The 'process notes' pieces were originally solicited by Maw Shein Win as addendum to her teaching particular poems and poetry collections for various workshops and classes. This process note and poems by Elizabeth Robinson are part of her curriculum for her class at the University of San Francisco in their MFA in Writing Program.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve made poems by way of a process something like “soaking,” though that’s not really an accurate descriptor for what happens.
Something incipient occurs or arises for me. It broods. It bides. I have so little time to write that I’m beginning to think that that one of the principal pleasures of writing is waiting to write. A shape, almost physical, grows. I might begin to register its particulars. A phrase that comes to mind while I’m walking. Vestiges of a narrative. A color, sound. Less often an image.
For over a decade, whenever I was not writing, stuck, I’d pick a word or idea at random. Say, “Krakatoa,” or “Only” or “Bitterness” and wait to see where the poem would lead me. How it would erupt through the skin of my consciousness. This became the book, Excursive. I think of these poems as mini-essays, disorderly excursions.
How long does a poem take to articulate itself? I can’t say. Sometimes the poem is ready before I am: I’m too tired; I have other obligations. The poem waits until it is an itch that must be scratched. Or a meal that must be eaten. Sometimes it waits until I have time to write it, but sometimes it doesn’t.
For some years, I would find myself obsessing about historic events or entities—bog people, the southwestern ruins at Hovenweep, women pirates, a Brazilian peasant uprising. How they came to me, I don’t really know. These poems looped around narrative, but escaped it. They had other work to do that retell a story. Somehow this became a book, too, called Thirst & Surfeit. I could never finish the manuscript because was sure that I would write something about mummification. I read about Egyptian and Incan mummies. But such a poem never happened and the manuscript took shape anyway.
Despite soaking with a poem or poems, I typically cannot anticipate what I will write. I like this. I write fast and then revise later. I like needing to be swift to track what’s already there even as it is still so elusive.
Lately I’ve been thinking about rhapsody and trying to write rhapsodies. There’s a switch that I can flip in my brain that urges, sound. It’s a permission that I don’t have in daily life and so I’ve been allowing and pursuing that, hoping that sound will drive me past a limit I haven’t transgressed before.
This pressure on sound is manifesting for me what I’ve always experienced poetry to be: an excess of presence. The lilt of the thing that exceeds what we can say. Ultimately, I think all art-making is uncanny, bringing into being what we thought didn’t exist before: an absence that animates itself until we knew it was there all along.
Time was a tumor in its very own landmass.
It couldn’t have been more intrepid.
Think of the tumor speaking in first person:
I climbed my own eruption.
I said, “Excuse me” when I vomited.
Time was a
contagion that forced currents against
their own grain.
projected my one, my central organ from the core of my body:
that is, violently.
That is, (intrepid) not the lung or heart, but the stomach.
Time was a countermeasure to civility: (Excuse me) infectious, Time says
I am the cancer
who ruptures the
atmosphere with fumes of extraordinary beauty,
who climbs the sky with an affronting blush while the sun declines.
As I am. Now at sea. I feign sleep. I do
not sleep. Slush of water
slaps over the bowed sides of the ship. Stowaway. Why
then do I feel the woody
grain of the gangplank swinging
underfoot. As I embark. Sleeplessness is
the parody of departure. Who
goes nowhere finds rest.
Restlessness. The water's
counterpane upheaves itself.
The stowaway awash, sleep-
less its tether to where
it wills itself and
Elizabeth Robinson is the author, most recently, of Excursive and Thirst & Surfeit. Two additional books are forthcoming: Rendered Paradise, written collaboratively with Susanne Dyckman will be published by Apogee Press. Being Modernists Together is forthcoming from Solid Objects. In the last few years, Robinson has received a Pushcart Prize and Editors’ Choice Prizes from New Letters and Scoundrel Time. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, the poet Randy Prunty.