As I type this, I’m aboard a Boeing 737. The engine’s so loud here in 28A I should be wearing ear protectors like those folks who guide planes in and out of their gates. Instead I’m taking a break from revising a poem.
Hearing damage aside, planes are a fine place to write for several reasons. First, there’s an unspoken rule that strangers do not say a word to each other, or if they do, usually not till the final twenty minutes before landing, when it’s certain your seatmate is not going to tell her your life story. Secondly, in all the years I’ve been flying no one has ever attempted to strike up a conversation about my publishing history. The beauty of flying is that most passengers, when they see someone scribbling away, assume either (1) she’s taking notes for a business meeting, (2) she’s a poser /writes for Hallmark. They would never assume they were sitting next to an “actual” poet. That would mean they were sitting next to some dead guy from New England. Lucky for us, they are cowards and do not dare ask. Lucky for us, they leave us alone. There are also no cell phones on planes (thank God), and though some flights are introducing wireless Internet service, there is no way in hell I am ever going online at 37,000 feet. Why? Because in the air is one of the only places left where I can resist checking my email every ten minutes.
When I’m not flying, my next favorite writing hangout is my car. Most of the time I write in my Suburu Outback when it’s parked near the building where I teach, but sometimes (and I hate to admit this, and I in no way endorse or recommend or sanction it) I write when my car is in motion, and I am at the wheel. Why would someone do such a stupid thing? My answer is two-fold. First, sometimes I get so revved up about an idea or an image or a line that while I’m stopped in traffic I pull my notebook from my handbag and throw it on the passenger seat, along with a pen. When I am not crossing the 2nd longest floating bridge in the world, which is a five-minute drive from where I live, or negotiating a difficult merge, I have been known to grab the notebook and scribble down a line without looking down. You probably wouldn’t be able to decipher this worse-than-a-medical-doctor scribble, but when I get home I can take these nonsensical splotches and curves, and begin to turn them into a first draft. Not a great many of my poems begin this way, but right off my head I can think of three that did.
Planes and cars: Why? It must go back to Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, which I read a long, long time ago, but like many poets of my generation, I never stopped listening to what Hugo made a case for:
Somehow you must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject to the words. For our purposes, I’ll use towns as examples. The poem is always in your home town, but you have a better chance of finding it in another.
To increase the odds of sniffing out compelling subject matter--to keep a poem moving, exciting, surprising--sometimes I need to be on a plane or in between flights, or driving along Interstate-5 or Highway 90, looking out the window, jotting down what I see, or, in the case of driving, listening to Auden or Levis or Stafford or dozens of other fine poets on CD. These towns whizzing by: none of them are my own. Like Hugo says, I don’t know whether or not the gas station attendant is a drunk. I can do whatever I want with the images I jot down as I drive along: the Sweet Shots espresso stand, the billboard screaming out Rock-n-Roll’s Greatest Hits, the sign for Funtasia Fun Park. As you’re driving along, you really don’t know what your next line will be. It really depends on what you notice out of the corner of your eye. It might be a store named Tacoma Screw, or it might be that you look with new eyes at the green exit signs, with their arrows pointing downward toward Earth.
But these are not the only places I find inspiration. I also have written, in the last few months, at the following:
Museum. Art, science, natural history: I am not picky, and furthermore, I am a mother. How do you entertain the children and still get writing done? Take your kids to the dinosaur exhibit and, while they are seeing if they can fit inside the hadrosaur footprint, pull out your notebook and start taking notes.
Beach. There’s nothing like feeling the sand between your toes, sipping an icy lemonade, checking to make sure your kids haven’t been knocked over by a wave, and drafting a poem titled “Multitasking.”
Zoo. Another great place to kill two secretary birds: amuse and delight the kids and write a pantoum about a gorilla or a gazelle.
Playground. In the space of a 5-minute swing ride I can fill up two pages with jottings about the sky, the birds, the shiny quality of a cedar tree’s needles, how this mother is trying hard but failing to convince her daughter that she can pump her legs and swing all by herself.
Cubicle. Let’s face it: work can be a great place to write. Sure, you should be working, but you can justify your writing time as akin to clocking in 10-15 minutes at the water cooler. Your bonus for eating PBJ at your desk? An entire 60 minutes devoted to your latest draft Conference room: One of my favorite places to write first drafts is in a boring meeting. I look like I am taking copious notes, hanging onto the speaker’s every word, when in fact I am making a list of all my old boyfriends and which sausage they are most akin to.
Restaurants, Cafes, Bars. One restaurant, in particular, has, for the last eight years, been the meeting spot for a writing group I’m a member of. Once a month we show up, claim a table, order up some shwarma, some hummus and pita, and take turns leading writing prompts for the group. Sometimes we’re in the bar and it gets pretty loud. When this happens, a line from an Etta James song might drift into one of our drafts. Or some overheard conversation at a nearby table. When I am out of luck and staring at the blank page, my posse vigorously scribbling all around me, I look out the rain-soaked window and squint to find an interesting image, a street sign, the name of a hair salon, a stranger’s black wool coat.
And then there’s poet Kelli Russell Agodon’s Poetry Barn. Once every few months I make the trek to her little Home Depot pre-fab shed-turned-poetry-shack, and after Kelli’s got the space heater turned up full blast and her golden retriever Buddy banished to the kitchen, we begin our poetry workshop o two. Always there are chocolates, hot tea, sliced fruit, and other brain-fortifying goodies. At noon we break to head inside and whip up a lunch of greens and rotisserie chicken. Then we head back to the barn for more poetry writing, along with several more handfuls of those obligatory Dove chocolate hearts. There are worse ways to pass the better part of a Saturday.
Finally, there’s the writing I do right in my very own home, though strange as it may sound, I do not actually have a room of my own, let alone a tiny alcove of my own. What I do have is a desk and an old PC up in an attic that doubles as the “master suite.” Back behind the chimney, where the roof starts to slope—this is where I’ve staked out my three-foot-square plot of privacy, a place where, when my kids were little, I occasionally barricaded myself with cushions and chairs, then threw down several dozen rattles and squeeze toys outside this demarcation so my son, and later my daughter, could entertain themselves for 20 minutes while I pounded out a first draft or tidied up a poem for submission. When they went down for their naps I had my little piece of paradise to disappear for an hour or two, until I’d hear the fussing in the crib and power down.
When people ask me where I write, if I have a special spot that releases the poetry-writing juices, I don’t know what to say, so I keep it simple: “I write at red lights.” But the honest truth is that I can write just about anywhere.