By Lynnell Edwards, Associate Programs Director, School of Creative and Professional Writing
If you know what I mean by the title, then you don’t need convincing of its value. If not, I’m talking about those first ponderous lines, that haphazard sonnet (why not try form right out of the gate?), those pages and printouts of what you felt most urgent when you finally found time to sit with your work and you just knew what it was you had to write about, but which you must ultimately sacrifice to the real subject, the real poem you need to write. I’m talking about the Warm-Up Poem.
When time is short and the agenda long, it’s tempting to deny ourselves this throw-away, which may actually consume several hours and nag at you over the course of several days as you keep revising and tweaking it into submission. But let yourself do it. Let yourself write the warm up-poem because beyond its messy horizons lies your greater work.
Last fall I did have the time to spend two days working on not one, but several (a sequence, maybe!) of warm-up poems while on a fellowship at The Hermitage Artists Retreat on Manasota Key, Florida. Yes, it was as beautiful, even as paradisiacal as you might imagine. And so, naturally, gazing at the ocean from my second-story bedroom window the first morning – you guessed it – here comes the beach poem. I have wrecked myself many a time on the “beach poem” and only once, in my first book, have I gotten something that warranted a second look. And of course, it wasn’t really about the beach. But I knew that I had the time (two weeks with nothing to do but avoid a sunburn and write!) and that I must give the beach poem its moment. Not surprisingly, what I got was exactly what you’d think you’d get from someone living in Heartland, USA, as she gazes from her second-story bedroom window onto the Gulf of Mexico. I cracked open a new journal, my pen poised, and gazed at the Gulf.
DOLPHINS! OMG I LOVE DOLPHINS! Flipper was like my favorite show when I was little! There’s a connection between dolphins and childhood, I bet. And the ocean is so VAST! Heaving and crashing with waves. Just like the SOUL!! It stretches on and on into a distant infinity where, GOOD LORD JESUS, THE SUNSET!!!! Every shade of rose and gold and indigo streaking the infinite SKY!!! (Note: I have never used the word indigo in a non-historical context.) I attempted to use the word “coronation” but finally admitted to myself it was too much.
And on and on the warm-up poem went, for three separate attempts – one of them two pages – never achieving much more than the typical daily affirmation. Deep Thoughts. When I saw my housemate at the residency (a fiction writer) at the end of first full day, I told him I had written the obligatory beach poem. He kind of laughed along with me, but I’m not sure whether prose writers recognize and indulge the same practice: knowingly seeing through to the end something that likely doesn’t have a future beyond its value as a warm-up.
I got a couple of good lines, though. For instance, this, describing my morning walk collecting shells:
At my feet
the wrecked midden: shell crush
and drift, bleached bolt of coral,
everything pocked and hollowed
with the sea’s grief. I reach
again and again for what
is whole, only to thumb fracture
Not bad, but then I don’t know how to end it, because it’s not clear what it was ever about. At least in this form.
The couple of pages exorcising beach motifs served a more valuable purpose though, because the next thing I wrote in earnest was a breakthrough villanelle about the real material at hand for the residency work: my new manuscript about my adult son’s mental illness. That “wrecked midden”; that “fracture and absence.” And though I didn’t mine the warm-up poem for those metaphors (at least not so far), that was the subject really on my mind. I just wasn’t limbered up enough to reach for it yet.
It’s taken me a long time writing poems to recognize that the subjects that present themselves in the first minutes or hours of drafting may have to be sacrificed to greater gods. I began writing poems when my children were small and every minute eked out of my day that I could spend on learning to be a poet was precious. Now, with children mostly out of the house and a steady workday, I am not so frightened by the fact of a poem that might always live in the “in process” folder on my laptop.
In the gift of this fall’s two weeks of space and time to write, it was easy to claim space for the warm-up poem. The horizons of time seem vast (uh-oh) and the rose-gold light on the surface of the waves . . . stop. But we need to let warm-up poems do their work in our everyday practice as writers, too. I may get that beach poem yet, but it may not be until the dead of winter, writing about the ice-fractured and bare branches of grim winter as I peer into the dim morning from my second-story study window (OMG!! AGING!!! LIKE SHAKESPEARE!!), that the dolphins surface.
Lynnell Major Edwards’s most recent work is This Great Green Valley (Broadstone Books, 2020). She is also author of the chapbook Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop (Accents, 2014) and three collections of poetry, Covet (October, 2011), The Farmer’s Daughter (2003) and The Highwayman’s Wife (2007), all from Red Hen Press. Her short fiction and book reviews have appeared most recently in Connecticut Review, American Book Review, Pleiades, New Madrid, and others. She is Associate Programs Director for Spalding’s School of Creative and Professional Writing.