Our Poetry of Witness judge, Brendan Walsh, has lived and taught in South Korea, Laos, and South Florida. His work has recently appeared in Glass Poetry, Indianapolis Review, Wisconsin Review, Baltimore Review, and other journals. In 2019 he launched Living Things: The Great American Poetry Crawl, sponsored by Sutra Press, which harnessed the fellowship of writing by connecting to independent literary communities up and down the East Coast.
Here’s what he has to say about his ideal writing day:
This is so difficult for me, because I feel like my best writing is often done through my best living. In other words, when I’m truly inside my body and in love with the world, I’m creating–though I might not be doing much writing. The fuel is what most interests me: I’m a narrative poet, so although there’s a necessary element of creation, my imagination doesn’t always do justice to the incredible experience of being. I guess what I’m failing to say is that my ideal writing day may not involve writing anything at all. Without the fuel that is the sensual ecstasy of this moment, right now, I’ve got nothing to write about (or write for). That being said, my ideal writing days are more rare than they used to be. When I was studying for my MFA (shout out Southern CT State University!), I had ideal days stacked upon ideal days. They always looked like this:
wake at 4:30: enough espresso to wake the dead
write one short poem: usually something with strict syllabics, like a sonnet or haiku, some restrictive form. This forces me to think economically.
lift weights for an hour: being in the body, and feeling pain, are sometimes the only things that remind us to live. I’ve had many great lines come from heavy deadlifts or picking up an Atlas stone.
focus on other cognitive tasks until late morning: this could be my “job”, whatever that is. The mental transition is important for me.
write another poem or edit/revise from the morning: this all depends on how much I like the morning poem. If it’s in a form that doesn’t work, I’ll extract what’s great from the form and make it something else.
read a collection of poems: between work and class, I would read an entire collection of poems in the library. I made my way through so many amazing writers–this was essential, and I can’t recommend it enough.
workshop with other poets: no ideal writing day is complete without a workshop. My favorite workshop format was a small group rotation that my professor, Jeff Mock, used. Every person would have their weekly poem/s intimately discussed by groups of three-four. So much laughter and infinite breakthroughs in this space. There is nothing more conducive to good writing than a great community of writers/readers.
have a beer: why not? you’ve earned it.
It’s simple. Routine is essential for composition, but in between routines I have to do a lot of living. I have to know what it’s like to be alive before I can even try to make it language.
He shares the following poem, originally published in American Literary Review:
we are great apes
we are great apes; we are great sometimes; we are not kings of any jungle; we used to tie our feet with leather we used to eat whatever we killed or found; i’ve only killed bugs, i’ve only eaten bugs i haven’t killed; at a bushmeat stall in Laos i saw monkey carcasses draped over a plastic table; we aren’t very great but not so long ago we kindled pockets of sun from rocks and sticks; my students call orangutans ‘monkeys’ to make me mad and it works every time; we are great apes; i watch a video of an orangutan washing herself with soap, a video of kanzi the bonobo using a lighter and toasting marshmallows; my second memory is flinging a burnt marshmallow like a fist of napalm; chimps hunt in packs and tear a colobus monkey apart like a body of wishbones; i watch clips of silverbacks drumming their chests and bellowing into primeval forests; we howled with conch shells and microphones and blunderbusses; i’ve seen koko the gorilla and robin williams tickle one another, their hands like siblings; i drum my chest and holler into my apartment; ooooh ooooh ooooh oooooooh; not long ago we lived in the cradle of acacia trees; my first memory is falling from the lowest branch of a maple; ooooh ooooh ooooh oooooooh