Is poetry a pool filter that needs to be cleaned out? How can we transmute our day-to-day detritus into poetry? Two of our contributors from 13.1 grapple with how to explore and write about experiences both external and internal. Catherine Staples, in detailing the events and images that resulted in “Like a Sleeve of Arctic Air,” shows how an accumulation of sensory information can be generative. For example, the big, difficult questions here aren’t plucked aimlessly from the air, but rather gleaned from the bitter cold, childhood tales of angels, and owls. It’s sometimes easy to forget that we’re the protagonists of our own stories. The “horrifying novel-in-progress” that Angela Ball mentions seems like an apt way to think about how we’re simultaneously experiencing and creating the realities that we participate in.
Inspiration comes in many forms, but it’s our willingness to make do with what surrounds us, or once did, that allows us to create art. When the oxygen mask drops from the overhead compartment, be sure to strap it on.
Catherine Staples: “Like a Sleeve of Arctic Air” began with weather, a winter blizzard that knocked out power all along the mid-Atlantic. At first it was thrilling; we lit candles and piled on comforters. With a good supply of wood and kindling, we reveled in keeping the fire going. We boiled water on stacked logs for oatmeal and tea, and wrapped our dog Rosie in blankets. But by the fourth day the temperature in the house was dangerously low. As I rushed out to relight the fire, leaving the warmth of my husband for the cold hearth and struggling clumsily to make the matches light, I was struck by the dire nature of the cold. How thin is the veil between this world and the next? What keeps us any of us alive? As a child I had learned about guardian angels; they tempered that terrifying line in the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer—the one that mentions “if I should die before I wake.” Imagination leapt from the concept of guardian angels to the plausibility of feathers, wings, proximity. Months earlier, I had been out to Rushton Woods Preserve with my Villanova pastoral literature students to watch as northern saw-whet owls were banded. These diminutive owls are flush with feathers, head to foot. Up close, you can see that the wing feathers are fringed, which muffles their flight, rendering it virtually soundless. Perhaps more remarkable, as a saw-whet lifts off your palm to return to the dark after banding, you can see but not hear it leave. The lyric impulse for accuracy is a necessity when you introduce the uncanny; with luck, the detail about wings and the dog’s knowing glance suspend disbelief.
Angela Ball: “You Say It’s Hard to Join the Hours” was written during an April marathon featuring current and former Center for Writers students and colleagues. I’ve always liked the British expression for someone who has gone a bit bonkers: “she/he has lost the plot.” I think that we form part of a complicated, continuous, sometimes boring, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes horrifying novel-in-progress constructed of our travels through the world, during which we lean heavily on pro forma, often useless advice and rigid convictions passed down from family experience. The poem plays off of this notion.