I met Colleen McKee through a St. Louis poetry workshop “Loosely Identified.” Colleen, a St. Louisan, is the author of a collection of poetry, My Hot Little Tomato (Cherry Pie, 2007). She also co-edited Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (PenUltimate, 2008).
Her Riehlife Poem-of-the-Day “Natural Causes” originally appeared in Criminal Class Review (criminalclasspress.com). This is the first poem in her new manuscript I. She recently read with Fast Geek Press at the Holiday Club in Chicago. Here she describes the creative process of writing “Natural Causes.” –JGR
On Writing “Natural Causes”
by Colleen McKee
Janet was kind enough to ask me to write something about the process of writing this poem for Riehlife. Looking it over makes me realize how little I know where a poem is going when I begin writing one, how often I do not know what is truly driving me to write it until I am nearly done with it.
For me, writing a poem begins with an image, a few lines, or a sense of urgency in my chest, something mysterious and very physical, a kind of edginess bordering on irritation that compels me to pick up a pen. When I am finished writing it, I feel something quite literally in my gut that tells me I am finished. Again, it is a physical sensation I cannot explain. I just learn to trust and obey the process, as nonsensical as that may sound. If writing poetry were logical, I would probably be too bored to bother.
I remember beginning this poem at Black Bear Bakery one sunny Sunday morning. This poem began with a bunch of lines I later cut out, something related to fairy tales, a kind of Sleeping Beauty scene, but with a woman who would not wake up when kissed. I kept the image of the lovely corpse and nothing else of those two pages of tiny messy handwriting. On a different day, seeing a billboard on the highway advertising a place called Liquor Heaven, I laughed, hoping that’s where my dead alcoholic friends had gone. Somehow from there I got the image of the open bar at the funeral.
A few real funerals influenced this poem too. One was my young cousin Rosie’s funeral, at which her brother really had gotten into a fistfight with Rosie’s ex-boyfriend. The other funeral was my friend Miko’s. He had killed himself about six months before I wrote this poem. He was one of my closest friends for thirteen years and had once been my fiancée. That summer after his death, I felt unmoored, oscillating between despair and a deadening depression. I wondered if I would ever feel close to anyone again, and if I would care if I didn’t.
Looking at the poem now, I’m not sure if anybody else would see that in it, which is okay, but that was part of the impetus for writing it. Miko’s funeral, or rather, his wake, also, unfortunately, inspired the image of the young, beautiful corpse. He was thirty-three when he died but looked nineteen. At the funeral home, I did not want to see him in the open casket but did, by accident. Even across the room, I caught a glimpse of him and saw that he really did look like he was sleeping, just like all those mornings I’d woken up next to him sleeping, except that here he was sleeping on a high platform, fully dressed, surrounded by flowers, in a room full of people who didn’t want to be there.
After writing all the lines of “Natural Causes” and editing them first for word choice and later for line breaks, punctuation, and other nitpicky details, I struggled with the form the stanzas would take. I finally decided to split the first four in a way that would feel natural, sort of the way paragraphs are typically split up in prose. One breaks for a new paragraph at a new topic or when someone is speaking. Similarly, I break when I switch from the dress, to the cookies, to the men, to the dialogue. I think that makes it feel conversational, as the beginning has a kind of dry, dark humor, an almost breezy tone despite the morbid scene. Toward the end, I switched to couplets to dramatically slow down the pace. I like couplets because they call attention to the space around the words. The final line hangs there alone. The stanzas diminish as the admirers surrounding the narrator disperse, leading to what, in the poem, is true death, the absence of lovers and friends as the burial approaches, the place where one is physically and finally alone.