This paper is an exploration of writing practice from an insomniac's point of view. Born with a neurological sleep disorder, I have established a routine in which I write poetry between the hours of 4 and 6 am. For me, the darkness is my workspace, my latitude, my home: as both person and poet, the darkness is my light.
Keywords: poetry—insomnia—sleep disorder
I have always been an insomniac. The term ‘sleep disorder’ had not been coined when I was a sleepless baby/child/teenager, but I imagine having such a term would not have changed the situation very much: certainly, receiving an ‘official’ diagnosis as an adult did not make the condition disappear. This official diagnosis—established when I was forty—is a neurological condition known as ‘Alpha Intrusion’. Various tests and sleep studies revealed that I lightly wake thirty-two times per hour, and that I am basically incapable of reaching the lower two (delta) stages of deep, restorative sleep. Photos of me as a toddler show the same dark-circled panda eyes that I hide behind glasses today.
I don’t know how my parents coped with me as I was growing up. I do know I swallowed my first (adult) sleeping pill at the age of eight. And I clearly recall the night-time protocol in place during those childhood years: no reading after ten o’clock; no coming downstairs before ten o’clock; and so on. I respected house-rules, but being awake when so much of the world is peacefully asleep can be eternally disconcerting for a child, or for anyone. So occasionally, I did breach the code, and set up camp downstairs, outside the lounge room door, where I could hear the records—Brahms, Beethoven, Bach—that my father would play deep into the night. Such breaches were understandably not well tolerated, especially if Dad tripped over me in the doorway, which happened more than once.
Of course, there were also countless times I read by torchlight beneath the sheets until whatever hour, that activity providing some relief from the general anxiety associated with relentless insomnia: however, at least no one knew about this, and I did get in a lot of reading practice. I read War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells when I was nine. A tiny canvas hardback, the darkest of blues with faded gold embossing, it belonged to a set of my grandmother’s. After decades of use, its pages barely clung to their covers. I assume I understood little of what the book was about, as I can only recall one minor point from one minor scene: soldiers sleeping in four-hour shifts between keeping vigil at some kind of front. I remember this because I recognised the regime: a four-hour shift of sleep being the rough average I could expect during a night, generally between midnight and 4 am.
From the age of about five, I indulged in a certain daily ritual that involved a particular cupboard, God, and a prayer. The cupboard in question was in the kitchen: it was pale yellow, and it was the cupboard that held cereals and breakfast spreads like Vegemite and peanut butter. Every morning when I opened that cupboard, I would stand with closed eyes, and pray intensely to God for him to allow me to sleep that coming night. The prayer never worked. After three or four years of this, I apparently declared to my mother that when I finally got to meet God, I would kill him. However, despite my frustration and a quite frightening sense of vengeance and rage, this was a momentary aberration, for that daily ritual continued well into my teens, and my belief that the miracle of sleep would one night occur did not falter.
Here I would like to read a poem from The Hanging of Jean Lee. It is cast in Jean Lee’s voice, and represents an outpouring in the context of her own tussles with God, but its origins are my own:
Dear Diary (1934)
When I meet God I will
kill Him With Bible
and knife I will cry for
His life in words even
He won’t be willing to
fight I will kill Him
but first I will force
Him to crawl through
the valleys and shadows
scrawled over my soul
I will teach Him the
scriptures from inside
of me I will preach till
He prays for verses of
mercy He will lay
Himself down in an
unholy heap His hands
round my ankles His
head on my feet I will
kill Him and as the fires
and storms start I will
damn Him and doom
Him for culling my heart
Dear Lord don’t forgive
for I know what I do
and as You forsook me
so now I forsake You
That poem was written in 1997, during daytime hours. It would be another few years before my ‘light bulb moment’: the overdue revelation that I could actually make use of the hours after 4 am, rather than lying in futility wishing for sleep. And so it became a routine to get up and write in the early hours of the morning, a routine I have now kept for more than a decade. For me, daytime is fruitful for editing, but poems are produced in the dark: before the world has woken; before reality has established itself; just me, the computer, and God.
