By Lawrence Raab
Featured Image: “Path Through the Fields from Momoyogusa-Flowers of a Hundred Generations” by Kamisaka Sekka
Many years ago—and I really don’t want to remember exactly how young we were—Stephen Dunn, a friend but not yet a collaborator, was traveling from New Jersey to Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. He stopped for the night at our house. During the course of the evening I recall bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t written a poem—maybe not even tried to write one—in over a year. I had writer’s block, I announced, as if it were an identifiable disease. I had not yet learned the wisdom of William Stafford’s famous—or infamous—remark that there is no such thing as writer’s block; all you have to do is lower your standards.
Of course Stafford didn’t mean you ultimately aim for less. You just have to give yourself a break to get started, and accept whatever occurs to you because “something always occurs” to us, as Stafford says in his essay, “A Way of Writing.” Let the act of writing carry you beyond your first inevitably dull words, to better words, better sentences that may give you access to something waiting in your mind “ready for sustained attention.” This is the writer’s daily work—put- ting some words down, then rearranging them, adding, then subtracting, looking for a shape, a focus, “the poem’s informing principle,” as Stephen Dunn puts it in his wonderful essay, “The Good, the Not So Good.” If that’s inspiration— and I like to think so—it’s earned by the work of writing, not given as a gift of the gods, like an autumn leaf fluttering down significantly on the poet’s head.
Those are some of the things I didn’t know when Stephen and I and my wife, Judy, were having dinner. “Writer’s block blah blah blah,” I continued. (I was about to spend some time at Yaddo also, arriving a few days after Stephen.) “Well,” Stephen said amiably, “when you get to Yaddo, do what I do—write a new poem every day.” I didn’t know Stephen did this; the idea seemed inconceivable, even appalling. “I can’t do that,” I declared. “Yes you can,” Stephen said. “But how?” “You just do it.” I knew that was true, but what a strange truth. You tell yourself to do it and you just do it. So I followed Stephen’s advice, and that summer we started showing each other a new poem each day. Over the years, we developed rules.
We could continue to revise a poem, but only for another day, to avoid getting stuck on it. Then a harder rule: a draft of the poem had to be done by lunchtime. Of course almost all poets need trustworthy readers, but we were compressing the process radically. After lunch we’d work more on the poem, play tennis, then have drinks and show each other what we’d done, then work some more, and maybe look at the poems again later in the evening.
At times what I’d come up with by noon was something I could see promise in, even believe was already a poem, shiny and perfect. Most often, whatever we had at those moments were pieces of language that were just beginning to assert their power over us, just starting to ask to be honored as “poems.” In daily life they would have found their way into the manila folder called “Notes,” and perhaps languished there. But in those weeks at Yaddo, it was all work in progress at its earliest and most perilous state. Later I often couldn’t believe I’d shown Stephen the incoherent mess I’d cobbled together that morning. But we learned how to manage these moments—Stephen and I—what to be particular about, what to suggest, and how to find opportunity in the apparently incoherent. “This poem,” I recall Stephen saying many times, “needs to make another move. Maybe halfway through.” “What sort of move?” I’d ask, and he’d usually say he didn’t know, it was, after all, my poem. “Just go somewhere else.”
Infuriating as this advice could be, it’s stayed with me as a writer and as a teacher. When you think you’re stuck, I tell my students, just go somewhere else. You believe your poem is about this beggar on the streets of Manhattan, but maybe he’s there only to take you to a different place. So after the line about his raggedy pants (or maybe before that rather pallid line) write: “Meanwhile, in Argentina . . .” Why Argentina? Because you haven’t been there. But if you don’t like South America, go to Paris, or back to the room you lived in as a child, the one with the monsters in the closet, the one you had to leave when your parents divorced, and you cried, or refused to cry—whatever truth the poem needs.
Yet how easy it can be at noon at Yaddo (or MacDowell, our other haven), and at such an early, tender moment in the life of the poem, to be dismissive, or know-it-all, or the opposite: too full of a kind of praise that hasn’t yet been earned, inattentive to the wildness the poem might only have begun to hint at. We learned to be appropriately critical, meaning helpful, respectful of the whole endeavor, but insistent as well. Maybe once a summer Stephen would read a poem, nod, and say, “Yes, you got it.” How much better my sandwich tasted after that!
That first summer at Yaddo after my “writer’s block” I wrote twenty-nine poems in as many days. Stephen probably wrote the same, maybe more. (Some- times he’d sneak in a really short one to make the numbers add up.) But it was good to be competitive, as is inevitably the case with Stephen. In the afternoons we played tennis. Stephen always won. Sometimes I’d suggest his victory was a sign that my poem that morning was better. He’d say it was my turn to buy a new can of balls for tomorrow’s game.
I think of this as “collaboration” rather than just “criticism” because of how quickly our poems would confront each other’s sensibilities, how much we would risk, and how much we would borrow, or steal, from each other. “You can’t write a serious poem about space aliens,” Stephen once declared, suggesting that what I’d done that morning was doomed. But I kept on and yes, Stephen finally said, “you got it.” Years later he also wrote a successful poem about aliens, which I was very critical of for a long time.
