Writing About My Father, Day 12
You can look at tonight’s post two ways:—as a reprieve from my relentless poking and prodding of old wounds, or you can take the view that everything I write is indirectly about my father since I am of my father in ways both seen and unseen, articulate and inarticulate. In my head, it’s a little of both.
Several months ago, in an attempt to build an oasis or two in the desert formerly known as my blog, I asked several friends to write interview questions for me to answer. Not surprising, the two who responded are my blogging buddies Philippa and Karen. You can read my answers to Philippa’s questions here. Tonight, I decided it’s about time I tried Karen’s. Unless they’re hard. In which case you and I will pretend this blog post never happened and I’ll do something original like plead the fifth regarding the whereabouts of tonight’s blog.
KY: When did you first realize you’re a poet, and how did you know?
PB: I’ve written poems since I was 15 or so. My first poem was in response to the utter boredom I felt while reading Shakespeare’s sonnets in Mr. Madri’s sophomore English class. There were three of us in that class who spent the year passing poems back and forth; two of us have gone on to be the real deal as they say. Though my pursuit of poetry has waxed and waned while I’ve done other things, like theater and singing, it seems to be the language I return to again and again. I think I started calling myself a poet and really understanding what that meant when I was in Chicago in my early 20s, which was the first time and place I seriously and earnestly studied the craft of poetry. Lately, however, it’s a title that doesn’t fit. Poetry is still my primary artistic language, but it seems too narrow for the scope of what I do. And if I continue to call myself a poet, it discounts all the other writing I do—for work, for the blog—and it also discounts that I’ve started to dream in visual art and performance art. So I’ve decided to pull up my big girl pants and call myself an artist. Though I suppose that right there shows I’m a poet—the specificity of words matters deeply. Like the hero of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, I am always looking for the right name for things, which I’d argue is the poet’s primary work.
KY: Lots of us enjoy writing prose and reading poetry but find the prospect of writing poetry intimidating, kind of like wine for the uninitiated. Did you ever feel that way about it? (Why or why not?) And what’s your advice for those who feel that way? My advice to wine drinkers is: “IF you like it, keep drinking it, who cares what anyone else thinks,” for example.
PB: I am scared each and every time I look at the blank page. I am scared even at the moment a poem starts erupting from my pen cause there’s no guarantee it won’t be stillborn. I’ve not ever done hard drugs (well, does post-surgical morphine and oxycodone count?), but I imagine that ecstasy of creation is a little heroin, a little cocaine. But then there’s that hard moment of sobering up when what you’ve just furiously scribbled may or may not turn into something, and more often than not the poem dies on the page. I don’t think writing poetry is hard; writing good poetry, however, is another story. But if you’re worrying about if the poem is good or not when you’re in the middle of writing it, then you’re doing it wrong. And if your only reason for writing is to be published or to wow your friends (does anyone think they’ll wow their friends with poetry? I’ve seen no greater fear in anyone’s eyes than when I drop into the conversation that I’m a poet), then you’re also doing it wrong. Making a poem, making any type of artistic work ,should only be undertaken if you can’t do anything else. (Which is not an original thought, but I can’t remember who first said it.) If turning on the TV, or drinking a really good martini will do instead, then follow that path. But if nothing will help whatever ails you or thrills you or provokes you or makes you speechless, then write it or paint it or dance it. Worry about if it’s good or hard to do or impossible or the greatest thing since sliced bread later. Uhm, did that answer your question?
KY: What was the poem you found hardest to write, and why? (This could also involve a discussion of your creative process)
PB: They’re all hard to write (see above). I think revision is harder than writing the first draft. In revision, you hold the power of life and death in your hands. And I’ve never been very good at finding my way back to the initial spark once I’ve killed a poem by over-editing. The revision stage is also where you have to trust yourself the most. Is the poem done? Is it good, or at least good enough to send out into the world? You have to know what kind of poet you are when you get to the revision process, what you value in a poem, and that kind of learning takes as long as learning to write the poems themselves. I very highly value sound, and rhythm, and the physical space the poem inhabits on the page. I don’t care as much whether or not my metaphors match throughout the poem, though that’s something I certainly need to pay more attention to. And I don’t worry too much if I don’t know exactly what the poem means once I have the sense that there is some logic to it. I value that internal something that tells me a poem is right, even if my critique group is ripping it to shreds (in the nicest way). You also need a lot of patience; at least I do. My brain doesn’t always understand what my writer self is doing, and I’ll declare a poem dead as a doornail (what does that mean, anyway?), only to stumble across it weeks or months later and realize that it’s a beautiful bouncing baby poem with a bright future ahead of it.
May I tell you about the poem I found easiest to write? This is the only time this has happened to me: In graduate school, my professor Myra Sklarew took our workshop to watch a life drawing class. The poem that I wrote in that class, Figures, somehow erupted whole. I like to tell that story because I am so in awe of that moment. I don’t know if I’d ever been such an open vessel for a poem before or since.
KY: How do you know when a poem is done?
PB: A poem has many stages of being done. It’s done when you’re just tired of working on it so you stick in an envelope (these days, that’s more of a proverbial envelope thanks to online submissions) and send it to a publisher. Whether it gets a yay or a nay, you might just find yourself tweaking and tampering the next time you have your hands on it. Then it’s definitely done. Until you pull it out at a reading, and notice that you keep skipping certain words or putting the line breaks in other places. But for sure it’s done after that, unless, of course, you put it in your manuscript in which case it can be subject to more tinkering. I am, sadly, only partially joking about all of the above.
KY: I once was inspired to write a poem about a garbage disposal. What are your sources for inspiration, and what’s the silliest one you’ve ever had?
PB: A poem can be triggered by anything. One of my favorite poem cycles was triggered by something someone said to me; I just really loved the rhythm of his sentence, and it stuck in my head. I had a whole run of poems this summer that were inspired by some tulips I bought. I’d never really paid attention to the life-cycle of tulips, how sculptural they become as they wither. I used to write a lot about bands I saw play in Chicago; I’d take notes right as I was listening to them. And in many cases, when I walk through a show of visual art, I start hearing bits of dialogue. This is always odd because inevitably those conversations are melancholy even though I’m in a sustained moment of joy as I walk through the show. (Here’s a poem I wrote while in the last Cy Twombly show at the Art Institute of Chicago.) I’ve also written a poem dedicated to the actor-singer Christian Kane based on my repeated listenings of his first album. I think for me it may be less about the what of inspiration and more about putting myself in a context in which I am open to inspiration, by which I mean a period of time in which I’m writing a lot (poems or blog posts or whatever) and/or engaging in activities that feed me (like wandering museums, or having “creative collisions” with smart, creative people)and/or reading poetry. As for my silliest—I’m working on a series of found love poems that are made from the text of interviews with the actor Michael Fassbender. I set those parameters to help me stay playful during a month of writing daily poems last year; the project has turned out to be surprisingly rich, if I may say so myself.