Where Poems Begin

On September 22, I began writing my way through Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. My computer wouldn’t charge no matter the electrical outlet in the house. Without computer access, my notebook to document writing process had to be suspended, so I downloaded the Google Docs app and started making poems on my iPhone.

This compositional shift in format suggested a new form to me: the book-length poem. There are no page breaks in Google Docs, so I felt inspired to leave them out of my Suzuki Roshi project.

What the more immediate impact was for my poem-making was its orientation toward dailiness, the content of my present moment, as opposed to the transcendence of my notebook. Because I carry my phone, I found it easier to compose on the go. The poem, therefore, followed me everywhere. The positive consequence of this was my poems expanded to include the stuff of my life, my kids, our mealtimes and bedtime routines. The negative consequence was my time with them coincided with my effort to write them. That is, I lost my ability just to be with my kids without the pressure of rendering them in language.

A word more about this rendering: My language while reading Suzuki and Google Docs composing prioritized precision. The poems shrank, each word assuming greater weight. Eastern minimalism, at its best, is suggestive: Evokes much beyond what it says. At worst, it tends toward mysticism, placing too great a burden upon the reader to create meaning.

Just the right juxtaposition can set off an explosion. If not, it just falls flat. I begin the manuscript in medias res:

Home from school
hysterical to go back to school
for his tow truck,

Theo thrashes in my arms
toward naptime
and holes up in his carnival
tent of blankets.

Clipping my fingernails
over the rail of my back deck,
I notice his 1997 Ford
F-150 in the scrubby grass
among the clippings.

There it is: enlightenment in the day to day. OK, but I realized the reader would be left out because of one very important missing piece of information: The F-150 used to be Theo’s favorite. Now the tow truck is. So, boxed in, I had to add the title, “yesterday’s favorite,” and out the window, from the get-go, went the book-length poem idea.

Going back to the point about the dailiness of poetry, I began to feel ill at ease with the commonplace, almost cliché aspect my poetry began to assume: Were these poems, these fragments of family life? Gone were my mornings of quietude and contemplation in which I used to listen, just listen for the Word. Now there was no Word and words fell everywhere about me: Everything was enlightenment, Zen, nirvana. So nothing was. In an bottomless single page of text, who knows what to single out, capitalize, demarcate, or highlight?

What I have returned to is the realization that my efforts to write my life can undermine my ability to live it. Which, ironically enough, is the antithesis of Suzuki Roshi. Noting, too, that he was no poet, I find much in his discussion of zazen to parallel my writing practice: He seems well aware that no person in the real world can sit all the time as I know no one can write all the time.

My emphasis on mimesis ultimately overshadowed the things I wanted to imitate. Returning to language in the early part of each day, on the other hand, satisfies my creative requirement and relaxes me so that I can go about the rest of my day in a calmer, more mindful manner.

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