the hum and the lull and the hammer and the lilt: On Starting a Line

Poetry about nature by Joe Jiménez

I learned something new this weekend.  Something new about something I do and have done for some years.  For a while now, when I read, not always when I read, but when I read thinking of poems and making them, I sometimes write down the ways lines begin.

There is something beautiful in how a line starts.  Not the part inside us that makes the line, not the first sound of the first word, not the image that spurs it all or spurs it on.  What I mean is the way the words come out of us, onto the page, that beginning of the line.

Here are a few from my notebook:

In February…

Of course, of course…

A better word than…

Almost every…

By quickly I mean…

Then, too, there was…

The land was…

And so we paused…

To live in…

Of course, of course, I can’t recall exactly the poems from which these beginnings came.  I keep these on a little page called “More Line Starters.”  It’s a simple collection, a gathering of thoughts, possibilities and love, really, I can say that, for it names what I appreciate or how I feel that among poems I have read.  I wish I had had the foresight to write down the titles, too.  Then, I could point you precisely, and perhaps necessarily, to the exact origin, for me, for my experience, of these starting places.

What I learned this weekend I learned at the Macondo Workshops, a gathering of progressive writers committed to writing about justice or for justice or with it deeply, deeply held in our hearts.  The workshops were started twenty years ago by Sandra Cisneros.  I am grateful.  What I learned this weekend I learned from the poet Carmen Gimenez-Smith.  I learned many wild things from her workshop on syntax.  I call them wild because in my mouth or my pen, in my head, they are not tame or always translatable, and isn’t that a gift, to offer someone a way of maybe doing something?  A potential.  An energy.  A placement in the great disorder of ordered things.  The term for these starters is “cognitive handle.”    I don’t know from where that comes, but I love the idea of it.  Something to hold.  Some place to grasp an idea or a process or train of thought.  To bring the thought to the body—to hold it.  Yes, I can love that.

Also, I learned I don’t always need a cognitive handle when I’m crafting a poem, but often, and usually, for me, how it assists.  A scaffold.  Certainly.

From “Starters,” which titles another page in another journal, another sample of line starters or cognitive handles:

There have been times…

But the heart is a muscle made of…

From here…

If not for…

She tells them,…

That’s why I never…

It will sound to you…

and

When someone takes a…

For my part,…

I love the dead…

And yes, it is…

Tell us of…

It’s the fact they don’t…

Outside,…

Last night,…

It is hard not to…

There have been times I haven’t known what to write or how to start.  But the heart is a muscle made of ideas and beats.  From here, I can tell you what I know about the Gulf—more importantly, I can tell you what I don’t know.  If not for love, if not for the frigate birds with their simple forked tails and their journeywork…  It will sound to you that I don’t know where I am going, perhaps that is true.  For my part,…

I could go on.  I think you are getting the point.  I will gladly share my lists.  But make your own, and tell of it.  That matters more, I think.

And strip away the cognitive handle?  What are we left with?  I can’t tell you.  Not in any way that would feel good in my heart, because that is your journeywork.  And these are your poems you are crafting.  But I can say, with keenness and enthusiasm, that this is what excites me about the work of making poems.  The hum and the lull and the hammer and the lilt.  I don’t always know where I am going, where the image or the note is taking me.  Poem-making is about discovery sometimes, maybe always.  I can certainly hold onto that.

Joe Jimenez’ class, Marveling at Stones begins Sunday. SPOTS STILL AVAILABLE.

Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Kórima 2014). Jiménez was the recipient of the 2012 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Poetry Prize and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. He lives in South Texas and is a member of the Macondo Workshops. For more, visit joejimenez.net.

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