Natalie Damjanovich-Napoleon: 'Flow'
As a busy Mum doing post-graduate study and working part-time, the most magical gift I took away from my KSP Writer’s Centre retreat was the gift of sustained, uninterrupted ‘flow’ or focused time to write.
This concept of flow state is explored by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He explains that flow is ‘a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’
The project I worked on during my residency, ‘Axe Marks in Tree Trunks,’ seeks to tell the untold stories of Croatian and Yugoslav settler women, based on oral history interviews and fragments of information in history texts. The lives of working-class women who speak English as a second language from southern Europe have been sorely neglected in the literature of Australia. This project seeks to redress that gap in the literary and historic record.
Being in the cabin, with the incredible view of trees, with twittering birds to greet me while I looked at the City of Perth from a distance gave me a feeling of being connected to the world but separate from it at the same time – the perfect mindset to commence a writing retreat. Before the retreat I had made a decision to re-work the experimental poems I had begun the project with and instead write conventional poetry, with the aim to connect with my own Croatian-Australian community more readily as well as the wider reading public.
Once I sat at my desk and began writing the days disappeared quickly. My advice to other residents would be to find the ‘flow’ in your day. Starting my day with a cup of tea in bed, the blinds open, birds tweeting ‘wake up!’ and reading interviews to stir my mind was a wonderful way to commence writing. My flow routine was to go for a morning bushwalk, thinking about what I would focus on before I got to my desk, then write in a frenzy until lunch. Not having to worry about making meals for anyone else or driving my kid to his sports and music lessons meant I could get in an extra two or three hours of writing every day. It was absolute bliss!
From 34 pages of drafts, I came away with 18 pages of polished, completed poems during my two-week residency at KSP Writer’s Centre. The forms I explored were the sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, Golden Shovel, letter, prose, and ekphrastic poetry and free verse. By using formal poetic structures and free verse I played with the construction and deconstruction of form, examining how immigrant women need to find ways to “fit” into a new culture and definitions of gender roles. All of this was created by finding a flow state in my cabin in the woods, secluded from my usual earthly interruptions of phone calls, WhatsApp groups, and piles of dishes and laundry. Once I found flow state I thoroughly enjoyed being in the world of these resilient, tough settler women and in having a break from my own life by becoming a part of theirs.
Flow is that state where you lose yourself in the work, are in a state of connection and feel pleasure while creating. As Csikszentmihaly says ‘the self expands through acts of self-forgetfulness.’
Now the challenge is to find this flow state back in my home sphere and find ways to continue creating the ‘Axe Marks in Tree Trunks’ poems rather than getting distracted by daily interruptions.
My advice to all writers: go on, forget yourself, flow.
Natalie Damjanovich-Napoleon’s Top Ten Tips for Writing Poetry:
1. Often, we do some ‘throat clearing’ in our writing to get to the main point. Frequently your hook – the most gripping opening phrase – is buried past the first few lines. Review your work carefully to ensure that you start with an evocative first line.
2. Ask yourself ‘What is my through line? Am I jumping around and confusing my reader?’ If so, re-write your work to find a consistent theme, idea or metaphor that runs through the whole poem.
3. Read poetry. It seems obvious, but when you read the work of others who write poetry, but don’t read poetry it is blindingly clear. Read a lot of poetry, become familiar with contemporary poets. Reading other’s work helps us eliminate the use of cliché, learn what we like and dislike and stay in conversation with our contemporary peers.
4. Eliminate clichés, they are the death of all interesting writing. Take a pen, read your poem, circle anything that is a cliché, re-write the cliché using a new or inventive simile, metaphor or image. If not, find a ‘critical friend’ (see tip 5) to point them out or try Jeff Tweedy’s word ladder exercise here: https://austinkleon.com/2020/12/09/nouns-and-verbs/
5. Find some trusted ‘critical friends’ to read your work. You need to find readers who will be forthright and honest and who read or write poetry. They need to do two things simultaneously: a) praise your work when praise is due and b) tell you what is not working and needs further clarification.
6. Use consistent similes and metaphors and test them for logic. If they do not work in the way you have applied them in the poem, you will lose the reader’s suspension of disbelief needed for them to be in your world.
7. Use the specific to show the universal. For example, my poem ‘First Blood: A Sestina’ narrates a personal experience of getting my first period using encounters with spider orchids, traditional Croatian values and growing up on a farm. These specifics draw readers into the universal theme, which is that every woman experiences a first period, and that this experience is life changing.
8. Be playful. Poetry is about getting your readers to view words in a different way, a poetic way, which is creative and mind-bending. Dig into that, be creative, have fun.
9. Read your work out loud. Poetry has been a spoken form since the first sun rose upon the first human who recited a poem aloud. Reading aloud achieves several points; it lets us hear the rhythm of our work as well as functioning as an editing and compositional tool. Put your pen down now and read your poem aloud. What do you hear?
10. Show don’t summarize. A common mistake many beginner poets make is that they write a beautiful poem then finish it with a line that ‘explains’ the meaning of the poem. Like throat clearing, ‘summarising’ to end a poem takes away from the power of the poem. Trust the work to stand on its own without explanation.
Natalie D-Napoleon - KSP Emerging Writer-in-Residence 2023