Give Voice to Your Vision

This would be the summer. Even during my teaching year, writing is a predominant focus in my thoughts. And if the hours reserved for this work wind up being those on the darker side of midnight or wedged in amid the busy weekend routine, still my notebook is rarely far from reach. After all, the beginning of a poem is always an unannounced - if not unexpected - event, and you simply have to be prepared for pursuit where and whenever one appears. Poems carry with them their own sense of necessity and compel other tasks to take a momentary back seat. But larger projects - long poems, stories, book-length manuscripts - these require an equally expansive commitment of time, the slow accretion involved in the daily session at the desk, the gradual building of momentum, the willingness to explore all possibilities as they unfold. Writing sabbaticals have come and gone, some with their share of breakthroughs and triumphs, many with a good deal more than their fair share of frustration. But now I was drawing an emotional line in the sand: This would be the summer. I work with many sorts of students, both young people and adults. In each case, I am attempting to help them create that most tenuous of commodities: poetry. And most often, both groups share a single belief: ''Though it might sound like a good idea for some other people, I couldn't possibly write one of those things!'' My job is to help create a clearing within our workspace in which a new creative response is possible, where honest, spirited, musically-charged cascades of language will erupt within our imaginations and simply spill across the white lined page. There is a certain sense of mission in a poetry residency that spurs the workshop members on to something beyond everyday expectations. An atmosphere is created where individuals can permit their most surprising thoughts to come into play, to enter wholeheartedly into the sort of experimentation that is a necessary part of all art-making experiences. This necessity, this common purpose is needed to ensure that the time, the tools, the mutual support will be provided so we can steer toward our goals. Of course I will make a poem! I have 20 other poets just waiting to see what I will produce! But this sense of mission begs the question of permission. Who says so? Who has the authority to grant the group such freedom, the impetus to summon a new sense of self, to even accept a role in such a grand undertaking? Think of that project in the early 1960s: the mission to land a man on the moon. President Kennedy set forth his vision as a challenge to the country. The authority of his office helped create the momentum to accomplish this seemingly impossible feat - by the end of the decade, no less! How many individuals and resources realigned themselves behind the thrust of this mission! And though the president did not live to see the results, by the summer of 1969, human footprints marked the lunar surface for the first time. In an art-making project, the same forces come into play. But imagine: What individual or institution would possess sufficient authority to grant you the right to say, ''Yes, I can do it. I can give over this portion of my life to the heart-work of creation''? When I am teaching young people, can you guess which literary concept my students are most eager to learn about? ''Poetic license.'' And they are crestfallen to learn that there isn't any. A license, I mean - an official certificate. It's not hard to spot the telltale signs that show they'd half-hoped I might be duly empowered to confer one of those licenses upon them! After all, if they are to undertake this quest-like mission into language, into memory, into the terrain of the unimagined - they'd like to possess the absolute authority that such an accomplishment is actually possible for them. When I explain to my students the sort of license a writer will take on - the freedom to stretch the boundaries of language in order to confirm the truth of their own vision - inevitably one will ask: ''Where did you get the right?'' The question is a vital one, and I always allow a moment or two of silence to underscore its importance. How did I get the permission to even call myself ''poet,'' to speak my inner voices into existence on the page? The answer: Because I said so. (I catch the shadow of disappointment on their faces.) But I continue: And I said so when I was barely eight years of age. (The expressions now are a mixture of incredulity and awe.) The year my father passed away, I took to spending long evenings alone in my bedroom, ranting, rhapsodizing, and weeping into my private notebook. I told myself then I would be a writer when I grew up. And I believed it - and began to stubbornly shape my life and my priorities accordingly. Before the world could say ''no'' to me, I granted myself a resounding ''yes.'' In one of my programs, I worked with a talented fourth-grader from an elementary school in a coastal community. For all his poetic passion, insecurity undermined his best efforts. Not surprising, he was quite persistent in his questioning about the concept of poetic license. One morning, we were sitting outside his school, his classmates scattered across the sloping lawn. I turned and plucked a single magenta petal from a sea rose and placed it in the boy's palm. I told him, ''This is your poetic license. Save this bit of spring in your notebook and, I promise, you will have the unimpeachable right to create any poem in any manner your heart discovers.'' The boy stared hard into my eyes, and I could tell he was buying none of it. He made a rude noise, chucked the rose petal over his shoulder, and whined, ''C'mon, tell me really!'' At the conclusion of the month-long residency in that school, I produced a special certificate for each of my students. I printed them on buttercup-yellow stock, bordered in a simple scroll design. Emblazoned across the top, it proclaimed: ''POETIC LICENSE - Listen for the Voice and Then Follow Where it Leads.'' And beneath, there was a message of great wisdom concerning the writer's estate from one of America's preeminent men of letters, Snoopy. In the Charles Schulz comic strip I'd been saving for umpteen years, Snoopy sits before the typewriter in his customary pose astride his doghouse. He has obviously just finished that ''It was a dark and stormy night....'' manuscript he's labored on for so long. As he types, we slowly read the sentences of the cover letter he is preparing for his submission. ''Gentleman, I have just completed my new novel.... It is so good, I am not even going to send it to you....'' (Thoughtful pause.) ''Why don't you just come and get it?'' Yes, this is the bravado any creative spirit will require if he or she is to survive during the hard times. But just to keep the artistic ego in check, I also included the strip that appeared the very next day. The beagle is once again positioned at his typewriter. ''Gentleman.... Yesterday I waited all day for you to come and get my novel and to publish it and make me rich and famous.... You did not show up.... Were you not feeling well?'' This June, I gave a talk at an adult arts conference concerning this idea of mission/permission. After showing them my Snoopy scroll, I announced playfully that if any of those present felt they still needed official certification, I had 50 of my licenses to dispense. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. For the next two days, conferee after conferee would seek me out at discreet moments and, as nonchalantly as possible, inquire whether I had any of those licenses left. Some just wanted a humorous patch of yellow to adorn a drab office wall. But many offered me brief tales of that novel or play, that opera or sculpture - that particular vision that compelled their deepest attention, even as it hovered securely an arm's length out of reach. Who knows, a poetic license might tip the creative scales in their favor. So here we are in the high hot furnace of summer. And without much jostling, both you and I can identify the task, the elusive dream that has been waiting for us not-very-secretly for so long. The one in which we imagine our full creative energies engaged; the one that will finally demand from us the true commitment of our time, skill, devotion. And I'm sure, not far from this territory, stands an equally determined chorus of voices disparaging the very notion of such an endeavor. And thus the question is a serious one: Is this truly the sort of mission essential to the unfolding of your life? And if so, what are you waiting for?

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