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PATTIANN ROGERS - OCTOBER 1999 FEATURE  

  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Gibbons Ruark
Seen Through a Temperament: Gibbons Ruark on painting with words.

Pattiann Rogers
A Day in the Life: Pattiann Rogers gives us a glimpse of a day in her life.

John Kinsella
Manifesto - Against Violence: The latest installment in John Kinsella's exclusive autobiographical series.

Pattiann Rogers

Pattiann RogersPattiann Rogers' most recent books are Eating Bread and Honey (Milkweed Editions, 1997) and Firekeeper (Milkweed Editions, l994).  Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, and Best American Poetry.  A book-length essay The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing as Reciprocal Creation will appear from Milkweed in May, 1999, in the Credo Series.

 Pattiann Rogers—A Day in the Life

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The patterns of my work habits were formed during the years when my sons were young and living at home. Although they are grown now and on their own, those early work habits remain with me. During those years, I always wrote with some kind of noise and activity going on around me, pre-schoolers to teenagers. If I wanted to write, I had to do it in the midst of that activity and adjust to interruptions. I generally worked on the kitchen table and never wrote in a room behind a closed door.

A typical day for me now, the spring of 1999, begins when I wake up, usually out of dreams, around 6:00. If I’m particularly excited about a poem I’m working on, I will have left it on the floor beside the bed the night before. I pick it up the first thing then, read over it, eager to see how it seems to me after a night’s sleep. I will revise it a little before I’m out of bed.

Then I do whatever domestic chores are waiting, which was always my habit in the past—cook and clean up after breakfast, usually soup and a sandwich. I dress, make the beds, start the washing machine, feed the cat, see what’s happening out of doors, weather and birds, a new poppy in bloom, an unleashed dog running down the street. I go to my desk around 8:00 to think again about the poems I’m working on. I turn on the radio to the classical station. Either the radio or the stereo will be on all day when I’m at home. I’m beginning a new poem today, so I leave my desk with my clipboard and folder and sit in a chair by the window or at the kitchen table where I can see outside. In my folder, I have a list of words and phrases and brief thoughts I’ve jotted down, simply because they attracted my attention and I liked them. These notes are never in complete sentences. Complete sentences in these very early jottings would kill any poetic potential the images or the words possess, limiting them somehow. I look through this collection of notes to see if anything there still interests me and also to see if any of the separate items might work together in some way in a poem. Finding something, I begin to write, in pencil on notebook paper, in a slightly disorganized way, never orderly.

After working a while, I quit, leave the table to move clean clothes from the washer into the dryer or to take clothes out of the dryer, fold them and put them away, thinking all the while of what’s happening in the new poem, listening to the music on the radio. When I go back to the poem, I generally see something there I had missed before I left. The early morning proceeds in this way. I write. I stare out the window. I add a line or two, a metaphor, a word. I leave the writing to attend to a small chore or two. Something Karl Hass says during his radio program, "Adventures in Good Music," catches my attention. I make a note of it. Whatever I’m doing, there’s still a part of me working on the poem, thinking about what it’s saying, the direction it’s going.

When I see the writing beginning to take a form, generally in the first couple of hours of work, I go to the computer and type in what I’ve written, work with it a while at the computer. On my desk I have a small stuffed doll, a jester wearing red, pointed shoes, a three-belled hat, a silly grin on his face. He reminds me not to take myself too seriously. I print out the poem, move back to the window and begin to revise once more, adding, deleting, rearranging, clarifying. I stop again, go outside, into that openness, and water the wild flower garden. I go to the grocery store, then meet my husband John for lunch. Afterward, we go to the hardware store to select a new kitchen sink and faucet. We’re having the old sink and cracked faucet replaced. We’re confused by the choices.

Home again. The mail has arrived. There are three or four letters, a form to complete giving permission to reprint a poem, one letter from an editor I respect who has accepted a poem I submitted to his journal. He suggests a change in the last line of the poem, but insists that publication does not depend on my agreeing to the change. I think he gives good reasons for feeling the last line is a little weak, but I don’t like his suggested solution. I begin to read the poem carefully again and again, trying to feel what’s happening in that last line and trying various ways of rearranging and rewording it. I work for an hour at this. Now I’m not only dissatisfied with both the original ending and the ending suggested by the editor, I'm dissatisfied with all the other new endings I’ve tried as well. I’m beginning to feel anxious, afraid I’ll have to stick with the original ending. It’s only four words but not quite the best four words.

I put both the new poem and the poem with the flawed ending aside and answer my e-mail—someone needs a bio for an upcoming reading; someone else wants to know if I can come to a scheduled reading three days early in order to participate in other events; another gathering I’ve agreed to participate in is trying to arrange a conference call among the faculty members; a friend has had her novel accepted for publication. I e-mail my son in Austin and my son and daughter-in-law in New Jersey just to check in with them and finalize our plans for visiting them next week.

I turn to the new poem again and see the necessity for a little research—the origin of a word, a synonym I need, the description of a flower or a weed or a bird, double check whether I’m right about where a reptile lives, an historical date. It’s a pleasure to look through my resource books. I like the kind of vocabulary and perspective there. I think about the questions the poem is raising, all that I don’t know, how the poem might address my ignorance. The work is almost like solving a puzzle, choosing the word that fits. There IS a right word, a right image, a right turn for this space—right in music, right in meaning. What are they? I want the words that will show me something I wasn’t aware of previously. This is the same puzzle I face with the flawed ending of the other poem. I work back and forth between these two poems for a while, engaged in the puzzles they present. I make many revisions in the new poem, entering my changes in the computer and printing out the new versions, often revising at the computer itself.

Toward late afternoon, I take a walk. The Front Range of the Rockies is always in view, so far away and full of colors, never looking the same twice. I can see a great distance off. But I pay attention to what is close at hand, too, how life is reacting to the conditions of the day, what is being said out there in the world.

When I arrive home, I feed the cat again. I tell him everything I would like a god to say to me. It’s time to start dinner. I peel and pound and dice and stir and mix. And one time I wondered how the movements of my hands engaged in these various cooking chores day after day were informed by the movements of the words in the poem and vice versa. I keep both poems close beside me, on the countertop as I cook, on the table as we eat, just as I have always kept the poems I’m currently working on with me. After dinner and clean-up, John and I usually watch television for a while, sometimes a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes mystery, or an NBA game, a Live Performance from Lincoln Center, a video we’ve rented, and we talk about what we’re viewing, critique it, admire it or ridicule it and laugh about it. I look at the poems off and on through it all. I change a word here and there.

We take a 30 minute walk around the neighborhood. The moon is one day away from being full. It owns the sky. It dominates, influences the earth.

I read before bed, South, by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the last Antarctic expedition of Shackleton and his ship, Endurance. How strange and frightening to be caught in a sea of ice and carried along with its drift, the sounds of its great cracklings and eruptions. I look at both poems again, reading through them several times, trying to catch inconsistencies in the new poem, trying to hear the music it’s making. I think I have a solution for the flawed ending to the other poem, but I won’t be certain until I sleep on it and read it again in the morning. I put both poems on the floor beside the bed.


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Pattiann Rogers - A Day in the Life
TCR October 1999 Feature

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