Here’s a quick look into the mind of this poet: Should I have another cup of coffee? Geez, I’m really tired of taking care of my friends’ annoying cocker spaniel. Will it rain today, or will I have to water the new sod myself? I could go on, but I have a feeling you don’t want me to. However, this is the conscious part of my brain, living in the white noise of daily life, racing from one fear or gratification or annoyance or pleasure to another. Every poet knows that the best and most surprising material comes from the subconscious. When I write a poem, I follow the trigger—the downpour outside my window right now, the dream of walking down North Avenue in Chicago last night, the memory of my grandma’s lilac perfume—down into the unconscious and then I continue to follow the image or memory to wherever it takes me. I don’t judge, censor or edit. I just follow this weird logic unreservedly. In this way, I discover the poem by entering into that magic place where I find the things that I hadn’t known I’d known.
Writing a poem is an act of discovery. The triggering image may be tangible and worldly, it may be a real memory, but what happens after that first thing is written down can only be described as miraculous.
I’ve never liked a poem that didn’t surprise me. If I were to write about the day-to-day world we inhabit, it would sound much like this: I have to pick up my prescription at Target after work today; do I drink too much coffee?; the Cubs have climbed out of last place in the NL Central; does the dentist really want a thousand bucks for one crown?
Writing a poem is like falling asleep and then dreaming of climbing through a bedroom window, which seems ordinary enough, but then I’m startled to see the fields outside my grandfather’s farmhouse in Virginia, and I feel my childhood body running down a worn path past the henhouse where I gathered eggs each dawn, but instead of gathering eggs, I’m collecting images and tucking them into the leather briefcase a lover gave me that had belonged to her brother before he committed suicide. As it is in dreams, it is in the unconscious, so a poet must forget about logic and chronology, give up the idea that scenes unfold in a narrative that builds upon any kind of normal thingatude. The real inspiration comes from a place where poems have become beautiful birds that you try to catch with your hands. That place is the subconscious.
Sometimes a trigger isn’t a dream or a memory. I try to look closely at the world, looking for signs of the holy and sacred. And in Florida, there’s so much tropical beauty to meditate upon that often my poems are filled with slash pines, violet bougainvillea, the vivid coontie plants that look like little date palms, the fire bush, the frangipani, the green wall of areca palms outside of our dining room window.
Poems have a “where.” It’s a childhood farmhouse, a ball field, a church, a beach. It’s in the desert between San Diego and Phoenix, a place I got to know well when I was a kid because Aunt Anne and Uncle King lived in Arizona during those years my navy dad was stationed in California. Sometimes I dream khaki landscapes beneath jagged mountains and night skies so clear the constellations seem to hover just beyond the fingertips. I’m riding in the Falcon station wagon again, counting white lines on the blacktop to ease my boredom. Or I’m singing Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys, silently, of course, so I won’t annoy my parents.
The writing of the poem brings back one memory after another. I let myself wander to wherever the writing takes me, not censoring anything, just following wave after wave of image, then the strange facts embedded in them: an uncle’s name, Burma Shave signs and their peculiar rhetoric, barbed wire fences, brown bags of booze hidden under the driver’s seat of a ’63 Impala, the way the oak trees seem to grow together in the highway distance. And now I’m remembering that my mom told me that elves lived in those magic bridges where trees almost touched.
Each night last spring when I walked the dog, I could hear what I thought was a whippoorwill singing from out in the woods that border our subdivision.
I wrote a poem about the whippoorwill in which I called it a small god. I had no idea that when I thought about the bird’s cries, I would begin a journey that would end with the notion that birds really are somehow wings of the spirit, beating through the black hours of a Florida night. I showed a scientist friend my poem, and he said that, unfortunately, whippoorwills don’t make it this far south, so the bird I heard was actually a Chuck-wills-widow, a goat-sucking cousin of the whippoorwill in the night jar family. And can I admit here that thinking about the word “night jar” triggered a poem about the chamber pot my mom used at my grandpa’s farmhouse because there was no indoor plumbing?
The creative process involved in creating a poem, like the poem itself, can’t be logically described. What, indeed, is logical about the unconscious? It’s that beautiful and frightening place we visit in dreams. And if we’re lucky we can also get there by diving below the waterline that separates the conscious world and its sometimes dreary realness from that other place where the magic begins. So, I guess what I’m saying is that good poems come from a place we visit through intuition, that often the journey is not linear, that it never simplifies angels, death and love into neat sentences we can rationally understand. Each line takes you further away from the concrete and tangible world you think surrounds you and deeper into that place where everything you’ve ever experienced has not been forgotten and is just waiting for your next visit. With each poem you reclaim a part of your life. With each poem you encounter the dead. With each poem you learn about how to be more compassionate with the living.
When I write a poem, I’m also conscious of the challenge one faces when trying to create art, and a well-made poem can be art in the same way that the King James Bible, every work of Shakespeare, French Impressionist paintings, even a Beatle’s song from 1963 are—the poem, like a book, a painting or a song, becomes its own reality that is not a man rising from the dead, a hayfield in France, a long-haired teenager singing, “I wanna hold your hand.” The best poems enter into the world and become part of human history, memorized, spoken, read and treasured for their own sake.
