Eons ago, in a graduate workshop at the University of Miami, the late poet Maxine Kumin was explaining a crown of sonnets to us. At the time, the form – seven stanzas of fourteen lines each, linked to each other by repeating lines – sounded impossibly difficult, but nonetheless intriguing, at least to those of us who liked to play with prosody.
What she said next was decidedly disturbing, however. “A friend of mine,” she began, “wrote a crown of sonnets that was so good, he believed he’d never write another poem. He didn’t think he’d have anything left to write about.”
What? Never write more poems? What kind of fatalistic nonsense was that? Our egos were young and healthy, and it seemed at the time we’d never run out of either desire or subjects when it came to crafting poems.
Today, I understand far better what Kumin was trying to tell us. She was referring to the valley that’s on the other side of that exhilarating peak. There’s no getting around it. If you’ve climbed as high as possible, you have no choice but to descend. And the descent will make you anything but delirious with imagery and language, as you were on the way up.
I call this gnawing absence “the space between poems.” It happens when you’ve expended a huge amount of energy on work you feel is significant in some way. It’s an emptiness that can occur after a single poem or story or essay. Or after a hundred of them. It’s an individual space, and each writer has a unique level of work tolerance before reaching it.
But have no doubt: The space between poems is real, and sooner or later it affects everybody. You can’t avoid it with skill or expertise or even knowing that it’s lying in wait. Poet laureates and college freshmen alike have lived an un-writing life in this purgatorial place.
You might be tempted to call this phenomenon “writer’s block.” Don’t.
While the space can turn into a block if you treat it the wrong way, there’s a fundamental difference between them. Writer’s block, you run away from. You do everything you can in your power to avoid sitting down at the desk, where you’ll fail to pen a word. You drink, you smoke, you go to the gym, you quit the gym. You live in denial and hope for amnesty. You feel guilt and the fuzz of failure start to coat your mind like plaque on teeth.
The space between poems, on the other hand, you run towards, compulsively writing lines and stanzas even when you’re supposed to be doing something else, headlong and ecstatic until your subconscious mind has deleted the impulses that started you on the path. The space between poems, you reach with almost a sense of relief.
You can find plenty of cures and recommendations for writer’s block – go for a walk, do a load of laundry. Psychologists say writer’s block is largely about fear and anxiety, and anything you can do to take the pressure off yourself or re-direct your mind is positive. It’s even better if whatever you do produces results, like walking the dogs. Either way, you may end up with crap. But at least it’s something accountable.
If writer’s block is about fear and anxiety, the space between poems is about rest. Your mind is telling you what you need: Get out in the world, live a little. Find some inspiration.
Like writer’s block, the space between poems can be frustrating. You want to write, or maybe you have to write (for a living), but you can’t. The space, however, is necessary. The space tells you that you’ve tapped the well and drained it dry, and before you can embark on the next project, you must let some storms fill it up again.
The concept of re-investing in your own creative energy is not a new one. I first learned about it as a student at Tufts, in poetry workshops commanded by the late Deborah Digges. “Take time to refill the well,” she’d say before a weekend, or holiday season, or spring break.
Restocking the well isn’t as easy as simply having a good meal or taking a nap. There’s no fish farm of creativity where we can buy some freshly bred ideas for release, growth and recapture. Instead, it’s a drop-by-drop process that can be as slow as writing itself. Nothing short of intentional life experience moves it along.
Is it cheating to, say, go bungee jumping not because you’re an adrenaline junkie but because it might jump-start a piece of writing? I don’t think so. It’s what travel writers do: check out a place and its activities – fishing for piranha in the Amazon, for example – then pen an experiential article about it.
I followed this advice when I was traveling solo as a wine lecturer on a cruise through the Panama Canal. I’d just finished a big project, writing a cookbook for a pair of New York City chefs, on the cruise itself. My lectures weren’t scheduled until the last days at sea. I was bored, and I wanted to write poetry. But I was also burnt out.
So I signed myself up to kayak on a river when we docked in Dominican Republic. I was the only single person on the shore excursion. I didn’t speak to anyone and no one spoke to me. At the end of it, my hands were blistered and my skin had been made into Braille from mosquitos. It wasn’t, to be honest, that much fun.
It was enough. The next day came a solitary lunch of conch fritters and grilled grouper in a restaurant on the island of Grenada. And then, also, came the poems.
Jen Karetnick is a freelance food-travel writer and the Creative Writing Director at Miami Arts Charter School. Her full-length debut, Brie Season, is forthcoming from White Violet Press, and her cookbook, Mango, is currently available for pre-order at University Press of Florida. Jen’s fourth chapbook of poetry, Prayer of Confession, is available from Finishing Line Press.