The limbic system, one of older parts of our brains (the cerebrum, where conscious thought coalesces, is the newest part) is the seat of emotion and memory formation. It’s also the part of the brain that governs our sense of smell. There’s a direct route between the sense of smell and memory. Think of the thousands of scenes in literature in which a character’s memory of a long-ago event surfaces because of an association with a particular scent: a grandmother’s perfume, a father’s cigarette, a warm dessert lifted from the oven. These examples have always struck me as unsubtle, even trite. This may be because scent operates more on the level of the unconscious. Its memory-finding ways are working constantly in the background. And writers develop practices which help us orient ourselves in our work by using scent as a marker.
A couple of months ago, a friend --I’m waving at you, Laura Orem-- sent me a bag of chocolate mint (yes, there is such a thing) which she’d grown and dried. I keep it on my desk and breathe deeply of its sweet herbaceous scent, which calms me and takes me to the sense of joyful risk from which I write.
My office here at home is off the kitchen and I go back and forth from desk to stove during the course of the day. I realized that I wander into the kitchen when I’m stuck in my writing/grading/editing. Cooking is an essential act of creation. For an adept cook, it has all the elements needed for the creation of a poem, followed by much better odds that it will taste the way it should.
I’ve been baking Anadama bread over the course of the time I’ve written poetry. I’m always struck by the fact that one of the stages of breadmaking always seems problematic, just as I’ve move through stages of competency and experimentation on the page. For years I struggled with the cornmeal to flour ratio, then the freshness of the yeast. When I became proficient, I began to experiment with additions to the recipe and substitutions for the original ingredients. And always, always I struggle with the resting phase. Like a poet who thinks she’s finished a poem and submits it in a rush, I want to saw into each loaf, even tear it open with my hands, and breathe in its first yeasty exhalation before it’s ready. Before it comes into itself.