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I think about sending these poems to the world, it feels like I’m about to step outside in an outfit that’s decades out of date.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…
As some of you know, I make my living, in part, by interviewing artists and arts workers about their work. I am always gratified when someone says, “Oh, that’s a hard question,” while being grateful that I don’t actually have to answer it. But I thought it was time I turned the tables on myself, so I asked a couple of my friends if they would interview me. Here’s the first one—five questions from Philippa PB Hughes, who is the founder of The Pink Line Project, a DC Arts Commissioner, a radio host, a surfer, an all-around arts champion and connector, and a friend who inspires me every day. You can read my interview with Philippa from when we first met here.
PPBH: Has writing poetry ever saved you? How?
PB: Has a poem ever stopped me from doing something stupid or throwing myself off a cliff I had no business being on in the first place? No. But has writing poetry save me over the long-term? Yes. With each poem I write I learn a little bit more about myself. Why I both crave being touched and hate being touched. The ways I’ve learned to hide and the reasons I want to hide in the first place. What I want romantic love to be and what I believe it actually is. Who God is to me. There is a certain amount of disdain that is attached to the idea of poetry as therapy, yet the writing of poetry has always functioned therapeutically for me even if the poems didn’t seem so on the surface. I can’t say I always know what the poem is teaching me in the moment—I purposely try to clear space for my unconscious self to do the writing as she is way smarter and whole and closer to God and better able to allow his wisdom to come out and play when I write—but eventually, sometimes years later and only after someone else has commented on a certain poem, my brain catches up with my spirit’s wisdom. What I’ve been learning lately, for example, is how much of a political creature I am. Having for years prided myself on not reading the newspaper, it turns out that I actually have a great deal to say on our country’s approach to terrorism, to race, to the political world. I am surprised by the me I meet in my poems all the time. Though I feel I should add that the poems aren’t always factually autobiographical, they do always truthfully represent my world as I experience it.
PPBH. Has your poetry saved someone else? How?
PB: When I was on a fellowship in Provincetown I did a reading at a small space in another town on the lower Cape. (I don’t remember which one exactly.) It had been a frustrating day as my work had been savaged by a three-name poet who didn’t care that the project I was working on was a way to fracture narrative. I left my 10-minute conference with her bruised, battered, and—I realized later—unable to write for the rest of my time there. If I remember correctly, it was an audience of mostly women, mostly older women. (I had just turned 30 at the time, and I believe there were a lot of forty-somethings and up in the audience.) I read a poem called “The Two Jemimas,” which was a blues inspired by a story quilt by the artist Faith Ringgold. The gist of the poem was that a woman had lost a great deal of weight—as I had just done—but in doing so she’d also lost her sense of self and was floundering. After the reading, a woman I didn’t know came up to me and asked if the poem had been published because she needed to share it with a friend. It was a relatively brand new poem, so I just gave her my reading copy. That was the first time I was aware that my work mattered whether or not it got the stamp of approval from other poets. That I wasn’t writing for other poets, but for other women. I don’t know if I can say that that poem saved that woman or her friend, but it said something that she needed to hear, which is the beginning, I think, of salvation.
PPBH. Why does poetry matter?
PB: Poetry, like all art, is about having a voice. It’s about being heard—whether you are the person making the work or the person recognizing what it is you want to say in the work of someone else. I don’t know if there’s any single more important human desire than to be heard. I’ve been thinking a lot about why people turn away from God or deny His existence, when it seems clear that as children we’re born with a knowledge of him. I think it’s because we don’t feel heard by him. Words are power, and whether your words are actual words—as with writers—or you work in a gestural language as painters and visual artists do, words matter. Creating matters. It’s when we’re closest to God.
PPBH: What is the best idea you ever had?
PB: I’d like to say learning to read but I guess I can’t really claim that that was my idea, can I? That was someone else’s idea in a school in Trinidad a long long time ago. This is a hard one; it feels like too many of my decisions/actions are interconnected for me to really pinpoint the one idea that was the best of the bunch. So here are some great ideas I’ve had: to take Maureen Seaton’s poetry workshop in 1996 although I didn’t apply till the very last day of the application period and had to send my application by Fed-Ex; after graduate school, to not take a job unless it was at the Library of Congress or the NEA because I was tired of working for companies whose mission I didn’t care about; to be proactive about starting relationships with people I feel simpatico with; to become best friends with my sister; to rekindle my relationship with God; to fall in love with myself; to stop living here (in the DC area) as if I was about to move any minute and to consciously put down roots here.
PPBH. Is it possible to teach optimism?
