it looks as if we are drawing into a great celebration of this chapbook collaboration, and can cross the finish line together at last!


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