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Sometimes my students lament that they are tired of writing about the same subject over and over – their recently dead mother, their sorrow over a divorce, or something as simple as their obsession with violets or a rose. “Surely you are tired of hearing the same old poems about the same old things from me,” they say. “Surely, I need to switch topic or my writing will get stale.”
“Your writing grows stronger with each passing class session,” I’d tell them, “and don’t call me Shirley.”
In a workshop a few years ago, a poet, I think it was Natasha Tretheway, told us, “Trust what is given to you to write.”
Writing is built from obsession. Our conscious mind, or our unconscious mind, latches onto something, and we need to pursue it; we need to figure it out. Sometimes this can be pleasurable; sometimes it can feel stifling, but if that is what keeps coming up in your writing, it’s a beam from your mind’s lighthouse trying to get your attention. You can ignore it, or try to work around it, but, in the end, it’s probably better to just surrender. Your obsessions have something for you, and the only way to find out what it is, is to walk the path forward.
As Matthew Zapruder puts it, “Give me any prompt you want and within two lines I will be writing about my mother.”
I just finished Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets. It is a 96 page poem about the color blue. Of course, it is also about sex, and religion, world travel, and things I cannot even explain.
A Whale of an Obsession
Once, I started a poem about whales. I couldn’t wrestle the thing out of the poem, yet I couldn’t seem to bring it to life either. The whale was determined to keep whatever secret whales keep from us when they hide under the water like that.
Summer passed. I knit scarves made of blue yarn. I walked from one end of the city to the other, looking at the sky for answers until the stars came out, hot and purple. I thought the blue of heaven was a mirror to the blue of sea. I thought the night sky would tell me something I wanted to know.
Spring. I went to work with a blue whale lodged in my throat. Shuffle papers. Open the blinds. Tried to ignore that feeling, so heavy in the gut. The weight of some word unsaid.
In the Ancient Egyptian myths, the God Ra has many names. We think of it as just the one, RA, but it is many. The name of Ra as rain. The name of Ra as river. Ra when he is the sun. Ra when he is growing the wheat. But Ra also has a secret name; one name to rule them all. And that name nobody knows.
There is a story about another God who kills himself trying to wrestle the name out of Ra.
That is poetry.
Even on our mundane days. Doing the dishes, walking into work, strangling the little silver breath out of the keys. I am always two people – the one who is thinking about the secret name of Ra and how to find it, and the one who shows up to work and brings in the mail.
How to Get Rid of a 300,000 lb. Obsession
Sometimes I made vows to stop writing about whales. Sometimes that meant I stopped writing anything at all. Or the writing went terribly flat.
I took classes. I learned techniques. I ended every poem with a line about the stars hovering over the sea. I wasted sheets of paper. I wasted myself inside and out. I drove to Vancouver, until I finally drove the youth out of myself.
Eventually I surrendered. I allowed the whale to show up where he wanted to (he was a he, after all). I asked it what it wanted. I told it what I wanted. We became friends. As with any friend, I realized the whale had layers, moods, different personalities.
Slowly, my reasons for following the whale revealed themselves, and they were multiple, and multifaceted. The whale was not just a whale, but a symbol about love, and longing, and following things we just can’t have. The connection to Ahab and Moby Dick was not lost on me. It wasn’t particularly original or unique, but it was a good metaphor for my feelings, and the heaviness I felt.
Writing about it did not make the heaviness go away. Not writing about it did not make the heaviness go away either. Wislawa Szymborska once said, “I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems.” I preferred the heaviness of writing to the heaviness of bottling myself up, so I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote…
Finally, near the end of my twenties, I wrote that whale out of my system. It was like reaching the end of the Earth. I had taken on a task that was rich and mysterious about an animal with no facial expression that travels around the world and lives for dozens of years. I thought I would never find the end of the whale or the end of what I needed to say, or an end to the question I had, but eventually I did.
My Obsession Takes to the Sky
It took me seven years to write through my obsession with whales, and when time came to gather that work into a published form, I had not one whale poem or five but 37 pages. They formed the thematic spine of my first full chapbook. It was released from Finishing Line Press under the title Take This Longing, (a line I stole from another obsession, Leonard Cohen.)
It took me a decade to learn to trust what was given to me to write. These days I write about crows and ravens. I’m foolish enough to say I do it because I want to, and I need to, and I have to. I’m smart enough not to ask what it means. The ravens and crows will reveal all, once they’ve had their way with me.