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.


I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home; or, On Letting the Writing Be

I read somewhere recently about the advice to start your writing practice with this question: What am I writing to learn today? It occurred to me that this might provide a grounding for what might otherwise be meandering balderdash and piffle.

I found, however, that it put so much pressure on me that I haven’t written a word in weeks. Must I learn something new all the time? It makes me tense.

So I’ve decided to jettison that advice. It’s a good question, but a question better devoted to somewhere in the editing process. This allows me to blather and pine all I want in the writing moment. Then worry about edification and inquiry somewhere down the line, when with the editing process things get serious.

I share this so you won’t make the same mistake.

Write on.

Heeeyyy, what’s the big idea?; or, Challenging One’s Limits in Writing

I’ll soon be going to MassMoCA for a writing residency. For a week I wander around the museum, the museum grounds, and the hilly streets of North Adams, not thinking a whole lot, just sponging. I love the Big Ideas behind the crazy installations at the museum. There’s always at least one that blows my mind somehow.

I always hope to bring more Big Ideas to my own work. It falls small sometimes, and I’d like to have a practice that reminds me to be large — both in my concepts, and in my sounds and silences, my reaches and rhythms.

It’s easy to collapse into what’s known, into the grooves of old thought — I first typed “groves,” and that too fits: not seeing the forest for the trees. I can easily lapse into my laps of quotidian thought and response, or even of the Things that Drive Me Crazy, most of which never change, and so by now, any writing I do about them is also likely tired and rutted. Putting myself in the way of others’ Big Ideas can usefully expand my mind and therefore my work.

When I read Marina Abramovic’s autobiography I remember being struck by how her work came out of deep emotion around her country, its people, and how those thoughts/feelings turned strange in her art, turned to something often brutally enacted, uncompromising.

Lonnie Holley’s “In the Grip of Power,” a video playing next to a rickety old voting table, a handgun stuck to it, is simple and devastating in its plain-spoken text about voting rights and how it affectd his own family, playing over the austere visual of Holley, alone in a vast space, setting up the booth. It makes me cry every time. This is the best of the personal being political, the political being personal.

I am tempted sometimes to say that poems of romantic love bore me, because frankly sometimes they do; and poems of first sex or the wonders of masturbation. But of course what is bigger than love? What is bigger than the body, its strange arrangements and electrifying jolts? Saying at least “maybe” to all possibilities is the way to Big Ideas, as is staying with the small moments, the deep breaths, the electricities of body-in-the-world.

Here’s something Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “My life…runs back through time and space to the very beginnings of the world and to its utmost limits. In my being I sum up the earthly inheritance and the state of the world at this moment.”

Now that’s a Big Idea, that the self is the sum in and beyond time.

So bring it, World, the moment, the now, the Big Thing that is me-and-you.

Time Is On My Side; or, Narrative Motion

I am thinking about time, that mover, that crawler, how it shuffles, how it disappears. I began thinking about this as I have been doing an online course on the braided essay, that is, a prose beast that contains two or more throughlines of thought/experience, the weaving of which can create a conversation, as one line questions, highlights, casts shadows on the others, or creates gaps of warp and weft such that new ideas are suggested. I often love these kinds of essays. But the course offered one example in which I  found myself speed-reading in boredom through. And I posited that I was bored because none of the threads of the bread contained a narrative that moved through time. I wondered if I needed that pull of story to carry me forward, that sense of time passing and something unfolding.

I don’t know if that is actually the case, because I can’t be bothered to go back and reread it to test my theory.

But in poetry my preference to read and to write is for the lyric poem, the poem-of-a-moment, of held breath, a blink-and-now-it’s-gone. So why this testiness when it came to prose?

To be fair, maybe it was just that one essay. I’m reading various works by my latest literary crush Robert MacFarlane. (I know I’ve mentioned him in this space before.) His works are not set in moving time, particularly, yet I find them fascinating. The narratives are of short duration — a hike here, a conversation there. Maybe there are just enough of those to keep me turning the page, maybe it’s that not the magic of his lyrical prose.

