The unread and read-but-unsavored books on my shelves overwhelm me with choices. Matthea Harvey, I read for the line-breaks. Marianne Moore for the imagery. Robert Hass, to follow the evolution of a single poem through publications.
I haven’t counted, but I fear books about poetry may outnumber books of poetry, if one is looking strictly at a genre distinction.
I am still trying to remember who it was I loaned George Brant’s Grounded to. I remember being disappointed it was written by a man. So was Nuts. I don’t think I ever actually owned a copy of that play.
Last year, for several months, I actually read for joy. Then I tried to twist it into something useful. That will kill anything that needs to breathe. My relationship with poetry has been one of continual deaths and resurrections. There is no good reason for that now.
I walked Leonard this evening and took a photo of a small tree stump. The bark is pulling from the wood, and there is a thin, nearly texture-less layer of moss covering the wound. I wrote Afterlife on the Instagram note. (No hashtag. I am trying to wean myself from all of that.)
Scanning the bookshelves for an entry point, I see Albert Goldbarth’s 2015 collection Selfish. Seems like a good place to begin. With the teacher who simultaneously drew me in and pushed me away from poetry. The poet who had a way with poetry, and a way with unwritten words. Looking back I suppose I could find new perspectives from which to view that semester. Maybe knowing that is enough not to have to.
This evening I heard the phrase fluid perception in connection with memory.
Auden said, “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I have so many mixed feelings. Mixed perspectives.
I flip through the book to see if I had even gotten to it whenever I bought it. No.
But my eye lands on a word in a poem: Afterlife.
“[…] I’ve witnessed that come-hither prestidigitorial trick / ten thousand times. An afterlife – is there an afterlife […]”
The title of the poem is “The Disappearance of the Nature Poem into the Nature Poem”. So, yes. This seems a good place to begin.
Libraries are magical places – places for divination. Even when they are in your own home, assembled over decades out of duty and obligation – out of aspirations that are still only aspirations.
The timer has chimed three times to say it’s time to move on. I will pour a glass of wine and take Selfish downstairs. Leonard will stretch out with his back pressed against my hip and leg, and he’ll dream.
I’ve always admired Goldbarth’s poetry.
I’ll try to find the nature poem in the nature poem. But first I have to look up prestidigitorial.
These introspection pages began with a virtual Camino during the lock-down. My formal participation in the group didn’t end well. The host didn’t believe that alternative perspectives were admissible in discussions. I disagreed with her declaration that no one could disagree with her. I was blocked, which was an easily foreseen consequence. And a reminder that all prophets are fragile – regardless of gender or denomination – because they are human. And even when it’s undertaken unintentionally, without conscious ambition, it’s a rickety climb upward, prodded on by people holding the ladder, proclaiming their trust in you.
I learned a lot. But maybe not enough.
It is one thing to have a healthy skepticism of the map. It is another to toss it out entirely. One winds up walking in circles.
Using one’s own memory of experience as a guide to find something novel is absurd. It’s, in affect, an exercise in solipsism masquerading as therapeutic “work”. At least, this has been a thought adding to the pulp that is sealing me off from the world, like regurgitating the plug that seals the entrance to a potter-wasp’s nest. But in this metaphor I am both the egg and the caterpillar. And yeah, no, believe me, this inside-out stuff looks nothing like an ouroboros.
I am going to archive these blog entries and start again.
There is a terrible catch-22 in all of this ambition: wanting to write means wanting to be read, seen. Self monitoring, self-flagellating, self-loathing, self-aggrandizing. But no one wants all that to be seen. This is what I need today, is not the same as This is who I am.
When I was a teen I kept a diary full of poems. I would write, knowing my mother would sneak in and read them when she got the chance. I would write. I would leave it there one day, two days, then rip out the pages. Gambling with fate. But really only adding to the cloud of uncertainty. What did she really know? What did she really care about?
This morning I listened to a New Yorker article about a writer whose entire life was fiction. I think he traded one fear for another. But at least now I understand better the allure of writing novels. And understanding that maybe that that is a truly braver endeavor. How often is authenticity used as a cloak to repel criticism? But look at all the stories sticky with patronizing reviews.
