(This piece was originally delivered as part of the panel “Yoga & the Life of the Writer” at the 2013 AWP Conference)
It was suggested—perhaps in a sly way to urge us to hit that sacred middle-mark of the AWP Panel between 5 and 10 minutes—that each of us contribute testimonials of 7 minutes or so; quote: “one minute for each chakra.” Coming to yoga practice as I have, which is recently and already invested in a practice of poetry, I thought what you might expect: “too bad about the seven chakras, six would have made such a swell entrance to the form of the sestina.”
This is just to say that I am coming to most of the teaching of a yoga practice through my understanding of verse. So that when it is suggested I might visualize a purplish ball of light, it is not at all unlikely I will think of Williams Carlos Williams’ icebox plums, sweet and cold. I don’t see this as a conflict. It is in translation altered but enriched. There are connections; obvious alliances: the way we are encouraged to take our poetry off the page, carry our embodied mindfulness off the mat. An implicit understanding that boundaries blur and that to begin a poem or a session is to begin again living the practice in that strange and arresting world of the moment.
I was once staffing a function at which the general consensus was that the best verse was that which could be recited with military vigor. After hearing C.D. Wright read from her impressionistic, liminal, experiential, imagistic, voice-heavy, Deepstep Come Shining an indignant audience member asked the poet an interesting and entirely impossible question: “So, if it doesn’t have to rhyme, then what is poetry?” I thought her response graceful. Savvy. It was not reactionary against one who wanted parameters by which to appreciate and condemn, but something along the lines of “I don’t pretend to have a definition, but I can tell you what some other people have said about the art of poetry.” She then presented an eclectic array of possibilities about how one—or many—might get at not defining an art. And what is “yoga and the life of the writer” if it doesn’t rhyme? If it is not simply this pose, this form, this collection of stressed and unstressed moments, how can it feed us or be made valuable? I offer seven non-definitions of the connective tissue:
In translation. It begins with breath, with which the history of poetry begins. It is the most basic. It is salvation. Inspiration is not a misnomer. So, thus, as a writer I cast back to that call from an outside source with which to work: my time on the mat is an act not of pure creation, but of translation. Chuparosa: the Spanish for hummingbird. Rose sucker. Does it hum or rose? Yes. The French have a word for the moisture created around inclusions in an omelet. I need that word but know it already in my body. What is found there.
Alice Fulton’s Feeling as a Foreign Language on the table beside my desk. She is gesturing at the content of poetry rather than form alone, that the correct form, rather than being debated for its external merits be the one that allows us to feel something. In a poem. Perhaps elsewhere.
Kathleen Fraser’s Translating the Unspeakable is on the table too. These titles resonate. They are next to each other and close in my mind to this project. And that vibrates. There is field poetics in this book. And in this moment. There is Charles Olson’s “the unit/ the smallest/ there is.” There is the concept that placement in space matters, that proximity matters and the slightest adjustment makes major cognitive shifts possible. I am speaking in analogies. There is the concept that placement in space matters and that the slightest adjustment makes major cognitive shifts possible. Adjust your shoulders, adjust your margins.
I speak to my beginning writing students of the embodied character or moment. I am channeling a bit—something that one of my instructors, Ron Carlson, was wont to say. When students became—and would complain of—(what they viewed as) “mentally exhausted” from the process of creating, Carlson would underline another possible aspect; would emphasize the relation between the actual etymology of “manuscript”—something manual, something built by the sweat of your brow. The connection of your physical body to an abstract concept. I, too, recall Carolyn Forché saying whether you ever go back to the notes you are taking for a poem that the jotting down of them physically, them passing through your body, changes you. It is not merely—and I mean ‘mere’ in the Yeats-ian sense: ‘mere anarchy is loosed’—it is not merely the life of the mind we engage when we write. It is clearly not merely only my hamstrings I go to the mat to limber up.
In a one-of-a-kind erasure book by Mary Ruefle, Now It, there are certain lines of a previous text uncovered or, in light of her technique of obscuring with white-out, left uncovered. One struck me particularly because it included a poetic noun that, like the nightingale, resonates almost prismatically, within poetry: Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking,” Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying,” Robert Hass’ “Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan,” Galway Kinnell’s “Blackberry Eating.” And yet it undid expectation: the un-covered lines were: “looked for blackberries/ else you would never find the strawberries.” A reaching to a known edge and finding something else beyond that is just as sweet, more vibrant: a new place within you, a new access, a greater access-point.
In a sculpture park outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan is a massive work by Mark di Suvero: Scarlatti. It is situated in an open field and it is—to my eye—doing a forward-bend of immense weight and gravity. Its nonfigurative, inhuman sits-bones thrust beautifully back and to a cool sky. But the wind is moving—almost imperceptibly, but perceive it—moving the enormous steel beams that are the childhood slash of stick-figure arms. So there is stillness and balance without rigidity. Make it new.
Finally, a line from Permission, an incredible forthcoming collection of poems by Katie Peterson: “The raven lifts/ like having to is part/ of what it is”