SELF-INTERVIEW (Interviewing myself) WEDNESDAY
CRYING & LAUGHING; HOW I WROTE SONO
For a year or so after I wrote Visits from the Seventh I tried to write the same book again in other words. The poems came out as polite imitations of the ones I had already written. I was trying too hard, for one thing. Then I had a handful of pieces I began to write over and over again, moving the words around on the page and trying again. They seemed stiff and pompous, and not much like Visits.
By now I was in Rome and for months I wrote nothing new. Or just a few words, heavy-handedly. I started to notice Roman words popping into my writing: “centaur.” I was reading everything Roman or Italian, old and new. I read Moravia and Pavese, with a fat dictionary and a pencil, making marks in the margins--this was still well before iphone dictionaries (a great innovation for linguists). I even read Morante.
I read Calvino’s Cities; I saw them in my mind, they weren’t quite “invisible.”
And everything English (I mean the language, not the country) about Rome and Romans, like Henry James, Robert Graves, Elizabeth Bowen.
I also “read” the sites--I mean that I visited the real, historical places.
I kept trying to hear something that wasn’t coming.
Then, in a sudden rush, I began writing poems that used the images of Rome. Weirdly, I wrote “Grotesque” the morning before I went to Nero’s palace and saw the vestiges of those first famous grotesques.
None of the poems are about Rome. Colosseum, for instance, is the setting for a thought: I made a colossal mess of my life.
I began to let my mind tumble fast; I was rushing through word patterns, letter patterns, to end with a surprise. To me a surprise. Sometimes--often--I saw connections between words and ideas and memories I had never consciously noticed before.
At some point I stopped writing in pencil or pen on a piece of paper. I noticed that when I typed on my laptop, I could keep up with the pace of my thoughts better. I didn’t need the channeling tool anymore--I discarded it.
This was a wonderful thing, a rapture. I felt that I was bursting, free-falling. I was summarizing my emotional life; summing up, to date. I cried as I wrote. I also thought I was funny; I laughed out loud. On two mornings, I was surprised to find a poem that had spilled out the night before. There was a lot of wine flowing in Rome.
Sometimes I made cultural references I wasn’t sure of. I looked them up: they were accurate. How could they be accurate? I am not accurate.
My working title was “I Am”; which I knew belonged to John Clare. I decided on the same in Italian: “Sono.” By sheer luck, it also meant sound. Writing is so much about luck.
The jacket designer used a face: an engraving of a smooth-faced young boy, printed in red ink on pale beige parchment paper. In this rendering/incarnation (notice the word “carne”-- “flesh” in “incarnation”) the red face is a sibyl with her eyes looking inward.
Soon after publication, I had the book on my lap while riding a train. A woman sitting beside me pointed her finger and said “ooh, that’s christ.” I did not detect irony.
* * * *
Writing is a rapture. Like all raptures it can’t be constant.
There’s the in-between, when I’m longing to be enraptured but can’t find a way to bring it on.
I can’t decide that I’m going to write a poem about something and then write it. This is impossible. I’ve been invited to participate: “Write more stanzas like this one. I’ll turn them into a song.” “Write a poem about Lear; I’ll include it in the programme notes.” I can’t make my pen move; nothing happens.
I am not in charge of this. All I can do is feel and wish.
* * * *
There are times when I’m the one who doesn’t listen. I’m too tired, I can’t be bothered. There’s a rustle in my mind, a word or two, an invitation. I look at the words, I consider. Then I brush them away.
No way to know how many lost creations there have been. Innumerable. Sometimes I remember the moment afterward; what was that thought?