On Writing Poetry: The Bite of the Aloe

The meandering crack in the sidewalk. The way the woman’s blonde hair seems to bounce independent of how her body is moving. The shift of the temperature as the breeze hits skin.

On any given day, there will be a handful or armful of moments that strike me as noteworthy. Not because they are inordinary, but because they are ordinary. And on those days they occur to me in such a way as to insist upon being seen or being heard. And because, as a poet, I am always listening—even when I don’t want to be.

I sit up. My alarm has woken me from a dream in which I am ambushed by crocodiles. They morphed from landscape into animal into pursuer. It is the fluidity of this transformation that strikes me as worth writing down.

Writing is rarely seamless. Though, every now and then, a poem will come to me in a rush: demanding to be written down—line after line—cramping my fingers into submission. However, this is rare. Usually, I will be going about my day and the splay of my aloe vera will rise out of the background and into the foreground. I will sit in awe of the way the mighty, toothed leaves fan out; I will notice how two of the leaves are positioned—resembling the threat of an open crocodile’s mouth. Then I will go to put this concept onto the page and it may appear:

the fine-toothed aloe vera
rises from the earth
a crocodile leaping from the Nile

and that stanza will sit there. I will read it and reread ad nauseum. At some point, I will decide that it is a stanza with no home. There is no poem to house it. This is a piece of a poem. It may one day grow into a full poem. But for this moment, I have to trust that it is okay to be set aside. While I may revisit it, there is a good chance—maybe even a better chance—that in mentally walking away from this stanza right now, I will never return to it.

But, like a mother to her child, I do return:

slick with mud
(for a moment)
she takes flight

and when I return, I learn something new. The crocodile is a she. And she is the main focus of this poem.

mouth open
each tooth apparent
her body splits the sky

As I continue to write, I realize that this poem is about the very moment the crocodile is suspended in the air, between water and sky.

The sun catches each bump
yellow-eyed dinosaur
a bolt of lighting
in the cloudless sky.

It is here that I look to the first stanza—the stanza that gave me this poem—and I begin to question its necessity. Perhaps, the aloe vera, the source of my inspiration, is no longer necessary. Perhaps, it takes away from the crocodile. From her story.

But before I trim anything, I have to ask myself if the poem is over yet. Does it have anything else that it wants to say? Cutting a poem too short and rambling on too long are two sides of the same coin. Maybe, the aloe vera is not cut, but returned to.

The thick-leafed succulent stands
permanently suspended by earth

even as the crocodile
falls back into the Nile:

she roots to the murky river bed
as the aloe reaches to the Sun.

There is a poem: It came from the images in a dream and the images of a plant on my balcony. More honestly, it came from the confluence of two different images that were so present in my mind that they bordered on intrusive—they commanded space. I listened to these images and I trusted them when they told me they were worth writing down and exploring. In trusting them, they gave me a poem.

Here is the poem:

the fine-toothed aloe vera
rises from the earth
a crocodile leaping from the Nile

slick with mud
(for a moment)
she takes flight

mouth open
each tooth apparent
her body splits the sky

The sun catches each bump
yellow-eyed dinosaur
a bolt of lighting
in the cloudless sky.

The thick-leafed succulent stands
permanently suspended by earth

even as the crocodile
falls back into the Nile:

she roots to the murky river bed
as the aloe reaches to the Sun.

–it is rough. The early stanzas wrote themselves without capitalization or punctuation; the later stanzas capitalized, punctuated. So, which route best shapes the poem? Were the early stanzas simply looser, because they did not yet know how the poem would find shape? Or do they signal the freedom and abandon of the poem’s content?

Here are the two potential versions:

the fine-toothed aloe vera
rises from the earth
a crocodile leaping from the Nile

slick with mud
(for a moment)
she takes flight

mouth open
each tooth apparent
her body splits the sky

the sun catches each bump
yellow-eyed dinosaur
a bolt of lighting
in the cloudless sky

the thick-leafed succulent stands
permanently suspended by earth

as the crocodile
falls back into the Nile

she roots to the murky river bed
as the aloe reaches to the sun

OR

The fine-toothed aloe vera
rises from the earth:
a crocodile leaping from the Nile,

slick with mud
(for a moment)
she takes flight.

Mouth open
each tooth apparent
her body splits the sky.

The sun catches each bump,
yellow-eyed dinosaur–
a bolt of lighting
in the cloudless sky.

The thick-leafed succulent stands
permanently suspended by earth

as the crocodile
falls back into the Nile:

she roots to the murky river bed
as the aloe reaches to the sun.

Which do you prefer? Does the punctuation and capitalization make the poem more clear? Easier to understand? Or does it impose an unnecessary structure? The answers to these questions vary from poem to poem, but rarely, from stanza to stanza.

Then, there is naturally the issue of titling. Should it be a line from the poem? Should it be an overarching theme or idea that I as the poet would like the reader to keep in mind while reading? Should it be simple or complex? Long or short? Perhaps it should seem utterly unrelated to the poem until the third reading.

Here’s a secret: titles are hard. Really, really hard. Sometimes the title comes to me first, then the poem. Then the title is easy. But, nearly always, the poem is finished and the title is nowhere to be found. Is it hiding in a line of the last stanza? No. Is it lurking in a line break? No. Is it dangling in the ether, ready to be plucked, but invisible to my mind’s eye? Probably. Is it possible that some poems resist being titled? Absolutely. But, is it also true that a lack of a title will invariably lead to the first line being used in its stead? Yes.

So, alas, let us pick a title:

The Crocodile
Riverbed
Suspended

I find myself resisting these, because they already live in the poem. However, I may not be able to come up with anything better. So, I will let these sit, fester. When the time comes, a title may occur to me as I’m washing the dishes or putting on lotion before bed. Or it may not. I may have to choose a title that I am not all that happy with.

When I look out the window, my gaze always catches on the aloe. In its articulated, multi-pronged existence. During this visit, I find myself dwelling on the way the aloe lives in the sky, just as the crocodile lives in the riverbed. The aloe reaches down into the earth, the dirt, just as the crocodile reaches up for the sky. The title lives somewhere here—in this set of truths. But, can I find it?

Weeks later, I return to the poem. I read it over and a title appears. A “final version” emerges:

Mid Flight

The fine-toothed aloe vera
rises from the earth:
a crocodile leaping from the Nile,

slick with mud
(for a moment)
she takes flight.

Mouth open
each tooth apparent
her body splits the sky.

The sun catches each bump,
yellow-eyed dinosaur–

a bolt of lighting
in a cloudless sky.

The thick-leafed succulent stands
permanently suspended by earth

as the crocodile
falls back into the Nile:

she roots to the murky river bed
as the aloe reaches to the sun.

 

I will read this version out loud, as I have done with each draft, looking for moments when my voice catches on a word: I change “in the cloudless sky” to “in a cloudless sky” because that article catches in my throat, disrupting the natural flow. If I return to this poem in a month or a year, I am likely to add a comma or delete a line break. Even now, I wonder if “aloe” and “earth” and “sky” should be capitalized. Am I undermining their agency by leaving them as lower-case words, rather than capitalized characters?

The questions are endless. The musings are useful until they become overwrought, exhausting. But ultimately, the poem is finished. It was just an exercise, afterall, an exploration of the writing process, which is an exploration in understanding the world and conveying that understanding to others.

What do you think? What choices would you have made?

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