Dad’s Little Book

photograph by Alexandre Dulaunoy

by Ed Davis on February 3, 2012

When my father-in-law gifted me with a slightly-larger moleskine journal than the pocket-sized one I’d been carrying around for several years, I wondered what I’d do with it. Little did I know it would be the catalyst for me to write over two hundred poems in just ten months.

The Gift That Keeps Giving

My father-in-law is salt-of-the-earth Appalachian. A deer hunter (with a bow), prize-winning marksman, pool shark and reader of adventure tales, he’s always kept me on my toes. On my infrequent visits to West Virginia, he always asks me what I’m writing, and listens when I tell him. So maybe I wasn’t all that surprised to tear off the Christmas paper and find that moleskine.

The inscription inside got me emotional: “May the words you write or put in this little book bring you great joy and richness. $$$.” It was signed, “Love, from Papa Ben.” I haven’t had a real father in my life since I was ten, though I’ve had many wonderful surrogates who’ve left their marks on my character. So Ben’s gift felt like the closest thing I’d ever have to a father encouraging me to follow my greatest passion. I decided his “little book” would have a special purpose; I just didn’t know what it was yet. But I soon would.

The Quest: A Poem a Day

In March I retired after 35 years of full-time college teaching: an auspicious moment to start something new. Pondering how I’d really be able to churn the novels out now, I noticed Dad’s moleskine, picked it up, opened it, and thought how the pages were the perfect size for poems! Then I was walloped with a voice asking me: What if you wrote a poem every day?

The author of a book on writing I’d read said she’d written a haiku every day for a while. I’ve never written haiku; but I did write and publish poetry actively for ten years. When I began writing novels, though, I found it hard to serve more than one muse (even my folk-singing “career” began to wind down). However, I never completely quit writing poetry; I still managed to compose two or three poems a year—without many keepers among them. Maybe, I thought, this experiment will produce more keepers or at least teach me something: about poetry, the writing process, about myself.

Poetic Jazz

“Rules” developed. First, I wasn’t going to wait for inspiration—these poems would be spontaneous and quickly composed. I’d write at least one every single day, maybe more. And not look back at what I’d written until the book was full.

Also, I’d strive for automatic writing: get a first line, a theme and improvise, like the jazz-men I admire so much. And hope for the occasional jewel to emerge—but I wouldn’t care very much if it didn’t. I’d leave the poem alone after I wrote it: no obsessive-compulsive editing. (In recent years a “keeper” usually went through 15 or 20 drafts before being deemed audience-friendly or abandoned.)

What Really Happened

Now that the experiment’s nearly over, with only fourteen pages to go, I can tell you it didn’t go exactly as planned. In some ways it went better.

I’m not writing a poem every day, but most days, until quite recently. Now it’s more like one every three days—but that’s still a lot of poems. I learned that it’s hard to lower my standards enough and take the time to write a poem when not in the least inspired. I found I do usually need inspiration to write a poem, even with the lowest expectations. Sometimes I was able to whip out the little book while walking or wrapping up things before bedtime and let ‘er rip—with something like good results. But mostly I found myself thinking up a subject first.

As for not editing—or looking back at poems until the book was full—both were laughable dreams. I flip back and forth all the time, astonished at what emerges when I dip into the unconscious at moments when I least feel like writing a poem. And when, upon re-reading, I think of a better word and see lines and stanzas needing to be cut…I can’t stop myself. What writer can?

Harvest

What have I learned or gained from this little experiment or exercise, you ask? Well, because I did look back at the poems as they filled my pages, I decided to pluck out potential keepers and submit them to my tedious o.c.d. revision process. I’ve already got twelve keepers, and I’m sure I’ll be able to cull a dozen more before I’m through. (One of them, “Uncle Frank and the Boy,” has already won me free tuition to this year’s Antioch Writers’ Workshop and was published in the Mock Turtle Zine!)

Was it worth writing to produce a dozen keepers? Absolutely. But I’m convinced the activity would’ve been a worthy exercise even without bearing fruit. Such prolific production encouraged me to take risks, experiment and stretch myself. It’s easy, after achieving any sort of success in writing (publication, for example), to become way too conservative—not good if you want to grow.

Naked

Furthermore, it got me in touch with a neglected part of my writing self, convincing me it would be a loss, were I ever to abandon poetry altogether. (Why would I ever think it necessary to do so? Should I also re-think my folk-singing career?) Maybe it restored poetry writing as an essential discipline, an art I should practice for the rest of my life; time will tell.

I wrote a few hard poems, touching subjects that cut into the dermis, maybe even sheared into bone. Did I really say this about that? Did I mean it? Is there more to say? This is your life, says the Little Book. (That doesn’t mean all my poems are autobiographical—believe me, I wrote about everything!—but a few of them did strip me naked.)

The experiment may have affected my fiction—all writing is fuel for other arts, even other genres. In a couple of instances, I used the same idea for a poem that I’d already used in fiction, which is rare for me.

Luring the Muse

And these are just benefits I’m conscious of. I’m humbled, reading through these pages, by how badly I can write when I truly let go—but also by how little in control I really am of my creative process. And I like that; it’s even okay to find that I’m really just “channeling” other writers sometimes. Maybe the bottom line is that, the more you show up to write, the higher the odds that you’ll be there when the lightning bolt arrives: your “Wasteland,” “Howl,” or “Leaves of Grass.”

Reading poetry is necessary, vital to my life, but writing poetry is life. When my little book is full, maybe I’ll begin another. Dedicated to you, Papa Ben, just like this one.

Photograph by Alexandre Dulaunoy

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