Stupendous poet Renée Gregorio is working on a book about writing, and looking for feedback. Miram’s Well is excited to publish a chapter.
And here are two of Gregorio’s questions. Please help her with some feedback!
What inspires you about reading this chapter? What drags you down?
Do you like the book’s current title? Any other ideas for a title?
Ways of Naming
As a poet I have often struggled with the dichotomy between the need to be specific and detailed in naming what one is describing versus the need to simply feel experience. As I write a poem, what I am attempting to do is to translate experience into language—and what better way than to fully enter the feeling-self and write from that more intuitive space? But beside this, there is also the demand to be specific enough to be understood, to lift language into the particular experience so that the experience becomes universal.
Both ways of naming are essential. Let’s look at this. What are we trying to accomplish through our writing? To communicate, yes. To create, yes. To re-live and therefore understand more completely, yes. To translate experience into language, yes. To move another, sure. To dive deeply enough into our own experience that our experience can enter another through language? Why not? To feel the pure joy of creating, playing, being with words? Yes again.
But how do we accomplish all this? How do we hold both places that seem so divergent? On the one hand, to feel and to translate emotion into language, and on the other hand to embrace specificity so that what we feel can ripple out into the known world?
We do this by making images. Decades ago now I remember one of my poetry teachers taking the first poem I brought to her and circling all the abstractions the poem was full of and saying to me: find an image for each one of these abstractions. It was painstaking. I took the poem away in my satchel and returned to my bedsit in north London, to my table that served as writing-desk, and looked at each place she marked and found a concrete image for what was at first a vague abstraction. I say painstaking because it felt pretty mechanical. I knew what I meant by each of those abstractions. I felt the emotional upheaval of what I was saying. But what could not happen was that anyone else could feel what I was feeling.
It’s sometimes hard to convince new writers that finding a way to be specific matters. That finding a way to go beyond the first impulse in one’s writing matters. It matters because we have to ask ourselves what it is we want to say. Then we have to ask how we can best create a concrete way to say it, so that a reader could actually enter into the same emotional territory with us. We often enter into mysterious territory when we write. And, as much as possible, we have to be willing to be clear as we embrace the mystery. It is tricky territory. What I’m asking you to do is to live in two places at once: the mysterious and the mundane. I’m trying not to make one better than the other. Mystery implies enigma, something beyond our ken. Mundane connotes something much more ordinary—of the world, even of the earth.
This utterly reminds me of a move in aikido! It’s called tenchi nage, or the heaven-and-earth throw. It’s a lovely movement that I will attempt to describe in language here and now. Imagine yourself facing a partner on a mat in a dojo. Your bodies are facing each other, but in the hanmi stance. With this stance, one foot is in front of the other, knees slightly bent, creating a stance that is more protected than if your feet were beside each other and your body totally open to your partner.
Say your partner takes hold (grabs) both your wrists. In tenchi nage, what the person being grabbed would do is to split the energy of the grabber. While moving in, you would move your forward hand downward toward the earth and your other hand upward toward the heavens. This would necessarily split your partner’s energy upward and downward and as you moved further in toward her by stepping behind her, she would experience an unbalancing and eventually have to fall backwards onto the mat. I realize that this is hard to describe in words as I am sitting here in my study attempting to do just that. And I realize that teaching you the move on the mats would be much more advantageous, would allow you to both feel and see the details of this technique.
If I were to teach you the moves, what I would say is that if you are the grabber, you would experience the splitting of your energy up and down and definitely as this split entered you, you would not be able to maintain your upright stance. As the thrower or receiver of the grab, you would be directing this splitting of energy, this movement toward the heavens and toward the earth and you, too, would feel the moment of unbalancing when your partner could no longer remain standing. Your unbalancing act and your entering would create the opportunity for another experience to take shape.
But what does this have to do with writing?! Back to the mysterious and the mundane. What you would learn to do through your body if you enacted tenchi nage is to feel both places, to feel the upward pull of the mysterious heavens and to feel the downward thrust of the earthly. It is in fully feeling both places that movement is created, that the static quality of “being grabbed” can be shifted. If writing a poem or writing anything at all is about following energy and creating new perspectives and discovering what it is we really want to say, then it would do us well to consider tenchi nage, whether we ever find ourselves on a mat facing a partner (literally) or not! Writing is being on that mat. It’s putting ourselves in the habit of being “grabbed”—by a memory, an emotion, a force of spirit or a desire to understand the world and our place in it—and taking that which we don’t yet know and bringing it down to earth. Creating enough context and giving enough detail and entering into the magical space of discovery through language so that we can bring others along with us.
