Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The House of Words, no. 33: Luisa Igloria on daily writing practice

The header to Dave's "The Morning Porch."
From a detail of "Paper Garden" by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Earlier in the series, Dave Bonta talked about his "accidental" collabration with Luisa A. Igloria. Here the poet and professor discusses her ongoing morning-porch project. Luisa Igloria's ninth and most recent book is Juan Luna's Revolver, winner of the Sandeen Prize (Notre Dame, 2009.) Visit her at her website--and visit her Morning Porch poems and their inspiration via Via Negativa! Luisa was born in Baguio City, the Philippines, and now lives in Virginia, where she is director of the M. F. A. program at Old Dominion University.  She is the mother of four daughters.

Addendum, 12:20 a.m.: I can't resist adding a link to Luisa's latest Morning Porch poem: there is the beggar queen of The Palace at 2:00 a.m., dreaming on her throne of words. And very fine she is, too! Thank you, Luisa!

From having read the fine poetry that Dave Bonta and Beth Adams gather into each issue of qarrtsiluni journal, I have some familiarity with their blogs and websites, and so I’ve visited Dave’s microblog The Morning Porch before. But in a lull just before Thanksgiving last year, I read Dave’s November 20 observation of a pileated woodpecker inching up the trunk of a locust tree “like a pawl on an invisible ratchet”  and I thought: what a cool image, what a cool word-- pawl-- and immediately I wanted to turn it into a poem. It’s been about a hundred and fifteen days since then, but what’s happened is that I’ve been writing daily poems in response to Dave’s The Morning Porch observations. I really didn’t intend for it to turn out into the daily “devotional” that it seems to have become, but now I’m thoroughly hooked.

What I’m happiest about is how I’ve incorporated it into my daily writing practice, and that the simple rules I’ve set for myself seem to work well in terms of getting me to that place of focus and attention where there is the potential for making poetry happen. My rules are: I don’t have a fixed time for visiting The Morning Porch to read the latest line Dave’s written. But when I do, I try to respond immediately, without premeditation, composing as I go. I try not to belabor what I find in the starting “trigger”-- because I don’t see myself obligated to respond via a form of poetic reportage. What happens instead is that the bit of image or language that first catches my eye or ear, meets what I bring to that moment (a combination of many things- what I may have been reading or remembering recently, what kinds of questions I might be asking that particular day). Finally, I try to do all of this in thirty minutes, forty max; I feel that if I go over this time limit I set for myself, I will be belaboring the whole enterprise too much.

For instance, Dave’s TMP observation on January 28 was “The silence of falling snow. When my furnace kicks on, the three deer digging under the wild apple tree startle and run down the slope.” When I read that, the first sentence, “The silence of falling snow” coupled with the image of “the wild apple tree” had a certain beautiful gravity that felt-- and sounded-- almost biblical. The wild apple tree and the three deer digging also made me think immediately of medieval tapestries, rich with illustrations of plants and animals. From there it was a short leap to recalling stories in bestiaries like the Physiologus. It has these famous animal allegories like the one of the unicorn which only lays its head upon a virgin’s lap, or the phoenix which immolates itself and then rises from its own ashes on the third day; or the pelican that gouges its own breast to feed its young its own blood. I also recalled the famous engravings that Pieter van der Borcht had made of some of these stories, and I refreshed my memory by looking at a few online images. The one I mention in the poem, of the lion and lioness breathing upon a stillborn cub in order to bring it back to life, spoke urgently to me perhaps because some of the difficult questions I am living at this time of my life involve pondering what it means to be a parent, what it means to struggle with raising children with difficulties; pondering what our (my) individual choices have brought to bear on our particular dynamic as a family. All of these came together quite rapidly in the composition of the poem, which I see now is just another form of asking the questions which I continue to grapple with on a daily basis. I don’t-- or the poem doesn’t-- necessarily answer these questions. But there is a certain kind of release in being able to confront them even briefly in this form. The quote from Aquinas that I use as epigraph is something I thought of later, after I’d written the poem.

Intercession

“Adoro te devote, latens Deitas,
Quae sub his figuris vere latitas…”
["I adore you devoutly, O hidden God
truly present under these veils..."]
—St. Thomas Aquinas

The silence of falling snow perhaps is like the hush
that lives somewhere in each moment of great
preparation: as for instance in Pieter van der Borcht’s
medieval copperplate engraving, when you would not know,
unless you read the captions, that the fierce and terrible
mangled faces of the lion and the lioness are from
their desperate expenditure of chi so that their stillborn
cub might live— under the gnarled cypress and rock,
see how its body writhes, stretching and coming to at last
under the double blowtorch of breath. And what of the meal
that the pelican gathers for her young from the cabinet
of her own breast, bright speckled clusters of blood from
the vine? Feathers fragranced with cedar, the phoenix
bursts into flame then crests from its ashes on the third
day; the unicorn comes to lay its head on the virgin’s lap,
and the foliage glistens like a page of illuminated
text. Orpheus knew, afterwards, the dangers of looking
too closely at the silence, of doubting what it might bear.
Think of him ascending from the depths, not hearing
her voice or footfall, not seeing her face. This morning,
also by myself, I bend to attend the furnace’s smolder.
Three deer digging under the wild apple tree
in the garden startle and run down the slope.