PB: I think it’s possible to teach optimism by modeling it, and I hope that’s something I do no matter how dire everything feels. I like to think that if I can continue to laugh about the time I was unable to walk (after being bedridden for a couple of months) and fell stark naked out of my hospital bed while an aide was trying to give me a sponge bath which then meant I had to be lifted back into bed—still stark naked—by a gang of five people, then I am by nature an optimistic person. I think it’s not a question of whether it’s possible to teach optimism, it’s a question of why some people are unwilling to let themselves be optimists. I get that misery is more comfortable because you don’t have to risk anything, but misery is also boring as all hell. I also think you can be both a realist and an optimist. I read something the other day where someone said something to the effect of whether you see the glass as half-empty or half-full, the important thing is to recognize there’s still always water in the glass. And that’s what I think we can teach—how to see the water in the glass.
1. If I was dating Jack White and someone from Rolling Stone wrote about it or maybe not Rolling Stone because do they even write about girlfriends, but this writer would say, “I am surprised by how normal she is.” It’s all about context. Next to Jack White I’m relatively normal but really I have at least two trunks of eccentricity strapped to my back at all times. But everyone’s eccentric in some way aren’t they? Even blandness is a type of eccentricity.
2. I am visiting my friend D who is in a new apartment after having to let go of the house she lived in for 15 years, where she mostly raised her son, where her marriage didn’t last. I have never seen this apartment before yet I walked in the front door and was home. Who decides who is a home for you and who isn’t ? There’s no guarantee that where your parents is will always be home. Like my father for instance. And my mother too.
3. Last month I was supposed to write poems about place. I didn’t like it. It was hard being a beginner again tripping over my fingers, my language all the time. No, that’s not true—at the very beginning poems came easy. And in the context of what I was able to do then, they were pretty good. It was only when I really learned how to write poems that everything became hard. And anyway what I learned last month is I don’t want to write poems about place but I want to write poems about my father who’s been missing a long time.
4, here’s a story I want to tell in a poem: it’s about how my parents lived in Guyana but I was born in Trinidad. It had something to do with voodoo maybe or bad neighbors or old grudges or my mother and her mother. The first thing my father gave me was his anger. For 6 weeks he stayed in his place—Guyana—and I stayed in my mother’s—Trinidad. I’ve met him since then, of course, but he still hasn’t welcomed me home.
5. I knew I wouldn’t want to write 5 more things so I hedged my bets early. We all only have one true story, anyway, don’t we? One story, many ways of telling it. Like the way an imaginary story about dating a rock star is the same story about a father who is a present absence or an absent presence. And a story about being eccentric is the same story about how every time I see D she holds me hard and later I look at all her books over and over again, even the ones I’ve already read, even the ones I’ll never read.
In May, I set myself the challenge of writing about place. While I have, somehow, managed to publish two poems about Washington, DC, I very rarely—as in never—take on place as a topic. Details of place may figure strongly in a poem—“Jumping at the Green Mill” or “528 Shepherd Street, Night” (one of the DC poems), for example—but the subject’s poem is generally something else (although I suppose you could say the same about most poems.) What I was after with this assignment was purposefully trying to capture the sense of a particular place. I should add that probably the most frustrating part of this challenge was restricting myself to a certain subject. But like all good restrictions, it forced me to be inventive, and I was happy to find myself playing with form and narrative in different ways. I haven’t quite made up my mind if I’d term any of this month’s experiments a “success,” but I thought I’d share three drafts nonetheless.
“At the Writing Desk”
There is the invisible and the invisible. For example, the father who is here and the father who isn’t. Consider the things on my table: a red and white mug, a blank notebook that cost too much, a stack of business cards with no faces. Do they belong to the daughter of the visible father or the daughter of the invisible father? Which father has caused this particular arrangement of pictures on the wall—the cowboy, the mismatched column of doorbells, the peonies caught not in full bloom, but in full wilt. One father can read the sound of his daughter’s fingers against her keyboard like tea leaves. He wonders: is this my invisible daughter or the daughter I’d forgotten went missing?
“Still Life with Footnote”
Clutter of plants, tall and leafy, squat and bare-limbed, window-framed against the expanse of yard treed with apples and cherries. The untilled earth waiting. Bored or excited. The throaty throttle of the food processor masticating almonds into milk. The bread foreign and familiar to brown girls from certain southern countries. The living room leaks cricket and the Country music station nobody put on. Plastic table cloths are all alike; each ugly plastic tablecloth is ugly in its own way. Hard cheese and a mango and 20 boxes of pretty teas. And no peanuts at lunch or dinner, not anymore. And not another egg, no thank you. Hot pepper and a slick of oil, the stove with its permanent hiss. Sometimes the chatter of ice cubes, sometimes the clink of bottles, the weep of liquor into a glass. And yes, the calendar: does it matter the year?1
1. Here is the cancerous father. Here is his back once wing-cracked now so weary he wilts on to the table’s plastic like the yellow tulips at week’s end. Here is my father with his head in his hands at the table I have known since I was not yet 20. Here is my father hiding in plain sight? Oh Daddy, where have you gone?