We’d try to make things harder (or more playful) for each other by coming up with assignments—some we’d both do, some were designed for the other person. Here are two short ones Stephen gave me a few years back: (1) Write the poem that can’t be written; (2) Write a poem called “Against Compassion.” I did both, the second ended up being called “Against Compassion,” and the first “The Poem That Can’t Be Written.” Here’s one assignment from the same group that I couldn’t do: Write a poem in which every fourth line obstructs where the poem appears to be going. Great assignment; too much math.
Sometimes, when we failed to get into a colony together, we’d find other ways of meeting for a couple of weeks. Once I rented a house outside Peterborough since Stephen had gotten into MacDowell and I hadn’t. Sometimes we’d email each other from home, making sure we responded as quickly as possible. For a while we sent each other lines from our own earlier poems that hadn’t worked out—to be used, changed, or ignored. Every so often I’ll see a poem of Stephen’s and think, Isn’t that a line I wrote fifteen years ago? It pleases me to wonder, as if it were evidence of another self I didn’t know I had.
We also published a chapbook of “actual” collaborations called Winter at the Caspian Sea, poems in which we wrote alternate lines, folding the paper over so that only the second of the two lines could be seen, in the manner of the Surrealists’ “Exquisite Corpse” game. Everything was done quickly, and no revisions were allowed; our motto, if we needed one, would have been Robert Frost’s “Play’s the thing.” Our aim was to allow for as many surprises as possible. The second collaborative method we tried was designed like this: Each of us would write four lies (and yes, that’s “lies,” not “lines”), one of which had to be more elaborate than the others, on an agreed-upon subject. We could use both lists, but we gave ourselves only fifteen minutes to write the poem. Why lies? To avoid the ordinary, to move the material as quickly as possible into metaphorical territory. One pair of these poems was about the sky, the other about silence. Here are the first nine lines from the two poems based on lies about the sky. From “Sky”:
At night among the stars we see
the ever-present animals and heroes,
which preceded us. The gods
we placed there have fallen,
and the sky is thinner now
without them, lighter than
an invisible hand. It’s amazing
we can touch it, that it’s as close
as it is far.
And from “The Other Side of the Sky”:
When God was waiting
to be invented, the sky
was thinner. You
could have touched it,
then turned away
without the fear of being seen,
to your father’s house
where everything was quiet.
In the chapbook we didn’t identify whose poem was whose. Reading them now I’m not sure. I like not being sure.
This was “play” and we kept it that way, while also believing that the beginning of any poem was also play. I want to give one example of an assignment triggering a more consequential poem. I know some of my assignments provoked poems from Stephen, but he’s too good at covering his tracks. So I have to settle for one of his assignments and one of my poems. This is from a list of six assignments he gave me in the summer of 2010 while we were at Yaddo. One assignment mandated the inclusion of Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin, and Glenn Campbell, and had to begin “In the secret, dark corridors of Cedar Rapids,” which, except for the specificity of Cedar Rapids, already sounded like a line of mine, and not a very good one (which Stephen probably knew). The assignment I finally completed was the most outrageously complicated of any of Stephen’s assignments over all the years (so far), and so intricate that I finally saw the only way I could respond to it was to steal it and turn it into the poem it already almost was.
First, the assignment: “Write a poem from the viewpoint of someone who used to be in love with an imaginary woman. Your speaker is only sure that he wishes to have power, wishes to control the terms of his life. His stutter, or other handicap, keeps getting in the way. You’ll need an adjective for bedroom, and an adjective that makes the forest he keeps returning to seem run-down, a kind of bad neighborhood. Then an adjective before ‘path,’ which changes the meaning of it. The imaginary woman should appear at some point, throwing everything into question. Think of your poem as an examination of an obsession, and perhaps the sadness of being cured of it.”
My poem is called “A Difficult Assignment,” and appropriately it was published in an issue of The Cortland Review devoted to Stephen’s work. I see now that I failed at the end to find the adjective that would change the meaning of “path.” In fact I never looked for it. The poem didn’t seem to need it. Perhaps the adjective’s absence is a secret sign of my resistance to the assignment’s authority. Or perhaps it’s something only Stephen and I—and now you—know is missing.
A DIFFICULT ASSIGNMENT
for and after Stephen Dunn
You’ll need an adjective for bedroom,
another that makes the forest you keep returning to
seem run-down, a kind of bad neighborhood.
Then an adjective before “path,” which changes
the meaning of it, as if you weren’t going to end up
where you planned. Or the opposite—
you can’t help where you’re going. And where would that be? It’s up to you, but remember,
in all of this you should be alone
although at some point a beautiful woman
must appear, throwing everything into question.
That’s when the false note rings true.
Maybe she has something to say about Cedar Rapids
or Muddy Waters. She’s imaginary,
she can say anything you want. Yes,
how much she desires you is one kind of beginning,
but another might involve looking carefully
at the flowers along the edge of the forest, asking her
their names, then suggesting you don’t care
where the path leads if that’s where she wants to go.
All that I’ve been describing—and there’s much more, since we’ve been doing this for over twenty-five years—results in making poems easier to begin and harder to finish. We each keep the other on track, changing the meaning of “path” as we go.
Lawrence Raab is the author of seven collections of poems, including What We Don’t Know About Each Other (winner of the National Poetry Series, and a Finalist for the National Book Award), The Probable World, and Visible Signs: New And Selected Poems, all published by Penguin. His latest collection is The History of Forgetting (Penguin, 2009). He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.
Originally appeared in NOR 11.