Essay, Writing Tips

How to Bake a Poem

Photo: :: An awesome #cake for my awesome husband. A layered devil's food cake with chocolate buttercream and some chocolate sprinkles for the numbers. So decadent.

Standing over the breakfast nook in my kitchen, I considered blowing my nose but didn’t. I was afraid that if I did I would probably scream. Because what would have come out on the tissue would have probably been brown.

At that point, I had used the following ingredients: boiling water, sour cream, all-purpose flour, cake flour, eggs, egg yolks, cocoa (Dutch-processed and a small mountain of it — hence that fear of ol’ poo nose), oil, salt, dark brown sugar and probably a few other small ingredients I am leaving out now, the night after, as I sit clean in my room and away from the kitchen table. The slab.

Yesterday morning, before I took to the operating room, I drove through the city to a class I am taking at a community center. Every Saturday for six weeks, I meet with a group of women – all ages, all backgrounds, all types and shapes and sizes, all interesting – and we write. Poetry, mostly, intermingled with some brief essay prose. And we share.

I come back to writing poetry relatively frequently because it is nothing like writing prose. That sounds very simple, but when you write fiction more than anything else, poetry is like this refreshing palate-cleanser. Gourmet sorbet.

After class, back at the laboratory, as I started the process of combining three bowls of different ingredients in varied elemental states, I recalled how once upon a time I never thought much when someone asked me to bake a cake. I’d make sure I had eggs and oil, then I’d go to a store for a mix and some frosting. It didn’t even have to be a grocery store. You can get cake mix from the right gas station, if you know where to look. Everything went into a bundt pan – because that’s all I had – and then it got put in the oven, took a slathering of cream cheese/chocolate/sprinkle-laden sugar sauce and voila. Happy birthday.

As soon as I was halfway through the cake – the from-scratch, from-the-tiniest-little-nothing forward – I wished I was back at class. That I could have been “stuck” there, writing all day. My mind drifted to years and years before. I started writing poetry right before I began high school. It was my first publishing credit, and I found myself going, “Good poetry is, like, super easy. Why doesn’t everyone do this?” And I wrote some real stinkers.  If they weren’t horribly depressing, they were overloaded with wretched sentimentality (not the interesting emotional bits of living, but the cloyingly sweet stuff that coats the inside of your mouth and refuses to wash away).

It hit me today, after the cake was done, after I had frosted it (which is another production in and of itself) and tasted it (it was wonderful and decadent and moist and delicious), that writing poetry and baking cake are actually very similar. You can just do it and end up with something edible…or you can take the time to learn about the things that go into it and end up with something really remarkable in the end. And then even when it’s exhausting and you’re not sure what exactly you’re doing, and at some point during it you are pretty certain you’ve screwed up royally, it all comes together.

Or it doesn’t, and that’s okay, too.

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