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“Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves.” -Frank Bidart

November 3, 2008

This is my first post in several weeks. It has, in fact, been almost two months, and I suppose I could make excuses and yammer on about how incredibly busy my life is and how important I am in all the multitudinous tasks I have to accomplish — but that would be all shit and no substance. I have been busy — but probably not any busier than anybody else. And there has certainly been enough blog worthy things going on — what with the political season, the financial crisis, the WARS (Does anybody remember the wars?) and the slew of local propositions and state and local elections to be pondered and picked apart.  And it’s not that I’ve not been paying attention; I have. I’m looking forward to tomorrow with a mixture hope and fear; I’m hopeful that Obama will win, but I’m afraid (and no, that is not an overstatement) that McCain might pull out a last minute victory with all of his McCarthyism and  sorry attempts at humor.  I’m also concerned that we’re so focused on the Presidential election that we’re ignoring the very crucial Congressional, state, and local elections.  With all the focus now on “undecided voters”, I have to wonder who the hell is still undecided. The truth is closer to something like this: these so-called “undecideds” know who they want to vote for, but they’re either

1) afraid to say, or

2) afraid to admit their real reasons for their choice.

I’ve kept a weary eye on the financial crisis, and have had to endure some reverb. The real estate boom here in Arizona is collapsing as quickly as it grew, and even the people I know who aren’t politically engaged understand that something has to change.

But with all of this going on, all these larger issues to contend with, I must confess that I have been bit more inwardly focused.  I have, in fact, been focused on my navel these days;  which is to say, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about myself, my life, and where I want to be, seeing as I will turn 36 my next birthday and it’s getting harder to pluck out those pesky grey hairs from my beard.

After about a year hiatus, I have gotten back to writing poetry; or, maybe, poetry has decided to allow me to write it again.  I’ve been reading some old and new favorites: Bidart, Charles Wright, Wendell Berry, Yeats, and even a few pesky romantics like Shelly and Byron.  Poetry, I’ve always maintained, is as much a state of mind as it is a form of writing. Poetry is a way of looking at and interpreting the world and the actual poem is simply the notes of our observations. Poetry requires deliberation, practice, and above all, patience. And it is in this area — patience — that I have had the most trouble over the past year, and it was my impatience, I think, that led me into other kinds of writing: novel writing, in particular.

I’m not slamming fiction, or the task of writing novels; it is a long, harsh process with its own rewards. It’s a challenging process to stay on task for 50,000 words. It’s draining to be inside the head of a character for that extensive a period of time. And, when the first draft is done, the satisfaction is mixed with grief. The satisfaction is easy to understand, of course; there is something deeply satisfying about finishing something you set out to do, and particularly when it’s a novel, because so many times along the way it would have been easier to simply let the damn thing sit and gather dust. The grief, however, was an odd experience for me; I’d never felt that way with poetry. It was grief and, on a level, emptiness; emptiness left behind after spending so much time and space on a single character or a set of characters or a story, and the grief for what is gone. There is no moving on after writing the first draft. The only option is to let it sit so you can get away from it and be able to revise it properly. And while the revision process is, in many ways, more fun than the writing, it’s not the same. It’s like switching from cigarettes to bubble gum. It numbs the urge, but doesn’t fulfill the itch.

My relationship with poetry has been quite different.  In my early 20’s I had a lot of creative anxiety. I wondered what would happen if I suddenly couldn’t write anymore. I’d seen this happen in college; people I knew who were writers and artists, all of a sudden aren’t; they stop writing, stop painting. I’d see them around and ask them what they were working on, and their eyes would glaze over, they’d look at the floor and the walls, and shuffle their feet. Life got too busy. They got a job. They got married. They had kids.  I was worried this would happen to me; I was scared that I’d run out of things to write about; that I’d wake up one day and I’d simply not be a writer anymore. Not be a poet anymore. And then? Then what? What the hell would I do in the absence of words? Particularly since words had been the major part of my life, even before junior high?  I’m not sure when it was that I understood what my relationship to poetry was; but there was a point when I began to know that as long as I made the time, as long as I worked everyday and wrote everyday, and dedicated myself to it that it would never leave me. Poetry fulfilled me in ways that religion never could. It gave me more than my education has — and those of you who know me know how I feel about my education. Poetry offered me perspective, solace, and voice. And once I realized that I would always write, and that would always HAVE to write, poetry gave me something else that I didn’t realize or appreciate until much later. It gave me purpose.

