What do you do with a drunken sailor; or, On Failure

I am thinking today about the economic notion of “sunk costs.” I recently finished a project that took a lot of time and effort, and I hate it. It sucks.

I’ve spoken in this space before about how all creative people must allow themselves to make sucky work. But I need to take a minute to dwell in the rendeth-my-garment frustration of coming to the end of creating something only to be gravely disappointed. A moment of grief must be allowed. A flopping about of dismay.

But in the end, crap is crap, no matter how much time and good intentions it took to make. There’s no regaining the time and attention. It’s all part of the process. And I know I’m supposed to be focusing on appreciating the process. But, arrrghghgh.

I know some of you softies are thinking, “Oh, you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s probably fine.” There are some good moments in it, I’ll admit (it’s a cartoon), and I continue to be astonishedly pleased at some of the things that can come out of my not-entirely-in-control scribbling with my fingertip on the iPad. But a few moments doth not an entire piece make.

Can it be saved? I don’t think so. I’ll give a little time to trying to piece something together from the moments I like, just to indulge you. But I’m not sanguine. A word which also means bloody, which is closer to how I feel.

I’ll also spend some time thinking about whether I learned anything along the way, so it might not all be for naught. Processing the process, as it were.

So allow ourselves to make crap, yes. But I think it’s also worth taking a moment to grieve the sunken treasure of time and creative energy, the debris of the process settling lightly on the ocean floor, glinting of false promises.

Synchronistically, I heard an interview recently and it took me three times to understand that what the interviewee was saying was “work of art” not, as I had braingzingingly thought, “workfart”…

Then we take Berlin; or, Editing the Heart of the Matter

Most editing advice edits at the level of the word or sentence: do you have too many articles, are your verbs too boring, are your sentences too syntactically the same? But sometimes (often?) I find the problems I can’t seem to overcome with a poem are either in the entire approach of the poem, or the content. This is far harder to fiddle with effectively.

For example, I have a poem now that is well grounded in sensory stuff, but it takes a sudden turn at the end, and I can’t figure out if that’s okay, or if it seems abrupt because it does not grow organically out of what came before in the poem. Is it another poem all together? If I take out that turn, the rest of the poem seems unfinished. Maybe I have yet figured out what the poem is about, so I stuck on this other thing. On the other hand, maybe I just need to weave the ending into the rest of the poem. Or maybe the poem just sucks and I need to start over.

Do you see the problem? This is not a put-a-comma-in-take-it-out thing. This is an existential quandary at the poem level.

Sometimes if a poem does not seem to work it’s because I have not reached far enough. In this case, it may be that I’ve reached too far — beyond the scope of the poem into another poem all together.

This is the most interesting aspect of the editing process, eyeballing one’s own utterances, meditating on the source of images, the hidden reasons behind unconscious choices of vocabulary, choices of sound. Something has appeared here on the page, blurted out of my various levels of consciousness. It interests me. It fails me.

Sometimes ideas can be unearthed by playing at the level of word and syntax and sentence and sense-unmaking — so editing at that level can be useful too for this deeper examination — but at risk of the nicely arranged Titanic’s deck chairs’ fate.

I need to ask of the poem what it’s deepest intentions are. I need to ask, brutally, whether this is a poem that has enough to be said that it’s worth saying. Is it a nice description but not much more? Is it a clever snapshot but not a well considered moving picture with chiarascuro and resonance? Was it a moment’s effort that came of some deep bodied quake or a moment’s effort that came of a brainy shake?

I owe it to myself and the poems to ask this.

And if I have even a whiff of doubt, I need to listen to it, even if I share it and others say ooh and ah. If I think something’s awry, then something’s awry.

There is some level of communion I have to come to with a poem like this, to feel its beating heart. And if I can’t find a pulse? Well, there’s my answer.

So Quiet in Here; or, In Praise of Silence in Poetry

I hear the tick of drips off my metal roof onto the deck, somewhere a low hum of a machine in the neighborhood, far off a rumble of a truck just discernible, the leaves are moving outside my window but I can’t hear their titter in here. I hear the steady jangle of my tinnitus in one ear. Now the truck is gone. Now I hear the dehumidifier in the basement kick in. More drip drip from the roof. This sounds like noise on the page, but feels like quiet to me. Most of the year my neighborhood is blessedly quiet.

Some of you may know of my ten-plus-year plague of dog barking — two dogs on one side of me, four on the other. Calls to the police, tearful calls in the middle of the night to the dog owners, consideration of murder, consideration of suicide. I think the only thing that saved me was the otherwise quiet of the neighborhood. And the quieting with age and personal development of the sounds inside my head — the thoughts, I mean, the expectations, the shoulds and coulds, the grasping at and letting go of what I thought was power. But while I was in the middle of it, I thought I’d lose my mind.

