Susan Okie is a poet, physician, and former Washington Post medical reporter. She received her MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College in 2014. Her chapbook, Let You Fly, was a finalist in Finishing Line Press’ New Women’s Voices Contest and was published in 2018. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Susan lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Susan’s poem “The Rains Begin in Western Kenya” appears in LPR’s Winter 2020 issue. She read this and other poems at our issue launch in January (video below). Her guest post is part of our “Concerning Craft” series.
I’ve written three poems based on the memory of a single evening during the years when my family lived in western Kenya. Each is different.
The first version, “The Rainy Season Begins in Western Kenya,” captured what I saw that day when the sky opened and the hot, punishing dry season ended, but not the feeling of what happened. The third poem, “The Rains Begin in Western Kenya,” which appears in this issue of Little Patuxent Review, exposes the emotional currents beneath my response to the thunder, the cloudburst, the sudden appearance of giant toads sitting open-mouthed in our yard.
The middle poem was the midwife. It moved my mind away from familiar vocabulary and habits of style, forced me to focus on word choice, grammar, line length. Its title is La saison des pluies commence au Kenya. Since I’d never written a poem in another language, I had low expectations, but the new draft, in French, surprised me: it got a stuck poem where it needed to go.
As a former newspaper reporter, I struggle, in my work, to escape the long habit of chronological telling, the urge to inform. My memory of the rains’ arrival was vivid, ecstatic, indelible even years after the event. But merely describing it, as I had in the first version, couldn’t transmit that experience to a reader. My first version of the poem contained the images that had moved me, but it didn’t succeed, and I had no idea why.
The constraint of writing in French had helped distract my conscious mind, allowing the poem’s real subject to emerge.
A year or two after I’d written the first version, I was taking an intermediate French class at my local community college. We had regular writing assignments, and one week, the professor asked us to write a poem in French. (She told me, later, that she wanted to learn more about her students by having them write something personal.) I remembered my rainy-season poem, and decided to try using the same material. Since I was still a beginner in the language, I used wordreference.com, a good website for foreign-language dictionaries, to help me find the French words I needed. In contrast to the English version of the poem, which I’d written in free verse lines of varying length, I stuck to short lines, none of them longer than five words. The syntax was also simpler, relying on nouns and verbs with few adjectives or adverbs.
I wrote in the second person, addressing myself as “you”—a choice I sometimes make, unconsciously, when the material is emotionally fraught. But the real surprise was that the poem in French started at a time months earlier than the previous one. My mother had died suddenly in California about a week after our family had arrived in Kenya. I’d traveled back to the U.S. to be with my brother, plan and attend her memorial service, help empty out our childhood home. It was this background material, unconsciously buried during my first draft, that needed to be present in the poem.
The constraint of writing in French had helped distract my conscious mind, allowing the poem’s real subject to emerge. The meaning of the storm, the giant toads and the flying ants suddenly became clear to me and to the reader. Once I had the French draft, I was able to rewrite and revise the poem in English from a fresh perspective.
Professors in my MFA program taught us about the value of writing under a constraint to distract the ego and help us arrive at a poem’s real subject, but my attempt to write in French showed me for the first time how powerful a strategy it can be. The constraint needn’t be writing in a foreign language. I’ve since made breakthroughs on stuck poems by rewriting them in a form, such as a sonnet or villanelle. Some teachers also recommend revising by imposing a set number of syllables per line, a constraint that forces the writer to weigh the impact of each word and cut the weak ones.
Any set of rules that prevents us from defaulting to our ingrained habits is useful. What you get from imposing the constraint may not be the finished version, but it will help you move the poem to a new place. My fortuitous experiment with switching languages finally made me understand Robert Frost’s well-known maxim, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”