Poetry for the Non-poet: Conquering My Fear of White Space

Today’s guest post is by writer A.J. Kandathil.  Her creative non-fiction piece, “Covenant Breath,” will be featured in the premiere issue of The Quotable.

I am not a poet. Or at least that’s what I thought one day last fall when I walked into a cramped Lexington Avenue pizza shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As usual, I was running late and had arrived to scarf down a quick lunch while reading some assigned poems for a grad school literature class.

Outside, it was drizzling. As I waited to place my order, one of the employees propped the door open so the brisk air would cool down the men hoisting the pizzas in and out of the brick oven. Every time the wind passed through, the bell on the door jingled. I ordered a slice of cheese pizza and felt the soft tingle of shivers. I smiled. Hot pizza. Cold soda. Perfection.

There’s a certain music that accompanies places like this: customers chattering on cell phones, the clatter of a hot pizza pan as it hits the counter, the ring of a cash register. The reassuring noises of the city. I took a seat at a wobbly table in the back and set down my orange plastic tray. I grabbed my shuffle of papers and a pen, settled in my chair, and began to read.

“Disbelief / numbed me / as we turned the corner.”

These are the first three lines of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s long poem, “Meditations on the South Valley.” The narrative poem’s protagonist, Martín, arrives home late one evening to find his house and everything within it in flames. This is what Martín sees:

“White hands / of gray smoke greeted us / from the charred husk / of our house.”

Baca had my attention. But I sat straight up in my chair when I read his gut reaction at the sight of his house ablaze.

“my poems! / 10 years of my poems.”

I stopped. I read the two lines again. Then again. Baca’s spare words stood unapologetically on a white page, taking up so little of it. The empty space spoke to Martín’s loss as much as the words themselves did. I was moved, both by words, and by the absence of them.

White space. The prose writer’s worst enemy. It often represents a kink in the writer’s process: work not yet begun, work put on hold, work not yet finished. So many mornings, I get lured into a staring contest by the glare of the smug, white computer screen. Throughout the day, I fill it up. I make the sea of white disappear. The absence of white space on a page indicates that I have something to show for all my labors. I don’t think of the white page as a cradle for my work. I think of it as a barrier.

As I sat there reading the rest of Baca’s poem, my pizza grew cold and my Diet Coke became tepid. That rainy afternoon, I sat for an hour or two and brooded. I began to tease out what was latent in my own work. The source of my current “white space” was that I couldn’t find the right way to describe my own feelings of loss when I left home at the age of eighteen. It felt too monstrous, too blurry, too sentimental.

Baca’s link to a universal sense of loss was found in the specific: Martín’s poems, ten years’ worth. At that realization, my own narrative snapped into focus. I closed my eyes and imagined a sound that stood apart from the noise around me. It was the scratchy ignition of a Zippo lighter, the scraping of flint against a metal wheel. A childhood friend of mine used to repeat this action all the time. He’d light his Zippo and put it out. Light it and put it out. It was a sound I used to find so much comfort in that I hadn’t heard once since I left home. Finally, I found a back door through which I could enter my own memory.

Baca ends the scene with Martín with these words:

On hands and knees
I sifted through
the lust nest of ashes
in my writing room.

These words represent both an end and a beginning. Out of nothing, Martín starts over, just as all writers do every morning, believing that empty space is not the opposite of creation, but rather its antecedent.