How I Write Poetry

POEM (February 2014)

FREE DOWNLOAD I would like to share with all poetry lovers this free broadsheet:
Lenfestey: By Azure Huron's Shore that was composed in celebration of the Mackinac Arts Council in honor of Walt Whitman's "By Blue Ontario's Shore". Michillimackinac, Lake Huron, Great Lakes, Turtle Island, 15th August 2011. Reprinted in the book EARTH IN ANGER; 25 Poems of Love and Despair for Planet Earth (Red Dragonfly Press, 2013) May be reproduced free forever. Download in PDF format, 115kb

READING (February 2012)

LISTEN ONLINE Hear the story of my trip to Cold Mountain,
reprise of the Marcia Pankake lecture at University of Minnesota:

ESSAY (August 1993)


When I go on vacation I invariably bring along some important project that I can't find time to finish during the normal work season. 

Sometimes I actually work on the project.  More often I work on nothing at all, which is what my body and mind know I am supposed to be doing while on vacation.  Sometimes, however, if I am lucky, I write a poem.  It goes like this.

I sit down at my keyboard to begin the overdue project.  But my relaxed mind is tuned to a deeper, wider current.   I reach into it first with my hands and feel it flow over and around the pebbles of my fingertips.

At such moments, I try to capture those currents in poetry.  I used to do this very late at night, after work and dinner, with babies asleep and only the owls out patrolling.  Then the poetry might squeeze its way under the doorway like mice.  If lucky, I would find small, smooth bones lying on the typewriter in the morning.

After the children crossed the teenage threshold and began staying up later at night than I could, early morning became the poetry time, the undisturbed hour after sunrise when the family still slept and the robins were out catching worms and the kesrels were out catching robins.  If lucky, I would sometimes find a small blue egg or a tuft of orange feathers nested on my typewriter before I left for work.

During this year's vacation at our cottage on Mackinac Island, I planned to write a long meditative essay compiling the lessons I learned from twenty years of teaching American Indian Literature.  I had even lined up an obliging magazine editor to give the piece the weight of a deadline. 

But first, why not catch up on a few novels?  Vacation is one of the few times I can read novels, unless required by my reading group, reflecting a sad lack of personal reading discipline.  So the first thing I did this vacation was read three sequential novels by Barbara Kingsolver.  That rich experience, plus biking with the kids, running over the electric cord with the electric lawn mower, picking berries, grilling fish, drinking with relatives and watching birds, consumed most of my ten vacation days.  As I finished the last novel, Animal Dreams, tears of emotion ran down my cheeks.

Early the next morning, after making coffee and walking the dog, I chased an elusive pileated woodpecker through the woods with binoculars.  Back at the kitchen table, I wrote to family and co-workers on postcards picturing local Indian chiefs.  Then I entered the back bedroom to begin the essay project.

The back room of the cottage holds an old bureau, a rickety wooden chair and a table next to the window that looks out into thick cedar woods.  I love this place, silent as a monastery.  The flat green fingertips of the cedars ensnare all sound, even breeze, as does the soft brown cedar duff carpeting the ground. 

I opened my grocery bag full of accumulated research and spread the contents around me on the floor.  I happened upon a book I'd forgotten I'd brought with me, my much worn copy of Cold Mountain poems by Han-shan.

Han-shan!  Brother!

Twenty-two years ago I came upon Han-shan's one hundred Cold Mountain poems translated by Burton Watson.  A friend gave me the book just prior to a long retreat with fellow staff members from the school where I worked.  As we drove in the van I read the poems out loud.  We all laughed until we were weak.  Han-shan's personal laments, witty observations and broad insights, all in accessible conversational speech, sounded as familiar to me as if written by an older brother.  Yet Han-shan lived, if he lived at all and isn't a literary fiction, more than a thousand years ago on the coast of China.  Once a family man and government worker, he spent the end of his life a hermit meditating and laughing out loud on the wild slopes of Cold Mountain, inscribing his few poems on rocks and trees.

As the school car rolled on in silence, I began to write my own responses to Han-shan's voice.  Twenty years later I am still writing to him.

I put down the essay and read number 39.                     

The birds and their chatter overwhelm me with feeling:
At times like this I lie down in my straw hut.
Cherries shine with crimson fire.
Willows trail slender boughs.
The morning sun pops from the jaws of blue peaks;
Bright clouds are washed in the green pond.
Who ever thought I would leave the dusty world
and come bounding up the southern slope of Cold Mountain?

As I finished reading, the pileated woodpecker I had chased that morning landed on a birch right next to my window.  As he worked around that fat trunk alone in the cedars, I watched in a hush.  When he flew away, I wrote the following poem from the slope of my own Cold Mountain.

When sound leaks from a cedar grove, better listen.
When moss falls by the window pane, better sit up.
A spiked shadow dances around a branch.
A woodpecker big as a hatchet taps out
his elusive forest story right in front of me!
I lean back breathless from my desk,
forgetting for a moment the chair is broken.
Who would have thought I'd find a place so quiet
that what is longed for flies right in?

So that's what I'd been seeking all week, a time quiet enough for feelings to flow, a space open enough for what arrives.  That is the moment when poets write not what comes to our minds but what comes out our fingers through pencils or typewriters or laptop computers, a direct connection to the soul through touch.

No one need verify such moments of the unlocked spirit.   What arrives may fly away in an instant.  Or remain fresh for a thousand years.

James P. Lenfestey — Publications & Writings

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