the poetics of accident
Kristjana Gunnars once wrote how memory is more like a deck of cards, how one plays off the next in a sequence. I always think of it when I’m constructing a collection, or a long poem.
As one accident moves along against the next, filmmaker Robert McTavish, months ago, gave me a copy of Phyllis Webb’s Wilson’s Bowl, and got me going through Webb’s work much more closely. More recently, while looking for another lost book on my shelf (which still I haven’t found), I caught my eye instead on Webb’s West Coast Line festshrift issue, and was back again, in the midst of her poems.
Part of the joy of writing is the surprise of where it end up taking me, whether a title or a reference taking me to another title, even as little as a poem in a journal. Falling into the eventual work of the day.
A copy of Conjunctions: 21 (1993) I was lucky enough to find ten years after the fact in a dollar bin has been an essential text, and one I continue to return to, again and again. Called "the credos issue," it included a number of "credos" written by solicited authors, including Ann Lauterback, Simon Ortiz, Robert Creeley, Kathy Acker, Ishmael Reed, David Mura and David Antin. As Robert Creeley wrote:
In particular echo
of inside pushes
at edges all these years
collapse in slow motion.
The will to believe,
the will to be good,
the will to want
a way out –
Reading through the issue, it directly resulted in me starting my own piece, simply titled "credo," started on a Sunday around noon, waiting for Jennifer Mulligan to arrive, before we drove out to her niece’s third birthday party. I was only three couplets into the piece in my notebook when Jennifer’s car appeared outside my window:
not everything comes when its supposed to,
a feeling of open-endedness
three days threat of rain, just
sick of it when it comes
he holds his head & squints, william hurt
in until the end of the world
Later on, I was able to complete the piece rather easily, through the accident of going out to her older brother’s converted log house:
the metal windmill rusts the field,
& hasnt turned an age
the memory of tire swing
when hannah was three fingers old,
now three plus a day
strewn presents follow suit, yellow wrapping
in the yard
do not believe anything i tell you
we drive a drink past mulligans,
& it rains it rains it rains
(the entire poem lives here)
There are a number of pieces in the issue that have moved me in further directions, from a ghazal by Cole Swensen to a sequence of twelve poems by Thomas Meyer, as he wrote:
I have had this overwhelming feeling of open-endedness lately.
His poetry-prose sequences have helped trigger (among other influences, of course) a number of pieces since I discovered them, including the piece corrective lenses (published as a chapbook in 2004 by Bad Moon Books) and (with the help of a couple of Anne Carson collections) the poem "33 lines, a stolen phrase & a short apology" (included in the first issue of ottawater).
A poem is certainly a deliberate act, but one made out of accidents, random acts and the largest amounts of the unknown. Where else does the magic occur from?
In his collection of essays, Literary Occasions, V.S. Naipaul wrote:
It is the play of a people who have been cut off. To be an Indian from Trinidad, then, is to be unlikely and exotic. It is also to be a little fraudulent. But so all immigrants become.
For various reasons, it was a series of lines that immediately struck as overwhelmingly familiar, and triggered another few pages of notes for a book I’ve had in the back of my head on Glengarry county. Somehow so foreign, but how many ideas are so different once you boil them down to their particular essence? So far, the manuscript is no more than page upon page of scattered notes. It’s not ready to come together yet. It’s not the right time. I take notes and collect them. I wait.
The say the accident of invention, chocolate chunks falling into cookie batter by pure happenstance, and then "inventing" chocolate chip cookies. Where do we go from here? The forgotten bread that went moldy and the beginnings of penicillin.
I am not interested in mapping out entirely where a piece will go, whether poetry or fiction. I’ve always considered writing to be a collaboration between myself and the text itself, both of us having to let it go where it goes. For his Music at the Heart of Thinking (1987, Red Deer College Press), Fred Wah wrote of drunken tai chi, of learning to have control over the moves even with a lack of control. To let unpredictability take over, and thus make him a more formidable opponent. As he wrote in his introduction, "a critical practice that sees language as the true practice of thought." In so many ways, if I knew what I was going to write next, what would be the point in writing it?
Writing, as act of exploration and discovery. Don’t write what you know, George Bowering once said, write what you don’t know. It’s the only way you’ll learn anything.