Slow-going this week, as I grapple with some fundamental questions about subject matter. Bukowski says the poet is like a cat; it doesn't think about killing a bird, it just kills it. But what if there aren't any birds around? It seems to me that writing poetry involves a lot of waiting and hunting. You find a quiet place to watch for something with a heartbeat, or stalk it in the shadows. The beginning, especially, demands patience, focus and timing. In silence you calculate what is catchable and when to pounce. If you move too quickly, the commotion scares it off and you're left hungry.
So how do you decide when to go off hunting? In the morning, before I start actively trying to write, I read for an hour or so. If I'm lucky, something will occur to me during that time, some piece of a poem or just an interesting image or idea. It's like the cat spotting movement along the treeline. It gives me something to work with later on, and that's when the words seem to flow most smoothly. The poems that result tend to be the ones I like most.
But there are so many days when it feels like I'm sitting in a quiet field, and nothing's moving. Just me and a few vague ideas floating overhead, ungraspable as clouds. A lot of people would call this writer's block, but to me the problem is not so much that there are obstacles as it is that everything is so wide open. My time is not limitless, so I can't just sit around waiting--even cats realize that's a good way to starve to death. So, always somewhat hesitantly, I trod off in search of something to sustain me.
The problem is, as I get hungrier, it becomes increasingly easy to hallucinate poems where none exists. I start pouncing on dry leaves that blow by or I waste my time chasing grasshoppers. I might catch something, but it's never very filling. It's a frustrating experience, and the question becomes, how long to persist? There are days when I spot a cardinal while stalking a cockroach, and that makes everything worth it. On the other hand, there are many more days when all I get is leaves and bugs, or I convince myself that a ragged bundle of cloth is a bird. I might as well have just given up and hoped for better hunting the next day.
What's worth writing about? What's not? It's like knowing which kind of day it will be for bird-hunting. There's no way to know until afterwards, so I go out there and follow whatever movement I find, and hope it all works out. Maybe what Bukowski really means is that you can't go into the hunt looking for one particular bird; instead, you act on instinct, not thinking about what you want, but taking what the field provides. If that's right, then maybe the real trick of it is knowing where to hunt in the first place.