And a recent article in The Atlanticindicated I was not wrong. Sounds deeply disturb us. In “Why Everything Is Getting Louder,” Bianca Bosker notes: “The earliest noise compaint in history…concerns a bad night’s sleep. The 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgameshrecounts how one of the gods, unable to sleep through humanity’s racket and presumably a little cranky, opts to ‘exterminate mankind.'”

Alas, we apparently sprang back.

She also cites at least half a dozen incidents in 2019 alone of people shooting other people over noise. Sing it, sister. Noise exposure has been shown to increase blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, diabetes, dementia, agression, and depression. Good grief.

I wonder if this is why I was drawn to poetry: the importance of silence in it, the tension between sound and silence that often resolves in a sound spoken into and reverberating in silence, and then dying away, leaving silence (or the post-poem moo) once again, replacing the noisy self, at least for a moment.

I need silence. It’s a visceral thing sometimes.

That article notes the steep decline in quiet places. I am fortunate to have easy access to the woods, both in my immediate area and up in the Adirondacks. But one of the places that represents quiet for me that feels lost is the library. The library of my young childhood was in an imposing edifice with a large staircase and lions at the gate. Inside was hushed and hallowed, high ceilings, huge windows. Whispers were the mode of communication.

Now, in their efforts to be a relevant community resource, libraries still have books but have lost the hush. At my library now, a modern affair, my perusal is racketed by two homeless guys complaining about a third, and a tutor trying patiently to go over some algebra equations. (Yes, I’m one of those cranks, complaining about “these days” and loud about “the good old” ones.)

Oh, I long for the days of shushing. In the quiet of the library, words and books seemed to be holy things, the library itself a sacred space. Now it’s just another place to have an overly loud cell phone conversation.

I’ve been experimenting in my poetry with placing white on the page among words. We had an interesting conversation about this at my recent writing retreat — how do you decide where the space goes in such a setting? Natural pauses, deliberate choices to withhold information or make the reader wait, and some instinct about what words or phrases could use the kind of emphasis that silence around them can provide was our best guess at an equation for such decisionmaking.

Sometimes I fear it makes the poem look too self-conscious on the page. Ooh, look at me all spread out here. But mostly I like it. It eases me somehow to allow some light and space into these poems I’ve been working on, and even imposing them on old poems in revision. Nothing worse than a poem that barks at you from the page, incessant, tied to a pole in the backyard.

The dogs? One of the two on one side died some years ago, and the remaining one is very old and mostly barks from inside the house at predictable points in the day; on the other side, the noisiest of the four dogs eventually died, and then owner moved away, and I heard that she too has died. Ah. May they all rot in a noisy hell. I’m not THAT far onward in my personal development and inner Zen.

I need you to need me; or, On Favorite Poems

We often in the poetry world talk about “loving poet X’s work,” and I easily fall into that habit of speech, but in truth there are no poets whose work I unequivocably love; rather, there are poems I love. Sometimes it so happens that many of those poems are by the same poet.

The “who’s your favorite poet” question just does not equate with my actual experience of reading poetry, which is much more “yawn, yawn, hunh?, WOW, yawn, yawn, hunh?” in nature. Even the poets I think I can turn to with fairly reliable pleasure can, at some stages of my lumpy development, leave me cold.

I think I’ve talked about this with regard to Tomas Transtromer and how perplexed I’ve been every time I encounter his poem “The Baltics,” even by the same translator: sometimes with a shrug and sometimes with a WOW. I can’t explain it, because I can’t see inside the tinker-toy structure of my state-of-being in any given moment.

I have this experience with Keats — I read excerpts from his poems, that is, lines cited by someone else, and think wow, I need to read this. Then I do. And I fail to find whatever was the frisson that made me interested in the first place. It’s like seeing a star best by looking at it out the corner of your eye. Keats in full frontal is just not much of a view for me, at least — again — at the stages of development

I’ve gone through thus far. Dickinson too fails me, or I fail her, again and again, although I’ve greatly enjoyed some discussions I’ve listened to about her work, and a fascinating book I read about religious dimensions in her work, whose title and author I have no recollection of. Left to our own devices, Dickinson and I sit silently over tepid tea and dry cakes.

I’m saddened and of course self-blame-y over my inability to gush along with the crowd. But, again, I’m falling into the habit of mistaking a poet for the entirety of his or her work. In fact, Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant…The Truth must dazzle gradually/or every man be blind–” is a central tenet for my thinking about poetry (that goddamn end hyphen notwithstanding).

And I found myself mentioning in passing in a conversation (I was obviously showing off) Keats’s “La belle dame sans merci” not long ago — thinking more of, if truth be told, one of those pre-Raphaelite-type illustrations than the poem itself. And his ghostly hand is vivid in my mind, although the point of that poem rather escapes me.

