Keeping Track Of Ideas

There's no one best way to record ideas. Typically poets keep diaries, journals, notebooks or idea files. Strictly defined, a diary is a daily chronicle of incidents and thoughts. A journal is less rigid, allowing you to make entries only when you think you have something important to relate, remember or observe. A notebook is less formal than a journal, usually a spiral pad in which you sporadically jot down ideas for poems or important elements of craft. An idea file is a folder containing loose paper outlining ideas for future poems. Of course, a dairy, journal, notebook or file can be easily created on a computer.

In casual talk, however, poets use one word to refer to all of the above: journal. Henceforth in this text we'll use that word to denote "a place where ideas are stored." Think of your journal —a fancy store-bought diary or slipshod idea file —as a warehouse and design it to meet your needs and lifestyle.

For instance, I lack the discipline required to keep a diary a la Sylvia Plath, dissecting each day in longhand and basing poems on entries. (I admire poets who do.) Instead I jot down ideas on the nearest piece of paper.

Case in point: Once I won a poetry contest and received a plaque with my last name spelled wrong. I ripped a deposit slip from my checkbook and wrote: "Base a poem on the j in Bugeja and recount all the trouble it has caused you in life." I put the slip in my shirt pocket so I wouldn't forget it. Later at home I typed out this paragraph:

J: This letter kept me from the close-knit community of Italians in my neighborhood. Everyone knew Bugeja wasn't Italian because there is no j in the Italian alphabet. It's been my scarlet letter. Worse, my name sounds like bluejay with a silent I and an a at the end: boo-jay-ah. How to explain?

Underneath the paragraph, I mapped out what I thought would be basic elements of the poem:

• Include scenes from Lyndhurst, New Jersey.

• Explain that there is no j in the Italian alphabet.

• Focus on bluejay (or birds) as central image.

• End with understanding my name, Maltese (or Phoenician), a type of "song to myself."

Then I put the idea in a folder and let it cool for a few days, pondering the poem and holding back the urge to write. I do this because I want to visualize a work in my mind before putting it down on paper. Often I'll tell my friends or family members what I have been thinking about —a great way to sharpen an idea. If you're reluctant to speak directly about a topic, talk about feelings or images associated with it. For example, when contemplating the idea behind the poem "J," I didn't say, "I'm going to write a lyric about a letter of the alphabet and I want to run some thoughts by you." Rather, I asked my sister, "Did it ever occur to you that having a j in our name was a liability in Lyndhurst?" This way she could respond with some tidbit I may have overlooked. Meanwhile I had the benefit of focusing on my idea and envisioning my poem. Finally I composed several drafts, polishing lines, stanzas and the title (more on that in the "Tools of the Trade" section).

Here's the final draft of this particular poem: "J"

On the page, in the right font, It resembles a jay,

Swoop of the serif like a tail Guiding the ascender,

Quotations around the beak Vibrating the backdrop Of erasable bond, an endless Expanse of sky. My name has

A history, thirty years' war Fielding questions, teaching Friend and foe how to call Or curse me, lovers unable

To pronounce declarations, Rivals, vows of vengeance. Even my blood brother, The serious Sicilian, disowns me,

No "J" in the alphabet, Giacomo, A confused pigeon, as if paisan Opened the wrong coop, The homing sense lost,

So when I sing of myself, Nobody joins the chorus, Nobody hears the screech Bluejays make as they sully

Line or limb, preen a feather As I want to preen The scarlet letter from my name, Phoenician, phonetics of fate.

To summarize my system:

1. Write a paragraph about an idea for a poem.

2. Sketch out key elements of that poem.

3. Think about the poem.

4. Hold back the urge to write.

5. Discuss the poem with friends and family members.

6. Compose the poem.

My method seems very reportorial, perhaps because I worked as a reporter for United Press International for several years. As you can see, I jot down a story idea as a reporter jots down facts on the nearest scrap of paper. I sketch out a strategy to capture the idea, think about where to find information, and then "interview" sources for details. I

hold back the urge to write as if on deadline . . . and then get the job done.