The acceptance of this routine changed my poetry dramatically. Working from about 4 until 6 am, I then return to bed and sleep soundly to around eight. When I finally get up, I cannot remember what I wrote a few hours previously, and I approach the computer as though it were a present beneath a Christmas tree, thinking I wonder what it is! I wonder what it is! Sometimes it is rubbish; other times it has potential. But there is always something strange about this writing; something that comes straight from the blackness of the outside world. And occasionally, at certain moments (which I treasure profoundly), something beautiful occurs.
The poems in my last five collections (two of which are yet to be published) have all been written in the dark. Apart from certain commissioned pieces, these poems are characterised by a lack of punctuation, a lack of upper-case letters, a lack of narrative arc, and a lack of conscious voice. They are all, however, held by rigorous strictures of form.
The patterns and codes for these forms occur spontaneously to me when I am in that half-dream/half-alert, yet utterly clear space. Whether these forms are syllabic, metered, rhymed, or structured according to verse theory or number theory, this approach seems to work well with the kind of content and emotion that arrives before the sun. Not all my poems survive the ever-increasing claustrophobia of strictures I like to apply, but those that do seem to possess an uncanny bent for life. I am a firm believer that for every rule imposed, there exists a window of opportunity; and it is this uneasy place—the boundary between expression and form; liberty and law—that absorbs me. My passion for the elements that impel a poem’s inward and outward design, and the effect of such elements on the music and feeling generated by a poem is paramount to my vision as a poet. I am preoccupied by unity, counterpoint and conflict; and the extent to which I can bend language without breaking it. For me, this is the centre from where the frisson and breath of a poem originates. Poetic structures based on stable, cohesive, harmonious proportions are essential in order to bear the burden of discordant realities: the fragility of existence; the sense of chaos, vulnerability and the whole postmodern condition I experience when surrounded by darkness at my desk.
A word here about writing straight to computer. At four in the morning, with no other light source—natural or manufactured—the illuminated screen seems to function as a sort of mirror to the subconscious. One can perceive sequences and connections, shapes and codes, which make deep internal sense, without that daytime kind of awareness and intellectual imposition. A computer screen is potentially endless; no fear of the length or edges of the page. Nothing concrete is happening; everything is transient—malleable in the medium—until it is printed out. Also, using the body bilaterally—both hands typing—creates a natural rhythm similar to walking or swimming or playing the piano, quite different to the dominant brain event of employing one pen, one hand. This physical sensation of symmetry; this peering into the light of what amounts to one’s own imagining mind; this connection with the darkness as one’s recognisable dwelling: this is the environment in which I make my poems.
Returning to the pale yellow cupboard and God, the following poem is eighteen years younger than the Jean Lee piece I read at the beginning. This poem was written during the night, in the manner described above. Its form is based on a mathematical algorithm derived from the pentagon, and it is formatted in decasyllabic quintains, using lexical repetition with a sestina-like result.
every morning breakfast time she stands there
at the cupboard its yellow mouth open
to the day says to God just let me sleep
spreads Vegemite across a slice of light-
ly toasted bread children safe as houses
dream dreams of childish things a sleeping house
is louder than a din she tries to sleep
beneath the storms & sheets & over there
the darkness bays its black-black till the light
seeps in ergo pull the morning open
unlock eyes search the world for openings
& cracks everyone is happy & their
faces all lit up yours the only house
still shuttered shut fill your heart with sunlight
or you won’t have any friends let sleeping
dogs lie where they lie little girls get sleep-
y stars keep whizzing by one learns to house
one’s frazzle in the end heaven opens
like a cupboard the night stares like a light
& look your body’s gliding here & there
The above poem reflects my recent interest in developing poetic forms based on mathematical theorems and proofs. Beginning with the idea of poetry as one code among many, I have been exploring the notion of applying patterns derived from mathematics—the language of nature—to the conception and creation of poems. These patterns represent concrete systems and codes that already exist in nature. While humans have tabulated many such patterns into a symbolic language that can be written, communicated and implemented in specific ways, the patterns themselves already exist, and patterns that already exist possess a soundness and a functionality already proven in the material world. As such, they may be seen as dependable foundations on which to build a thing like a poem: one system or code supporting, interacting with, another.
