Processing the Process: A Cabinet of Curiosities

Guest Blog by Lissa Kiernan

I’m currently busy shilling my first collection of poetry, Two Faint Lines in the Violet, published by the wonderful Negative Capability Press. It’s fun. No, really! I get to do stuff like this, for example, in addition to my full time job, my three part-time jobs, and working on my next title, Glass Needles & Goose Quills: Elementary Lessons in Atomic Properties, Nuclear Families, and Radical Poetics, a book-length braided lyric essay.

In between, I pencil in dates with my husband while my cats look on, perplexed as to where the Brooklyn "kitty-spa" they once called home has gone.

I’m also trying to sell said home in order to move up to the Catskills to establish a physical presence for my business, The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative, a provider of online poetry workshops. But that's just the pretense. The truth is I've lived in New York City now for 30 years, and having been raised in the wide open spaces of northern Massachusetts, I’m craving space madly—specifically, horizontal space. If only I could lay Brooklyn on its side, I might be able to hold out a little while longer, though that isn't likely to happen, and even so, it would still be tight living. I want to raise a barn where we can hold residencies, readings, and retreats, and to sit outside at night and hear slightly more mellifluous sounds than sirens and the Mr. Softee truck.

Speaking of sound, I've been told that I have an unusually wide repertoire of voices. I used to lament this, thinking I had not yet found that one signature voice—“my voice”— a concept that gets bandied about often enough in writing workshops. But one thing I keep hearing from readers of Two Faint Lines in the Violet is how full of surprises they find it and, surprisingly, that makes me happy. One reader went so far as to call it a page-turner!

Since my book came out, some curious or perhaps simply polite people will ask me what it’s “about.” My go-to and perhaps evasive answer is that my poems are almost always about many things at once: cabinets of curiosities, composites of disparate experiences issuing from the throat of a composite persona.

Thematically, though, Two Faint Lines in the Violet is more or less a collection of volatility. The poems vary topically, but share an undercurrent of trouble. The wonderful Irish fiction writer Claire Keegan once advised me that our characters should always be in some sort of trouble, lest there be no tension. It’s safe to say this collection does not lack tension. 

The first part, titled “The Daughter Element,” is reserved for the parallel stories of my father’s developing and dying from complications of a brain tumor and the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant that practically operated in his backyard. While many of the poems in “The Daughter Element” are quite personal, because of the gaze more often being directed outward than in, I think of these poems as social. The second part, titled “Inseparable Elements,” holds mostly poems of intense interiority on a variety of highly-charged autobiographical topics.

Some particularly curious, or perhaps, particularly polite people go so far as to ask me about my process. That question’s a bit more difficult to field. A poem’s genesis, for me, typically begins with the Wordsworthian spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Despite evidence to the contrary (this blog post, for example), I'm a pretty private person, so I tend to keep my feelings tamped down until they inevitably surface in search of air, an outlet, expression—a condition my former mentor Jeanne Marie Beaumont fittingly calls “critical mass.”

Robert Frost said: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, a poem must ride on its own melting.”  Similarly, Richard Hugo suggests in The Triggering Town that a poem has both a “triggering” subject as well as a subject or subject(s) that the writer discovers along the way. All of these concepts could describe different "key frames" in my process.

The triggering event, however, need not be extraordinary; it might be as simple as something newly or acutely observed, or simply derived from a heightened sensitivity to a perceived change in my emotional temperature. After I’ve completed the first draft of a poem, that temperature seems to regulate to a point whereby I am no longer seized by the need to write a poem, though I am then likely to be obsessed by the need to edit it.

Suffice to say that when I start to write a poem, I’m usually trying to figure something out but I’m not even sure how to pose the question. But if, in the process of writing, I manage not only to formulate that question but also to answer it—even if the answer isn’t perfect or the one that I’d hoped to find—that's when poetry feels a little like magic.