A conversation with Sage Cohen
author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry
As the holidays approach in a down economy, Sage Cohen proposes that poetry can provide a meaningful way forward. Author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, Cohen sees poetry not just as an art form, but a way of life. Following is our conversation about the possibilities of poetry today.
It’s the holiday season. Why poetry? Why now?
In today’s economy, many people are seeking alternatives the typical holiday spending frenzy. The good news about hard times is that they challenge us to find creative new ways to give, share and create meaning. Poetry can be a powerful instrument for conjuring such alchemies.
These days people have less cash than usual. How can poetry help?
Poetry can’t change our bank statements, but it can change the way we think about wealth and prosperity. In fact, it is my lifelong relationship with poetry that has taught me that income is one thing, but prosperity is frequently something else.
For example, a few years ago, I heard Mary Oliver speak. She reported that a critic of her poetry complained that she must be independently wealthy to have so much time to lie around in the grass and ponder nature. This made the poet laugh, because the critic was reporting in an underhanded and confused way about a truth that Oliver tapped into long ago: the act of lying in the grass and listening to the world IS wealth.
The truth is, we don’t need to go anywhere special to tune in to poetry. Our lives are already inundated with sensory information that is the raw material of poems. All we need to do is slow down, pay attention and write down what moves us, intrigues us or stirs our curiosity. This does not require an inheritance or a 401K. It simply requires a willingness to welcome the abundance that is already ours, and to follow the golden thread of language wherever it leads us.
What poetry can give us is something far more valuable than money could ever buy – it gives us ourselves. Poem by poem, we write our souls into existence. Weighted in words, the spirit that animates us becomes palpable. By the same token, each poem we read offers a small window into the human condition, in which we may better recognize some glimmer of our own being.
The world seems to be falling apart around us. Why should we be focused on poetry when it can’t help change anything?
You’re right; poems may not stop the clubbing of baby seals, domestic violence, child trafficking, dog fighting, genocide, conflict in the Middle East or whatever it is that feels most difficult on any given day. But as the motorcyclist must lean into the turn to prevent a fall, poems become a kind of machinery of transport, giving us a context for leaning into the pain that we meet and safely navigating through it.
My father always said, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” And poems are the treasures that can be exhumed from those undesirable experiences. Just think all of the great, poetic opportunities for understanding that lie coiled at the heart of every mistake, heartbreak, disappointment, and regret.
What if you were to literally look to your poetry practice as a way of moving through what pierces you to the core? What injustices might it help you examine unflinchingly? What epicenter of pain or grief might it help you enter and consider? How might you relax into the universal truths of divorce, death, intolerance, and change, and make a poem offering that illumines these truths with compassion?
How do you recommend that readers get started with their holiday poem-making?
I always remind people that their ordinary lives will offer more than enough source material for poetry. The following exercises are designed to get folks mining their own daily experience to see what inspired thoughts and language might be awaiting them below the surface.
1. Choose an activity you do regularly that is the absolutely most routinized, unremarkable event of your day. (Mine would be doing dishes.) Write down the answers to these questions about it:
• Notice the physical feeling of this routine. Which muscles are involved? What kind of rhythm or tempo does it involve? Are you cold or hot, energized or depleted?
• How do you feel emotionally when you do this?
• What are the smells associated with this activity? (I use lavender soap, so my sink smells like a French garden.)
• What do you see when engaged in this routine? (I look out at the butterfly bush and magnolia tree in my back yard. I enjoy watching meals erased from plates and glasses.)
• Pay close attention to your thinking. What images and ideas bubble up as you are doing this activity?
• How does the time of day or weather or location (indoors vs. outdoors, your home vs. someone else’s home, summer breeze or snowfall) affect your experience?
2. What wildlife, plants and trees do you see out your window at home, at work, or en route? What do they look like, feel like, sound like? What are their names? What are the visual cues and references in your home and/or workspace?
• Make a list of the 20 things you come into contact with most.
• Write down something else in the world that each of these 20 things remind you of. For example, the red teapot reminds me of the robin red breast. The worn wood of the mirror over the sink reminds me of the door to Grandpa’s barn. The curlicue pattern on the silver platter makes me think of storm clouds.
3. Think of someone you see regularly in passing but do not know well, like your mail carrier, barista or neighbor. Write a poem that imagines what their life might be like:
• Who do they love?
• What have they lost?
• What do their pajamas look like?
• What are their aspirations?
• What do they eat for breakfast?
4. Explore your holiday archives:
• What was your biggest holiday surprise?
• What holiday is most meaningful to you and why?
• Who do you yearn to see during the holidays?
• How has Santa (if you have a relationship with Santa) satisfied you and let you down over the years?
• What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened around the dinner table with your family at holiday time?
• What outfit comes to mind when you think back on past holiday celebrations?
This should give you a foundation of source material to start playing with. Circle a few words or phrases that interest you, and let those be the kindling for your poetic fire.
Don’t know where to go next? Freewriting can be a useful way to take your ideas and language a little further into the realm of the poetic. Set your timer for 10 minutes, sit down with your notebook, and keep that hand moving across the page, no matter what, without stopping, for the entire 10 minutes. You’re not trying to be brilliant here – just to get loose and let words start coming without thinking too hard. The more you practice, the looser you’ll get. And the looser you get, the more your language will surprise and delight you.
I’d like to send readers off with a thought about poetry and holiday cheer
Egg nog, move over. Rudolph, there’s a brighter light guiding our sleigh tonight.
I’ve never experienced any holiday cheer that rivals the state of grace that poetry invites into our lives. That is why I often give poems I’ve written as holiday gifts. I print them on pretty paper, place them in an attractive frame and presto – the most treasured holiday gifts I’ve ever given only cost me the time I spent creating them.
Try it! You just might get hooked.
Wishing you all a peaceful and poetic holiday season.
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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World (Queen of Wands Press, 2007). An award-winning poet, she writes four monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Sage has won first prize in the Ghost Road Press poetry contest, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and been awarded a Soapstone residency. She curates a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. To learn more, visit www.sagesaidso.com. Drop by and join in the conversation about living and writing a poetic life at www.writingthelifepoetic.typepad.com!