In the darkroom
I’ve been thinking about theme a lot lately. Partly because theme can be one of the most elusive literary devices, and I’m always trying to find a way to articulate what theme does, making it less scary and more accessible for my students. But the larger reason is that I have become paralyzed by theme.
My newest poetry book, Ellipses, came out in spring 2014, and was a collection of poems that spanned a five year period. I try to take some time away from writing after a new project comes out, but I found myself very quickly engaged with poems I’d recently read, and thinking about what I loved about them, how the collections were built. Many of my current favourites were themed in interesting ways. Typically, themes announce themselves during the writing process for me—both with fiction and poetry. It’s only once I’ve been circling the central ideas, immersing myself in the characters’ voices, that themes make themselves known. They’re the image developing in a darkroom—slowly, surely, they become more clear. But as I began to consider the topics that were important to me—areas of interest and research that had been speaking to me quietly, consistently, for the last couple years—I realized that what I really wanted to write about in verse centred on a clear, specific theme (reproduction, but that’s all I’ll say about it, as a very superstitious writer who rarely talks about work in progress). It felt like an aha! moment at the time, and I looked forward to a new project with this kind of guiding force. It was a plan, a pattern, and outline. It would be easy! Just insert poems.
And then I didn’t write a word.
Or, I wrote lots of words, but none that were very good.
I lost the rhythm of my own words, the patterns of image, the braided narratives, the atmosphere behind the lines. I was so concerned with focusing on accurately representing what I had discovered during research, that all the energy had gone out of the project.
No big deal, you might say. Put it aside, move on. Start something else. And, in another situation, I might have done just that. But I had applied for and received a course release from my heavy teaching load to dedicate to this project. I had also received an arts grant to work on this collection. And here I was, paralyzed.
Drafting this collection has been the most difficult project of my writing career. I’m struggling, still struggling, with how to convey theme without losing the passion and immediacy behind the poems. At times, I feel like I’m approaching the whole subject backwards, having drawn myself into a very small, very specific box. I’m in the darkroom, but the images are blurry, out of focus, in some cases, overexposed. But the poems are finally coming, slowly. Very slowly.
What should I have done? What is the magical, mystical wisdom? Well, it turns out it’s what I tell my students in every class, every term: Don’t force it. Theme will come when you are focused on the language, on creating the exact image or moment you envision. You’ll see it blossoming in the background, framing the shot, forcing the viewer to regard that moment in a new way.
Andrea MacPherson is a poet and novelist, and has written five books: two novels, Beyond the Blue, and When She Was Electric, and three poetry collections, Ellipses, Away, and Natural Disasters. Her poetry has been anthologized in the UK publication, How the Light Gets In. Andrea holds an MFA from the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia, where she was Editor of Prism International. She has also acted as the Reviews Editor for Event Magazine. She is as Associate Professor of English and creative writing at the University of the Fraser Valley, where she is also the Faculty Advisor for Louden Singletree, UFV’s literary magazine.