I circle back to a whole variety of poets and poems in case I happen to “need” them in the given moment. And thanks to my leaky memory, sometimes it’s like encountering a poem for the very first time.

 

Like a Knight from some Old Fashioned Book; or, On Writing Outside of Lived Experience

I am trying to write a narrative poem, which is unusual for me. “Narrative” meaning there’s a story in it.

And the poem is a story that is not my story. It’s not even the person’s who told the story — I’m a bystander three times away from the action.

And the emotion of the central character, desperation that spurs an action that risks everything, is not one I know — desperation, I know; action for action’s sake, I know; but risking everything? I’m far too cautious, canny, and grasping for that.

So can I write this poem?

I have a couple of unsuccessful drafts. They are missing the punch. My advice to myself is good: stick with the visceral image, keep close to the body. And I know that, James Wright-like, I can ask the title to do some work. But I’m not finding my way in, not finding my way out.

Should I not be writing a story that is not my own, however fictionalized? Is the situation I’m trying to write about too foreign from my own experiences? Is it possible for my imagination to fall short?

The purpose of my telling this story is to make a point about a price one person pays but that reflects a price we all humanity pay. Am I reaching too far? Am I bringing to much conscious intention therefore damning the effort from the start? The road to a crappy poem is paved with good intentions. (Yes, I’ve written about this before: The road to hell.) (Oh, and here’s some good self-advice here too: I Gotta Be Me.) (Why don’t I ever listen to myself?)

The drafts I have are dry with backstory, with narrative; the images are too distantly visual, the character too theoretical. It’s a story I’ve been thinking about for two years. But that doesn’t necessarily make it mine to tell.

Am I appropriating? Or insufficiently imagining? Is there such a thing as a story that is not someone else’s to tell? Aren’t we all in this together, so in theory isn’t this story mine too? I don’t know. It’s an interesting challenge, anyway.

 

 

With Sally in the Alley; or, Finding New Ways Into the Poetry Work

A friend once told me someting a friend told her that had been told to him by a mentor, and it’s basically this about writing: It’s okay to climb the same mountain again and again, but you need to be going up by different routes. I think of this often. In other words, it’s find that I’m obsessed by a subject matter, with trying to get to some new way of understanding it, but my poems need to approach it by different means.

Makes total sense. But at the moment I feel I’m trodding a well-worn path. I think I’m trying different things, but all I’m doing really is skirting a bit the old route only to find my way back there again.

The solution I’m pursuing is my same old solution, which is not necessarily a bad thing — exposing myself to other people’s art. (And reading widely [wildly?].) I like rattling around in the art world looking for something that stops me and twirls me around. Sometimes this dizziment can open a pathway to a new way to approach my own work.

In the region of Sussex, England, there’s a specific word for the little gap at the base of a hedgerow, a passageway made from the regular coming and going of a small animal: a smeuse. Looking at art, listening to music, watching dance — this can reveal to me the smeuses of others’ passages, one I might ease through myself. And in so doing find another way up the same old mountain.

You Make Everything Groovy; or, Writing and Depth

I had the great pleasure recently of watching a small whale arc up from dark water and descend, arc up and descend, all muscle and gleam, powerful, mysterious, and yet intimate somehow, that glimpse of this Other, strange and yet flesh-like-me, breath, blood, bone. And as I’m also in the midst of first-round-reading for a poetry press (I’ve written about this process in this blog many times, I know), and poetry is much on my mind, it occurs to me that that’s what I’m looking for in a poetry collection: muscle and gleam, strangeness and yet intimacy.

There are many fine collections, many also that I simply don’t get at all, many that I know are of the kind of thing that is in vogue and maybe I should pass them up the ladder just because it might be the Next Big Thing (so many of which I don’t get), many that don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts, and some that are written by people who have not seemed to have studied the craft of the art. But it’s the arc of something mysterious I’m looking for in this deep water, something alive and that makes me feel both a strangeness and a kinship.

It takes patience to see a whale in the vastness of these waters. I walk and look and sit and look, and fear to look away at just the wrong time.

And here I read and read and read, worry and fear I’m not smart or sensitive enough to catch some important collection. But then something will catch my eye, and rise and scatter light, and I’ll think, “There! That’s something special.”

Now how to write such a collection is another question all together, as easily done as making a whale from a bunch of blubber and bone. The spark of life required takes some kind of god-like Let-there-be-light or a Big Bang.

No, that makes it sounds impossible. It is a deeply human manifestation, such writing, and they too have to rise from the deep, from some muscular impulse. It is possible. I’ve seen it. It takes patience, remember?

There is a wildness about the collections that catch my eye, a rawness. And that’s what I worry about in my own work, that it’s too mannered, that I intellectualize while keeping what’s untamed in me leashed. I don’t want to subdue my savage self in my work. I want to write wild.