Where does the process for a first book of poetry begin and end? Where do the first threads come together?
Does it start with a word? An image? An experience you’d rather move past but can’t? Does it start when the heart is set on fire?
When my first book of poetry, AMPHETAMINE HEART, was published last fall, readers have often picked up on the personal elements of it. People want to know the autobiographical details, what it takes to roll real life into surreal angst, and whether this book was the outcome of a search for catharsis.
But I’ve realized I don’t have straight answers about where this book began. Yes, I can tell you the year I got serious about writing poetry. I can tell you what led me to shift my focus from journalism to creative writing.
I can tell you that when I committed myself to poetry, and to the poems that are contained within AMPHETAMINE HEART, I was not consciously working towards a book. I was just working towards becoming the kind of writer I wanted to be.
I can tell you that when I was working on a lot of the poems that are contained within AMPHETAMINE HEART, my foundation was based on a single image. I would bring my mind back to it whenever I drew a blank in getting from one line to the next. That image is hard to articulate, but it was a mental collage of outer space, purple and turquoise, and a triangle with the power of an all-seeing eye, but without the eye.
Is that weird? It might be, but I wanted my poems to be weird. I wanted to draw out everything I couldn’t say about what I was seeing in my mind.
The poems did not end up being about space, but they do have eyes, and through those eyes are the stories of what they’ve seen.
The stories are personal. Some are about things that happened to me. They are about my ongoing anxieties and depressions and my sometimes-sadness and previous loneliness.
Some of Amphetamine Heart’s poems are running commentary on things that happened to people I’ve had in my life at various times. It seems inevitable that I would have used personal experience to shape these poems, because my personal experiences shape everything I do.
So did the process for AMPHETAMINE HEART start the first time I realized I was feeling stress? (I was in Grade 4, by the way. I remember worrying about failing math – I was always failing math – and thinking to myself, “This must be what stress is. I am feeling stress.”)
Did AMPHETAMINE HEART start the first time I cut myself? (I was 13. I remember thinking, “this will take me one step closer to death.”)
I think the more you add everything up, the harder it is to pinpoint an exact moment something started. It all builds up into something else. One book is not the end result – it’s a plateau, a resting place that you’ll build a new foundation from to your next book.
AMPHETAMINE HEART didn’t just start with a stressful situation, or with depression.
It also started with T.S. Eliot’s OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS; Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”; Gwendolyn MacEwan’s MAGIC ANIMALSs; and Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron, all of which were my earliest, adolescent tastes of poetry.
AMPHETAMINE HEART started the day I saw the video for the Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” on TV in 1995.
It started the first time I skipped a high school class to read a book instead of listen to a teacher.
It started when I realized it was sometimes more important to pay attention to what was in my own head than it was to pay attention to what someone else thought I had to hear.
Trace any creative process back, and you’ll probably find it has multiple beginnings. It’s not a single thread of narrative, or a solitary influence. Instead it’s many threads entwined to form a thick rope in the end, one that will stay strong as long as you remember where you come from and who you are and how you got to where you are right now.
Writing poetry is the culmination of many small moments leading into explosions on a page.
My small moments have so far led me to AMPHETAMINE HEART, and I’m waiting to see where they’ll take me next.
Where are your small moments taking you?
Liz Worth is the author of two books, AMPHETAMINE HEART and TREAT ME LIKE DIRT: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond. She has also published three chapbooks, ELEVEN: ELEVEN, MANIFESTATIONS, and ARIK’S DREAM. She can be reached at www.lizworth.com