PS You’re on my list of crushes, too. But I thought it would be weird to write that. And yeah, I was right.
I’ve spent part of today, the part that didn’t involve sorting out the hundreds of shopping bags I’m apparently hoarding in the front closet, going through my poetry files. My mission is to figure out which poems are good enough to send out for publication, which ones need work and are still worth working on, and which ones are just waiting for me to call their time of death.
I’m generally a hoarder of poems, sticking failed ones into the bulging miscellaneous folder in hopes that I’ll salvage a line or two. But as much as gets stuffed into that folder, I can’t recall the last time I actually harvested anything from it. The bad ones are easy to let go of. The ones where it’s clear I was trying too hard or not hard enough. There are also the ones that might work with some polish but I can’t tell from reading them what sparked them. What hit my eye, my heart, my brain in a way that demanded that poem. I can’t find the poem’s big bang moment no matter how many times I rerun the lines in my head.
There are also those poems—some from residencies or graduate school—that showed some promise when they were written. Perhaps they just needed an edit or two to make them publishable. I save all the drafts of each poem along with comments from former teachers and workshop partners, and, no surprise, it’s gratifying to read all the lovely things they have to say about my work. As I look through my own scribblings of their in-class comments, I think about which suggested edits resonated with me and which didn’t. But still, these poems that were vibrant in 2005 or 1999 appear still-born in 2015 no matter how many checkmarks or “beautiful line” or “I think this is finished” appear in their margins.
These old poems, the ones with promise, are hard to throw out because I can see in them the poet I used to be, the language I used to use. I can see precursors of some of the ways I write now that I didn’t quite realize I was already experimenting with back then. Emptying their folders feels a lot like I’m emptying out boxes of old family pictures. But when I think about sending these poems to the world, it feels like I’m about to step outside in an outfit that’s decades out of date. Many of these poems are good poems, yet they’re just don’t fit me anymore.
There are some where I can remember exactly where I was when I had the idea for the poem: at a record release party for the Christmas album of a band I knew in Chicago, at an exhibit of work by an artist I met (and had a crush on) in Provincetown. It is hard to let these ones go too, though I tell myself that as I rip up each page I’m letting go of old loves long gone stale, old habits, old ways of looking at life that no longer serve me. I’m letting go of a view that appears myopic next to the perspective I have now. I’m shedding skin, shedding weight, shedding anger and grief, and sometimes even old joys. It’s hard but I can’t keep sending out an out-of-date headshot of myself into the world, can I? And no amount of white-out or red penciling or sifting through the thesaurus can make that old voice enough to bear the weight of what I want to say now. I have to make room in the files for new words. I have to let go of what I once saw and open my eyes wide to what’s right in front of me now. Or something like that.
To be continued…
1. My friends E and C were married in a small town on Cape Cod nearly two decades ago. I sang at the wedding though I’ve only now realized I don’t remember which song. We all stayed at a bed and breakfast. It was the first time I’d ever received a “wedding gift basket” and E had to tell me not to tell everyone because not everyone had received one. I wanted to practice w/ E’s aunt (or maybe C’s aunt) who was my accompanist and I found a piano we could use. The innkeeper was angry because it was in his private part of the house. I thought he was only kidding about being mad, so when he asked what I was doing there without permission, I kept giving him smart-aleck answers. I didn’t realize till weeks later that I’d actually been trespassing.
2. My parents told my sister, my two aunts (my mother’s youngest sisters who lived with us), and me that they were getting a divorce around the dining room table. The dining room had flocked stripes in shades of gold. They said we’d probably been wondering why they’d been arguing all the time, but I didn’t remember them arguing. I didn’t say a word the whole time because I really didn’t understand what was going on. Later, going upstairs to the third floor where all the bedrooms were, I asked my father why they were getting a divorce. He told me we were supposed to ask all of our questions at the table.
3. I was in love (or lust or infatuation or something terrible and good) with a young man named . all through college. One day we were walking together and C put his arm around me. But he was holding me from the side where my purse hung from my shoulder and it was uncomfortable so I pulled away. I didn’t know how to tell him that I was just changing my purse to the other side so it would be more comfortable to walk. We kept walking and he was no longer holding me and he had to ask me what “spine” meant because his first language wasn’t English though he’d lived in the U.S. nearly as long as I had.
4. One day I told my friend J that when we were kids and my mom sent my sister and me upstairs to get a belt for a spanking, Debbie and I would test out belts on each other to see which would hurt less. It would take a while but we were kids so the passing of time wasn’t important even if it meant our mom was downstairs getting angrier. J said that was a horrifying story. I didn’t understand why she didn’t think it was as funny as I do.
5. One time when I was walking to church alone down Brookville Boulevard to church because I’d missed the bus a man stopped and asked me where he could use the bathroom. I was maybe 9 or 11; I’m not sure. I told him there was a gas station at the corner but he asked me to just stop and watch for cars because he really had to go. He took out his penis and started to pee right in front of me. I walked away.