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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 13

Tonight I am thinking about what it means to have a muse—someone who breaks you open or holds you open at the broken places. The muse doesn’t mean to be a muse, doesn’t know he is a muse (it’s always a man for me), but still, there he is willing the pen into the flesh, coaxing the flesh onto the page, showing you that the soul is merely puddle and puddle and puddle of ink to be harvested.

With the current muse, there is no sex in it. He is handsome and I know he is handsome  but I feel about his beauty the way I feel about the clouds in the sky. No, I feel about his beauty less than I feel about the clouds in the sky because I’m always trying to capture the clouds in the sky. I mean I don’t want his beauty. I want only the sound of his brain coming through his mouth and landing on the fuse of the nearest poem like a lit match. I want to be with him all the time (except when I don’t) but I don’t want to hold him.

I have been inspired to poetry by two men before and there was sex in it, or to be more accurate, there was the unrequited longing for sex. And writing the poems was the only way I could have them though that wasn’t something I would have said out loud then. I would barely have whispered it to myself. The poems were the only place I could feel safe with the way they made my body feel.

“You sound good baby” one said after he let me sit in with his band and that transmuted to “You taste good baby…” my desire spilling onto the page. Lust transmuted to literature.

With the other I wrote poem after poem after poem until I left him behind in another city and finally understood that what he did to me was “pray up that rag doll feeling/that giving over feeling,” that to me he was “the Holy Ghost coming…as breath sweet and sweaty.”

This new muse has already left me, as I knew he would, and I don’t begrudge him returning to his beloveds and I want him to return to his beloveds because he has suffered and this time, this place where he’s arrived after his suffering is precious and fills him with joy.

But I need to know he thinks I’m funny and smart even from so far away. True or not, it’s been seared into my brain pan that his regard is what cracked me open and brought the poems back. Which is ridiculous and ignorant of my history—the poems always return one way or the other—and true.

This feels dangerous, to admit this need. I have no working calibrator to judge what one should say out loud and what should stay silenced. And I admit I want to say the dangerous things because they are my litmus test. I need to know who can bear, who can survive my hunger.

I have no pithy ending, nothing that ties this all together. I have only hunger and I have a muse. I have only the terror I will feel when I put this out into the world. I have only the fear that in writing this I may have broken something and that I may, in fact, be too much. I have only the poems I’m working on now, and the ones I will work on when the time of this muse has passed. I have only my embarrassment over how important I’ve made him and my gratitude for his friendship. I have only me trying to put words around some understanding of myself.  May that be enough.

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Musing on the Muse


Christian Kane was briefly a muse. This is from a poetry reading in Charleston in October 2011.

Today I finished May Sarton’s 1975-1976 journal, A House By the Sea. In it she writes that for her , the muse has always been female. Though I write so often about what I generalize as “women’s concerns,” my muses have for the most part been decidedly male. By muse, in this context, I don’t mean the general inspirational element, but rather a real person who has directly inspired a poem. In Chicago, I wrote a lot about Ross Bon who led a jump blues outfit, the Mighty Blue Kings. While I was studying for my MFA, my muse was a blues-playing professor in the Lit department. Currently, it’s Michael Fassbender, though his museship seems somewhat different from his predecessors in that I’m not responding directly to him but using his words from an interview, which have already gone through the filter of someone else’s editor. Though I suppose one could argue that it’s because I was so powerfully affected by him as an actor that I decided to seek out his interviews as source text in the first place.

While I generally have a crush on my muse, not all of my crushes become muses. I’ve never once felt inspired to write anything because of George Clooney. And while my earnest sixteen-year-old self (hand) wrote a moving, shocking, gripping, hearbreaking , tearjerking, postively awful screenplay that was supposed to star Matt Dillon, even this earliest love of my life hasn’t inspired any poems.

I couldn’t even begin to tell you what makes someone a muse for me. They capture my imagination for some reason but to articulate that reason is beyond me. It’s not mere attractiveness, though, in my eyes, at least the ones I’ve named above are quite handsome. But it’s something to do with their talent and, even moreso, their ability in their performances or with their very presence to literally drive me out of my head for a moment. To get me past the editors, the censors, the dot-connectors that all crowd my head to the secret place where the poems wait.

My mother—and my father to a lesser degree—are central figures in my work but I don’t know that I’d consider them muses. They’re far too bound up in who I am. It’s as if when I write about them, as I try to unravel the self I’ve become, it’s an excavation. While the poems that are muse-born are a journey. In both cases the endpoint is unknown but it seems to me a different type of discovery. One’s a sloughing off to find the song that’s already there, perhaps, while the other is a new song entirely. No, that sounds entirely too pat. I think maybe one is a spiraling inward while the other is a spiraling outward. And this is, of course, speaking as if the processes really are that divergent, when it is more true to say that the places where the lines are blurry are much more numerous than the places in which they are distinct.

I should add that I have had women muses. Billie Holiday is a motif through many of my early poems, and even relatively new ones like “The Makers of Memorials.” And Eva Cassidy. I don’t know if Colette and May Sarton can be considered muses or if they are merely influences, and perhaps there isn’t really a difference.

But that’s enough about me and my muses….what have you to say about yours?

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