How a Poem Arrives

As poets and writers, every now and then we fizzle out. We take to the page and…nothing happens. We struggle to get words out and it feels much like trying to squeeze light from solid rock. Our head feels heavy. The blankness of the paper (or the screen) stares at us, mockingly. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought that I’d written my last very poem. Yes, that is entirely overdramatic, but it is also true to how I have felt (and will feel again) in those cyclical moments of frustration: when the desire to express is there, but the ability is seemingly not. Sometimes that period can stretch for weeks at a time, months even. But, somehow, I always seem to come out of it. And deep down, I always know that I will.  

Reflecting on my own experience, I find that simply wanting to produce a poem is not enough. I count the days and notice how long it’s been since the last poem. I feel guilt and shame. I feel nervous. None of that helps. The need to write, and I mean need, in that instance, is pure fabrication. It has to be authentic. I believe we are compelled to write by a shadow of us—a feeling, a thought, a memory—that aches to be given form outside of the mind. As much as the body goes to sleep when it’s tired, as much as it eats when it’s hungry, it writes when it wants to be heard. So I wait for that moment, with intention. I show patience, which in this context, is also an act of faith. The best thing I believe anyone can do during a bout of writer’s block is wait. Not waiting in the sense of being still and idle, but waiting as in keeping lookout for a due arrival.

To some that may seem like a surprising statement. I often hear about how writing is a “practice”—it involves routine, dedication, resilience. All of that is true. It is a good idea to attempt to write every day, to work the muscles so to speak, but I relate that more to mechanics, to knowing how the gears of a poem work together and how to build that gorgeous machine. These motions can aid in breaking through a slump, of course, but it’s not necessarily the satisfying writing nor the important writing (though it sometimes can be or build into it) that we often look for when we pick up a pen or start typing away on a keyboard, the work that leaves us with the sense we accomplished “something” of note. But don’t worry, because the important work will make itself known when it’s ready. It will insist upon its existence. You just have to be listening.

Cortney Lamar Charleston is a Cave Canem fellow, finalist for the 2015 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize and semi-finalist for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry JournalGulf CoastHayden's Ferry ReviewThe Iowa Review, The JournalNew England Review, Pleiades, River Styx, Spillway, TriQuarterly and Bird’s Thumb.

Read "Regarding the Conversation Between Black Body and Sound."