Tomorrow I'm discussing Jane Hirshfield's "Poetry and the Mind of Concentration" from her essay collection, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry with my students, and because of it, I've been thinking a lot about how--in this age of distraction--we concentrate. As Hirshfield mentions, the concentration needed to write poetry is what Zen calls "effortless effort."
But how do we get there? When I tell people I'm a poet, they think that means I can write anywhere. Unfortunately, that is not true. I've learned through frustrating periods of not being able to write what I need to concentrate.
Other writers need offices filled with books, or front porches with ashtrays, or a crowded cafe, or a booth in a bar. For me, I need a clear, horizontal surface, a blank wall, and uninterrupted time.
1. Uninterrupted Time
This seems obvious, but uninterrupted time for me is closely related to safe time. When I write poetry, I have no idea where my emotions are going to go or in what age of my past I will end up. Often, when trying to sneak in an hour of writing away from my usual space, I'm distracted by the fear that I will be interrupted and that someone will catch me in the moment when I am completely poised but completely open. Imagine a fish aware of being fileted: I'm afraid someone will catch me when my emotions are aware of themselves and not yet universal, like a fish that is not either fish or filet. The moment I finish writing my words are separate from me, but while I'm writing I'm not far enough away from them. I can't be caught like that, even the thought of it is distracting.
2. A Clear, Horizontal Surface
I prefer to write at my dining room table. In fact I prefer it so much, my desk is my dining room table. I used to have a home office, but it collected everything: bills, old receipts, projects, laundry. There is one space in my house that is always clean: my dining room table. It's always ready to be set or the dishes are always picked up, and for that reason, unless it's being used as a dining room table, it's completely clear of clutter. In fact, I used to keep the cat food and cat toys on the dining room table when we weren't eating so the dogs wouldn't get them, but that's too much clutter when I'm trying to write. So I bought Trouble, the cat, a tepee so I could easily move her space temporarily out of my way.
3. A Blank Wall
This was had to figure out. In graduate school I had a mirror next to my desk, and I always found myself staring at it while writing. I thought I was weird and self-absorbed so when I moved, I didn't bother hanging the mirror near my desk. Instead I huge a print of Kilmt's Danae, and I wrote so many damn poems about that painting because it was what I kept looking out. Out of frustration, I took the print down one day; I couldn't of anything but her to write about! And it worked. Apparently I need a space to space out. In my dining room I purposely hung all of the pictures to high to see them while sitting down, and when I write, I close the blinds so I can't see outside. I need to look at nothing.