I just spent a good bit of today with one of my favorite fellow practitioners of filidecht, Erynn Rowan Laurie. Furthermore, in a recent private e-mail, MT asked me what my poetic process is. And finally, in an entry on his own blog earlier today, Sannion said a little bit about his own writing process in discussing Musaeus. So, it seems it is time for me, before a six-day festival involving more poetry writing on my part commences tomorrow, to say a few words on what my actual poetic practice is and involves.
And, unfortunately (I suspect), this will not be as satisfying to read for many people and as useful for them in their own considerations as it might be for others. Nonetheless, here we go…
I have to admit, the first poetry I ever wrote was at age three, and I wish I still had it. I had a number of books at that age, even though I knew my alphabet but couldn’t exactly “read,” and even then I was an insomniac, and figured out that the best way to spend my time that I wasn’t sleeping was to look at books. I could remember the words on the pages and say them back with my mom when she read them to me from different books, even though I didn’t quite understand how the actual phonetics and morphology worked. (And I was angry that in kindergarten, a few years later, that they didn’t get right to all of that, and we had to waste all of this time doing things like counting beans.) When I was that age, I had a blue folder that was made of some very thick card-stock, and I kept it for a long time but didn’t put anything in it or write on it, because I wanted to save it for something special. Then, over the course of about an afternoon, one day I taped up the sides of it, and made some pictures on it, and also divided it into four sections (two on the front, two on the back, after it had been taped up on the sides), one of which had a “story,” another of which had “poems”–but, because I didn’t actually know how vowels worked, I spelled out “poems” as I had heard it, and as I had determined that consonants worked, so that it was “PLMS.” (Just sound that out for a moment and you’ll see how I approximated “l” to the long-“o” sound of “poems.”) I kept that folder for a long time…and I don’t know what happened to it later, but I never forgot it. (My mom did keep a lot of things we made when we were kids, but I can’t remember if that was among them…and if she did keep it, I’m not sure if she got rid of those things eventually in the course of various moves over the years, particularly the last ten or so in which she got rid of a lot of things I think she shouldn’t have…)
I wrote poetry throughout grade school as well at various points. Among a variety of incidents I remember in which I wrote poetry during those years, one in the fourth grade especially stuck out to me. I was sick a lot that year (I was out of school for almost a month at one point because of diabetic complications), but because I caught on to things very quickly, it often didn’t matter that I had missed school. (I did miss a few important things during those weeks, e.g. objects of verbs, etc.) But, when I came back, the class was just finishing up an assignment they had been doing for the previous week or so, which was “picture poems.” These were hung all over the room, and had some picture, and then a short verse going with them. I was a bit astonished by this, because the poems were crappy (and short! and DIDN’T RHYME!), and the pictures weren’t often that good, either. So, instead of taking this home, I stayed in for one recess and did three of them, each of which had a poem of at least four verses (that rhymed). One of them was about a tree; and I can’t remember the third; but the first one that I did, and the one that was the best and that the teacher read out in class after that, was basically about a killer whale that turned into a bald eagle and then into a panda bear and then back into a killer whale. Okay, so kind of stupid when you look back on it, but I was going for that “black & white” on “land, sea, and sky” theme…and yet, for a fourth-grader who had been gone for a while, and exceeded what everyone else in class had done in a much shorter amount of time, not too bad.
I also wrote poetry at various points through middle school and high school. The really big time for poetry, though, was probably my senior year of high school, where I made a book of twelve poems at the end of the year for one of my English classes, and earlier in the year, when we read Dante’s Inferno, and were assigned for that unit to write about three “sins and punishments” in essay form, I said “Screw this!” and wrote a poem in broken terza rima (i.e. three-line verses, first and third lines end-rhymed, but the middle line was “anything”–because the English translation of Dante we used by John Ciardi had that as its format and the teachers didn’t know what proper/full terza rima was) that was 1,675 lines long on about 75 pages. While it was not necessarily my “best” work ever, it was rather interesting in its own right for a variety of reasons, and the first time I cut my teeth on long narrative poetry. I did that a few further times in college also–though some of them were (and are!) much better than that initial attempt. (I’ve been kicking around the idea of putting out one or two more of them that are already written in a short book or two in the near future–anyone think that would be a good idea?)