That old poetry teacher gave me a gift all those years ago, which was to name the weakness that existed in my poem, to show me that my abstractions, even though they were deeply felt by me, were not translating into powerful language that a reader could also feel. When I worked with each abstraction to ask myself for concrete images for each, I was digging into territory in myself that I had not yet allowed. Such digging required me to ask myself harder questions and to at least attempt to define emotional territory with details that could enlarge that territory.
What I have often feared would happen if I attempted to name clearly what I see and feel is that I would somehow diminish what I see and feel. I think this has to do with the way the world is set up; oftentimes we name something to make it our own. I’m thinking here, say, of the names of mountains. Everest is a good example. The Nepalese call that mountain Chomolungma. Westerners call it Everest. Much of the discoveries of the earth’s geography have male names associated with those discoveries. As if these mysterious places somehow belong to the person who thinks he first saw them, came upon them. I have reacted to this in my own quest for what I am calling “naming”. A sense that if I did not give something a name then I would not diminish it. I think this is the source of that fear.
And I think it is somewhat misguided. There is another way of naming. Which comes from honoring that which we are giving a name to. When we write, we have to dig in and create experience through naming. We don’t want to be vague. In fact we don’t honor our own experience—or anyone else’s for that matter—in not being clear and in not daring to step into the intricacies of naming. I think of the usual advice here, which is not to say “car” but to say “Cadillac” or “’55 Chevy” or my current favorite, “chartreuse mini cooper convertible.” How can we say what we want to say, really, without such detail? And how could we possible translate our experience, the felt-sense we have of that experience, into language without such details?
The world is a place made rich by the particular. Dive into the particular sea of your choice—be it Mar Caribe or the Pacific Coast of America or the Black Sea. Yes, dive in and take me with you. Be that daring and inclusive. Enter the mystery of language, the territory where you don’t have a clue what it is you want to say but you know there’s something there. Enter that sea and bring up each unknown gem on the sea floor. Make sure you have the right equipment, which in this case is pretty damn easy—a pen and a piece of paper. Make sure you feel your own ground first, the way your feet touch the earth, the “grab” of a particular subject or experience, memory or truth, and step forward with that “grab” holding both your wrists, you directing the energy down, down, into the earth and up, up toward heaven at the same time. The “falling”, the “throw”, the unique way that you create the space to move forward and put words on the page will be all the heaven and earth you need, will be your own particular way of naming and will contain both forces, and others will naturally come with you.
Here’s a poem I wrote that speaks to the ways of naming.
The Ways of Naming
I wish I could write about the red-hued chutney
served with idli in the South Indian restaurant in Calcutta,
but I cannot find its proper name
or any way to put words to that taste
made of red earth and rain,
shantytowns and the shape of Kali at every turn.
That particular mix always came to us at a shared table
with no common language but gesture,
always a way those who can’t speak to each other
can still say something important.
One morning our neighboring diner
showed us the proper way to drink
the sweet, hot, coffee in its tiny tin cup—
he modeled how to transfer that heat
from cup to saucer and back again,
till it was something tame enough to mouth.
I don’t suppose I need to know the name of that chutney
to still taste that creamy smokiness on my tongue.
Yesterday in El Rito I identified my first bird—
a red-naped sapsucker. Fifty-two years on this earth
and I’d never let myself be still and attentive enough to do that.
I was standing in the front yard, looking up at the elm branches,
when I noticed something that blended into the branch perfectly,
yet I saw it move. The bird’s back looked like the elm bark,
and had it stayed still, I would not have seen its life.
Once seen, I could marvel at its red cap and neck
and the way it shimmied up the branch as if in a game of hopscotch.
Then there were binoculars and more looking;
a guidebook made its way into my hands, then lots of questions,
followed by more close scrutiny—looking up at the tree,
then down to the book. An excited rhythm of finding out.
In the end, I could say with confidence: red-naped sapsucker.
I’d never done this, never loved the particular so much,
or my own participation in making something finite.