Tumbling into place
Joshua Michael Stewart’s writing process keeps him constantly surprised
Every once in a great while something astonishing happens to those of us who write. Every now and again, a poem just “falls” on us, tumbling into place in our minds and then onto the page with a clarity and sense of wholeness that startles. Poet Joshua Michael Stewart had this happen once in the time it took him to walk outside to collect his morning paper.
“In the process of walking from the door, to the newspaper and back, this whole poem just fell out ‘as is,’” Stewart said. The poem, “On Hearing the News of the Murder of a Young Girl from the Neighborhood in the Wee Hours of a Winter Morning,” came to Stewart during a few quiet moments before he was due to wake the four men he supervises at an Attleboro, MA, home for the mentally disabled.
“I didn’t know what it meant or why it was it there,” Stewart said.
He held the poem in his mind all day as he went about the work he has done for over thirteen years, helping the charges he refers to as “gentlemen” learn daily living skills. It wasn’t until he got home that night that Stewart discovered a message waiting on his answering machine.
“(It was) my father saying that a girl who I grew up with, who lived across the street, had been found dead in a Las Vegas hotel,” Stewart said, adding, “I’m not a superstitious person at all. I don’t buy the full moon thing or anything like that.” But Stewart found it eerie that the message coincided with the poem that had come to him, almost verbatim, that morning.
Poems don’t usually happen so effortlessly for the Ware poet, who says he doesn’t even really think about poems when he sits down to write.
“My goal when I sit down is, I want to write a crisp, clear, interesting sentence,” Stewart said. He writes sentences and puts them away until he has whole sheets of them. Then he’ll pull them out and play with various arrangements.
Stewart sees the process as tricking his brain into being creative and compares the state of mind to that in which we can see “faces in wood grain or animals in clouds. … That’s kind of what I’m doing with the sentences, I’m making wood grain and clouds so later I can see how they’ll compile.” What’s great about this method of writing, Stewart says, is that the poems he writes surprise him.
Stewart, who studied history and jazz composition at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says that he doesn’t want to end up writing the same thing over and over. And though he also says his work is not often autobiographical, his new chapbook from Finishing Line Press, “Sink Your Teeth into the Light,” does include poems rooted in personal relationships and stories. Stewart says that he purposefully blends autobiography with fiction.
In the poem, “Vermont,” he began with an experience of taking one of his gentleman charges for a ride through rural Vermont but recast the story through the eyes of a fictional older woman and her mentally disabled son. Though the poem is not overtly political, Stewart hopes it gives a voice to the mentally disabled.
“Even when it comes to far left politics, very seldom do you hear about the rights of the disabled,” Stewart said.
The poem, in which the middle-aged son eagerly watches a bride and groom ride by in a horse-drawn carriage, then studies his own empty hands in his lap, quietly draws attention to the displacement the son feels, and to his mother’s worries as to what will become of him “when she’s gone.”
Stewart said that he initially worried whether the poem had crossed the line into sentimentality but felt it was a risk worth taking. He used to write angrier, more depressing poems but, he said, “I got to the point where I was sick of my own dark poems and I wanted to have more depth, more color.”
Comparing poetry to music, he said, “You don’t want a song where every chord is a minor chord, you want to throw some majors in there.”
Many of Stewart’s poems, including “For an Additional Three Minutes, Please Insert Twenty-five Cents,” reprinted here, play with the edges of dark and light. For all the dust and dirt and shouting of the first stanza, the second brings the incredibly tender gesture of that old man, raising his dead wife’s dress to his face.
“We believe what we can bear,” Stewart writes. That’s a line I will be thinking about for a while to come.
“Sink Your Teeth into the Light,” by Joshua Michael Stewart can be purchased at Mocha Maya’s in Shelburne Falls or through Stewart’s website: joshuamichaelstuart.yolasite.com
For An Additional Three Minutes, Please Insert Twenty-five Cents
Suppose God doesn’t own your soul,
but rents from the Devil? Snow clouds gather
in the sky like dust balls under an old couch.
Storefront windows are covered in yellowing
newspapers. Boys in dirty jackets collect
shards of glass to pack into snowballs.
A woman with pine needle hair shouts
into a payphone that had its cord cut.
We believe what we can bear: an old man
brings his dead wife’s dress to his face
even though it’s scented with another man.
A teenage girl tugs a sweater over her head
and disappears. And your shadow on the wall
gesticulates like a king addressing his peasantry.
Joshua Michael Stewart