One fear for another.
I started a Medium project. I shut it down. I started a Substack project. I shut it down. What begins as something avocational and creative. An attempt at something Catherine Price calls “true fun” (marked by the presence of playfulness, flow, and community), always seems to soak up thoughts around “entrepreneurship” and the zeitgeist of virtual influence and status. I feel like a farmer whose every crop becomes infested.
The community element of writing is a puzzle for most of us, I think.
Yesterday I watched the final episode of The Last of Us, wondering how it would end, needing to see the end, but consciously considering how the end was just a choice made by a writer (or writers), not a real thing. But I wanted the story so badly. I wanted to know the true ending. I believe this desire/belief is a form of and a recognition of community. We need the truth from one another. We need a truth from one another.
I got an email yesterday for a workshop conference held by a respected publication. Of course the question of whether MFA programs or any kind of writing program belongs in the university system has always been up for discussion. But this time, this kind of workshopping struck me as something deadly. Let us teach you how to write the kind of work we want to publish. This isn’t about assuming there will be readers listening. It is about organizations securing their branding (which began long before branding was jargon for the masses.) This seems like a closed loop. A single story. A petrified truth.
Rebecca Solnit has offered 10 tips for writers. One of them is about finding your vocation. Hardly shocking: this iteration of “find your why”. But here is my woo woo rising again – the words come when we need to read them.
I would be lying – and convincing no one – if I said that I didn’t write to be seen. That every one of my poems wasn’t me waving as drowning. But it is also true that wanting to be seen is the first step towards belonging. Which is still an ego-centered (not necessarily egocentric) motive, but sounds better.
When I read, I’m moved by poems that open me to the world that is not me. Show me you and weave your story into the world somehow so I know it to be true. Show me mermaids where we never dreamed there were mermaids. Show me all the monsters.
I don’t think any of us begin with an urge to create something for dissection. But everything that comes together falls apart as we try to make sense of it. And it is in the fragmenting that we find the whole.
If I have a vocation as a writer, I wonder if it is a branch of the same passion that I have as a reader: a passion to uncover everything. Everything belongs and deserves attention.
At some point we choose to see the expression unchecked desires as either comically charming or terrifying, depending on the safety of our current position in the pecking order.
Maybe I just want to say that while something may be undesirable, unpalatable, ugly – it is not unnatural. We can’t handle the natural world – to make a pop culture allusion. It terrifies us, as it should.
Maybe the truth is always in our blind spot. A shadow on the periphery. Best told at a slant, as she said.
I think I remember someone telling how to drive in the proper lane, by eyeing the corner of the car’s hood with the solid white line instead of looking straight ahead to try to center the car on the road. He said something about not trusting perspectives.
I finally tweaked my website into a shape that I really liked. Then a widget went wonky and the support person tells me my theme has been retired. No fixing the wonky widget. I need to choose a new theme.
I have a new boss at work. We have new routines. I will have another new boss in August and I am sure they will bring their own tweaks to the routines.
They are interviewing new colleagues. They’re looking for someone I will likely be working with for the next decade (we tend to sit tight on these jobs). The devil you know, the devil you don’t? Rumors abound.
And I am thinking… whatever.
I’ll live. I will set off an afternoon to redesign my website. I will follow the new routines. I will work with the new colleague. These things are out of my control. I can accept that and set those facts aside: “Move on!“
It’s this new medication. My jaw isn’t clenched. For the first time in several years, I don’t feel like I have to control everything. Set all the stories right.
I am not filled with disappointment and shame when I look in the mirror and see all the changes I haven’t been able to stop. I don’t feel that I have to justify the space I am taking up while sitting in the lunchroom with other people. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove – Good enough. And even a bit of “so what?“
It is frustrating that a little pill can accomplish in one week what I have been trying to will/exercise/force/meditate my way to all this time.
My head is quiet. Not numb, but rather as though it’s safe to be quiet because there is something else good just up ahead. Worth all the energy that I have been wasting. In the meantime, I go for a walk and do yoga on my lunch break. Laugh at E.’s dad jokes.
