“When I plan what I’m going to say, often the words are strained no matter how brilliant they seemed when I came up with them. They’re no longer fresh. It’s why I write in the car. If I don’t flip that poem onto the page the moment it wants to come out, it can drift away like a dream or go lifeless. Talk is alive. Moments are alive. Poems are made of talk and moments.” – Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, poemcrazy: freeing your life with words
Sometimes, I watch my friends’ houses and pets while they go on vacation. It’s a nice way to make a little extra money, or at least, since most of them live minutes from work instead of an hour, save some money on gas. But there’s another thing I realized at my last housesitting gig: in a way, it’s good for me as a writer.
There’s something about being in an unfamiliar setting, and just for a weekend or so, stepping into another’s life and treating it as my own, with someone else’s dishes and furniture and windows. I can acclimate. I don’t mind living in someone else’s world for a while. And something about the unfamiliar makes me want to try new things.
Last weekend, while a friend’s condo was in my care, I bought a bag of California mandarins, tiny, sweet fruits wrapped in deep orange, something I’d never thought to buy before. On Saturday morning, I added one to my breakfast. I dug my finger into the thick, soft rind, and peeled it effortlessly, letting the bright orange skin drop into my cereal bowl, a strong ceramic piece. Bright blue.
I sort of wish I’d snapped a picture of that orange and blue. The color caught my eye in its raw, bright audacity, and I thought how I might have never chosen these colors for myself. I thought about the box of dishes I have waiting in my closet for a home of their own. Simple white. Maybe I should buy some colorful bowls.
So I didn’t snap a picture. Instead, I scribbled a poem.
Poems are alive. A photo can freeze time, capture color and a moment, and it can hint at feelings and story. But a poem holds moment after moment, and a well of feelings and a net of stories in just a few words. Lately, as my life changes, as I weigh decisions and feel for a change in the wind, I need poetry more than ever. When it comes to writing, I have no advice or helpful lists to dispense. I only have time and breath and little stories and lots of words.
But the thing about poetry is this: it doesn’t have to resolve. Just as an excellent photo can catch a moment and maybe tell a story, a poem can frame a thing, a person, an idea, or a dream. In a sense, it goes deeper, beyond the surface of what we see.
I’ve heard that people don’t like poetry because at some point some high school teacher forced them to reckon with great literary works and figure out what it means. Maybe instead of explaining and translating, learning to listen and experience them as the living things they are is a better way. Poems don’t have to be lofty, heroic, or obscure either. The best of them put a frame around something ordinary and draw out all of its glory.
So what do I write about? A bowl, and orange rind. And home. And displacement and comfort.
It doesn’t resolve or explain much. It doesn’t have to.