Today I get to share one of the writers who’s inspired me most over the past year, through her commitment to a daily writing practice, and living an artful life. Enjoy this interview with Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, and follow her blog here.
When I first started following your blog (A Hundred Falling Veils), it looked as if you were doing a poem a day, every day. How long have you been doing that, and did you ever regret committing yourself to such an aggressive goal?
Back in February of 1996, my friend Jude Janett suggested to a group of poets that we find two partners and try writing a poem a day for 30 days. At that time, the challenge seemed impossible, but I thought I’d try. After 30 days, my trio decided to go for 90 days. And after 90 days, I decided the practice was too rich to stop.
The beauty of writing a poem a day is that it helps me to be more attentive all day long. It becomes a means of devotion, a way of falling more deeply in love with the world, even when (especially when?) the world is so messy.
Over the years, I have developed these four promises to myself.
1) I will write.
Showing up is perhaps the most important part of the creative process.
2) It doesn’t have to be good, but it has to be true.
I used to not want to write a poem unless I knew that it would be good. And sometimes that meant that I would go months without writing a poem. But if you are writing every day, then you know there is no way you will write a masterpiece every day. Basically, it allows your inner critic to relax. On the other hand, if you write every day, your chances of writing a good poem go waaaaaaay up. If you sit in the aviary long enough, sooner or later a bird will land on your head. I think Billy Collins said that, but I can’t find where.
3) I will not know the end before I write, and if I do, I will write past the ending I imagine.
Nothing like knowing the end to shut down the creative process and lose the opportunity for the poem to teach us something. One of my mantras, given to me from Jack Mueller: “Obey the poem’s emerging form.” I believe in serving the poem.
4) I will share it.
It’s so important to offer our gifts back to the world. It’s terrifying to think that our voices don’t matter. It is perhaps more terrifying when we learn just how much they matter—and then take on the responsibility that goes with having a voice. Every single one of us has a voice that matters.
Except for a hiatus of six or seven months after I had my second child, I have stayed true to the daily practice. I don’t always POST a poem a day, in part because I have a lot of internet issues due to our remote location. I never, ever have regretted making the commitment. I know I could stop anytime. It would be easy—really, really easy—to not write a poem a day. That’s part of why I do it.
On your TEDx talk, you speak about the role of metaphor in our lives, and ‘changing the frame’ to help redirect how we’re feeling or thinking about things. Tell me more about that.
Bill, this is one of the most exciting things I could share with you or anyone. As a poet, you probably already know intuitively that sometimes when an image comes to you, it changes the way you see the world. It’s not only a poetic device, it’s a neurological process.
One of my heroes, linguist George Lakoff, writes in Don’t Think of an Elephant, “One of the fundamental findings in cognitive science, is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors—conceptual structures … in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry.”
So why does this matter? As Lakoff continues, “When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.”
But each time we break a frame and then engage with new metaphors, we can expand our sense of what is possible in the world.
Here’s an example from my speech. For the first year of my son’s life, he screamed. Not just an hour here and there. He cried and screamed all day. Every day. And no doctor could tell me why nor alleviate his pain. It was awful to feel so helpless. And after many months of this, I called my friend Susan and said, “I think I am being tested.”
“Oh Rosemerry,” she said, “It isn’t a test. It’s a path.” Until that moment, I had been completely oblivious to the influence of this underlying metaphor. If motherhood were a test, then I was failing. And I hated it. But if mothering were a path, well, then don’t I always want to hike the longest, steepest, most challenging path? And isn’t that just what I had been given in an infant? A really challenging path. The screaming didn’t stop, not for a few more months. But the way that I engaged with my screaming child and the way I felt about motherhood transformed.
If we can identify and change the metaphors that frame our thoughts and drive our actions, then we can change the way we approach our lives. I find it is true over and over and over … every day. It’s the gift that comes from a poetry practice.
Describe your editing technique: do you read your poems aloud, or do you have a sense for the sound/rhythm internally?
I LOVE this question. I absolutely have an internal sense for rhyme and rhythm. When I am writing, it is a very sound-driven process. That evolved, I think, out of my great respect and intensive reading/study of the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins and e.e. cummings—two masters of word music.
And, I also will always read a poem out loud many times (many many times—until I am more than bored with it) before I think it is “finished.” I learn so much by what the mouth says when the brain finally gets tired of paying attention. Mistakes and stumbles and slips of tongue are a writer’s best friends.
How do you know when a poem’s done? Do you ever publish poems on your blog that aren’t 100% done?
