By Dale Favier
"If you encounter resistance, use less force," said our teacher. We all looked up, surprised, from the naked backs we were working on. Our teacher reiterated: "Your instinct is to use more, I know. But if you're meeting resistance, back off. The more resistance, the less force."
We were working with the layer of connective tissue under the skin. Not all massage has to do with muscles. The body, its organs, and its muscles are all shrink-wrapped in connective tissue; the skin rides on top of an extensive layer of the stuff. It can get stiff, tight, distorted. When properly warmed and worked it becomes soft and flexible. But you can't force it. It's like silly putty: when cold and motionless it's hard, but as it warms and moves it becomes more fluid.
My teacher's advice was exactly right. It takes patience to do that work. You have to listen with your hands, slow down, and wait for the skin under your hands to respond. And when it's not responding, it's usually because you're trying too hard, going too fast. It will open up in its own sweet time.
The same thing happens with writing. I encounter resistance of one sort or another -- say an utterly recalcitrant line that just won't come right -- and my first impulse is to apply more force, bull my way on through, force my way forward. It's usually the wrong thing to do. And it's wrong for the same reason that it's wrong to try to force connective tissue: because I'm skipping ahead, trying to get to the solution without exploring the problem.
When you get stuck, first of all, ease off. And listen. Maybe I'm not quite at the right angle. Maybe it's not warm enough yet. Or maybe it's just not going to move today. That has to be all right. "Failure is not an option" may be a fine motto for NASA, but it's not a motto for massage therapists, or for poets. Failure is always an option. Often it's the most interesting option, if you pay attention to it. Because it means that something is not as you expected it to be. It means, in fact, that there is something to be learned. It means that there's an opportunity to make it new, which is precisely, Ezra Pound said, the poet's job. So don't just push harder. Don't do more of the same. Back off, let go, and listen.
So I can't get that line right. What if there's a good reason for that? What if I'm trying to force the wrong solution? Does there actually need to be another line at all? Try doing without it. Who says this stanza has to look like the other ones? Who says this problematic line shouldn't actually be two, or six? Who says it has to rhyme, or has not to? Who says I can't repeat a word I like? Who says the image can't be conventional, even hackneyed? Try going with the stale image: I can twist it or spike it or erase it later.
And, maybe the most important of all -- know when to quit. Poetry is more like human flesh than any other constructed thing I know. Sometimes you miss your moment, and then you just have to let it be, let it recover. Work on something else.
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Dale Favier has taught poetry, chopped vegetables, and written software for a living. Currently he works half-time as a massage therapist and half-time running a database for a non-profit in Portland, Oregon. He is a Buddhist, in the Tibetan tradition. He writes about meditation and poetry, and whatever ever else he may be interested in at the moment, at Mole. He has an M.Phil. in English Literature from Yale, but he never wrote much poetry until he began blogging, a few years ago, and fell in with bad companions. With them he eventually brought out an anthology, Brilliant Coroners. His poems have also appeared in Qarrtsiluni and The Ouroborus Review. His first chapbook, Opening the World, will be coming out next year from Pindrop Press.