I do have a tiny worry in the corner of my mind. Will I crash? Is this lightness and this quiet “normal”? I ask E. We fall back into that truth that we can’t really ever know what is going on in someone else’s head. What something is “like” is still only relatable to one’s own experience of the metaphor’s vehicle. It is like we are all closed loops when it comes to language. We try. We make theater. We write poetry. We paint images.
But facing this sense of the futility of trying to communicate exactly, I am feeling puzzlement instead of despair. Being puzzled is kind of fun.
The effort is fun.
I had forgotten that while chasing something I was trying to make meaningful – a durable artwork. What a waste of energy.
Saturday I will revamp my website. I tend to curse a lot when I start messing with code and tweaks. I also enjoy it a lot, when it all fits together like a solved puzzle.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Month in the US. Statistically, I am rising now in terms of the great U of happiness. I hope so.
Bipolar, CPTSD, likely ADHD (no childhood data for a definitive diagnosis). No shame. On and off medication as necessary these past 35 years. Functioning member of society: teacher, artist, mother, wife – with all the normal strife. It’s not all good, but it is all worth it.
Or formal verse, at any rate. Button up to see what needs to break out.
I have no idea where the phrase “at any rate” comes from, but it is one of the musical aspects of language that annoys the pedants: a phrase unnecessary if one “writes well”.
But the music matters. I was listening to a Penteract podcast episode with Ian McMillan (of The Verb). They were discussing the beauty of dialects. The perception of what is appropriate to discuss in a dialect, and what is not. That same classist rot is in the Norwegian language, too, I think. And here extends so far as to embrace English as a kind of dialect for the elite. The academics.
Literary writing isn’t part of the academic system here. But it still seems ironic that I can’t apply for most government grants because I write in English rather than Norwegian, while the majority of the visual art projects that are awarded grants have English titles.
The government wants to protect the status of a national “culture” by prescribing a standard language. For literature (and for stage). But not for use in the overall arts community. It is interesting. I keep thinking if that means that they see literature and drama as elements of the culture rather than a commentary or response to the culture?
Or I may be overthinking this. Restrictions on languages aren’t remotely new. But neither is it remotely appropriate in terms of “art”. Part of me thinks it turns all literature into nationalist propaganda. And another part of me thinks I am sucking on sour grapes.
At any rate, my dwelling on it is entirely unproductive. I get wound up.
I am lifting my bicycle pedal up with the top of my foot, to the apex of the arc. And I move my foot around, up and over, and I step down on the pedal. I stand up to push with the whole weight of my body, hoping to get enough momentum to make the forward movement easy.
I could make a poetry video. And not give a damn who “gets it”. Who pays for it. But I can’t seem to find the path from the idea of the metaphor to the actual, physical implementation of real-world objects. I can’t translate the poeticized, empirical knowledge back into the real world.
I am wound up. But bound.
I think this inertia is one reason I am drawn toward formal verse when I feel hopeless. Formal verse is somewhat effortless. The poeticized knowledge is guaranteed to translate into something acceptable on some level. There is a sense of sureness in a slavish execution.
I had a graduate student years ago who turned in a draft all too light on research, in which she postulated that a particularly adventurous painter would have (not) accomplished his modernist work had his teachers been prescriptive in terms of his art training. Ah, but the truth is: they were. They were naturalists. His training had been as rigid as a tongue with no familiarity with curse words.
I figure part of the draw of the rigid framework is to discover what really needs to escape from it. Otherwise, we are simply working within the contemporary frameworks we think of as “new”, but are actually familiar enough to give us that sureness of execution. We want the pedigree. It has a purpose, too, beyond the name-dropping.
But maybe the tighter the restrictions, the more meaning can be brought into view? In this same podcast this morning, Anthony Etherin talked about only having written sestinas that were also anagrams, explaining that he didn’t think he would write a good sestina without even more demanding constraints.
There is something fascinating about this idea. I can’t help but think that the attention to conscious constraints is what allows us to bypass our linguistic and cultural, unconscious constraints.
Right now, I am going to pour another cup of tea and write a sestina.