Poetry Lives in the Body: Self-care in the Writing Process
Poet Nadia Colburn shares advice for poets working in difficult material, plus insights from the process behind her collection, The High Shelf
I had the pleasure of interviewing poet Nadia Colburn about the parallels between the writing process and healing work, her approach to self-care, and the process behind her collection, The High Shelf.
We talked about:
Nadia’s journey from book draft to publication
Self-care practices for writers, particularly when writing from difficult personal material
Parallels between the writing process and healing
The importance of writing in community
Watch the video below, or keep scrolling to read the interview in text. To hear Nadia read poems from The High Shelf, check out the video.
Poetry Lives in the Body: Self-care in the Writing Process
[Interview lightly edited for clarity.]
Radha Marcum: As we all know, writing a book is a huge labor of love. I'm curious, how many years did it take you to develop the material and the poems that are in The High Shelf, start to finish? What was that process like for you?
Nadia Colburn: Well, it took me about 20 years. One of the poems I wrote when I was pregnant with my son and then many of them I wrote when I was pregnant with my daughter. I wrote the majority of the poems over a few years when my daughter, who's younger, was two. It took me a while to put them together into a manuscript. At the time, I was being published widely [in journals] and I thought “I'll be able to publish this relatively quickly.”
I was a finalist [for book contests] again and again and again. I think I was a finalist 20 times! I got frustrated and put the manuscript aside. I felt that something in the manuscript hadn't quite come together, but I also felt very committed to the manuscript. And I had other poems that had also gotten published and that people really liked. They were saying, “Well, put these poems together.” But I wanted the poems in The High Shelf to stay together, so I just put it aside.
In 2018, I took it out again and submitted it again and it got picked up. I had revised it a little bit before sending it out again. Once it got accepted, I did some more revising and really finished it. That was a long journey.
Radha: As it is for so many poets that I know! It really is about persistence, allowing the material to come together in its own time. For me, Bloodline took well over 10 years, so I certainly relate to having to stick with it when it keeps being really close [to publication]. The High Shelf is a gorgeous collection. Did hearing “this is close” from publishers help you in the process? What did you take from those times that you were a finalist?
Nadia: In the beginning, I felt encouraged. By the end, I just felt very frustrated. But life has a certain poetic shape to it. I had a little bit of a hard time, I think, fully putting it out in front of people and saying, “I'm really committed to this book. Please publish it.” I wanted the book to do its own work. And I think that was partly because the material in the book is sensitive. I was very close to it, and it felt private. At the time, I didn't fully understand what I was writing out of—the private myth making, the intense world that I had created in the book.
When finally, years later, I sent it out again, I had done a lot of healing and was able to talk more explicitly about my healing journey, if you will. I could stand behind it in a different way, with more detachment. It had a life of its own that wasn't as much alive at the moment, inside of me, unresolved. So there is that kind of healing arc to the book’s publication story, as well.
Radha: Yes, the transformation that happens through the process of writing the book, the personal journey—I really feel that in your work. And I think others will, too. Many of your poems take ordinary moments and bring them into language that is transformative—the interior world that becomes the exterior world. It’s so lovely.
I understand you're deep into the process of your next manuscript, which also approaches issues that are sensitive and personal. How has working in that material changed your process, how you approach the writing of this new manuscript?
Nadia: I've always to some extent been writing from personally difficult material, whether I've known it explicitly or not. Perhaps one of the reasons that The High Shelf took so long to come out was because the writing had a knowledge that I, my conscious mind, didn't have a knowledge of yet. We had to catch up to each other, and I think that's one of the joys of writing. One of the powers of writing is that we can access parts of ourselves that we can't access other ways. When I teach writing now, I bring in meditation, yoga, or some form of embodied practice because our stories are in us in so many different ways. If we try to just get at the material straight, that might not actually be the most direct way to get there. We need strategies to tell a fuller whole. For me, poetry is one of those ways.
In this new manuscript, I'm definitely writing about trauma, but my project has been to try to be more open in the poems. In The High Shelf, I have [a theme of] a series of boxes where the material is contained. This next manuscript, I'm really trying to have more open space, trying to imagine placing difficult experiences, which often make us feel very like trapped cut off, into a larger container. I feel like the practices of meditation and yoga often help create that larger container for difficult experiences.
Radha: I want to go back to what you said about embodiment, about it being really important to the process of writing poetry, maybe in particular in the process of writing poetry about the issues that are, as you said, “they're in us.” They are quite literally in the body—not just in the psyche. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about accessing poems through that sense of embodiment, how that is a different approach than an intellectual one.
