Leslie Findlen says:
About a year ago, the concept of writing journal entries was introduced into The Writers Studio workshops. This came at a time when many of us were struggling to break through to new levels of writing by understanding more clearly what our specific connection was to the material we were trying to write about. For many months, I resisted writing journal entries because I associated them with diary entries, and I’ve always hated the concept of keeping a diary because I thought it would do nothing more than expose how limited or boring I was. It took a while for me to realize that what was being proposed was an uncensored, but focused book of "free" writing that sought to uncover "pre" poems or "pre" stories.
The truth was I had a notebook full of key words and phrases that I wanted to explore as seeds for possible poems. Over the years, I added to my list but rarely developed poems out of it. I was afraid I wouldn’t get it right. When I finally warmed up to the idea of writing journal entries, I immediately turned to this list. For each entry, I chose a word and tried to open it up until some other layer of meaning appeared. I wrote fast, messy and short, usually in the twenty or thirty minutes before I had to leave my office and head to my weekly writing workshop. For me, this process was exhilarating. It allowed me to focus on discovery. My writing sprawled across the page and because of this freedom meaning began to emerge in surprising ways.
The following journal came from the word "tattoo":
I’ve been wondering about several concepts…as of yet more intellectual than emotional. I’d like to find my connection to them. Lately, surprising ideas have emerged through journal entries. So, rather than sitting down and trying to pressure out poems, I’d like to explore more concepts. Someday I’d like to write a poem related to "tattoos." Tattoo means to strike; I love the aggressive decision of that word; both exciting and dangerous; empowering and damaging. Like the act of writing, the potential in the word. Tattoos are objects of beauty created through brutal means; skin is broken, color inserted beneath, blood flows. Imagine the power of the tattoo artist: the act is akin to torture. I read somewhere that the art of tattoo is power bestowed at the price of submission (isn’t that the case with so many forms of beauty). Power over the body; to change what has been given, to rewrite the body. People who wear tattoos wish to the point of realization to become their own text. I suppose we all wish this; to write our own lives, histories, shape our own bodies into better likenesses (and what about the constant struggle for clear thoughts and words that "hit" what it feels like inside, we rarely get close). As much as a tattoo is an act of radical change over what has been given, it is also a radical way of revealing what is true. We don’t choose our own bodies (or families, or lives), do we? There’s always the voice inside that says, I never would have asked for this; but we were never asked. Instead, we live with the voice on the inside (call it soul)….How often is the body we’re given any reflection of that? Perhaps, on some level, the receiver of a tattoo aims to strike the soul….release it, make it permanent on the body…whole epics on bodies (out of bodies)….I’m thinking of Japan. When I lived there I wished I could go into the men’s public baths to see the tattoos (virtually the only place you could; those baths were like museums…your neighbor would reveal wings, steam curling around the tongues of dragons, the curves of a courtesan in constant motion beneath a towel and water. There are skins in the Tokyo museum; so beautiful they were saved after the wearer died; can you imagine? I never saw them. I wonder how much life is left in them? Is it like seeing the skin of a leopard, a snow lion, or cobra? They must be like paper ghosts, dry, light, full of vague disturbing life.
Fellow writers in my workshop were excited by the kind of connection to thought and emotion that emerged through this narrative voice. The consensus was that the poem was practically there and only had to be teased out to be finished. I was stunned by this response since I’d tossed this off quickly. But I also recognized that the fluidity of this narrative voice was new to my writing. However, I couldn’t easily see how to turn this into a poem so I put it in a drawer for a while and wrote more journal entries on different words. Months later, my teacher urged me to return to this piece and begin by simply discarding what I thought was unnecessary and adding line breaks to what remained.
Tattoo, to strike, I love
decision of that word; Skin
is broken, color
inserted beneath, blood flows; like the act
of writing, both exciting & dangerous, empowering
& damaging. Art is power bestowed
at the price
of submission, power over the body to change
what has been
given, to become one's own
text. I suppose we all wish
to shape our lives into better likenesses: objects of beauty
out of flesh
what is true¾ we don't choose
our own bodies or families or lives, do we?¾ there is always
the voice inside that says I would have never
asked for this; but we were never asked. Instead we live
with the voice
on the inside (call it
soul) . . . How often
is the body we're given any reflection
of this? Perhaps the desire of
tattoo is the desire to strike
the soul release it make it permanent
on the body . . . whole epics
out of bodies . . . I'm thinking
of Japan. There I wished
I could go into
the men's public baths to see
tattoos (those baths were like museums)
. . . your neighbor could reveal . . . wings, steam . . . curling
around tongues of dragons, the curves
of a courtesan in constant
beneath a towel and water . . . There are skins
in the Tokyo Museum so beautiful
they were saved
after the wearer died; can you
imagine? I wonder
how much life is left in them? Is it
like seeing the skin of leopard, a snow lion, or cobra?
They must be like paper ghosts, dry
light, full of vague disturbing life¾
The response to this rough draft helped me let go of the original journal entry and begin the process of finding the poem. I still have a way to go. It helped to hear my narrator identified as a mind questioning on the page; she describes her fascinations as if they were intellectual but uses them to uncover an emotional level. In order to take this draft further, I need to understand what it is I wish to really say via tattoos. What do they represent for me (what are they a metaphor for)? Do I want to use the poem to go into the personal (perhaps via Japan) or to create a narrator who uses her fascinations as a kind of euphoric flight of the imagination? These seem to be two different impulses, and possibly two different poems. I am still struggling with these questions. I like the plunging, poking way this narrator thinks; she feels like an excavator. That kind of "aggressive" clarity excites me and presents a daunting task. I can’t hide behind her or the concepts.
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