Drawing From Experience

When I speak at writers' conferences, I ask participants to do an exercise that generates ideas based on life experience. On a piece of paper, poets make a list of the high points, low points and turning points in their lives.

For instance, my abbreviated list looks like this:

1. Left home at sixteen.

2. Studied to become a musician.

3. Lived and worked in Salzburg, Austria.

4. Married at nineteen.

5. Divorced at twenty-five, no children.

6. Father died of cancer.

7. Met Diane Sears and married again.

8. Our first daughter is stillborn.

9. We have another daughter, Erin Marie.

10. We have a son, Shane Michael.

More than half my poems are based in some way on that list. You can almost tell by the titles of my books: What We Do for Music (about studying to be a musician), The Visionary (about losing a child), Platonic Love (about romance and relationships), Flight from Valhalla (about Salzburg), and After Oz (about family, faith and all of the above put into mid-life perspective).

When I was starting out as a poet, I composed my list and then thought about specific incidents related to each event. I tried to assess what I had learned from each encounter. I wanted my poems to be honest. As a reader of poetry, I knew that the best work of great writers was not based on mere description or observation but on epiphany or peak experience.

Let's define the two:

1. An epiphany is a moment of truth in which your mind seems at one with the universe. (In fact, I think what we mistakenly call the muse really is an epiphany that electrifies our mind.) During such times you realize something sublime or solve a critical problem in your life. Everyone has such moments: You wake at 3 A.M., bolt up in bed and proclaim: "Now I know why he (or she) left me. He never wanted a partner. He (or she) wanted a parent."

2. A peak experience is a moment of truth in which your body seems at one with the universe. Typically, an athlete feels this way after winning a race or while scoring the winning point. Many people experience peak moments after a triumph of some sort: finally doing a backflip or a difficult dance step or surviving conflict with another person, animal or even the weather. Almost all of us have experienced the most cliché of peak moments after a romantic encounter —our first kiss, perhaps, or a more intimate contact. You wake at 3 A.M., bolt up in bed and proclaim: "I never knew I could feel this way!"

Epiphanies or peak experiences usually accompany highs, lows and turning points in our lives. As you contemplate yours, ask yourself what you learned from each encounter and draw on your experience to express truth in the tradition of great poetry.

Let's look at my list again. This time I'll cite specific incidents along with epiphanies or peak experiences:

1. Left home at sixteen.

Incident: Being attacked in Florence, Italy.

Epiphany: "I have to survive now on my own."

2. Studied to become a musician.

Incident: Auditioning at the Mozarteum.

Peak Experience'. "My fingers express feelings."

3. Lived and worked in Salzburg, Austria. Incident: Living on the same street as Mozart. Epiphany: "I'm starving to death."

4. Married at nineteen.

Incident: Having a wedding at Mirabell Palace. Epiphany: "We don't love each other."

5. Divorced at twenty-five, no children. Incident: Claiming a no-fault divorce. Epiphany. "We're both at fault."

6. Father died of cancer.

Incident: Being stoic when he died. Epiphany: "I have lived up to his expectations."

7. Met Diane Sears and married again.

Incident: Telling her about my first failed marriage. Epiphany: "She loves me in spite of it!"

8. Our first daughter is stillborn. Incident: Trying to imagine her alive. Peak Experience: "This pregnancy is mine."

9. We have another daughter, Erin Marie. Incident: Holding her outside watching the stars. Epiphany: "She has taken away all my pain."

10. We have a son, Shane Michael.

Incident: Holding him for the first time at delivery. Peak Experience: "My God, you look like me."

To give you an idea of how this method can result in verse, I'll reprint a poem based on event number six in the above list:

SNAKE, ROCK: A POEM I CANNOT WRITE I turn it over in my head As a boy turns over rocks a hundred times To find the snake. I chip it as a man Chips a rock at odd angles for the gem. I get neither reptile or ruby, merely a glimpse Of snake, a fossil —a place the poem just left Or lay so long it lithographs the stone,

A eulogy: how simple to leave it there, A poem — sure — but not the one about my father Dying. The dying part is easy: he phones me At work to rasp what Mother claims is love, A word we never use. The setting's wrong; I am neither poet or professor, but reporter Doing markets on deadline, barrows and gilts,

Up a quarter, or down. I put the phone On hold, punch another line To hear the rasp a mother has to translate, And then hang up, a wrong number In the hour of numbers. It delays me Only a minute, and I return to the markets With a peace I will not know again:

Somewhere here lies the poem, replete With symbol, metaphor, and irony — Everything but place, and time maybe: This is the best I can do. Don't hope For an ending. Don't ask me Who was the snake in this matter, Who was the rock.

It can be argued that all poems, in some sense, come out of our own experience because they come out of our bodies and minds. Yet sometimes I may observe an event that doesn't quite have an epiphany or peak moment, but I still want to base a poem on it. Perhaps the personal aspect of such an event would seem self-serving or trite or overly sentimental. In sum, I have yet to fathom the idea behind the poem and need to do some research.

When that happens, I visit the library and often come away with new insight so that I can complete the work in question.

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