I think being distracted can be good for a poem. When I compose a poem, I usually try to lock myself in a room alone, preferably with no one else in the house or when everyone is asleep. I'll even perform little rituals to purge myself of the world and prepare myself for doing something sacred and silent. I'll sit in the dark and listen to my breath. I'll shower and put on clothing that makes me feel like a million bucks.
But that's not always an option. Right now I'm in the hospital, and I will be for the next twelve hours. I'm distracted. A nurse offers me ginger ale every couple minutes, or stabs a needle into me. My mom is reading emails from cancer friends out loud. My wife keeps asking for input on a drawing of a friend of mine diving into a cup of iced coffee. He's chasing a kiss I blew to the cup's bottom in order to seduce and drown him. I shuttle in and out of the writing:
When I write and I'm distracted I look up from the page. On the way back down, I've forgotten much of the piece. And so I end up rereading everything that's been written thus far before I try to write more. The more distracted I am, the more times I will reread my piece.
I could never go back and start to reread a poem written behind a locked door, in the dead of sacred night. I put on tuxedo jackets to write these poems. Rereading a stanza would be like leaning over a white tablecloth, shoving aside the pewter candlesticks, and asking my hot date to please retell a story he or she told a few minutes ago because I forgot it. My date would be very upset, beacuse when I first heard that story I said Breathtaking, I'll never forget that story. You've changed my life. To reread is to cheat--it would prove that I wasn't in perfect congress with the writing.
Even though I feel less intimacy with pieces I compose when I'm distracted--there's no doubt that I am drastically better at remembering all the parts that go into a poem when I go through several rereadings of it. This lets deep interlacement happen in the images and figures and themes.
And the lack of intimacy also helps me feel cold to what I'm writing and rereading and then writing again. As I reread, cold to the piece, I notice boring sections, or words that are flat. I would otherwise be too attached to judge these failing moments of writing objectively. But thanks to my coldness, I get to kill off bad writing right then and there, instead of having to butcher the work through several editing sessions as I slowly come to my senses. Or, most terrifyingly, to remain eternally nostalgic for bad work that felt fun and Holy to write, and put it out in the world for sentimental reasons.
And best of all, when I'm distracted, the present interrupts the poem. And the present is full of sensuality, which is all anyone ever wants to read. Or all I ever want to write. I was worried, for instance, that it would be a bit boring to talk about distractibility in the abstract, but it was fun to write about my mom and wife.
To write a poem under the duress of distraction is to write a poem under the duress of the world. The world never goes away, which is a very poetic thing for it to do. And it's a poetic thing for the poet to be forced to wrestle with. To write poetry while distracted blends stenography with the impulse to seek patterns and meanings which carry emotional weight. This is a way to reckon with fate.
If I'm honest with myself as I look back on my work, the poems I love the most were not composed in the Holiest of ways. One was written in a taxicab. Another started out very Holy, but midway through, I got so excited that I called my bestie Elizabeth on the phone and glossed the poem for her, and we brainstormed some ideas for how to finish it. A third, I was too lazy to find my computer, so I composed in my iPhone's notes section. And even in the Holiest of writing-settings, the pivot or swerve that makes the poem great often comes from a distracted moment. Needing a metaphor, I'll open my desk and fish out knick-knacks. Needing a surge of emotion, I'll go on Facebook and look at pictures of girls I was attracted to in elementary or high school. Getting bored, not knowing what I need at all beyond knowing, man this poem is boring... my eyes will wander into my closet, and a fabric will make its way into the poem that fills up with a person who carries a weapon, or love potion, or something worth writing about.
It's not just me. Maybe it's you? There's a Percy Shelley poem, "Letter to Maria Gisborne," in which the poet establishes himself in his patron's study, and talks about each knick-knack on her desk. He extrapolates to the Spanish Inquisition, and shipwrecks, and somehow a bowl of quicksilver on the desk inspires him into a long discourse on gnomes. Milton gets in there too. The poem isn't my favorite, but the way it works feels close to my heart. It takes up the world around it like rocket fuel.
But we're (or maybe it's just me?) supposed to think of poems as emerging only from deep concentration and the summoning up of the most demoniac parts of our internality. And I think that may be because, however good distraction is for the poem, it's not good for the poet. I feel my best self come out in those late nights, in Holy solitude, when I'm completely absorbed in a poem. When the only source for the words appearing on the page is the cistern in the bottom of my heart. I have a terrible memory--it's a source of deep insecurity for me. But when I write stripped of all but what's inside of me, it proves to me that I have a memory. That my memory is full of wonders. I think all poets use poems to prove to themselves they have an imagination. And if the world around you is more interesting than your internality, you may as well be a journalist.
Writing a poem is the only time I'm comfortable being alone. It gives me the illusion that I am deep enough to endlessly entertain myself. That I could survive without the company of other people--the company of Ira Glass or Chris Harrison, the company of my wife, the company of my friends. I can't, in real life, bear to be parted from my T.V., my mom, my lovely iPhone blooming with text messages--for more than a couple minutes.
Perhaps, writing a poem is just another form of company for myself, And it only feels "healthier" because we have a myth that equates keeping yourself company with being comfortable being alone with the world. As wonderful as the world is, it's overwhelming to face it without some language in the way. A poem is a shield, like the T.V. talking at me, or me talking at my wife. It's all language. And language is safe. It protects you from pure and unmitigated and endless distraction--which is living. Which, often, is suffering.
My mother is talking to a doctor on the phone. She just whispered such a nice man. My I.V. machine is beeping. My wife has changed the pose of my friend leaping into the coffee. He looks happier--like he's having a wild time. He looks full of limitless energy. The nurse just showed up to hang the chemo bag. Another nurse came with her to double check my name and serial number, and make sure it matches the name and serial number on the freshly brewed batch of chemo.
This week will feature a different kind of distraction. A kind where the world narrows and narrows, until it's just a horizontal slice of light, like when the T.V. is just turning on. The T.V. will brighten and grow, and it will play CBS's Survivor and ABC's Shark Tank on repeat for 12 hours a day. Then all night long, it will play infomercials for my wife and I to fall asleep to, because it's too sad to listen to my poisoned breath and wonder if I'm awake or asleep. We will be distracted from the world, not distracted by it. But let's not call this distraction; let's call it absorption.
I changed my mind. I think distraction is good for the poet. I think it is magnificent. Distraction is moving through the world's body. Even when you're just moving from one thought to another, it is moving through the world's body. And to move through the body is to make love.
Go read something else, go do something else. Do something you wouldn't do if you were being well behaved.
This post originally appeared on The National Poetry Month Daily Tumblr, a series of meditations by poets on their craft posted through the month of April, curated by Sarah Blake.