Nadia: I think a lot of it is actually about getting out of our own way. I used to think of myself as being in control when I was writing a poem. Now I see it as a dance between letting go and seeing what happens, and then shaping it. I’m letting it come through me. It’s more a process of listening than a process of dictating. So I ask, “Where does this want to go? What image do I want to use?”
My poems actually often come relatively quickly. I have to create the conditions and then they'll kind of come through. Many of the poems in this new manuscript, I hadn't even realized were poems. When I went back it was like, “Oh, I have all these poems here.” I went through them, got rid of many, kept some, and put them in shape. It was like the poems were teaching me about ways of being without my knowing.
Radha: How do you create the conditions, as you said? Is it just internally, or are there external practices that you do? Like rituals, that kind of thing?
Nadia: Now, in teaching, I curate these external conditions for people, which include meditations and writing prompts. People of all levels of experience benefited from them. I have friends who are working on their third poetry book and they say, “Oh my gosh, I had such a breakthrough using these practices.”
I will often write after reading or after walking, definitely after meditating, sometimes after yoga practice. But as I'm writing, I'm always tuned into my body so that I, if it's not a temporal connection, it's a remembered connection between these practices and the writing.
Sometimes people have this idea, “I need a practice so that whenever I want to write, I can write.” I really believe in the seasons of our creative life and trusting in those. Sometimes I'm going to write a lot, and sometimes I'm not going to write so much. And that's okay.
Radha: It really strikes me how much resonance there is between certain practices—yoga, meditation, even just going outside and taking a walk—that align perfectly with what you said earlier about openness. Openness is what generates—and what is generated by—that process of writing. Each of those practices is about openness in the body or the mind, getting more space by going outside. There’s synergy between those practices and the writing process, it seems.
Nadia: When I was studying poetry [at universities], in poetry workshops, I felt like there was a lot of angst in poems, like American poetry was full of very tight spaces. I mean, it's great to have tension in a line, but there's also a lot of really great poets like Rilke or Whitman who are not really working so much on creating tons of tension. There's an approach to poetry that's going for more openness. I didn't feel like I was seeing a lot of that in the contemporary poetry world.
At the same time, I felt there was a political, spiritual desire for openness because we live in this society that's so anxious and tense. It's uncomfortable in so many ways. I lived in that stressed state for a really long time, uncomfortable and unhealthily in my own body. But when I was really awake to what's going on, I didn’t want to participate in that tension. I wanted greater peace and greater harmony and a greater poetic vision—a different way. That has been my project.
Radha: I couldn't agree more about your insight about the tension in society and the tension in poetic lines. What a wonderful invitation to poets to consider whether or not to embrace that tension. Maybe there's another choice, no matter what the material is. That seems an especially important question to ask when approaching material that's difficult, whether it’s a personal trauma or reflecting on our ecological situation. Even saying, “ecological,” just now I can already feel my body have this little zing of energy that I could close down around—could turn into something that's tight. Maybe that's one response. But what happens when there is space to be more open around potentially difficult things that are coming up?
Nadia: I'm so glad you said that. I know you write about ecological issues, global issues, nuclear war issues related to family. Sometimes we can think, “Oh, well, you know, meditation, yoga, that's kind of like ‘self-help.’ That's just personal, but look at the state of the world. We can't have that kind of soft attitude when we’re looking at really hard issues like nuclear war, the climate crisis, all of these things.” I really think that that's a misunderstanding of what we need to make large structural changes. One of my main teachers is Thich Naht Hahn, the Buddhist Vietnamese monk who was a peace activist in the war. He was incredibly articulate around the climate crisis, that we can find peace and structural change at the same time. This is not a new idea, right? It's another tradition of working on larger structural issues.
Radha: It is a somewhat radical perspective—to take on the work in ourselves, in our poems, and in the world at the same time. So, so any advice to poets in terms of self-care and working in these issues and personal traumas?
Nadia: Personal and social or global traumas, whatever they are, they're activating us in our bodies. It's important that we're doing this work. I do believe that change doesn't happen without a change in our mentality and a change in the stories that we're telling. So, this work that we're doing to give voice to traumatic material and to shift the story is very powerful work. It's powerful individual work, and it's also powerful political work, even if we're writing poems that not many people read, it's like a little bit of grass growing up through the concrete. So believe in the work that you're doing and to trust in the process. Don’t force it, be gentle.
Sometimes it’s hardest way to feel love and peace towards ourselves. Meditation, yoga, walking, being in the body, having that bigger container, can be very helpful. Having supportive friends who really can see what you're doing and be with you through the process—other poets—is so helpful. Having a community, having a coach, a teacher. Sometimes working one on one with someone can be more helpful than being in a class. And just trusting the process.
Radha: Sometimes over decades.
Learn more about Nadia’s book, her approach to writing at nadiacolburn.com, and find her book, The High Shelf, wherever books are sold.