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Jean Valentine's "Sanctuary"
a writing prompt
Today, I have a writing prompt for you based on a poem by Jean Valentine. I hope that it brings you a moment to slow down, breathe, and write.
Adrienne Rich said of Jean Valentine’s poetry, “Looking into a Jean Valentine poem is like looking into a lake: you can see your own outline, and the shapes of the upper world, reflected among rocks, underwater life, glint of lost bottles, drifted leaves. The known and familiar become one with the mysterious and half-wild, at the place where consciousness and the subliminal meet. This is a poetry of the highest order, because it lets us into spaces and meanings we couldn't approach in any other way.”
I first got to know Jean Valentine’s poems when I was at a writers’ retreat with Stacey Waite years ago. Stacey passed around cards with poems on them, to which we had to write in response. I got this spare powerhouse of a poem, “Mare and Newborn Foal" and I just sat and read the poem again and again, running my fingers over the words. I had no idea what to write because I was paralyzed by the mystery of it—a meaning that I felt but could not articulate. An invisible depth holding up the words on the page.
In response to a question about writing and revising, Valentine said,
“It seems to me to be a process of looking for something in there, rather than having something and revising it. I don’t consider that I really have anything yet—except inchoate mess. As I work on it, I’m always trying to hear the sound of the words, and trying to take out everything that doesn’t feel alive. That’s my goal: to take out everything that doesn’t feel alive. And also to get to a place that has some depth to it. Certainly I’m always working with things that I don’t understand—with the unconscious, the invisible. And trying to find a way to translate it.”
Sanctuary People pray to each other. The way I say "you" to someone else, respectfully, intimately, desperately. The way someone says "you" to me, hopefully, expectantly, intensely … —Huub Oosterhuis You who I don’t know I don’t know how to talk to you —What is it like for you there? Here ... well, wanting solitude; and talk; friendship— The uses of solitude. To imagine; to hear. Learning braille. To imagine other solitudes. But they will not be mine; to wait, in the quiet; not to scatter the voices— What are you afraid of? What will happen. All this leaving. And meetings, yes. But death. What happens when you die? “... not scatter the voices,” Drown out. Not make a house, out of my own words. To be quiet in another throat; other eyes; listen for what it is like there. What word. What silence. Allowing. Uncertain: to drift, in the restlessness ... Repose. To run like water— What is it like there, right now? Listen: the crowding of the street; the room. Everyone hunches in against the crowding; holding their breath: against dread. What do you dread? What happens when you die? What do you dread, in this room, now? Not listening. Now. Not watching. Safe inside my own skin. To die, not having listened. Not having asked ... To have scattered life. Yes I know: the thread you have to keep finding, over again, to follow it back to life; I know. Impossible, sometimes. —Jean Valentine, from Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003 (Wesleyan University Press, 2004).
Write a poem (or essay or journal entry) inspired by Jean Valentine’s “Sanctuary” and try to incorporate the following:
Ask at least 3 big questions
Speak to a “you”
the following words: listen, thread, solitude, skin, impossible
Or, write from the feeling that Valentine’s poem evokes in you
More Jean Valentine:
Valentine reading at BU in 2008 (video)
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