Friday, May 29, 2015

What I'm Reading: "The Question of Originality" from Nine Gates by Jane Hirshfield

79º ~ in an early summer pattern of looming humidity and days that heat themselves into thunderstorms ~ two rescued robin chicks nearing fledgling status, thriving, a win for human intervention with cruel nature

Dear Reader, I confess I have been in a state of suppressed anxiety regarding writing. Each May this pattern repeats itself, and so I should learn to "let it be," and yet, each year I succumb. By this I mean that after the spring semester (I do not teach summers), I become enthused by the idea of "writing time" and I make clumsy efforts at drafting. I tend to scribble in my journal in fits and starts until I become a wee bit despondent, believing that I've "lost that loving feeling" of being able to write anything that resembles a poem.

However, no matter the stress of the journal, I'm always reading. Reading in itself can present a another type of stress as I've got loads and loads of new books, along with older books still waiting to be read. I have long believed that sometimes we aren't ready for a book, no matter how much we are determined to either enjoy it or learn from it. Later, the book will find us when we are ready, and usually when we've forgotten the book entirely. Such is the long-winded introduction to my reading today.

I've had Jane Hirschfield's Nine Gates for years, and I've read and learned much from a few of the nine included essays, but only a few. In fact, until this morning, the book was free of marginalia (evidence that I've truly read a book). This book surfaced as I spent a bit of time in the past two weeks thinking about my new job in the fall. For some of my teaching load, I'll have the opportunity to teach more advanced creative writing and poetry students at the University of Central Arkansas, offering me time for deeper discussions about writing/poetry, so I've been pulling books that might prove useful off the shelves.

But, back to this morning. I flitted. I flapped. I wrote a really crappy draft of something I can't even call a poem. I started a load of laundry. I turned to my stack of books and grabbed up the Hirschfield, flipping through the book, and pausing for just a moment to enjoy the smell and the feel of the pages falling from my left thumb as I held the back cover in my right hand. Without even thinking about it, I started reading when the book fell open to the second essay "The Question of Originality." Shazam. This essay touches on my struggle to return to the page, as it explores what it means to try and create an "original" piece of art, in this case, a poem.

Hirschfield begins (and returns to many times) the idea of the physical body as being itself original. She opens the essay with this question: "how does a poet enfold into language the singularity that marks each living creature and object of the world and also those works of art we most admire?" (uhm, oh that's easy, right? no sweat, hah!) So while this is an essay about attempting to write original work, it also touches on the idea of inspiration and what fills up the well (or the compost heap) from which writers draw. Perfect.

In discussing obstacles to originality, Hirschfield mentions "the fear of self-revelation," talking about how much a writer risks because society tells us to be polite and kind and to embrace the white lie rather than telling the truth. However, the best works of art tell the truth (if slantly). The risk we take in putting our thoughts/imaginations on the page is that of failing to please others, failing to fit in, failing to protect our loved ones from the truth, and a "failure more minor: boredom, triviality, confusion. Risking seeing that we are lesser beings than we had hoped." Oh, god, that last one is a killer. Yet to create something new, we must risk, we must dig for the truth. According to Hirschfield, in order to find this truth, this inspiration, we must embrace a self-imposed solitude, as well as a self-imposed awareness and interaction with the world.

Here, I realized how difficult it has been for me to truly embrace solitude when I've come to the desk each morning. To embrace solitude means to turn away from the computer and the smart phone, and, for me at least, to turn off the music (even instrumental music). I am one easily distracted by the buzzing of the clothes dryer, by the insistent mewling of the hungry cat, by the coffee gone cold at my elbow in need of a zap in the microwave. Time and time again, though, I refocused on the page (keeping a running list by my right hand of "to-do" items as they popped into my head in an attempt to distract me). This work of shutting out the world and focusing on the page brought the reward of Hirschfield's thinking, revelations & questions.

In describing the work of apprenticing one's self to the page, Hirschfield describes the practice "that muscles the tongue with words as a dancer's barre work muscles her legs and back with movement." Yowza! I want to have a "muscled tongue"!!

Some other gems:
"Originality can be hunted. Concentration's deep attentiveness; permeability to accident; persistence; curiosity; a wide vocabulary of outer and inner worlds -- these are just a few of the ways. Playfulness and rebelliousness help."

"Learning to trust the possible and to accept what arises, to welcome surprise and the ways of the Trickster, not to censor too quickly -- all are lessons necessary for a writer."

"Attentiveness may appear to be empty and passive, to be nothing at all, yet under its gaze, everything flowers."

"Originality lives at the crossroads, at the point where world and self open to each other in transparence in the night rain."

"If we demand change too insistently -- in art, or in the self -- something grows stubborn and digs in its heels."

Poetry poses "again and again a question that cannot be answered except with our whole being -- body, speech, and mind. What is the nature of this moment? poetry asks, and we have no rest until the question is answered."

And so, I will return to the desk with renewed attentiveness and a restored belief in whatever's coming next.


Kathleen said...

I love Nine Gates. Glad you are reading it!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, K.