Writing at the Back of the Brain

A Poetry Squawk
By Lisa Andrews
Author of Dear Liz

Lisa-Andrews-994x1024I used to do a lot of writing while walking. (A friend saw me doing this years ago — before even flip phones — and assumed I must be memorizing lines for a play.) These days, more often than not, I write at home. Sometimes in absolute quiet (I’ve been lucky lately); sometimes while listening to music (music without words or in a language I can’t understand) — usually classical music, often opera. The music builds a wall around me; becomes a kind of armor against what I call the front-of-the-brain world — the world of health insurance disputes, taxes, proofreading. The music is larger than I am; inside it, I enter a different state of mind.

The back of the brain is where writing poetry happens for me. I keep writing and writing — out of a memory or an obsession — out of something I had no idea I was going to write about but that came up in the act of writing. I am writing as fast as I can, writing whatever comes into my head — what I am seeing, hearing — hoping to write faster than I can think, so that I may fall into something unknowingly — something that will take me by surprise.

I am not in charge. I am not in control. But I am, I hope, in a place where I will not be interrupted (here control enters in). I go for the early hours rather than the later ones — but I’ll take whatever I can get. A stretch of uninterrupted, uninterruptible time is the ideal. At home, I turn off every device.

Sometimes I go to a museum or a café. The subway is good. Trains are good. The shower can be great (although I may not be able to write anything down). You can’t really do other things on the subway. You’re not going to answer the door or the phone or the buzzer. You’re not, I hope, going to get up and start cleaning the subway car. There’s something about the movement, the motion of the subway car — and a kind of anonymity that covers me, encloses me (I am not talking about rush hour).

I once took a train from Penn Station almost all the way to Johnson, Vermont, and I wrote (almost) the entire way there. On the way back, I was not so lucky. It was a much smaller train. People were friendly. There were long stops. People were very friendly.

Writing over a period of months (or years), certain things keep coming up — surface repeatedly. Whether in the instant, or, more likely, over a period of time, something catches, takes hold; takes over. I work on it — letting it work on me, following it where it takes me. There will be multiple drafts of multiple versions.

Slowly, something begins to take shape, begins to cohere. Longer drafts I take with me wherever I go. Shorter drafts (or memorized drafts) I take with me on long walks, saying the lines out loud, hearing how things sound, making changes and writing them down — adding and subtracting…

Lisa Andrews grew up in Michigan and moved back to her native New York to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. A graduate of Hunter College, she received an MA in English Literature and an MFA in Poetry from NYU, where she taught in the Expository Writing Program and worked with poetry students at Goldwater Hospital and Bayview Correctional Facility. Chosen by Dael Orlandersmith as a recipient of the New Voice Poetry Award from the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA, Lisa has had residencies
at Blue Mountain Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in Gargoyle, HIV Here & Now, Mudfish, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Zone 3. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Tony Geiger.