Both of these poems began in oddly similar ways to one another. In each case, a friend gifted me with a suggestion that got the writing started. “The Bobcat” began when I posted a photo online of bobcat tracks and noted that I’d subsequently be staying inside for the rest of forever, which prompted several people to tell me how “harmless” bobcats are, and that I’d probably never see it as it would try to avoid me. At some point, C. Dale Young—referencing Bishop’s poem “The Moose”—suggested I should write a poem in which we don’t actually see a bobcat. With “Best Nightmare Machine,” I was talking to Jessica Jacobs about doomscrolling and assorted internet-produced anxieties. During that conversation, she used the phrase “best nightmare machine.” I told her that sounded like a poem title, and she generously said, “Then you should write it.”
Here’s the picture of the paw print:
I don’t have a photo of the best nightmare machine, but since you’re reading this online, you’re probably familiar with the instigating concept.
Both poems began with an observation (“The internet fills me with anxiety!” and “Oh hey, look—bobcat tracks in the snow!”), and both were set in motion by a friend’s suggestion. Both poems are also about fear. With one, it’s a fear that’s not based in reality and prevents us from being our best selves. With the other, it’s a fear that recognizes the inevitability of loss and possibly causes us to appreciate what we have a little more. But the most notable way in which these poems are alike is that, while being about fear, I didn’t actually set out to write about that topic at all. In this way, these are both similar to most poems I write: the development depends on being open to discoveries along the way.
That type of openness is often the biggest challenge. Having a preliminary idea is thrilling, but an initiating idea on its own can be a little dangerous; it’s easy to become tied to the original concept and commit to a predetermined “plan.” When writing, I often convince myself that I understand the poem’s subject matter, or I trick myself into believing I know where this should lead. This occurs, in part, because I’m overcompensating for being a catastrophically distracted person and—over the past three or four decades—I’ve developed numerous ways to offset the limitations of my attention span. In my daily life, this has been an ongoing struggle, and the course of action prescribed by my doctors is medication. But in poetry, my main strategy for resisting the diversions my brain sets up has often been nothing but a simple, blunt stubbornness. When unexpected things appear in early drafts, my first instinct is to shove them aside. If the car begins to veer to the right, I calmly guide it back toward the left. If I start out writing about a bobcat and Bram Stoker randomly drops by, the voice in my head shouts, Damn it, this poem is going to be about a bobcat and nothing else no matter what!
Generally, this inflexibility serves no one. For the writer, it leads to frustration as the poem stalls out. For the reader, it leads to a boring or predictable reading experience. The poem doesn’t “go anywhere,” we say. For a poem to evolve, I have to resist that desire for a type of rigid control. If “inspiration” truly exists, the closest I ever come to experiencing it is when I begin to feel a poem might be speaking about something else in a parallel manner. Or I sense there’s some kind of thematic undercurrent implied in what I’m writing. Or I get the impression that the poem itself might be operating as a type of metaphor. Of course, a metaphor has two parts—a tenor and vehicle—and the initial subject of any poem supplies only one of these. To locate the other half, I usually need to bring something into the poem from outside the parameters of its original aspirations. Another narrative, progression of thought, or image. A vehicle for a tenor. A tenor for a vehicle. This is when I feel most “inspired,” which for me means becoming aware of a rush of possibilities as the poem’s figurative dimensions begin to make themselves known. But getting to that point means that things I think of as distractions—non sequiturs, digressions, unexplainable leaps of thought, random shiny things that divert my attention—the very things I have to work against in my daily life, are things I’ve had to train myself to grow comfortable with when writing poems. The event that dislodges the poem from its preliminary trajectory is almost always where the energy comes from.
Stephen Dobyns talks about how subject matter is “pretext”; the thing you begin to write about often only exists to help you explore, perhaps figuratively, some larger idea or question about the human condition. Likewise, Richard Hugo says poems have a triggering subject and an actual subject, the latter being something that’s uncovered during the process of drafting or revising. Frost says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” All these writers are getting at the same principle: what you know when you begin a poem is less exciting than what you’ll discover while writing the poem if you’re open to such discoveries.
But how do you stay open to such discoveries? For me, this is where the practice of poetry becomes a wild, exhilarating, and even a fun occasion, but also a frustrating, pain-in-the-ass sequence of trial and error. In “The Bobcat,” I was fortunate to quickly realize that I wasn’t only writing about a bobcat. Many of the connections the poem made (the bobcat, Dracula, the list of things people have been afraid of) showed up early on. I had the shape of the poem almost from the beginning, and revision was about making it more coherent, more precise, replacing parts with better parts, and just making countless small-scale alterations. Cutting a line. Changing a word. Adjusting the syntax. Little modifications like that over and over, again and again.
“Best Nightmare Machine” took much longer to approach anything close to its current form. If I’ve made this process sound simple (Trust the detours! Just let the poem be about something else!) this is where that simplicity fails. For a while, the poem was only about the internet as an anxiety-generating instrument. It felt static and obvious. When I tried to explore other possibilities, each took me straight over a cliff. Not all detours will get you where you need to go. Some digressions are just digressions. One dead end after another. Is this a poem about technology? Nope. A poem about dreams? Sorry; try again. Is it a political poem? Not really. Better luck next time. I knew I had something that I was interested in, so I hung onto it. But it sat on my computer for months. I always have an open file with a couple dozen or so poems I’m revising. When I get stuck on one, I move to the next. And then I keep cycling through them. This is the loop this poem found itself in. Eventually, enough time passes, and I return to the poem and see something I hadn’t considered. In this case, I rewrote one line and unexpectedly arrived at the idea of dread “evolving.” What would a more sophisticated type of fear look like? And in that possibility, the poem became interesting and alive to me again.
All writers get asked some variation of the question: “Where do you get your ideas?” I think it’s a grand and noble question. But a more useful (and more difficult) question might be, “How do you abandon your ideas?” How do you teach yourself to be open to the unexpected? How do you start out writing about one thing, then allow for new realizations? How do you change your mind when it already knows what it thinks and where it wants to go? It’s a messy process, but one I’ve grown to love. I’m not naïve enough to think writing poetry makes us into great people. There are too many examples of the contrary. On some days, the gap between who we are and who we wish to be can appear very wide. But practicing an Art can also feel like we’re reaching for something profound in ourselves. On my best days, this writing process—struggling toward that type of openness—nudges me toward a better version of myself. More flexible, fallible, and curious. It’s easy to walk outside, set in your beliefs, intoxicated by your own moral excellence. So certain of what things are. But then poetry happens. What a gift. To believe the world is one thing, then have it become something else.