Of course, the idea of expressing a poem’s content via a mathematically conceived framework is nothing new: whether it is the five units of the tanka, the six repetends of the sestina or the fourteen lines of the sonnet, all formal poetic structure has a mathematical basis to a larger or lesser degree. There is a peculiar sort of energy that emanates from an active confluence between two codes: a beat frequency; a moiré. It is at once a kind of friction, and a marriage. I am interested in the application of solid mathematical formulae to poetic language, and the ‘shiver’ or ‘thrill’ that may be released at the interface between these two very different codes. Given that structure and content are equally responsible for a poem’s ability to perform as an instrument of meaning, I am attempting to develop concepts that do not operate as mere theory, dry equations or games, but authentic poetic events. It may all sound a little cerebral, but for me this work is a work of joy.
The poetic forms I have so far developed are generous to my aims because they are just, robust and have as their unifying principle order. I have found them to represent a worthy vehicle for what I want to say, with shoulders broad enough to bear the complexity and depth of my pre-dawn emotions and thoughts. Personally, I enjoy working with Euclidean concepts, for their innate clarity, stability and elegance. Algorithmic structures are perfect for poetry. There is nothing too complicated here: it is simply a matter of shapes and relationships. The forms I have been working on often surprise me with their strangeness and with their familiarity, and consistently provide me with a fresh set of perspectives.
There is an irony here, as I have virtually no capacity for mathematical comprehension during daylight hours. Simple concepts and equations elude me. I was a failure in maths as a student, and actually received a zero in fourth form. But that is another story! My memory also seems to function better at night than during the day, despite being in the semi-state described above. I find I am able to recall lines of poems; dates; fragments of dialogue; and relive experiences from the past, both physically and mentally. All sorts of things come together—as easily and naturally as breathing—between the hallowed hours of 4 and 6 am.
For me the darkness is my workspace, my latitude, my home. Following two thirds of a lifetime of perceiving it as my nemesis, the darkness has become my light.
I would like to conclude with a poem from the sonnet according to ‘m’. This poem is a cento, constructed using lines from twelve other poets, and the Bible, its subject being sleep itself.
sleep! o sleep the certain knot of peace / a little sleep a little
a little folding of the hands to sleep / our birth is but a sleep
& a forgetting / life is a
watch or a vision between a sleep & a sleep / thou hast nor
youth nor age but
as it were an after-dinner’s sleep dreaming on both / o / was
it a vision or a
waking dream do I wake or sleep / now it is high time to
awake out of sleep /
o sleep why dost thou leave me / o sleep again deceive
me / o sleep!
it is a gentle thing / o sleep! it is a gentle thing / a sleep
full of sweet dreams
not poppy nor mandragora nor all the drowsy syrups of the
world shall ever
medicine thee to that sweet sleep / we shall not sleep though
in flanders fields / & we must sleep / & night & sleep in
the night / but /
what hath night to do with sleep? / no sleep till morn / sleep
to wake / one
short sleep past we wake eternally / macbeth doth murder
sleep / macbeth
shall sleep no more / glamis hath murder’d sleep / & we shall
not sleep / we
shall not all sleep / we shall not all sleep / but / o! / we shall
all be changed
'Dear Diary (1934)', from The Hanging of Jean Lee, Black Pepper (Melbourne), 1998; reprinted 2004, 2013
'every morning breakfast time she stands there', from Euclid's dog, forthcoming GloriaSMH (Melbourne), 2017
'mandragora', from the sonnet according to 'm', John Leonard Press (Melbourne), 2009