April 12, 2016

Thursday, April 12, 2012

30 Habits of Highly Effective Poets #12: Dennis Kirschbaum on Writer's Block

I met Maryland-based poet Dennis Kirschbaum when we worked together on an anthology, Life in Me Like Grass on Fire, which features Maryland poets.

As I have gotten to know Dennis and his work, my respect for his poetry  has increased. I feel a little guilty that I'm comforted by Dennis' post on "bad" writing habits. I find it soothing that a poet whose work I admire shares my struggles with procrastination (Hello, Spider Solitaire!) and writer's block.

Dennis at the 2011 Baltimore CityLit Festival.
This year's festival is Saturday, April 14.

Here is Dennis: My Bad Habits

I have writing habits. They are all bad ones.

I surf the web.

I get up and get a snack.

You know we are out of almost EVERYTHING, maybe I’ll pop over to Mom’s Organic and pick up some fruit and coffee. Who can work without coffee?

Back from the store, I put on a pot of coffee. No point in getting started until it’s ready.

I look at a few items I am following on eBay.

I have a obsession with manual typewriters, though I don’t write on one. Oh, I tried. I did a lot stalking on eBay and finally obtained, at a staggeringly low price of forty dollars, a Remington Quiet-Riter (circa 1957) identical to the one my mother bought when she was in college. By the time I knew that I needed to learn to type, my mom already had an electric typewriter. But I found all that humming and the violence of the powered carriage return a little scary, so I taught myself on the Remington manual, still looking good, though a little musty in the hall closet. I spent the summer between my first and second year of college, practicing.

The old green banger.
qqqqwwwweeeerrrrttttyyyy. What an inane layout for keyboard!

Some years later, when she was selling our family home my mother got rid of the Remington along with the Coleman lantern, my Flexible Flyer sled, and a bunch of other really great stuff that I am now reacquiring from other people’s mothers on eBay at mostly bargain prices. Really? No one but me wants to bid on this?

When the new (old) Remington arrives, I find out why it was so cheap. It is caked with dust and grime and the keys stick. More Internet research. Kensington Office Machines in Kensington, MD is the kind of hole in the wall place you pray could still exist. It does. Manual and electric typewriters from every decade in the 20th century in various stages of disrepair line the walls and halls along with old printers, computers with tape drives, and mechanical calculators that add by means of rows of numbers and a hand crank. I drop off the Remington for a little R&R. These things take time, of course. Six months later, Vladimir, also known as The Guy Who Works on These, has made the old green banger as good as new.

After about 5 minutes at the machine, I remember why I switched from a typewriter to the word processor on my college’s mainframe computer the day someone showed me how to use it.  Mistakes fixed effortlessly. Drafts. Revisions. I had forgotten that I can’t spell! I bought my first Mac the year they came out and today write on a MacBook Pro. It’s a beautiful thing.  It’s perhaps the one thing that stops me from going back to live in Paris in the 1920s where I could procrastinate by sitting in cafes, drinking cheap red wine, and smoking cigarettes. (I would have been a fantastic smoker, if I had been born back when they didn’t give you cancer and horrible breath.)
Imagine Dennis in a fez.
Still, the manual looks beautiful and smells like a new bicycle. Isn’t that what Steve Jobs called typewriters? A bicycle for the mind? Someday, when I have the photo taken for my book jacket, I’ll pose in front of the manual. For now, it looks great sitting on my desk with a new piece of cotton bond rolled under the platen.

I need a deadline to bring me to life. Nothing focuses the mind like an axe hanging from a bit of rope over one’s head. It’s why I participate in a poetry writer’s workshop. We meet weekly and the thought of having to appear before my friends and critics empty handed is a humiliation that I can’t bear. “Why Dennis, you weren’t able to write anything?” I imagine my teacher saying with incredulity. The deadline is more valuable to me than the actual feedback I get during the workshop itself. I always show up with something. Here’s what happens.

The morning of the workshop, I roll out of bed and press the button on the coffee machine. I sit on the sofa with the laptop on my lap and something comes. It always does. I never have writer’s block under deadline. The words gush like a broken water main on a cold winter day until I have something like a big block of ice. Then I start chipping away at it as if I am trying to make a sculpture. I take out every word that doesn’t seem essential and move around the line breaks. I get into a kind of zone where the rest of the world disappears. The normal distractions vanish. Oh God, I’ll be late for work!

There, I leave the document open in the background all day. I look at it from time to time. Sometimes I delete a word. Add a comma. I think, “This is total crap. Why didn’t I start working on this days ago.” But it would be even more humiliating to go to the workshop with nothing than with this piece of garbage. I remind myself that the point of a workshop is to get criticism not to show off perfect work and swallow the teaspoon of pride I have left and print a final draft.

Here’s a poem about trying to write.

Writers Block
By Dennis Kirschbaum

It's not always easy to tell the difference between thinking
and looking out of the window. — Wallace Stevens

Hell may have no fury like a scorned woman’s rage,
but an author knows no horror like the blankness of a page,
whose very whiteness mocks him, when lines stare back unfilled
while coffee in his cup grows cold and ink dries on his quill.

His mind’s a wasteland barren (think of Eliot’s famous poem)
while the forge of creation lies as chilly as a tomb.
He pleads with Sarasvati to fill his pen with words,
seeks sparks among the ashes. Those prayers go unheard.

Perhaps a walk around the block is the thing to turn the tide.
With such a gorgeous sky, it makes no sense to stay inside,
anything, he thinks, to forget this awful day
he’s feared so long and now is here --there’s nothing left to say.

It is then she comes unbidden at the store or in the car.
An idea forms; a germ takes root. “I should have thought of that
Words boil like water, the sanguine humors flow,
a diamond bullet through the brain, a sapling starts to grow

into something like Frost’s wood (though not as lovely, dark, or
and takes shape within his mind, “I have one more left in me!”
Until the next time he faces inspiration’s yawning void,
confirming yet again the knowledge of his fraud.

Small ones dread the darkness, delivery men, the clock,
but a poet’s lowest hour precedes the sound of Muse’ sweet knock. 
The Muses, by LeSeur at

Dennis M. Kirschbaum is a writer and poet living in Washington Grove, MD.  He grew up in Baltimore, and earned a B.A. in English from Guilford College in Greensboro, NC and an M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from Baltimore Hebrew University. His poetry has appeared in Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems and has been featured on WYPR Baltimore’s The Signal. He is a member of the Maryland Writers’ Association and an Adirondack Forty-Sixer.


Vesna said...

If Dennis K. could become a poem, this is what it would read like and feel like. That light, buoyant spirit, that depth, that nimble, powerful intellect. That disciplined accomplishment. That fun. Pretty good bad habits, friend!

Anonymous said...

This is my favorite entry so far in the poetry month advice from writers series. I related to every word.

Anonymous said...

Dennis - This tale of writer's block... and the accompanying poem are two of your very best. Thanks for making me smile... and think.

Yours, M.

Author Amok said...

Thanks for stopping by, all. I'm glad you liked Dennis' post. I'm a huge fan of his poetry.

Robyn Hood Black said...

A day late and a dollar short, but I had to offer up thanks for such a humorous (and true!) post and poem. Thanks, Laura and Dennis!

Rob said...


I never knew you were such a talented artist. You have captured the essence of my life.


Anonymous said...

I had no idea you were a poet, Dennis. Just one more reason to admire you. The poem and narrative spoke directly to me. I will happily share this with others.