The Lure of a Recurring Topic

by Lauren Camp

My poem in this issue of The Quotable is not the first about my mother. Or the second, or third. It’s about the gazillionth.

No kidding.

My mom died and I wrote about grief and loss, and all the normal stuff a person tries to process when someone close to them is suddenly and forever gone. I wrote poems that absolutely sucked (but made me feel better), and then, as time went on, I wrote better poems. I was calmer in my missing, more thoughtful. Not distant, but lighter in my understanding of the hole she’d left.

And no, she wasn’t perfect. Let’s get that out of the way now.

I wrote about that – the imperfection. Just like anyone else’s mom (maybe even yours), she could be annoying or unmotherly.

Even when I wrote about other subjects, I’d stick my mom into the poem somewhere as sort of a placeholder. What it came down to was that I wanted to find her everywhere I was. If she couldn’t be “in the flesh,” she could at least be “in the words.” Occasionally, she even showed up, uninvited.

But most of my poems were about the rotten stuff of her dying. I wrote about cancer. I wrote about being bedside as she was hallucinating from morphine. I wrote about waiting. I wrote about without. Without and without.

And, more than 14 years later, I still think I’m not done writing about my mother, and that’s fine with me. Recurring topics give a writer the chance to explore the topics that roll around most in your head and heart. Go ahead; spelunk in the subject. Go deep into the cave of it with your little headlamp. See what twists and turns you can find. See what glitters, what old emotion got shoved far in the back. Go in and figure out what you didn’t know. What you don’t yet expect.

I trashed a lot of my mom drafts because they were just plain sad with nothing more to offer. They helped me to process, but wouldn’t offer a reader anything.

But there were a number of good and unusual poems. I included a handful in my first book, This Business of Wisdom. Some very different “mom poems” will show up in my second book (due out in 2014).

Your recurring topics might be different than mine, but we each have the things that guide us, obsessively. My big topic seems to be not just my mother, but cancer, and how it keeps on pervading, insinuating into the people I love.

Probing this subject is my way of coping. I’m following or ignoring every stage of grief, but mostly I’m just writing, and later shaping, or deleting.

It’s not narcissistic to write about a thing that is important to you over and over, if you can find something new to share with readers. Instead, it’s helpful; it means moving that topic to the next level — out beyond you into the wide world.