Information Sheet # 109

October 28, 1997


by Sarah Lindsay

[This article by Sarah Lindsay, daughter of Charles and Phyllis Lindsay, appeared in the September '97 issue of Sky. Sarah's book of poetry, Primate Behavior, is one of five finalists for the 1997 National Book Award in Poetry. She gave a public reading of her poetry on Thursday, October 30, at 4:00 p.m. in the Perrine Gallery.]

"I shot the Albatross," my father said. He said it well, too. He read us "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" one night, and that's the line I remember, in his voice. On another night, memory tells me, he declaimed, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Poetry was part of the privilege of growing up at our house. Some of the best came disguised as Bible verses. Some was for special occasions, like the evenings Mom put me on her lap and read Longfellow. (For laughs, she could also do a dynamite recitation of "Barbara Frietchie.") But it came from less formal directions, too, like Dad's Weavers records or the local children's theater productions, which were introduced--welcome to Iowa--by a dancing ear of corn. And one of my favorite bits of verse still is Dr. Seuss' "Oh, save me from these pale green pants / With nobody inside!"

So you want to write poetry. Speaking from my own experience, which is the only one I've had, the first step would be 1. Grow up with poetry. Or maybe just 1. Grow up in an atmosphere with lots of interesting words. Or possibly 1. Be raised by a math professor and a French teacher who are interested in just about everything. See that they leave lots of books lying around the house.

Next, 2. Have good teachers. My third-grade teacher, Karen Hughes, encouraged me to write. In fourth grade, we had Virginia Black for music class and memorized poetry while we thought we were only singing. My fifth-grade language arts teacher, Anna Pavlovsky, was old-fashioned and stern and scared me--but she also imparted to me the most remarkable news I'd ever heard: A poem doesn't have to rhyme. Seized with liberated inspiration, I wrote a dreadful thing that, sure enough, didn't rhyme, and it was an honorable mention in a state contest. That's the kind of encouragement that shapes lives. Better yet, though I didn't think about it at the time, for the duration of a few lines, I had heard in my head a verbal rhythm that wasn't ta-dum, ta-dum.

I was a lousy dancer and an indifferent pianist, but I knew something about yielding to a rhythm. My mother once found my sisters and me on the floor by her typewriter holding up black sheets and chanting in canon: "CAR-ter's, CAR-ter's / carbon paper carbon paper! / CAR-ter's, CAR-ter's / Made in USA!" Even some of the letters Granny wrote from Tennessee had a ring to them that could only come from putting the words in the order they liked best.

Rhythm turns out to be one of the ways to make an unrhymed poem more than prose with line breaks. I'm partial to dactyls these days (a stress pattern similar to waltz time), probably because I used to over the familiar iambic pentameter. I like variation--maybe two seven-beat lines followed by a four-beat line, and a last line that ends with three strong strokes, like the last hard steps a child takes to stop after running down a hill. Several years ago, I began to feel that the rhythm came first in my head while I was writing, and words hung themselves on that unreeling line. Illusion or not, that's when I began writing some poems that don't embarrass me.

3. Listen. In seventh grade, I wrote a little piece of congealed sap on "why books are important to me" for a library contest and won a copy of Carl Sandburg's Honey and Salt. A couple of years later, I actually read it, and sure enough, his poems didn't rhyme. They weren't Keats or Shakespeare but something I might aspire to imitate. "Sit with your eyes shut / and your thumbs quiet as two / sleeping mice," I read with satisfaction, but I didn't; I snuck into the attic or behind the water heater and wrote bad pseudo-Sandburg.

Step 4 is probably optional, but you might try, as I did, 4. Fail to acquire good social skills. This frees up a lot of time to hang around the house alone. Meanwhile, 5. Develop an abject fear of boredom. Properly fostered, this can substitute for or even evolve into--dare I say it?--discipline. At any rate, it drives you away from the rerun of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" to your desk (or behind the water heater). Or at least it keeps you mumbling over ideas while you're chopping rhubarb or mowing the lawn.

6. Write a lot of stuff. For everyone's sake, a veil of oblivion shall be drawn over the novels I wrote in my late teens, as well as the so-called poems. But, to freely adapt one of Werner Heisenberg's principles of physics, in order to write good stuff, one must write bad stuff. Besides, it's good exercise. You have to get used to the writer's cramp (sorry, this is the '90s, repetitive stress injury); you have to build up those little bumps on your brain that are the language-lifting equivalent of muscles.

7. Have more good teachers. Janet Nussbaum took my eight-grade poems seriously enough to offer actual criticism. I'm still learning to take it, but at least she got me started.

In the wonderful Paracollege program at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, students get to have tutors and design tutorials. (They even get to be called "tutees.") This explains how I obtained respectable college credit for writing more bad stuff. And early in the process, fortunately, tutor Marcella Taylor simply asked me, "What contemporary poets do you enjoy reading?" Ummm...8. Read contemporary poetry. Later on, John Graber gave rousing tutorial speeches, which may be summarized here as 9. Learn the rules, then decide when to break them.

