Finding the Words

Recently I have found it difficult to make myself sit down and write. It’s a problem I have come up against before, though not too many times, since writing has always been my favorite way to spend time with myself. For awhile I didn’t realize I’d not been doing it, but then I recognized the symptoms: I caught myself wishing I lived in someone else’s house, one with a fireplace maybe, or that I could find the perfect pair of platform sandals. I’d scroll Pinterest endlessly, looking for the home decor, the jeans fit, the screen printed t-shirts that would make me feel like myself again. Eventually I identified this restless acquisitiveness as a spiritual longing, not a material one. I haven’t been writing: I’ve been neglecting my true nature. It’s time to get back to work.

Happily, “the work” can take many different forms. One practice that has seen me through these difficult spells in the past is divination. It sounds magical, and indeed it is. It’s also very simple and accessible. To do the kind of divination I do, bibliomancy, all you need is a book that speaks to you, one you think will have something in it you can use. Traditionally bibliomancy refers to a type of fortune telling in which you ask a book a question, then let it fall open to a page at random to find the answer you seek. What I do is make poems out of old book pages, which is a bit different, but I consider it a form of divination just the same. I’ll take a book and, before I open it, I’ll bring some sort of intention to the project. I’ll keep the intention in my mind and heart as I scan the pages, and as I look some of the words will seem more appealing, more possible, than others. Eventually the words I’ve found will swim together to form new sentences, tell new stories.

When I wanted to make some of these erasure poems a few months ago, I went over to the Salvation Army in a nearby neighborhood and browsed their grubby bookcase. I found two old novels by different authors that had once belonged to the same woman, which I know because she pasted her address labels on the inside front covers. (In one of them she also wrote the date: July 9, 1976.) Both books are gothic romances—one’s about an American jewel merchant in Hong Kong, and the other is about a young couple who inherit an opal mine. I don’t think I noticed until now that both books are about people looking for precious gems, but that seems perfect now that I think of it.

I chose these novels because they’re exciting and a little bit scandalous, and therefore filled with juicy words: ones like love, passion, destroy, darkness, glittering, mocking, wounded, crimson. I knew I’d be able to make something good with them. I’d been neck-deep in trauma therapy for months at that point, so that’s what I asked the book to help me with. Sure enough my poems came out juicy too, in a psychotherapeutic kind of way: they’re about my shadow side, my tricky memory, my never-ending quest for understanding and connection.

More recently I used the books to make poems for a friend’s zine project. She’d asked people to write about what they conceive god to be, and I decided this would be an excellent topic for divination. First I sat quietly for some hours, scanning the pages of one of my books for the word God. I was surprised to find him all over this overripe novel. People were constantly exclaiming “Dear God” or “By God!” or “God alone knows.” I went back later and made poems from several of the God pages, and it turned out to be a powerful way to put words to feelings I have often found unspeakable.

Sometimes my process of divination comes easily to me, and other times it’s effortful, but it is always enlightening. I always find out something about the way I feel that I didn’t know before. It’s actually very similar to the surprise! of discovery that happens during a more ordinary writing session, where you dig and dig and dig until you strike something that’s alive inside of you. You don’t always know where you’re headed when you start out but, as a poet friend once said to me, you know when you hit it. In a way making poems out of a limited selection of words is easier than starting from scratch, with that blank screen staring back at you. In another sense it takes an even bigger leap of faith. How can you make the poem you want to make when you don’t get to choose all the words? You have to open your eyes and look, that’s all, and be willing to see what’s there. You have to be okay with not knowing what kind of poem you want to write in the first place. You have to stay the course, but remain open and flexible to whatever may come.