Double ha! I ONLY publish poems on my blog that aren’t done! I often laugh to myself that I put thousands of first drafts into the world. What kind of fool would do that?
I have a very strong revision practice, but that is not what the world sees on my blog. In my books, yes, but not on the blog.
Most poems, Bill, I think are not worth revising. But some are … and then, as in the writing process, I think about what serves the poem. Here are some of the questions I consider:
- Is there something else the poem wants to teach me?
- Have I allowed myself to be caught off guard with the poem?
- Does the first line pull in a reader? If not, can the beginning lines be cut? Or rearranged?
- Does the end feel satisfyingly like an end—is it doing its work? Does it resonate?
- How much can I cut?
- Are there places where repetition might help?
- Did the poem “get the weather right,” (which is to say, does it set the scene appropriately)
- Is there a blend of show and tell?
- Are there places that are predictable? If so, alter them.
- Does the poem in some way comment on what it means to be alive?
With as much as you write and publish, you must have some kind of process or technique to get inspired. Tell us some of your tricks, please.
Trick one: I read a LOT of poems. I don’t just read them, I read them actively. When I love a poem, I study it to understand why I love it. Is there a twist? Is it something formal? Is it the way a phrase turns? Is it a new way of seeing? I write all over poetry books and underline anything I want to give more attention on subsequent readings.
Trick two: Look out the window.
Trick three: Lower your standards. At least for your first draft. You can have them back later.
When it comes to publishing, I care about it a lot less than I used to, probably because the blog allows me to have a large readership, and let’s face it, not a whole lot of people read poetry books or poetry journals. Having said that, I guess I only send poems to journals, anthologies and sites that I feel a strong resonance with. That really enhances my chances of getting in, right? And I try to find places to publish where non-poets will be readers.
Another trick—I write short poems on rocks using a sharpie. I leave them all around town—in alleys, on fences, in public restrooms. Over the years I have left many hundreds. It’s not exactly publishing, but it sure does increase the chances of the poems finding their way into the world.
Because I write every day, my writing tends to be mostly about quotidian subjects: What my daughter said. What I am making for dinner. What is happening in the garden or the yard or the house or the car. What I heard on the news. All of life is fodder. All day, I am on the lookout for threads to weave into a poem.
That’s how life informs the writing, but how does the writing inform my life? Well! Playing with different metaphorical lenses has been HUGE for me. It changes the way I see the world.
I also think that poetry, because it is so comfortable with paradox and so willing to hold oppositions, has helped me to be more comfortable and fluent in uncertainty and paradox in everyday life.
In a world that alienates, consumerizes and manipulates, writing poetry is a radical, life-changing act—it finds connection, it cares nothing for monetary value, and it is more interested in finding resonance with the heart than biasing the brain.
How did you learn to live like that?
Poetry is an incredible teacher. And so are other poets! I have an incredible group of poets that I commune with. The Western Slope of Colorado is, I think, quite special in the way that the poets here support and encourage each other. We are far flung, but find many reasons and ways to meet up with each other and play. I have amazing mentors—Art Goodtimes, Jim Tipton, Karen Chamberlain, Wendy Videlock, Luis Lopez, Jude Janett, David Mason, David Rothman, Jack Mueller … the list goes on and on. For a gander at the Western Slope poets, check out this interactive poetry map that I curate …
What does success mean for you?
A few years ago, one of my students told me she wanted to publish more. I told her that if this was her goal, then I was not the right teacher. I am more interested, I said, in serving the poem, in letting the poem know more than we do, in learning to get out of the way so that the poem can flourish and surprise us.
Getting out of the way—when that happens, there is nothing like it. When we become instruments for the poem, that’s success.
I’m not against publishing. Thank goodness for publishing so we can read each other’s poems! I am, however, against publishing being the reason to write.
I look sometimes at other poets and think, wow, that person is really successful—for instance Ellen Bass or Naomi Shihab Nye, or Mary Oliver, or Kim Rosen. They have national recognition, they have major publishers for their books. But really, Bill, what they have are incredible poems that move people—that’s what makes them successful. Not the books. Not the titles. So I devote myself to trying to write incredible poems.
What advice do you give to would-be writers who feel like they’re too young or inexperienced, they don’t have anything to really say yet?
1) Find a poetry community and be active in it. 2) Memorize other people’s poems that you love—you invite all their tools into your system. 3) Consider that your poems don’t need to be experienced and wise—come from a curious place. Let your questions and uncertainty shine in the center of your work.
Learn more about Rosemerry and her practice on her blog at A Hundred Falling Veils.