This approach may or may not work for you. Perhaps you want to keep a journal like Dana Gioia's. Gioia had a busy career as a vice-president for Kraft General Foods, but that didn't stop him from writing poems and essays for publications like The New Yorker, The Hudson Review and The Atlantic. Now, as a full-time writer, he still uses several types of journals.

When I asked Gioia to share his methods, he wrote me, "I keep one notebook for prose ideas, one as a sporadic diary, one as a commonplace book of quotations (taken from books he reads), and others for poems and fragments." He adds, "If I were to share one notebook, it would be a little 5" X 8" binder I have. It's small enough for me to take along for a walk. It fits into my coat pocket. I jot down lines as they come to me. Or images as I notice them. Sometimes I'll even work out a stanza."

Gioia sent me pages from that spiral notebook and, reading them, one can see why he is such a powerful poet: He has a keen sense of perception. His journal enhances that gift. These phrases, taken from two sample pages of his binder, are printed carefully, with plenty of white space separating ideas:

. . . And one phone ringing down the hall the circle of mist around the moon like something dissolving in water the dark veined hand that you must learn to look on as your own and memory becomes a well into down which we whisper all our secrets and then hear our own voice answer back to us with lies.

the light exactly right, the water calm and leaning over the edge, we can see not only our own face which does not look away but patiently returns our scrutiny unashamed.

our own sad face which does not look away and from that moment that we realize that we are going to die

I studied these entries to see how Gioia captures his muse. Typically he focuses on the senses — ". . . And one phone ringing down the hall" —or combines a visual image with a simile: "the circle of mist around the moon ¡like something dissolving in water." He'll also explore metaphors — "and memory becomes a well" — in an attempt to articulate truth: "and from that moment that we realize/that we are going to die."

Reading Gioia's entries is like reading a long, disjointed poem that resembles a dream in which images and ideas meld into more images and ideas. Nonetheless, he claims, those entries in his binder seldom evolve into finished work.

"Someone might reasonably say that the book is largely a waste of time," Gioia observes. "I have noticed, however, that when I use this sort of book regularly I write more poetry."

Gioia believes that notations in a journal, however fragmentary, keep a writer's imagination open to more stimuli and help to focus mental energy in a creative manner. "One begins listening to one's own unconscious mind," he says, "and taking dictation. This sort of attention eventually creates the right attitude toward writing."

In addition, Gioia says, a journal is a practical tool for writers who have nonliterary jobs (as I did when I was a reporter and as he did when he worked as a marketing executive). "It gives poets something to jot down — momentary flashes of inspiration — so that they won't get lost."

Gioia knows that ideas for poems can strike at any moment. To record the unexpected visits of your muse, you may want to use Gioia's method to:

1. Keep the imagination open.

2. Set the mood for writing.

3. Catalogue ideas for poems.

As you can see, Gioia's system takes the pressure off the poet: It doesn't obligate you to compose, and yet you end up writing almost every day. Productivity is bound to increase.

"Sometimes years later," Gioia says, "I notice something looking through the book and suddenly a poem will start. I have given the imaginative seed enough time for it to germinate into a real poem."

Earlier I noted that you should design a journal to suit your needs or lifestyle. One of the most interesting adaptations I have seen is the journal of Martha M. Vertreace, an Illinois-based poet whose book Under a Cafs-Eye Moon (Clockwatch, 1991) has been widely praised because of the range and depth of ideas behind her poems. Her "journal" is part calendar, art catalogue, historical document and diary.

Her custom-made journal is, actually, a spiral calendar the size of Dana Gioia's notebook, featuring paintings by Vincent Van Gogh in the upper left corner and excerpts of letters by the famous Dutch artist along the top margin. The rest of the page is relatively blank, with seven horizontal lines to mark each day of the week.

At the top left, in her handwriting, is the salutation, "Dear Vincent," followed by a letter to her phantom painter about an idea for a poem (or a revision or some other artistic matter).

"I chose to address the journal to Vincent Van Gogh as a literary device to help me achieve some objectivity in evaluating my poems," Vertreace says.

