Yesterday I took David Shumate’s IWC class, “Following the Brush,” which was about where poems come from, how to cultivate the posture of the of the mind that invites them. We talked about the importance of letting your guard down in the first phase of writing a poem, messing around, not working toward a specific goals. "Think of yourself as a witness to the poem coming," Dave said. "Recognize that the poem has an intelligence of its own."
The early process is prelinguistic: impulse, image, development of a notion, he said. Not words. The proper state of mind is: I don’t know what to do with this. Let’s see where it goes.
“Follow the brush” is a Chinese term that describes this early process. The brush is the tool, the implement. It knows better than we do where to go. You have to allow the brush to emerge. This was a new term to me, one I like very much.
In this state, you are the “pilgrim of the poem,” a representative of the real “I.” The pilgrim disengages immediately from the “me,” allowing the pilgrim to discover vicariously what might happen. The pilgrim is utterly willing, naïve, stupid to go out on these pilgrimages in the first place. It disengages hesitance to let the “I” do things it wouldn’t actually down.
I like the idea of the poet as a pilgrim very much, too. And the idea that being in this state gives you entry to the territory of myth, where the ordinary world filtered through the prism of the imagination.
Early in the class, Dave asked us to describe where/how we get into the posture of mind that allows poems. I misunderstood, sort of, what he meant—and instead of describing my writing place, I tried to recreate how poems most often come to me (when they come, which I wish happened more often.)
Fall day, last leaves, yellow against the blue sky.
I’m sitting in a glass building, considering
where poems come from and notice a dog outside--.
red as the fallen leaves, straining against the leash.
A woman in a blue jacket—blue—hurrying after him.
It’s always blue that stops me. Blue moving
Across the landscape, becoming a poem.
Right now I’m thinking now about “blue.” The blue of the Italian paintings I love: the blue of the Madonna’s robe, the blue Italian sky. And “View of Delft.” Vermeer’s blue that captivated me for years. Early in the class, I said that when I write a poem it’s usually about something I want to own, to keep—but know I can’t. Looking at whatever it is the way I need to look to make a poem reconstructs that thing in my head in a way that makes me feel like I own it.
Which is, of course, what I’m always writing about: trying to keep, to hold something I love (a painting, a person, a time, a place). When the little poem (draft) came yesterday I thought it was the opposite of that: something totally random. Now I see it captured a moment that trigged a few thoughts about my own process that I wanted to keep:
1. Whatever blue is often delivers me to the posture of mind that invites a poem to come.
2. Dogs don’t need to write poems; they just are.
3. Which, (of course) paradoxically, puts the poet in the posture of mind that produces the brush to follow--then somehow, magically, become the brush herself.
4. Ergo: the poem on the page is made of who we are…when we aren’t.
These ideas aren’t new to me. But it was lovely to revisit them by way of a poet I deeply admire, such a delight to follow a brush that made them present themselves in a new
way--and carry me to the holy place that invites poems (stories, novels) to come.