For example, just now instead of proceeding to No. 10, I present 8a. Do something besides read poetry. Relying for inspiration on other people's poems is like trying to make an omelet with scrambled eggs. You need raw material.

I get a lot of mine these days from reading nonfiction. I read and read, and most of what goes into my head is beans, but a few of them are jumping beans. So I jot a note on one that jumps, and when I feel ready to write something about it, I wash dishes for a while and take more (damp) notes. Then I take the notes to my desk, where they effectively mess up the blankness of the legendarily terrifying piece of blank paper that awaits me, and start writing, and if I get stalled, I pick dead leaves off the begonia.

No point in trying to analyze what makes particular sentences jump from a book--The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Bone Hunters in Patagonia by J. B. Hatcher, The Life story of the Fish: His Manners and Morals by Brian Curtis--as long as they do. One poem, for example, hatched from an offhand comment by Cherry-Garrard about a penguin nesting on an empty Dutch cheese fin.

But I digress. On to 10. Mingle. Strictly speaking, you don't have to show your poems to anyone. But finishing a poem is like waking from a dream, and few human urges are stronger than the urge to tell someone about the dream you just had. (Almost as strong, alas, is the urge to avoid being that someone.) I arranged to satisfy the urge by enrolling in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro creative writing program, where Fred Chappell gave me a lot to think about and Bob Watson and Tom Kirby-Smith each politely asked, "Why don't you try writing about something else?" (Ahem. 11. Write about something besides your own feelings. Or write sneakily about your feelings by way of writing about something else. If you're in it for self-expression, why not just holler out the window?)

Various others who craved continued mingling formed a small group that met on Thursday nights to discuss whatever poems they had brought along. Attending helped me develop two useful habits: wanting to write one new poem a week and drinking herb tea.

12. Be insanely lucky. You've worked hard and long. What about publication? One thing that worked for me was the flu.

I was scheduled to give a reading in February 1984, but when the time approached, I was home with a temperature, hallucinating about a seal at the foot of my bed. The reading was moved to April. Teo Savory, who always skipped winter readings because of her arthritis, attended the spring one. She and her husband, Alan Brilliant, the founders of Unicorn Press, thereupon asked me to submit a manuscript for a small-edition chapbook. They accepted it and subsequently hired me, too.

Luck later nudged me into the job I have now; my chiropractor's wife told me about the opening. As a copy editor, I get paid to read, and to read in a way I never had before: asking myself with every word, "Is this right? Is this clear? Does this sound good?" Gradually, I found that I was rewriting my own stuff thoroughly and thoughtfully--not a claim I'd been able to make before.

I meant to stop at 12, but what the heck, 13. Rewrite. Only God gets everything right the first time.

Last year, luck took the fine literary form of "the kindness of strangers." I did my bit by submitting poems, again, to The Georgia Review. This time, two were accepted. (I laughed. I cried. I bought myself an octopus brooch.) Kay Ryan, a poet in California who didn't know me from Australopithecus, read them and sent them to poet and editor George Bradley, who wrote to me on behalf of Grove Press requesting a manuscript. (I laughed. I cried. I panicked. I spent the summer on the floor shuffling piles of paper.)

Reader, they accepted it.

Lassie's Left Eye

Lassie's left eye, rumor has it, was given to science;

the right one, at some charity auction,

went to a mystery bidder for thousands of dollars.

(Or maybe the other way around.)

So what was their last sight, the crocodile going for Timmy,

or the canine fleshpots of Hollywood?

Stupid questions pass the time

as he drives around Lincoln County for med school money,

harvesting eyes from people who died at home.

Like, is it true the retina keeps

a print of the last thing it saw?

The car picks up speed down bony old hills full of snakes,

four eyes jiggling behind him in the cooler,

and he wishes Bluebird Hamilton or Junior Sims

would pull him over, and have to look--

let their greater disgust wipe his away.

He left the faces closed and looking peaceful;

they don't have to wake to any more surprises.

Good thing only the corneas are transplanted,

what if a retina recipient blinked

and saw the heavy green flank of Mr. Fee's tractor

rolling onto his chest, or every time

he shut his eyes it was Mr. Story's nurse

pointing a spoonful of mush at his mouth like a dagger.

He drives the back road for a change, but outside Pearl

it's nothing but slow vines taking down houses,

and what if he skids off the curve beyond Coldwater--

he'd like to see Bluebird's and Junior's faces,

supposing they couldn't help but notice

the back walls of his two eyes and all four in the box

glowing with the robes of Jesus.

This poem sprouted from a vague memory of one of my handsome cousins, now a doctor, telling us what he was doing one summer, something about harvesting eyes. The setting is the Tennessee country where my father grew up, and I tried to get some of the storytelling rhythm that I heard when we visited there every summer, ending with the rhetorical flourish of the Sunday morning sermons. --S.L.

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