Hesiod et la Muse by Gustave Moreau (1891)
By Lisabet Sarai
When I was younger, I was bound to Erato, the muse of erotic poetry —and occasionally Polyhymnia, who governs sacred verse. Producing poetry was as natural as breathing. Any powerful emotion could trigger the urge to set pen to paper and capture the moment, but most of my poems dealt with love and sex.
I didn’t think about them. I would simply sit down, and they happened. Here’s an example, from 1979:
Is is tides, stars?
This wordless urge
timed to the night,
like circadian clocks?
pure and irrational—
out of telephone wires
and strange desires
over two thousand miles.
burning and blind,
making me wild.
The wires whisper
and reasons whither,
as I hurl myself
from the Santa Cruz cliffs.
In general, these poems didn’t follow any rules. They had no formal structure, though they chime with alliteration and internal rhyme. They were pure expressions of the need, lust, confusion and joy that swirled inside me.
After I married, the flood of poems mostly dried up. I think this was largely due to a deficit of erotic angst. I was fulfilled, happy, busy with real world adventures. I had neither the leisure nor the motivation for poetic introspection.
In the last few years, though, I’ve started creating new poems, in response to Ashley Lister’s monthly writing exercise on this blog. In case you’re not aware of this feature, on the 6th of each month, Ash explains and gives examples of a different poetic form, then challenges readers to produce their own instances. Curious to see if I still had Erato’s attention, I’ve tried my hand.
Here’s a piece from 2013, a form called a quatern.
The line between delight and pain
you’re teaching me to tread. Again
your leather licks along my spine,
your fingers in my hair entwine,
your blades their bloody trails incise;
the line between delight and pain
grows blurry as you kiss my eyes
and dive for pearls between my thighs,
splayed and shackled. Now your cane
paints ruddy stripes across my flesh,
the line between delight and pain:
ecstatic, luminous, insane.
With blood and tears, with spunk and sweat
you baptize me. Appalled and wet
I teeter on the edge again,
the line between delight and pain.
Very different, indeed, though I’m still dealing with the same themes. The experience of writing these new poems is radically different as well. This verse doesn’t well up naturally. It must be coaxed, massaged, manipulated. Craft dominates inspiration. And yet, the final results still surprise me with their ability to evoke emotion.
A similar transition has occurred in my prose. I’ve written in the past about losing my innocence as I gained experience as an author. Like many first erotic novels, my Raw Silk represented an outpouring of very personal fantasies. My characters’ passions closely mirrored my own. Blissfully unaware of genre constraints, I let my imagination flow uncensored onto the page. I wrote to arouse myself, first and foremost, not for an audience. Yet that novel remains my most popular, largely, I believe, because of its authenticity.
Certainly it’s not the writing that’s responsible for its five star reviews. I cringe a bit when I reread the book, noticing the excess adverbs, the overly long sentences, the repetition and the stilted dialogue. Nevertheless, readers respond (I believe) to the erotic energy in the tale, the confessional tone and the realistic emotions (realistic because they were my own).
Over the years (sixteen now!), my work has become less naive, more conscious, and more polished. Though it’s abundantly clear that most readers couldn’t care less about style and craft, I get personal satisfaction knowing that my recent books are far better written than my early ones. I’m still wistful, though, remembering the days when I wrote without thinking about markets, reader expectations and word count—when I wrote whatever turned me on, regardless of how raw or transgressive or over-the-top it might be. These days it’s nearly impossible for me muster that electric thrill that propelled me through 80K+ words in six months.
Perhaps in compensation for lost spontaneity, however, I’ve gained a measure of control. At this point in my career, I can decide when I start how I want a story to unfold, and much of the time, the results will closely match my intentions. I’m not waiting for the muse to tap me on the shoulder. Lately, I find I can often summon her at will. I can place my order with her—a story of roughly N words, with such-and-such a tone, aimed at a specific theme, with a desired level of sexual intensity—then let her take over.
Some of my favorite stories in recent years—“Fleshpot”, “The First Stone”, and “The Last Amanuensis” in particular come to mind—so perfectly fit the images I had for them before I began that it feels like magic. They are exactly the stories I wanted to write. And despite my comments above about writing being a more conscious and deliberate process now, I’m really not sure how that happened. Of course, that’s the nature of expertise; you internalize the skills until they are more or less automatic. You set yourself a goal, then let your inner knowledge move you in that direction.
With poetry or prose, I am no longer the mad, magic-inspired oracle I used to be. Perhaps, though, I am more of an artist.
Now I’m facing a fascinating dilemma. I’ve agreed to edit and expand Raw Silk for re-release. At last I’ll be able to fix all the awkwardness in the prose, all the overwriting. But in the process of editing, will I lose the spark? I’m not the same person I was when I wrote the novel. For better or worse, I’ve changed. Can I preserve the heat and authenticity, especially in the new chapters?
I’ll summon the muse to work with me. I expect to need all the help I can get.