I was telling you yesterday about my first poetry teacher, Nancy Willard. I pulled a book she wrote off my shelf over the weekend, in preparation for blogging here. I found some really good stuff in it, just in the first essay alone. That is as far as I’ve gotten. I’m slow, sometimes.
I acquired this book many years ago, but never read it. Perhaps you can relate to this habit of buying books that often go unread until many years after their purchase. Is this a common problem among writers? There is so much to absorb. Better to buy the book then to have it go missing.
The book of Nancy’s I am referring to is Telling Time: Angels, Ancestors, and Stories and it is a book of essays on the craft of writing. It is exactly what I need right now as I find myself dangling on a limb of my own making, as far as my writing goes. I have slowed on poetry a bit, trying my hand at prose with that hovering memoir that I described on Day 1, as well as a novel that is crawling all over itself attempting to find its story. And don’t forget blogging.
The first piece in Nancy’s book is called “How Poetry Came into the World and Why God Doesn’t Write It.” Interestingly enough, it starts with the writer recounting a tale about being in a book store and seeing a book called The Lost Books of Eden, which she considered buying, but decided against. She left the store and went down the block, but the book called her back.Unfortunately, within those few minutes, the book had been purchased by someone else. The knowledge was gone. (This is why you should always buy a book without thinking twice.)
So, in the wake of this loss, the writer imagined what The Lost Books of Eden would have said. The text told of Adam and Eve finding the words for things, finding them in a well in the garden. The serpent says, “What God calls knowledge, I call ignorance…What God calls ignorance, I call story. Help yourself to an apple from the tree that stands in the center of the garden.”
And once they had eaten the fruit and were thus forced to leave Eden, Adam knew that what they would miss the most was not eternal life, but the well from which all their words had floated up, effortlessly. The angel escorted them out of the garden, saying:
“God doesn’t want the well. What use is it to God? So he’s letting you take it with you.”
“Where is it?” [asked Adam.]
“The well is inside you,” replied the angel. “Much more convenient to carry it that way. Of course, it’s not going to be as easy to find as it was in the garden, where you could just lean over and take a drink. Sometimes you’ll forget the words you’re looking for, or you’ll call and the wrong ones will answer. Sometimes they’ll be a long time coming. But everything the well gave you it will give you again. Or if not you, your children. Or your great-great-great-great-grandchildren. And since God created you in his image, you have His dream power. By the grace of dreams we may meet again, blown together by an emerald wind. And I hope you’ll remember me with metaphors and make a lovely web of words about me. I hope you’ll make some marvelous—what do you call it?”
[Adam said the first word that came into his head.] “Poetry.”
Last May, I took the train from Grand Central Station to Poughkeepsie and I visited Nancy and her husband the photographer, Eric Lindbloom. They took me out for a delicious lunch at the Culinary Institute of America and then we went back to the house. I sat with Nancy in her curious, lovely den, in her most curious and lovely treasure-trove of a home, filled with wonderful hybrid objects that she has made over the years and all manner of assembled chotchkes and painted furniture.
I confided to her that I have recently eased up on poetry and that for some unknown reason, I am attempting to write a novel. She was extremely encouraging, and told me to keep exploring my story, whatever it was, and that the words would come. Thinking back, I am sure she was admonishing me to locate my well.
While we were together, I asked her to read her poem, “How to Stuff a Pepper.” I wanted to capture her on video to send this as a gift to Stacey Harwood, our fearless leader here at BAP digital. Stacey had told me that she liked this poem very much. Unfortunately, my iPhone was new to me at the time and I did not know how to shift the camera from photo to video mode. (Imagine that, a Smart phone, smarter than its user!) All it takes is a flick of the finger, but I did not know.
Nancy began reading and I missed the opportunity to record her. I did, however, accidentally snap this telling picture of the poet’s hands.The mind may do the thinking, but the hands must do the writing.
As I promised yesterday, here is the poem, “How to Stuff a Pepper,” a small treat this Wednesday for Stacey Harwood.
How to Stuff a Pepper
Now, said the cook, I will teach you
how to stuff a pepper with rice.
Take your pepper green, and gently,
for peppers are shy. No matter which side
you approach, it's always the backside.
Perched on her green buttocks, the pepper sleeps.
In its silk tights, it dreams
of somersaults and parsley,
of the days when the sexes were one.
Slash open the sleeve
as if you were cutting into a paper lantern,
and enter a moon, spilled like a melon,
a fever of pearls,
a conversation of glaciers.
It is a temple built to the worship
of morning light.
I have sat under the great globe
of seeds on the roof of that chamber,
too dazzled to gather the taste I came for.
I have taken the pepper in hand,
smooth and blind, a runt in the rich
evolution of roses and ferns.
You say I have not yet taught you
to stuff a pepper?
Cooking takes time.
Next time we'll consider the rice.
Writing, like cooking, takes time. Let’s go to the well and let’s sit a while. Let’s consider the rice, the onions, the garlic, the peppers. Let’s sprinkle some cinnamon, some almond dust. Let’s invent a recipe. Together, we’ll make a fine meal.