It’s Friday night, and I’m watching The King and I. “Et-cet-er-a, et-cet-er-a,cet-cet-er-a,” repeats the king slowly, with great satisfaction—you know the line. After a while, I begin to visualize etceteras stringing out into space:
Somewhere in space, although you can’t sight ‘em,
Meet et al., etcetera, and ad infinitum.
Just hearing Yul Brynner say his words over and over sparked my quirky little poem.
At an early age I knew that poetry would figure into my life in some way. Whether for a school project or for myself, there was no feeling like putting just the right words and meter together. It was like I had a neat little package with a ribbon around it. I still get that feeling.
I enjoy writing in other genres, too, but poetry is my favorite. I like its parsimony. Each word carries weight, and there’s no excess. Poems remind me of minimalist line drawings that way.
Who is a poet? When you write like a poet, speak like a poet, or even just think like a poet, then you are one. “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession,” said Robert Frost.
I often think in nonlinear ways, resulting in unusual juxtapositions of words or concepts. Irony, odd pairings, and unexpected outcomes get my attention. I’m a big daydreamer, too, missing more than my share of freeway exits. But I see daydreaming as productive—another opportunity for ideas to mix.
I read a lot of different kinds of poetry but don’t have a favorite. My mother was a fan of Frost and Carl Sandburg, and she frequently pulled their books off the shelf to read to me when I was young. My father loved humor, and so Ogden Nash and Richard Armour shared that same shelf. They all had equal billing in our house.
Most of my poetry is for children. I like the extra challenges of shaping language in ways that will resonate with them. I don’t think in terms of a particular age level; I just write the poems the way they come, and they land where they land.
My mind seems most fertile when I’m out on a walk. Maybe it’s the fresh air, but I’m inclined to think that my right brain takes over, allowing more creativity and free flow of ideas. I especially like walking in parks—a good place to think and to come up with ideas while observing children at play.
Getting out of the city also often puts me in the right frame of mind for writing poetry. Awhile back, on the way to Santa Barbara, I took a highway cut-off through pastureland. I saw a cow by itself, motionless but for its whisking tail. That got me thinking. Soon I was on my way to the zoo for research, and a manuscript on posterior appendages began to take shape.
Poetry is the only genre that I still write by hand. Generally I jot down phrases here and there as I go about my daily routines. If I’m driving, sometimes I’ll pull to the side of the road to write down a few words, lest I forget them later. I always keep a pad of paper with me.
Putting the poems together in final form often takes a lot of work. (The process can involve multiple bowls of ice cream.) There are usually arrows and cross-outs all over my paper in early drafts, and sometimes I wait days for the right word to come. I give my subconscious a lot of credit. It seems to stay hard at work, often surprising me with “a-ha” moments when I’m doing something totally unrelated. For all the effort, however, some of my poems end up in my “salvage” folder, kind of like an auto parts junkyard. Though the poems don’t work, I may be able to use some of the phrases or lines for something else later.
My writers groups and small community of poets are invaluable; I frequently bounce ideas or even just single words off them. There’s a certain synergy there that a thesaurus can’t provide. I even sometimes collaborate with one of my poet friends: it takes us directions we wouldn’t go individually.
I can’t imagine not writing poetry. I like the process from beginning to end. My friend, poet Rick Smith, said it well when interviewed for Lummox Press: “There is some kind of intervention that happens seemingly beyond my control. . . . I’ll just catch something, or it catches me and we go somewhere, and that feels very gratifying, very transporting.” I couldn’t agree more. Poetry takes me to another scene, evokes a new mood, makes me look at something perhaps very ordinary from a totally different perspective. Or sometimes it’s just nice to get away to a place far from the evening news, like back in that pasture with the lone cow and her busy tail.
Paige Taylor is a freelance author who primarily writes for children. Her work includes activity books, short stories, articles, and her first love—poetry.
THE COW’S TAIL
By Paige Taylor
The swishing tail of this moo-er
Has a very noble use.
Its sole job is that of shoo-er
Ridding flies from her caboose.