I could have saved us all a bunch of time by simply saying at the beginning of this digressive journey that I have no idea of what goes on inside my mind when I’m drafting a poem. When I’m consciously guiding the act of discovery, I write bad poems. It’s really as simple and complex as that: Either I find a way inside and follow a map where the directions are written in languages I don’t understand or I won’t discover any richness. If I don’t give myself completely to that which completely surprises, scares and inspires me, I might as well write advice columns for the broken-hearted or horoscopes, or maybe some critiques of the latest reality shows. What lasting and surprising beauty springs forth from Jersey Shore? Which housewife of Orange County should we turn to for true inspiration?
What I’m happiest about is how these ephemeral pleasures have not made their way inside the poetry-making part of my brain. I’ll stick with the half-spoken dreams I’ll encounter each time I fall asleep and sometimes when I write a poem. The place I find within brings the real meanings of my life, and I become more than just a man who has lived so many years and has this particular job and is married to this woman. I am the sum of every day I spent on the Southside Virginia farm, of every Sunday school meeting where I sang Jesus Loves Me, of every sun-dappled afternoon I built sandcastles on the Silver Strand at Coronado, of every night my grandmother stayed up with me when I was too sick to sleep. I hold the sorrow of my grandparents’ deaths, my mother’s confinement in a nursing home, my father’s subsequent loneliness. But also the joy I felt when I hit my first home run in Little League, the first time I held a girl’s hand (at the movies, watching Woody Allen’s Bananas!), the wonder I felt when visiting Granada a few years ago and seeing the Alhambra for the first time, the happiness of 15 years of marriage. This is the short list; there’s a much longer one pulsing inside my brain. And the next time I sit down at my desk and try to write a poem, I’ll visit that list and be surprised again.
About the Author
Jesse Millner, named Literary Artist of the Year, 2010—Lee County Alliance for the Arts, has published six poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow and Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation. His most recent chapbook, Shapes the Clouds Assume, is available from Kattiwompus Press. Millner teaches writing courses at Florida Gulf Coast University.
In Praise of Small Gods
I’m all for leaving this world,
entering that bright space
of becoming like dew drops
on the morning buttercups
I planted last week before all the rain came.
Already they bloom yellow with
first light—6:30 a.m., that
magic time when the palms
and pines emerge from the darkness,
when light clings to the edges
of bougainvillea and philodendron,
when the marsh rabbit fights
with the hungry ravens for fallen
seeds from the bird feeder.
I remember the colors
of last night’s river,
the minor Mississippi
that flowed through my dreams,
how I bent down toward the current,
pulled tiny, glimmering fish
from the branch shadows.
And this morning I awoke at dawn
and knew the time by the texture
of that early light—still, gray,
but gathering meaning.
And then, a cup of coffee
on the back porch, stars still
spinning in the heavens, moisture
gleaming across the yard
like a fallen constellation.
I breathe in
these small gods, these
scents and ghosts and shadows
that rise in early morning,
and I swear I see Eden
burning just behind
the wall of palm
that shields us from the drainage
ditch, where a million mosquitoes
buzz like tiny angels.
I praise this morning,
I praise drainage ditch and mosquitoes,
I praise the tiny insect stings,
which argue for my own life,
yes, with each bite
my flesh tingles with meaning,
and with each brightening
moment, the world around me
comes into greater focus,
until it is finally Florida, a feast
of flowers and bugs and light,
and I feel as if
I will linger forever in the bright
fields of this moment, that the dog’s
soft fur against my foot
argues for life
more than any priest,
more than any religion,
more than any supernatural
explaining of this sputtering, beautiful world
fired with the tangible meaning of root, stem, petal,
bone, feather, beak.
Last night when I walked the dog
I heard a lonely whippoorwill
singing into the slash pine darkness.
It’s been out there every night
this early spring, and its cry
does sound so much like its name,
whippoorwill. I love the song,
the way the music rides on
the tropical night, a little quickening
in the black woods that line our subdivision,
beyond which lie acres of wetlands and mangroves
stretching all the way to Estero Bay.
When I was a little Baptist boy in Virginia,
the night woods were filled with whippoorwills
and I’m happy the singing has endured
into this new century, this modern time
when I am so tired of the world, and I mean
the civilized world, the humming, smoking
whirl of electrified lives in motion, the music
of which comes from machines, allowing us
to hear our voices rippling through space,
even though with each hour, we have less
and less to say. Whippoorwill is so bone
simple, a lightness in the body, a memory
still living in syllables that fly across the night,
and with each step I walk toward that music,
with each step, I long to whisper bird song
myself. Better yet, take my body, Lord, so
that I might become the singing itself
and fly over the moonlit waters traced
in little fingers of yellow, glimmering,
simmering rivers that flow south, following
gravity toward the Gulf. Is it too much to ask,
to only ask, for an eternity of hollow bones, feathers,
and beautiful whispers of whippoorwill?