That right there is a mixed metaphor, and thatâ€™s the best I can do. Carrying the niggling beginnings of a poem around in my skull, sometimes for weeks, is a kind of pregnancy: the discomfort increases until I can push the thing out already. But itâ€™s also soup that sometimes has to sit on my mental stove on a slow simmer for a while, with more and more ingredients stirred in â€“ and sometimes bones strained out â€“ before it is the most realized expression of itself.
I have grown used to the stove turning itself on at completely unexpected times, and the resulting baby looking nothing like either parent â€“ me or my muse. After consulting with an oral surgeon about my wisdom teeth, I stood in the parking lot waiting for my then-husband to unlock the car, and watched fat raindrops splat on the pavement. The poem that came out of this waking dream has nothing in it about dentistry, parking lots, or rain. But it started then with the smell of the wet blacktop dust.
So I become compulsive, even fetishistic. Try prying me out of the house without a Moleskine notebook, specifically one with blank, unruled pages in case I have to doodle. Sometimes what goes in is obvious: I saw a man in medical distress being helped by strangers on a train, and that became a poem. Sometimes, on the other hand, I find Iâ€™ve bought the soup ingredients months or years ago. â€œThe Demoness,â€ the first poem in my book Ordinary Beans, is about my motherâ€™s encouragement of my writing. But the visual imagery comes from many trips to the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian, full of ornate Hindu and Buddhist statuary and colorful paintings, fierce battles between the goddess Durga and a buffalo demon. I needed that urgency for my soup â€“ and the physical act of making notes and sketches about what I saw at the Smithsonian put it there.
If you donâ€™t have the foods in your cabinet or let your skull conceive, youâ€™ll be stuck when it comes to impossible demands â€“ as when my mother and aunt, who had both been drinking gin, phoned me at 10 PM the night of my great-auntâ€™s wake and asked me to write a poem they could read at the funeral the next morning. (My surviving great-aunt then proceeded to hate the title. Critics!) Demands, from outside or in, can come at any time. Iâ€™m with John Keats about â€œnegative capability,â€ the willingness to let things grow in your head. You have to be ready.
Patience is also key. I am presently trying to write a poem about my purple Nikes. The soup is far from ready, and Iâ€™ll just have to let the shape make itself before it comes to the table. I wait and trust; I write and rewrite, and prepare to love whatever is finally born.
Gwyn McVay is the author of two chapbooks of poems and one full-length collection, Ordinary Beans (Pecan Grove Press, 2007). She teaches writing at Millersville University.