Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the final installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.
I have in mind a new project. It involves embarrassing myself in public. You can help.
I don't mean a book (although I absolutely have more than one of those in mind). I mean a creativity-adjacent practice that I'll commit to doing regularly, in the spirit of discovery, for a specified period of time. Not a hobby so much as a ritual of creative play.
I've discussed previously how projects unrelated to the daily work of writing can function as both structure & impetus for creative practice. Since 2015, I've had one going most of the time. Sometimes it's a daily thing, sometimes weekly, etc. Always, there's an element of public accountability, because that's motivating for me.
My current practice of play is The Florilegia Project, which is still going strong, and daily. (Well, mostly daily. Sometimes I am—or I was, before COVID-19—far from home and it slips my mind, as my routine slips with the different delights of travel. And sometimes I'm just busy, quarantine or no quarantine. So I make it up later. Daily-ish.)
Meantime, I have started copying down, in a small blue book, the poems I know by heart. This is not the project. I'll get to that.
Okay, but—why copy poems down if I have them by heart? The most immediate reason is that I forget, sometimes, which poems I know. There are more than the four or five things most humans can easily hold in mind at once. And no one else knows my mental library, so it's not as if I have someone to prompt me with a title or a first line. Now I have this book.
Another reason is that someday I will die. If I am very lucky, it will be when I am old and happy and finished living, and I will slip peacefully to rejoin earth and sky and river. It may not be like that. Regardless, I hope that someone I love is there when it happens*, and I imagine, because our culture is terrible at death and also because death is just hard, that person may have a difficult time knowing what to say and do. I want them to have a ready helper: this book to read aloud (or at least the knowledge of it to rely on) to comfort both of us.
(Less finally, I may have injuries or incapacities yet ahead of me in life. It seems to me that such a touchstone might come in handy for less mortal circumstances too.)
There's a third reason, connected to the last.
The book doesn't have a title, but it has a quote on the flyleaf, a sparklet from The Florilegia Project, in fact: "how valuable it is, in these short days." It's from Molly Fisk's graceful poem "Winter Sun", which I discovered in this beautiful collection**.
We never know how short or long this individual day might be—or our own days generally, or (there's so much of this in the air now, living as many feel we do at an end of the world), our culture's or even our species' days as we know them. And there's so much of value and of joy inside those days to celebrate. This book—a single copy, written by hand, of the particular poems that allow themselves to echo in my particular memory over time—is one such small and quiet celebration. Fragments I have shored against my ruin—or something like that. (See, that one I do not have memorized.)
I said I had a new project, and I said that this memory-book is not it.
The book's creation is, however, the genesis. It got me thinking along several specific lines, and out of those is born the project, which does not yet have a name.
Poetry is for reading, sure, but also, often, for speaking. That last is certainly its older form. I speak poetry to myself quite a lot, out solitary-walking.
Occasionally I've been asked to read my own poetry aloud. I love doing this. I'm also scared of it, and not terribly assured in the doing. My poems sound different out loud than in my head; once they're written, I mostly read them silently. So translating aloud, sometimes I stumble. I need practice.
Most of the time, I connect most deeply with words I hear, rather than words I read in silence. (Sometimes I read aloud to myself to effect this.) I may repeat and ponder them silently later, but to graft them onto my heart, I use speech.
I have hundreds of songs and hymns memorized, plus several liturgical settings from the church I grew up in, and many of the various spoken formulas of my faith.
The holding of these in memory is a formative experience of my life. Not just back in the day when I first did this memorization (mostly unconsciously), but now, every day: an ongoing formation. They're a background, a lens, and a part of my identity. They're quite often a comfort.
The poems I have by heart function like that, too. But there are far fewer of them.
Partially, this is because I didn't memorize a lot of poetry in childhood. (I did memorize some delightfully silly Shel Silverstein poems for campfire recitation; ask me to recite "Warning" sometime; it's my favorite.)
So, in the last couple of years, I've started intentionally adding to my mental collection.
It always sounds daunting—at least to me—to commit whole poems to memory. Turns out, though: I can still do it. You can too. The human brain is amazing.
I love the practice of sitting with (walking with, breathing with) a single poem.
I am one of those people who wants to read everything, learn everything, more more more. Lately I have been learning to do less, and do it deeply.
Even writing those words, I can feel my greedy brain hasten to smooth over the actions they imply: the magazines I love and don't get around to reading; the books I buy and don't read, sometimes for years; the ballet class I won't be going back to when it restarts, because it's too late at night; the places I don't travel and films I don't see. Hush, brain. This is ok.
One thing about doing (and, specifically reading) less that's better than ok: it clarifies my thinking by giving my thinking space. Yes, I know this is nothing new, but it is new to me, and I am in love with it. One reason I'm writing these words is to remind my future self: rediscover this love.
One thing I don't have in memory is much of my own poetry.
I have, at this point, written plenty of poems. Certainly over a hundred that are "finished" and that meet my standard of beauty and value; about 30 published or about to be so. And I could not, as I was making the cover of this memory-book, call to mind more than one in its entirety. (Is that odd? Do poets today, working mostly in writing and not in speech, usually memorize their work?)
Anyway, I want to commit more of my own work to my heart as well as my voice, alongside much more poetry I love by other people. So this (at last!) is my project:
Twice a month, for one year, I will learn a new poem (or revisit an old one). I will spend time with it every day: learning it, maybe writing it out, turning it over like a small river stone in my pocket. And at the end of a couple of weeks I will recite it.
To you, if you want to hear it.
This is the accountability bit: there it will be, in my voice, posted on my website semi-regularly for anyone to hear, scoff at, comment upon, puzzle over, whatever you find yourself doing with both the poem and my voice speaking it.
I promised in paragraph one that you could participate. I'd be grateful indeed if you did, and here are three ways you can:
1) Take a chance on listening to my (short! I promise!) recordings. Send any thoughts or questions or suggestions my way via comment or email.
2) Help me name this undertaking. Right now it's getting vaguely called after the memory-book. If you have a suggestion, please leave it in the comments.
3) Suggest some poems to me. I can't guarantee I'll love them or that my brain will want to learn them, but I will be glad to read them and find out!
So what do you think, friends? Come listen to some poems with me? Maybe memorize and record one of your own? (I would love to hear it!) We all need something to get through this present moment. I'd be pleased for you to join me.
* I conceived this project, and wrote the first draft of this introduction to it, before COVID-19 changed all of our lives. How and with whom folks are thinking about death these days has shifted. But I didn't change my words above, because this pandemic is not the only reason to think about what it means to have a good death, or to set things in order for the loved ones you hope will survive you. "Things in order" is poetry, in this case: a little piece of comfort and ease in a big and difficult transition. But of course I also mean your will, your advance directive, your spiritual practice, your worldly affairs.
**Since many of us are buying more books these days, can I make a plug for purchasing from your local bookstore instead of Amazon? Amazon has deprioritized books anyway. Please help your local small businesses stay afloat in this Interesting Time. If you don't have a local bookstore, might I suggest the excellent Fact & Fiction in Missoula, Montana? Or my own local, Annie Bloom's in Multnomah Village, Portland, Oregon?