In college, I initially went thinking I’d be a fiction writing major, but after a year of fiction writing, and some bad experiences, and the best advice from my second-semester teacher arriving rather late in the semester (i.e. “write poetry instead”), I took poetry from my second year through my senior year. Having to write poetry on a regular basis, and then have it evaluated both by a class workshop and by one’s teacher was a good exercise, particularly in Oxford when I was there for a year, because it was only me and the professor in an hour- (or more!) long conversation each week, with reading I’d done in addition to new poetry I’d written. The best year, I think, was the final year, because my professor that year had us use class time for craft matters, i.e. learning about things like different poetic forms, the importance of rhymes, meters, word choice, verbs, punctuation, and other more abstract themes like “truth” and so forth. I felt like I got a lot out of that, and that the two “chapbooks” (which weren’t actually published, but they took that format) that I produced those two semesters had been some of the best poetry I’d written up until that point. I’d say some of them still rank pretty high in terms of my overall quality of craft and poetry is concerned.
In some of my other classes as well, I wrote longer creative or poetic works, too. At the end of first semester, as I had my final conference with one of my teachers (for the course “Sacred Theatre of the Middle Ages”) for whom I had written a long Chaucerian poem (and an essay about it and about the phenomenon of “continuations” generally), as well as an additional Canterbury Tale in the form of a quasi-play, he said to me, “You’re an excellent scholar and you do wonderful research, but you’ve really got the soul of an artist in your poetry–when you get to graduate school, what will you do?” Since he was himself a playwright as much as an academic (though an excellent teacher no matter what!), I could tell he knew a kind of kindred spirit when he saw one, and I appreciated, and still do appreciate, that recognition that he gave me in simply saying that. (Incidentally, the course I took with him was the one in which myself and Lady Yeshe Rabbit of Come As You Are Coven met for the first time and became friends!)
Then, during my M.A., I wrote exactly one poem, I think, as part of a reading journal that I had to do for one of my classes during the summer between my two years. The rest of the time, I was so focused on doing research and more and more and MORE reading for my thesis, and almost anything and everything else–including some of the most trying personal and spiritual experiences I had up to that point–that there just wasn’t a lot of time for poetry, unfortunately. I also revised an earlier poem, and wrote a kind of “sequel” to it, and got them published in the university’s poetry magazines each year I was there, but I didn’t count those as particularly significant events.
When I graduated from that program and moved away from Spokane in early May of 2000, and then attended the first Skagit River Poetry Festival that year, and saw some of my old teachers and friends in poetry, I came home from the festival and wrote more poems that night, and in the next two weeks, than I had in the previous two years.
I should have learned my lesson with that, because then when I went to do my Ph.D., I likewise didn’t write very much poetry. (Though I did complete one long poem I’d been making notes about for many years, in the hopes that it would be one chapter of a much longer work…but, it works pretty well as a stand-alone piece at this point, and is one of the ones I’d consider putting out as a book eventually.) Sure, I’d write something now and then, including (during my first year in Ireland) a truly pathos-inducing country-type song about someone I loved but couldn’t tell, but not a great deal of it was very good. I’m sure I still have most, if not all, of it in notebooks somewhere, but there wasn’t a great deal that was spectacular.
That is, until I met Antinous and started in his cultus. Then, poetry and other creative writing matters happened relatively easily. And, likewise, I was studying filidecht and steeping myself in the Irish tradition around mythology, law, culture, and custom at almost every point.
And, though it’s by no means required, I also happened to visit Blarney Castle, and kissed the Blarney Stone a total of twice while I was there. Just sayin’. ;)
At some point during all of that work, I think I finally got the figurative crack on the head (and/or in it) that took all of those years of formal training, of writing, and of practice and turned it into imbas forosnai, or the turning of the cauldron of motion and the eventual turning of the cualdron of wisdom, or what-have-you…though it took another few years to really make it pour fourth in the way that it has ever since.
I’d write things for Antinous (and some other gods) occasionally, but not as much as I have over the last few years, by any means. Then, when I finally graduated, and tried to send out a collection of my (non-spiritual) poems from the last 12+ years to a chapbook contest, and didn’t even get an acknowledgement that my entry was received, I kind of thought perhaps my days as a potential poet were at an end.
And then in early 2008, I wrote “Artemis and Lykastos” after a dream I had. I entered it in a poetic agon, and won. I sent it to the Artemis devotional anthology as well, and it was included therein. And a short while later, Sannion said to me (I can’t quite remember if it was through an oracle or not, though), “you should do more of that.” So, between just before Megala Antinoeia and the Venatio Apri of 2008, I wrote the 50+ poems that would be the first half of The Phillupic Hymns, and then between May 15th and about June 9th, I wrote the 50+ more, plus the translations and other things I’d written for Antinous in the previous six years, and that was my first book of poetry.
