Poet W.F. Lantry blogs about writing The Language of Bird during National Poetry Writing Month.
So there I was, minding my own business, earning a living and maybe doing a little reading on the side, a hectic life so filled with events and tempests I could barely recover before the next dawn came too soon. It was March: I remember because my birthday’s in March. And my wife Kate sat me down, insistent as only she can be, using the voice which must be heeded, saying, “You’re wasting your life, you haven’t written anything in years, what are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Well, start doing something,” she said. “If you write something every day, I’ll send it out, and we’ll see what happens.”
So we started. She knew nothing about publishing poetry, she’s a soprano, after all, but she found a list of journals somewhere, and started with the “A”s. By the time she got to the “B”s, rejections and acceptances were already coming in. I get discouraged by rejection, but she doesn’t care. You have to be strong if you’re going to be a singer, standing up in front of a thousand people and lifting your voice.
She never let me see a rejection slip. Only the acceptances. By June, things were starting to appear: print journals, online journals. It was miraculous. She was miraculous. But my tank was empty. I was running out of things to write. So she’d tell me about calls for submissions, themed issues, guidelines.
There’s this marvelous thing that happens when you run out of material. You attain a state of complete freedom. Most poets have six or seven themes. I had maybe three or four. I wrote myself out, looked around, and said “What’s next?”
Because something had to be next. Five o’clock came, as it always does, and it was time to write. She’d be waiting for that day’s poem. I couldn’t leave my office and go home until I’d written it and sent it to her.
I remembered having dinner with a novelist many years ago. She’d just finished writing Beloved, or maybe she was still working on it. I asked her how she kept going every day. Wasn’t she running on empty? And she said something like ‘I’m lucky: I keep going to the well, and there’s always water there. And the more often I go, the more water there is.’ An Irish poet said something like that: “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”
So I went to the well every day, I stood at the anvil and pounded cold steel. They were right. Forget all those romantic notions about inspiration. If you’re not drawing from the well, the water gets stagnant. The more you draw, the more fresh water flows in. The more you strike the metal, the more malleable it becomes. But solving one problem only leads to another.
March came around, and Kate was unhappy. “You’re always writing single poems,” she said. “Nothing binds them together. You’re lazy, you have no discipline. I want you to sit down and write a book.”
I protested. “You said you wanted Sapphics, and I just gave you half a dozen. You said you wanted Ghazals, and I wrote them for you.” But even then, I knew what you know: I had to respond.
While writing the Sapphics, I’d been reading Lorca’s Gacelas. That’s what led me on to the Ghazals. And while writing those, I’d been researching Sufi poetry. Not Rumi, but Attar. When I stumbled on his Conference of the Birds, it reminded me of The Parliament of Fowls. There’s a guide in both, and a goal. And a langue verte, a green language. The birds speak, and the poet can understand them.
I love that idea, maybe because I read about Orpheus when I was very young. He’s still a baby in his crib when snakes come and lick his ears. From that moment on, he can understand the language of birds. I know the story’s out there somewhere, I read it over and over. I searched for it as March ended. I couldn’t find it anywhere.
Still, April was upon me. Time to write. I started with the Hoopoe. I’d seen them in my garden when I was living in St. Paul de Vence. I remembered their blue wings, the way I remembered the Orpheus story. It turns out they’re not blue at all.
And the Gacela? Four stanzas of four lines each, as light and swift and graceful as a gazelle, leaping, sailing over anything in its path? It turns out Lorca only wrote a couple like that, the others all have variable stanzas. But one of them, in that four line form, is my favorite: “Gacela del amor imprevisto,” the Gacela of Unforeseen Love.
Sixteen lines an evening, not much more than a sonnet. I worked through the birds as the days lengthened: the falcon, the bunting. In Persia, birds had different connotations. The owl isn’t wise, it’s a symbol of ill fortune. There were birds in Attar I hadn’t seen elsewhere: the stonechat, the shikra. My favorite was the wallcreeper: I had him hunting for insects as he moved along the symmetrical lines of Persian tile in a paradise garden.
But Kate loved the heron, so much she memorized the poem. It’s hard to question the choice: like her, the bird lives and moves between three realms, water and land and sky, and thrives at their intersection.
April was ending. I had a couple dozen birds. I wrote an introduction poem setting the scene. I wrote a departure. In Attar, the birds set out for China to find the Simorgh, which is something like a Phoenix. But I couldn’t go to China: it was May, and there were other poems to write.
Kate sent the collection out. It seemed to take forever. So long, I almost forgot about it. But eventually, good things happened. Just before it was published, I met Attar’s modern translator. We had much to discuss.
W.F. Lantry, author of The Structure of Desire (Little Red Tree 2012), The Language of Birds (Finishing Line 2011) and a forthcoming collection The Book of Maps, received his Maîtrise from L’Université de Nice and PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Recent honors include the National Hackney Literary Award in Poetry, CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize, Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Prize (Israel), and the Potomac Review Prize. His work appears widely online and in print, in journals such as Asian Cha, Descant, Möbius and Aesthetica. He currently works in Washington, D.C., and is an associate fiction editor at JMWW. He blogs at datura.wflantry.com.