The poems that come out of my engagement with the prompts on The Morning Porch do not all have the same tenor. That’s perfectly fine and really to be expected. I’ve really preferred the recklessness of not having a really fixed subject to guide me into the writing. After all, poetry is about “the ineffable”, isn’t it? Some of the poems I’ve written are the result of little happy accidents, like misreading. For instance, on February 4 Dave’s TMP observation was “Dim sun. Trunks and branches still sheathed in ice glisten, surrounded by duller companions like glitterati on the streets of New York.” Perhaps I was hungry, or my glasses need cleaning, or I needed more coffee-- whatever it was, I read “Dim sum” and the result was the (I guess) food poem which I’ve copied out below--


Dim Sun, Dim Sum

Dim sun, your soft
floury edges today
make me think of steam
clouds under a wicker basket,
pillowy mounds of dough
pulled into a pucker
atop sweet or savory buns…

Let the glittery icicles
on twigs and branches trade
their hard-edged, fishnet-
stockinged gossip above us all,
here at an oilcloth-covered table
in a little hole in the wall
where the air is fragrant
with ginger and scallions
and dark plum sauce.

On March 14, Dave’s TMP observation was “Scattered snowflakes wander back and forth like lost souls. I watch one explode against a branch of the dead cherry. The croak of a raven.” That morning, before I visited TMP and before I started working on various tasks at my desk at the university, I was looking at some of the photos on various news websites from the earthquake-devastated towns and cities in Japan. I was particularly riveted by the photograph of a woman weeping, surrounded by broken beams, pulverized concrete. But beside her, inexplicably, neatly lined up, there was a pair of cherry-red rubber boots. And I wrote this poem, where I re-imagined the “croak of a raven” in Dave’s original post as an elegy listing the names of really more than a thousand dead:


Landscape with Red Boots and Branch of Dead Cherry

In a photograph, a woman sits on her haunches
amid a sea of debris. Her feet are bare. A pair of red
rain boots caked with mud perches neatly at her side,
the way they might rest in a parlor. The sky is the color
of rain, the color of heaving things: water a wall
surging over highways, toppling cars and beams
and lorries. The past tense is already active here—
fields have lost their stenciled borders; there’s little left
to read in maps. Above the burning cities, snowflakes
scatter, wandering back and forth like spirits. I watch
one explode against the branch of a dead cherry.
Croak of a raven making the shape of a thousand names.
*

Which is to say, after these examples, that inspiration really comes from many disparate sources. What I try to do in these daily encounters at Dave's The Morning Porch, is to keep myself open, limber, and receptive to the organic totality of all that may come together in the creative process. I think that this is the way most of us work, anyway-- one handhold after another, feeling our way toward that scent, that sense, that feeling which first enticed us with the idea that it might become a poem.

Norfolk, VA; 10 April 2011

16 comments:

  1. Hello Luisa. I am inspired by your inspiration, and have admired your poems on Dave's website. Your description of how they are written amazes me, but I too enjoy a good exercise. When I teach poetry writing, the few times I have been allowed to do that, I do the exercises I give my students.

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  2. Robbi, thanks for the good words and for taking time to comment. I try and do that as much as I am able, with my writing students too (do the exercises I give to them)!

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  3. Dave Bonta,

    If you come by, can you leave a list of other "short posters" like Lucy Kempton's "Out with Mol" that might be inspiring for people? Might be some who like the idea of what Luisa had done and would like to experiment with trying something similar. I found one on your blog from a while ago but now can't find it again.

    Luisa,

    You are getting lots of traffic...

    Robbi,

    I think you will have time this year for more writing: have fun!

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  4. Marly, I have a short linkroll in the footer of The Morning Porch, "Other micropoetry and microessay blogs," which I'd encourage people with an interest in literary microblogging to check out. Most are haiku sites, though. Jean Morris' Trail Mix is a particuarl favorite in the microprose category.

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  5. Ah, I see it--though I think what I saw earlier was a post or maybe a really long comment.

    Just this week I suggested that a novelist friend of mine who is being encouraged to blog but doesn't have time look at "Morning Porch" and "Out with Mol." Good to have that list so visible.

    And anybody who wants to try Luisa's method can take a look through the list and perhaps find something interesting!

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  6. Daily encounters and openness--that is what leads to new words and new thoughts.

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  7. Exceptionally wonderful insight into one talented woman's creative process. Thank you, Luisa and Marly, so much for this! I read it over lunch and got gravy on it. Will print it out again and keep it.

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  8. Luisa, I admire so much your commitment to writing daily poems (which I did for a time in grad school, inspired by some of my teachers; the closest I've come since then are the years when I've written a poem a week, but that's hardly on the same scale!) and I really love what arises in you in response to Dave's morning porch entries. Thank you so much for your work.

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  9. @Jean - Good thing you printed it else you might have gravy on an iPad.

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  10. Hannah, Jean, Rachel and all -- thanks so much for your heartening words! Jean - hope the read was as tasty as lunch with gravy :) xo

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  11. Luisa has had a lot of hits and some interesting comments--thanks for coming by, everybody! I'm sure many more will trickle by in time to come, as this is just the sort of post people find helpful or curious or inspiring, with or without gravy!

    If you're a passer-by or Luisa-visitor and new to The House of Words, please take a look at some of the other essays by Dave Bonta (lots), Hannah Stephenson, Peg Leon, and many more poets and novelists.

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  12. I love Luisa A. Igloria.

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  13. Love this, Luisa - your response is a poem in itself! Thanks for sharing, Nic

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  14. Good to see the Pot Boy putting in an appearance!

    This shed a lovely light on Luisa's series and how she works, without in any way lessening my wonder at the achievement.

    Thanks both!

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  15. Thank you, Lucy!

    I am being kept down. In the scullery.

    And nobody ever asks for my advice anymore. I don't see why not, really.

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  16. I really enjoyed reading this, Luisa; thanks for sharing this approach (and your poems).

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.