The movement of time on the page is prestidigitation: one moment you’re in the dining room, the next, five years have past and you’re on a train. The tick tick of life lived is never that gratifyingly flee-full of the ache of passing time: boredom, the dentist’s waiting room, the wait for the other shoe to drop. (Yes, there is the sending the child off to kindergarten one day and college seemingly the next, the panicked knowledge that time has passed that you haven’t noticed. But is that not also ache?)

But maybe it’s not the passage of time that helps pull the reader along, but in fact, some indication of change — whether that be change in the narrator, in the situation, in the unfolding comprehension of what is occurring. Long ago I attended a creative nonfiction writing workshop, and it was suggested that my essay about my decision to quit my job was too blame-y of everyone else. I was taken aback by this perspective, as I didn’t think that that was what I was doing. But I think back now and suspect that what I had not sufficiently done was to express the internal change that had lead me to that point — had not shown the eagerness turned dread, the hope turned to despair.

Time is change, and change occurs in time. So whether the expression in writing is “later that day” or “I had thought once X but finally realized Y,” the readerly imagination is caught and carried. But of course that inner change is the more satisfying thread to follow, the emotional trip always more deeply interesting than the movement of the minute hand or the walk from point A to point B. But it’s the harder story to tell.

Coo coo cachoo; or, The Limited Power of Words

I am a great believer in words: to inspire, to set imagination in motion, to make laugh, cry, delight, wonder. I reminded myself recently, however, that I have never entirely believed that words have the power to persuade.

Do they? Have I ever by words alone shifted from one idea to another? I need to think about this. This is, after all, the season of  endless punditry about political debates. Do they really persuade sufficient numbers of the electorate to make them worthwhile? I am skeptical.

I am drafting a communication to someone I know — I haven’t decided to deliver it by speech or writing — to try to convince them to do something about something important. I have little faith it will work. But I feel I need to try. I believe in words, after all. But I’m just not sure they have enough power in this situation.

Communication, after all, is a two-way radio. Words fall on a prepared mind, or on a closed one. I read a poem recently that I (this is a constant lament of mine) did not understand. Yet the poem had won a prize. Clearly the poem’s words fell against the closed door of my mind. The judge’s mind was open, and the words waltzed right on through.

A friend of mine in law school once asked me to pretend I was a juror. He made what seemed like a sound argument regarding a financial remuneration for a victim. As the jury, I voted to agree. He then gave me the larger context, and I realized that I had been taken in: his well-delivered, dynamic, but one-sided presentation had hoodwinked me. Dang. But, I argue, it was not just his words, but the fact that I was fond of him, and that he spoke so reasonably, and that I had no chance to consider an alternative presentation — I had, after all, agreed to this artificial stage.

Communication is not just a radio — it’s a thing between people, and anything between people…well…can be complicated. If my microwave beeps that something is done, it is reporting on the ending of the time I asked it to keep while warming up a dish. If I ignore, it will beep again, as it’s programmed to do. If my husband deems something is done, he may then ask, But is it warm enough for you on the inside? Or some other thing that makes this a give-and-take. But he might ask me as I’m in the middle of a thought, or reading a complicated sentence, and I might grunt a reply, or fail to respond at all, which will irritate him momentarily. And so it goes.

Words are nothing outside of the context of the human interaction. Can I convince you of this?

Even in the silence of a room and the soft swish of your hand on the page of a book, the words you read are the mind of another, passed through the paws of the publishing world and some printy machine thing, through a book purveyor, and into your hands on a quiet evening. If you are not distracted. If the words conjure enough of an image or idea that your mind clasps it like a coffee cup. If it is written in a language you understand. If you are not too sleepy. The author doesn’t know all this, of course. She writes what she writes and you, reader, are a mere mirage, a hoped-for angel of delivery of her words to your mind. A ghost of eight percent of the retail price you paid in her hand. And if it is a book trying to persuade you to change your life? Well, it’s a gamble, isn’t it?

But I can’t not try to persuade this person to do this thing — because I believe in words, if not, perhaps, in the power of this particular walkie-talkie set-up, this game of telephone between me and him. His handset might be turned off. Or in this game of telephone, when I say “would you please consider…?” he might hear “Woodrow Wilson.” “Woodrow Wilson?” he’ll puzzle. “Why is she talking to me about Woodrow Wilson?”