She sent me pages of her journal that tell "the story of a poem, 'Oracle Bones,' " which she wrote and revised in the summer of 1989. An early entry in Vertreace's calendar occurs on July 4:

Dear Vincent,

Two strange, disconnected stanzas about ? perhaps home memories—I want more — perhaps [the poem] lacks a source of tension. [It] definitely lacks a source of tension. Interesting images. I like the line lengths. I think I will type it and tape it to the next page.

Here is an excerpt from one of those "two strange, disconnected stanzas":

Weekends I played with a cigarbox full of Betsy McCall paper dolls while I watched Flash Gordon's squadron of Mixmasters conquer piano-wire space:

or I followed my brother around the edge of Burrville playground our Little Toy Hunt — pennies, Cracker Jacks prizes, bits of yarn for a string ball — whatever survived the hot water bath my mother gave it. Two days later, Vertreace writes: Dear Vincent,

The version coming up is certainly longer—still only a catalogue of pleasant images — still no real metaphors. I am still not certain where I am going with this. . . .

On the next page, a new stanza appears containing more memories of the poet's childhood — "women ice skating/in costumes my mother/ would make" —and then another letter:

Dear Vincent,

This version still lacks a clear focus — a clear sense of direction.

The images do not seem to cohere — except in the ail-too general sense of their being memories — most of them — of childhood.

Three days later, the poet writes the painter another missive. Ver-treace has found a title for her work-in-progress, "Oracle Bones," and comments on the inspiration that she received after reading a book on the artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Then more drafts of the poem appear with commentary in her calendar. In all, it takes her about a month to finish the poem. Here is a portion of her last letter, dated July 18:

Dear Vincent,

I think I have reached the point of abandonment. The changes I made in the previous version are not that crucial —at least not in the sense of changing thematic drift. . . .

Writing about each substantial version forced me to slow down the process, in one sense, although I actually produced more versions, I think, than I would have, had I not done this. . . .

I found the process to be extremely interesting. By commenting on the versions, I was forced to confront the weaknesses as I saw them, and build on the strengths. I am convinced that inspiration is not merely a haphazard occurrence.

Let's summarize Vertreace's method, too. She uses her calendar as a journal to emphasize:

1. The power of imagination, suggested by the dialogue with Vincent Van Gogh — a good way to put distance between her memories and the concepts behind them.

2. The link between the visual and written arts, suggested by reprints of the paintings.

3. The evolution of a poem, from idea to final draft.

4. The importance of memory and the past, as suggested by individual days in the calendar.

All poets, in a sense, are timekeepers. They have to be or their unique ideas, like snowflakes, will melt and be gone. It's important that you record ideas for poems, but again, where you decide to record them is entirely up to you. Be bold! If you want to write a lyric about a maple tree whose trunk is ringed with carved hearts and inscriptions, but the tree is deep in woods along a trail, rent a camcorder and take a hike, videotaping the trail and the tree as you ponder your poem aloud.

Pick a method to suit your taste. The goal is the same: If you record your muse, you'll increase your output as a poet. You'll also become more aware of epiphanies and experiences.

Now let's preview the poems in the mini anthology:

• Dana Gioia's "The Silence of the Poets" contains a heightened moment of truth like those we've been discussing.

• Martha Vertreace's poem "Oracle Bones," mentioned earlier in the chapter, is included so you can see how that work turned out.

• You probably know Terry Anderson as the Associated Press reporter who was held hostage in Lebanon from 1985 to 1991. I knew of him as a competitor when I worked for United Press International and then, with millions of others around the world, followed his plight during his captivity. Upon his release I learned that he wrote poems and began corresponding with him. I've included one of those poems to underscore the points made earlier about highs, lows and turning points.

Additionally, it is interesting to note that Anderson never had the opportunity to keep a journal during those agonizing years. "We weren't allowed paper or pencil," he told me. To keep track of his poems, Anderson had to recite them in his head each day, a tedious process, because he always feared that he would forget his poems and ideas. On the day that two other hostages were released, Anderson was allowed one hour to write a letter. He did, along with eleven poems that he had created and memorized.

This dramatic anecdote only proves the importance of a journal, something we take for granted that helps preserve our experiences and thoughts so that we can share them with others.

Mini Anthology of Idea Poems

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