Insomnia for Poetry Lovers
Linda Pastan's book, Insomnia, begins with a poem titled, "Insomnia: 3AM." And the poem begins:
Sleep has stepped out
for a smoke
and may not be back.
There's an interview with Linda Pastan in The Paris Review and the first question is this:
Did a lot of the poems in this collection emerge from sleeplessness?
I do suffer from insomnia myself, and on more than one occasion, while I’m lying in the dark, the solution to a problem I’ve been struggling with in a poem actually, and magically, comes to me. But more usually I try to put myself to sleep by thinking about the plot of a book I’m reading or a movie I just saw. Many people my age seem to have trouble sleeping, and I suppose it may be because that long and final sleep is just ahead, and even if we don’t acknowledge it, we want to be awake and aware as long as possible. I was warned early not to give a book a title that would make it easy for a reviewer to slam you. Such as, If you have insomnia, try reading this book and it will put you right to sleep. And it has occurred to me that one or more people might buy the book thinking it will help them with their own sleep problems. But more seriously, I chose Insomnia as my title because the word conjures for me a struggle with consciousness itself as well as a struggle with the looming dark, just outside the window.
The last poem in the Pastan book is "Musings Before Sleep," which begins:
The lines on my face are starting
to make me look like photographs
of Auden in old age. If the lines
of my poems could also be
as incandescent as his,
would I be will to look
as worn and wrinkled?
And it's interesting how the older I get, the more the subject of age becomes part of my musings.
A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam is one that pairs well with Pastan's Insomnia. It probably goes without saying that it pairs well with its namesake, Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book which I first read in my undergrad days and have loved ever since. (I admit that when I saw what Buffam had done with the book, her beautiful riffs, I was briefly struck by that writerly jealousy, wishing I'd thought of that).
The book is full of lists, in the manner of Sei Shonagon, which are really fun to read. There are also longer musings. Near the beginning of the book Buffam says,
"There are two kinds of insomniacs: those who fall asleep easily, only to wake up hours later to toss on their pillows until dawn; and those who toss on their pillows from the start, only to drift off just long enough to be roused at dawn by the crows. A little game I like to play, when I crawl into bed at the end of a long day of anything, these days, is to guess which kind, tonight, I will be."
What kind of book, exactly, is Buffam's A Pillow Book? She tells us herself:
"Not a memoir. Not an epic. Not a scholarly essay. Not a shopping list. Not a diary. Not an etiquette manual. Not a gossip column. Not a prayer. Not a secret letter sent through the silent palace hallways before dawn."
What it is, is delightful. And the perfect thing to read those nights when you can't sleep.
Pastan and Buffam aren't the only poets who've written about insomnia – far from it. Derek Mahon's "Insomnia" is razor sharp, very awake. Charles Simic pens "Hotel Insomnia" which is also the title of the book in which it appears. Insomnia poetry is more than just a trend, let's face it.
In an article in The NYT's Opinionator from a number of years ago, Lisa Russ Spaar connects issues with breathing to the problem of insomnia. She says:
"True, it’s harder to romanticize insomnia if we know it might be a matter of aberrant breathing treatable by nose strips, ungainly headgear or a trip to the sleep clinic. But poetry has always been about breathing. The word “inspire,” in fact, derives from the Latin in (“in”) + spirare (“to breathe”), and it is possible to think about poems themselves as acts of disordered breathing, in which what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the best words in the best order” stir, disturb, move and perhaps even change us as we make and read them. As Robert Frost wrote, “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.”"
Do you suffer from insomnia? If so, do you write lists? Read? Do you drink Sleepy Time tea before bed? One of my kind readers recently suggested a teaspoon of unpasteurized honey before bed which seems to have helped a little.
My best trick though, is to just think about my novel, where I want it to go, what I want it to be, and what might happen next. This way the time doesn't seem to be wasted, and sometimes I even remember my ideas in the morning.