"Poetry will choose the small moment of pause just to look at what's really happening, to look at a few layers deep, and to let that small pause, that ordinary moment, open up with all the fullness of its being to us"— from the On Being Podcast, Poetry Unbound
On Thursday I walk into a garage that smells of honey. Tubs and frames full of the thick, golden substance surround me, as well as the sound of a soft, consistent buzz. I'm here because I want to learn about honey bees. I've always found these insects fascinating, but fascination alone didn't bring me here. Fascination is one way to love, attentive observation is another.
I stand in this uniquely sweet garage, ready to extract honey with my own hands, because a student I tutored this summer encouraged me to explore honey bees with greater attention.
During our final tutoring session this week, I surprised myself when I thanked him for inspiring me. In the past I've experienced gratitude as a student, but rarely as a teacher. Our last assignment was to write an Ars Poetica, or a poem about the craft of writing poetry. I read him a poem from Camille Dungy's collection, Trophic Cascade, titled "Ars Poetica: After the Dam." To be perfectly honest, I didn't understand the poem. I simply enjoyed the way Dungy's words sounded in my mouth and knew it was an Ars Poetica based on its title. Yet, I trusted that my student would shed light on it for me. I read out loud
Once I finished reading I asked"if an Ars Poetic is about the craft of writing poetry, what do you think Dungy's poem says about the writing process?" My student responded faster than I expected. He said "poetry happens just after the breaching of a dam; it is the moment everything comes flooding out."Usually I question him more, but he already described Dungy's piece so eloquently. I nodded, "Yes. Exactly."
"Ars Poetica: After the Dam" describes an overflowing fullness that leads to an opening. This opening reveals the poetry that has always existed, but has only recently been set free. My student's response led me to consider my own writing process. Last year I worked on a collection of nonfiction essays. I remembered my frustration in the Fall. For the longest time I was unable to form any words on the page. Little did I know, I was damming up words inside of me. As soon as there was enough pressure, or rather inspiration, all came flooding out.
"The floodplains bloom" and creation follows. That is what happened. By Spring, I was sending pages and pages of writing to my mentor multiple times a week. She even asked me to slow down because she could not keep up. "Keep writing, just share less with me!" she exclaimed. I produced and produced until my mind felt emptied and I hit another wall. I was in the dam phase again, subconsciously recognized this, and ventured out to collect words, wisdom, and experiences.
Today, I am once again behind the wall, storing up inspiration. As a teacher, I write and find inspiration alongside my students. We participate in the same exercises. The honey bee appeared in my writing so many times this summer that I apologized to my student. "I'm sorry. I can't stop writing about bees!" He responded cooly, "That makes sense. You are surrounded by honey bees everyday. There's a hive in your backyard isn't there? You should keep writing about them. Stay with it."
Stay with it. Let your findings fill and unfold out into a floodplain. That night I sent an email to Bonnie and her partner, Gary— the beekeepers that monitor and care for our hive. I wondered if I could observe their work and ask questions about honey bees.
To write is to allow thoughts to fall. To breach a dam is to set free. To extract honey is to create space in a hive. In the honey garage, Gary and I take turns scraping heavy, honey-filled frames onto a filter. We leave that honey to drip down into a bucket over night. Then, we put the scraped frames into a centrifuge, a machine that spins them rapidly around. Honey flicks onto the walls like Jackson Pollock's paint, until gold coats the side walls of the machine. We talk about poetry. He remarks that most everyone finds honey bees beautiful—they are sweetness and light—but few know the extent of their beauty. Few know about their intricate processes, or look deep into the layers of their lives. Once we spin all the frames free of honey, Gary opens the spigot and lets it pour out.
My own Ars Poetica borrows Camille Dungy's ideas and discusses a different dam. My dam is a heavy hive, preparing for the honey flood. I'm in the phase of collecting little gifts, finding intricate moments, and storing them all up until they will eventually overflow and create enough honey for extraction. I go out everyday to collect inspiration, mostly from around my own backyard, then I bring it back to my notebook, write it down, and wait for my inner worker bees to create so much substance, that I can't possibly contain it all.
A single hive can produce sixty to one hundred pounds of honey per year. It's actually beneficial for humans to extract honey. Ironically, honey bees starve if they have too much food. They need just enough to feed themselves and their brood. When they have too much honey, they have to exert more energy, altering temperatures inside of the hive, and creating space for their babies. To extract the right amount is to breathe.
The honey pours out from the spigot. Gary dips his finger in and invites me to do the same. He asks me how it tastes. I search for the word. . .
"It tastes. . .elegant."
He thinks for a moment. Then, he smiles, nods, and responds. "Yes. Exactly."And so the outpour spreads with "all the fullness of its being to us."