Unlocking Memories by Writing Poetry

On this episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, host James Morehead (Poet Laureate – Dublin, California) demonstrates how writing poetry can unlock memories and connect readers with universal truths. James shares memoir poems from his first two books, “canvas” and “portraits of red and gray”, and discusses unlocking details from years or even decades ago through the poetic writing process. James also shares how he introduced “turns” into some of the poems, to make them more than personal memories. Below is a transcript of the episode with additional visual elements.

Before diving into my new book “portraits of red and gray” I’m going to share a poem from my first book that captures a powerful experience from my teenage years, and that taps into a universal emotion; the poem is called “crush”

“crush” from “canvas” by James Morehead

I was struggling with how to capture this experience until I focused on the word “crush”, which has such a universal meaning. I played with the word, trying to use the word in as many different ways as possible. The feeling of a crush, crushing fear, being crushed.

As I wrote this poem, decades after the experience, I started with the slimmest details. But as I’ve found with other memoir poems, the writing process, and in particular the poetic writing process, forces you to imagine the experience in a visceral way. The images, sounds, smells, feelings – all the raw material needed to create poetry – has to be mined from memory. It’s magical how pulling threads of memory unlocks more memories, especially as you revise and edit the poem.

Poems are rarely, if ever, written in one sitting. Poems are written, re-written, and edited over days, weeks and sometimes months or even years. That’s important because sleep cycles unlock memories. I’ll go to sleep with a poetic problem to solve and more often than not wake up with a new idea or approach or detail.

Sometimes capturing a present experience can unlock memories from decades before. A good example is the opening poem from my new book “portraits of red and gray”. The poem I’m about to read was inspired by seeing a copy of the “New Yorker” on a friend’s coffee table. I’m also a fan of the magazine and as I thought about the connection between the New Yorker in her house and mine I was reminded of my father’s love of the New Yorker, and the poem took a different turn.

“The New Yorkers” from “portraits of red and gray

My new book “portraits of red and gray” is built around a series of poems about an eighteen day trip to the Soviet Union I took back in 1983. This is before perestroika, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, during the Cold War. This is the Soviet Union through the eyes of a teenager.

It was a remarkable experience and it wasn’t until years later, in university, that I spent four months capturing the experience in a series of poems, and years later still that I found a home for this collection.

Here is a small taste of “portraits of red and gray

#12 and #16 from “portraits of red and gray

I’ve been asked by multiple readers how I could remember so many details, especially when I had no photographs from the trip. Because of all the restrictions about taking photos in the Soviet Union back then I didn’t risk taking any photos. When I started writing this series of poems I had clear memories of some events and only sketches of others.

Getting started was difficult. I didn’t have any record of the itinerary, or any photographs (this was pre-smartphones), just my memories to go on. So I started with the memories that were the strongest and as I wrote those down, much of the time with my eyes closed, in near darkness, so I could watch my memories like a movie and capture them.

But then something magical happened, something that I believe can help you deal with powerful memories. The more I wrote, the more I remembered, and the more vivid the memories became. Below are some pages from the very first handwritten drafts and typed revisions and edits.

As I wrote these poems I would dig into my memories not just for what happened, and when it happened, but what it felt like, sounded like, smelled like; the more I wrote the more I was transported and immersed. It’s remarkable what is trapped in your memories and what you can remember if you use poetry to mine your mind. Our minds are incredible things – capturing so many details. The challenge is unlocking those details – and poetry is like a key to your memories.

#23 from “portraits of red and gray

The only memento I have from that trip is the Russian hat I bartered for that night in Leningrad. I wish I could pass this hat around for you to hold – a photograph of the very hat I bartered for is included below.

There are so many more stories from that trip to the Soviet Union in my book “portraits of red and gray”, and a window into Cold War Soviet Union life that is tragically relevant.

Memoir poems, however, don’t need to be inspired by extraordinary journeys to faraway places; the simplest moment can inspire a memoir poem. Here’s an example from “portraits of red and gray”:

“lost (and found)” from “portraits of red and gray

This poem was inspired one afternoon as I was reading on the couch and my wife was trying to find her reading glasses – that’s it, a single simple moment. In that moment, though, I tried to connect a personal experience to something universal.

Some of the memories I captured needed the form of prose poetry. One poem I struggled with, that was built on a powerful experience in Normandy years ago, went through at least three complete re-writes before I found a form that worked. The first version of this poem was written in formal verse – a rigid pattern of syllables and rhymes. The form was fighting the poem and the epiphany was to write the poem as a prose poem in the form of a screenplay. Imagine how this poem is visualized, as a screenplay, as I read it.

“NORMANDY (in 9 scenes)” from “portraits of red and gray

The next pair of poems from “portraits of red and gray” are related – you’ll see why after you read them.

“as we paused on the cables” and “Ode to Docs” from “portraits of red and gray

This pair of poems are built around experiences that connect me with my daughters. Communicating your love for a spouse, child, parent, friend can be beautifully expressed by capturing a shared experience in poetry. Poetry, as I’ve noted before, forces you to focus on emotions, senses, and less about minutiae or plot or story. Poetry done well can transport you and leave finishing the poem to the reader. I’ve been surprised over the years how my poetry is interpreted in many different ways by readers, how a poem I’ve written based on my memories unlocks a completely different memory in the mind of the reader.

I’m going to close with two more poems, the first poem captures time I spent with my cousins one summer in the tiny town of Savery, Wyoming. The form of the poem needed to be slight, lots of open space like Wyoming. Quiet. The second poem is the title poem from my first book “canvas”, which is a series of memories wrapped in a fantastical image.

READ That Summer in Savery, Wyoming (page 3)

“That Summer in Savery, Wyoming” from “portraits of red and gray
The title poem of “canvas” read by James Morehead

If you enjoyed this episode please consider buying my books, both are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at independent booksellers. Signed copies are available on the Viewless Wings store.

Thank you for spending a few minutes with me and my poetry.

2 thoughts on “Unlocking Memories by Writing Poetry

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  1. A very inspirational and informative article. There is a deep generosity of spirit at work here in your willingness to educate and help develop other Poets by so openly sharing, and the Poems themselves a wonderful start to my day!

  2. Context is important for the readers, be they poets or followers. James Morehead provides this in his fascinating podcast by using speech not only for recitation but also to evoke images that are all subsequently enhanced in the complementary transcript. The art of composition and the ability to mix language with algebra and geometry is a new licence granted nowadays to poets! We don’t use upper or lower case in speech or need commas or full stops to tell a story nor do we need to fill and pack the space with words.

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