Author Erynn Rowan Laurie reflects on what poetry means to her as well as the inspiration behind her new collection Fireflies at Absolute Zero coming October 31st from Hiraeth Press.
Experience is the soil in which the poet is buried, incubated like a seed.
In the Irish poetic tradition of filidecht, the practitioner is hidden away in darkness, and burial is and initiatory motif. In the ritual of the tarbhfeis the Irish poet would wrap himself in a fresh bull’s hide, covering his eyes to seek inner vision, spoken in poetry. The Welsh poet Taliesin in his leather bag, at sea for forty years, or Aneirin, chained in a dungeon as he composed Y Gododdin, were wreathed in darkness as they composed. Students of oral poetry in Scotland would close themselves in darkened huts with their plaids over their heads, lying in an incubatory alembic as they labored over their poems.
So much of my poetry has arisen from darkness. The poem from which the title of this collection was taken is a phrase from a series of poems born in the darkness of dreaming. These poems address beauty and horror, myth and spirit, sound and image; they are the sparks that come out of darkness to burn in words on the page.
Fireflies at Absolute Zero contains poems of time and place, from Navy piers to rutted dirt roads through the Berkshires, from the homes and hearths of friends to the snow that falls in the Northwestern rainforest, audible in the stillness, more quiet than breath. Some poems echo out of myth, with the voices of gods and spirits, while others speak of the bodies of lovers both real and imaginary.
Poetry, for me, is a spiritual pursuit and a healing path. It allows me to enter the heart of things, to experience what it is to be deeply human, but its practice also allows me to reach into what it is to be something entirely outside of my small human existence. Over the years, I have used it to cope with the effects of trauma and loss, and to celebrate unexpected moments of great beauty or profound spiritual experience.
Writing is an act of devotion for me, whether I’m sitting in front of my computer in the small hours before dawn, or sipping chai at a friend’s restaurant while scribbling in one of my notebooks. I carry them with me nearly everywhere, creating outlines, copying passages from research sources for my articles and books, recording likely phrases or bits of lines that might make it into a poem at some later point. I try to write every day, even if it’s only a few lines, a few sentences. Eventually, something coalesces from these fragments.
Most of my writing and poetry has been the result of painstaking effort, cultivated with the patience of an ent, worried over and edited and shaped time and again. Now and then, though, something arises whole from the source, heard in a dream or striking suddenly, like a cobra. I won’t deny that I love those moments of imbas – of the poetic fire within, sought by the early Irish poet-prophets – but it’s the years of constant practice that have allowed these things to manifest, to flow out through my fingers in a frantic rush of ink. The ground requires preparation for seed to sprout, and that cultivated soil is experience and practice, patience and experimentation.
Part of that preparation has been reading poetry from many different times and places, from many languages and styles. It has been the Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, the haiku of Chiyo-ni and the songs of Mirabai. Surrealists, Beat poets, the long, rambling lines of Whitman, and the mythic sensibility of Kathleen Raine have helped shape my work, along with the perception of poetry as magic expressed by Robin Skelton. The qualities of sound and of repetition seen in early Gaelic poetry and the Egyptian pyramid texts each bring something to my work, as does the wild, ecstatic work of Diane di Prima in Loba, and the sensual spirituality of Rumi.
Ultimately, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, I have tried to use poetry as a way ‘To follow knowledge like a sinking star / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.’ That work is never finished. I hope I have, at least, made a good start.
Look for Fireflies at Absolute Zero
October 31, 2012!