Poetry has also functioned, in a very practical way, to instruct me in the things I lack. This is where patience comes in. I am not, by nature or conviction, a patient man. I have never been patient, even as a child. I can trace most of the events of my life and tie them to my absolute impatience with everything: with life, with the world.  Over the years, writing poetry has taught me a lot about patience; because, while poetry never failed me, it often didn’t perform up to my expectations… which meant that I wasn’t performing up to my own expectations.  Patience (or the lack of it) then becomes tied to another truth about the creative temperament: ego. I struggle with ego in same way that I used to struggle with the push mower.  To be a poet, or an artist in general, is to operate in a contrary fashion in regards to the rest of the world. To endure and continue,  the poet has to believe in his or her own work — because, well– no one else will. And yes, I know all the mantras and the little pithy sayings about the danger of ego; but if I’m being honest,  most of what I do is tied to ego. And the only ego that’s probably more enflamed than the hothouse artistic ego is the fragile MALE ego. And I surely have one of those. IN SPADES. Again, this isn’t a surprise to anybody who knows me and knows me well; because chances are, if you know me, then you’ve come up against that ever present ego. I think I’m a good writer; not the best, but on par. I believe that my thoughts and my ideas are just as valid as anybody’s, and, at times, more valid than others. I am unapologetic in my high regard for myself and my thoughts and opinions, and even though my ego has gotten its share of cuts and bruises, it persists and probably will as long as I do.

Mostly I think this is healthy; there is a point, though, where ego, egged on by a malingering sense of impatience, can be self destructive. And this is what happened to me. I let my impatience get the best of me. I’ve pushed two poetry collections into the light of day, but financial struggles, professional worries, and the overwhelming sense that I’m nearing 40 and nowhere near where I want to be as a poet, a teacher, or a person made it difficult for me to write. At one point, I felt like I was starting to repeat myself in my poems; they all read the same. And while I think a certain amount of harsh self-critique is healthy, I was damning myself and the lines because they weren’t doing enough. If I was such a writer, I thought, why couldn’t I support my family with my writing? Why should I have to choose between writing and spending time with my wife? Why should I have to teach when the university system is less interested in my ability to teach and more interested in the average mean of my evaluation scores? What does it benefit me, my family, or my long term goals to be ignored as an artist, subjugated as professional, and summarily screwed as a barely visible member of the disappearing middle class? I felt like I did all the right things, made all the right choices. And yet, I’m still unappreciated? Still struggling? What the fuck??

This is where my ego got me into trouble; this is the point where I lost patience with my craft and decided that if I was going to be unappreciated as a poet (and if, indeed, I was repeating myself anyway) I might as well try to write novels – because, I reasoned, in America you’re not a writer until you’ve written the opus. The Great American Novel. And, let me say again: I enjoyed the challenge. There are rewards, if, as writer, you can deal with the pitfalls. Though I suppose, with me, the issue was not the form that my writing took as much as the purpose behind it. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a poet trying to tackle the novel form; indeed, this is more common than not. Working in other forms – the novel, the essay, the short story – can take a poet to a deeper understanding of language, its uses and its intensely beautiful variety. Working in other forms can give the poet a different perspective on the craft – which is surely needed in the constant evolution of the poet. We do not ever stop evolving; indeed, if the form of poetry teaches us anything, it is that change is necessary and inevitable. The form shifts. . The language shifts. The poet shifts. My error was in thinking that my evolution had reached some pinnacle; I allowed myself to believe that I had achieved some level of development that I have not even come close to. My impatience turned to bitterness; then my bitterness, taking residence in the vacuum left behind after the first draft of my novel, mingled with that satisfaction and turned it sour. It mixed with the grief and turned it to a self-focused rancor.