The Triads of Ireland give the “Three Things Required of a Poet” in Irish tradition, and thus that list is as close to a curriculum of the practice of filidecht as one can get, in certain respects (apart from all of the syntactical tracts and such that were also taught!): imbas forosnai, teinm laedo, ocus dichetal do chennaib, which translates as “great knowledge which illuminates, cracking the marrow, and speaking from heads.” The way that I have understood these three things for a long time is “inspiration, interpretation, and improvisation.”
Inspiration is that thing which you can’t predict, but which I think you either have or you don’t, on a longer-term basis, and once you’ve figured out where your imbas forosnai comes from, or how to tap into it, it just happens. In the context of filidecht, it’s not something you have with the substantive verb, .i. an “accidental” matter, it’s something you have with the copula, .i. an “existential” matter. And once you have it, if you have any discipline or devotion at all, it comes easily and quickly and can be controlled as easily as unstoppering a vessel and pouring it out.
Interpretation is the scholarly part of filidecht, the part which requires a poet to know not just poetic meters and forms, but also laws and literature, myths and genealogies, and really anything and everything else under the sun. By knowing all of these things, one then has the discernment to recognize them, and the gods and spirits and other things that might be involved with them, in any given situation. You can be asked almost any question possible and be able to make a poem arise out of it as a result. It is also the use of poetry to answer questions, as Finn mac Cumhaill often did: the answer is revealed in the course of writing the poem.
Improvisation is also really essential in all of this, and is what makes it possible to write poems at the drop of a hat, literally. The best ways to prepare for a situation where improvisation might need to occur is to remember formulaic linguistic usages, phrases and words of power, potent but recognizable images, and also any number of other things, including funny events and phenomena, and having the imagination and the quick wit in order to string all of this together (plus the results of both inspiration and interpretation) on short notice to create something new and different out of what is old and recognizable.
And, dear friends, that’s how I approach my devotional poetic writing these days–I rarely (if ever) do “personal,” non-spiritual or non-devotional poetry at all any longer, and in fact I think that’s one of the reasons why I am able to do this kind of writing “easier” and “faster” and in such a greater volume than just writing poems that arise from the more personal motives that seem to be the trend in a great deal of modern poetry, both in writing programs and amongst the poets that are getting published.
I wish there were more to say on that than there is, but that’s how it seems to work for me.
I’ll often get the hint at a line or two, and may work it over in my head for a few days until I know what to do with it.
And other times, I’ll get the hint at something of that nature, and then sit down and write “The Orphic Hymn to Antinous” or “A New Isis Aretalogy” over the next few minutes after it. Moments like that are rare…
But, other times, I’ll simply sit down and say, “Today is the _____ festival, which is dedicated to the deity/hero/spirit/etc. _____,” and then I’ll choose a photo to go with that entry on my blog, and in a matter of anywhere from ten minutes to an hour I’ll have a poem about it. That kind of process is far more common for me than the previous types, where I start from nothing with only intention and a vague subject or dedication in mind. But, in all of this time of writing in that fashion (particularly over the last few years with this blog, but also since 2008 with The Phillupic Hymns), I have rarely if ever ended up with a poem that I thought was a complete dud–in fact, perhaps two or three times has that occurred, but otherwise I’ve found there to be something useful or good in almost every poem. (Your own thoughts on that may vary, certainly!) As it has been going that way for a while, I will continue to assume that it will do likewise, and will change my thoughts on that when it no longer does, and adapt from there.
And while I already said this previously, just to reiterate and draw some further conclusions: I suspect that one of the reasons that I am able to do this, though, with that amount of relative ease, and just being in the practice of “sit down, write poetry” is that because I tend to only write poetry these days that has a religious or directly devotional subject matter and intended usage. If I were to get into the habit once again of writing about personal things, I don’t think it would be as “easy” as it often seems. In the sense of “sacred” as “set apart,” my poetic writing abilities have thus been “set apart” for sacred purposes specifically, and just like using one’s ritual offering bowls for one’s morning cereal diminishes them, so too would using my poetic skills to write poetry that isn’t for the deities and other divine beings and purposes be a misuse of it, at least for me, at this point in my practice (apart from the occasional praise poem for a patron or other benefactor–I am a fili, after all, and that, as well as satire, also comes with the territory).
So, there we are. I had not intended this to be overly long, but I’ve just written over 3,000 words on the subject. Go figure! ;)
I’m happy to discuss any of the above further, though, and to answer any questions you might have on all of this. But now, I must get some sleep–I have the first of six installments of a poem to write tomorrow for Floralia, and I already have a few ideas in that direction!