I woke up one day and I didn’t feel like a writer anymore. This, along with unrelated but badly timed other issues sent me into a depression like I haven’t felt in years. I’ve always been a little prone to downswings, and I always battle with dark moods. But, over the years, I have learned to anticipate and cope with them (or, at least, I like to think I have.) But I was inconsolable. I was miserable and uninspired. I hated teaching. I hated thinking about the fact that I wasn’t writing. I felt like a failure as a poet, a husband, a man, and a human being. And, on top of everything else, I was too poor to engage in my usual “coping” activity – which usually meant that I ended up the legal resident of neighborhood barstool.

This left me with nothing but time. The time I had spent writing was time that I was spending sitting in front of the television watching some version of reconstituted crap. When I told my wife that I wasn’t writing and that I couldn’t write, she was shocked. “You’ve never not written.” Indeed. I had become what I feared in my angst ridden 20’s. A used-to-be-writer. A once-upon-a-timer. There was a point that I even considered (though only to myself) the idea of therapy… something that I’d been told numerous times over the years that I needed, but always pushed off because I don’t like doctors and I don’t trust psychology in general. I also didn’t want someone to push little happy pills at me; I have always figured that if I was sad, mad, pissed off, or whatever, at least that was a real emotion. An honest emotion. And chemistry be damned, I’ll take the real over the fantasy of the happy pill any day of the week. Keep in mind though, that this standard is one that I only apply to myself; when it comes to others, I see all kinds of exceptions. And I think because I have known so many people who really needed therapy, who really needed medication, I am naturally skeptical of my “need” for it.

There was a point, however, where I did what I always end up doing. Being the trained academe I am, I tend to turn things into intellectual problems – whether it’s politics, depression, or the odds at the track. That means searching for root causes; peeling back the wool-thick numbness and seeing where it started.

And that’s when poetry found me again. I started reading Frank Bidart’s Star Dust, a collection I strongly recommend. Bidart is not only a Class A poet, he’s also alive and kicking, and the first poet to ever be named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a chapbook published through a small press. (That title is Music Like Dirt, through Sarabande Press in Louisville, KY. Check it out.) The title of this blog is a line from the poem “Advice to the Players.” I remember reading it for the first time and thinking that it might just be the best line of poetry I’ve ever read. When I reread it recently, I remembered why. The line and the poem discuss one of the fundamentally true aspects of human nature that I have been unable to escape: we are made to make. We have to create something in our lives, whether we are artists, poets, or plumbers. The urge to make is akin to the urge to breathe, and whether we create grand sculptures or quiet lives, these are the things we do to show ourselves and others how we spend our short time here. That was when it occurred to me that I had allowed myself to get sucked into the everyday distractions and I lost my focus on making art; it’s the mental and spiritual equivalent to holding your breath. I ripped myself away from my purpose – the thing that I do and that, on some level, I have always felt I was meant to do.

The end result is this: I am nowhere near the end. I’ve decided that the best path for me, as a poet and a professional educator, is to try and go back to school and get an MFA. I finally got underneath all the excuses and reasons I’ve given myself these past couple of years and gotten honest with myself. I don’t need an MFA to feel like a poet. I want the MFA so that I can teach and talk about poetry, and so that I can get back to my roots as it were, and humble myself a little as a student. Humility has never been my strong suit; and, I doubt that I’ll be rid of my ego or the rather large chip on my shoulder. But If I am going to evolve, I need to make my ego step out of the way, just for a little while, so that the forward momentum can begin.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Matt Brown permalink
    November 5, 2008 4:20 pm

    Take it from a used-to-be that is finding it harder to take identity from once having been a writer: putting your hands on your life and pushing it in the direction you want it to go is something we could all stand to do a bit more often.

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