“Here is the Place Where No One Is”
Here is the place where no one is. The photographs unhung are of clouds and grass. It is clear the photographer has never seen clouds and grass. And what of the table that isn’t there? Or the three chairs? Is the extra person left out, or is the extra person included? Absent too the wine, the glass, the first prick of alcohol on the tongue. Absent too that sense of absence, that crucial task undone, that right word unspoken. There is not even the memory to be stored away and then forgotten and then almost remembered on that spring morning that never comes, the one where the clouds are grey and syrupy, and the grass grows out loud. The answer, of course, is to invite someone. It is the answer, yes, but maybe not the right one.
Here’s me reading “The Hunters” at Monday Night Blues. It’s one of the poems I read on-air today on Questions That Bother Me So with Katrina Murphy.
This afternoon I was on Questions That Bother Me So, an Internet radio show hosted by my dear friend Katrina Murphy. Somehow Katrina and I have actually only known each other for about two years, though I don’t know how that’s possible as we have such a rich connection. Perhaps we both recognized that God put us in each other’s lives for a reason, and so we were immediately open to each other. Whatever the reason, I am grateful to have her in my life and was delighted at the luxury of chatting with her for two hours.
I just read a Facebook post from the writer Anne Lamott. She was writing about a reading she just gave in a small bookstore. Not having yet published a full collection, I have read at numerous small venues—churches, bars, a classroom on an HBCU campus, the back room of a store that used to be a restaurant.* I am used to the intimate audience, the audience that shows up because they truly love you or they truly love poetry or, in the best cases, both.
Katrina and I met at such an intimate venue—Charleston’s East Bay Meeting House, where the indefatigable (and talented) James Lundy, Jr. hosts Monday Night Poetry. My MFA classmate and ace poet and occasional cocktail buddy and sweet friend Sandra Beasley had read there, and she posted a Facebook note encouraging folks to find their way to Charleston. So I sent Mr. Lundy—as he used to be known once upon a time till I started affectionately and joshingly just calling him Lundy—an e-mail asking to read there, chock full of the assorted credentials I’ve pulled together over the years. Surprisingly he said yes, and I found myself heading to Charleston that October.
Katrina read at the open mike portion, and afterwards warmheartedly invited me to go out for cocktails with her and some of the other poets and friends of poets who were there. I can’t describe how well taken care of—to borrow a phrase from Katrina—I felt. These people who had not known me at all the day before, and knew only what they could know of me after listening to roughly 45 minutes of poems (which included the fact that I could carry a tune, write about blues musicians sometimes, and have a perennial crush on Christian Kane) welcomed me as if they had been waiting for me to come along and be their friend the whole time.
That’s the beauty of small venues—that you can make those connections, some for a lifetime (no way am I ever giving up Katrina) and some just for a moment, but all authentic and real and powerful and lasting in influence. It was at another small venue that I, for the first time, viscerally understood that something I wrote could be meaningful to someone else. It was at a small church on Cape Cod, and I can’t imagine for the life of me how I received an invitation to read as I hadn’t yet even published a chapbook. I think perhaps someone heard me on a Provincetown radio show that had been kind enough to have me on while I was living in town on a writing fellowship.
One of the poems I read that night was called “Poem for the Two Jemimas,” inspired by a beautiful story quilt by Faith Ringgold that features two robust, colorful women. The poem is a blues mourning the loss of identity that can be one of the down sides of losing weight. I myself had spent the better part of about a year, or maybe a year-and-a-half losing 75 or so pounds. I had moved from the city I’d lived in for six years to this little town on the edge of the world, and I was still coming to terms with my new body and how I was perceived by myself as well as others. All of that had percolated into this blues. After the reading, many in the audience—which was mostly women—offered kind words and congratulations. One woman asked if “The Two Jemimas” was published somewhere because she wanted to share it with a friend. I was so touched that I gave her the copy I’d read from. More than a decade later, I’m still stunned that she wanted to give someone else a page of my poetry.
On the show today, Katrina asked how a little girl from Queens grew up to be a poet. As I answered her, I was so aware of all the hands that have pushed me, prodded me, pulled me forward as I have loved, hated, grappled with, and cherished this talent God’s given me. I am grateful for all those many touches—some fleeting, some continuing, all profoundly life-changing. Ultimately, that’s why I write, to honor what they have done for me. The poet Sterling Plumpp once told me that for every poet and poem, there is a reader. I take that to mean that I may never command large audiences, or be invited to read for an hour at the National Book Festival. I may never even publish a full collection. But even as I long for those things, I keep in mind that the important thing is not that I have the world’s largest audience, but that the poems find their way to the people who need to read them. And, perhaps a bit selfishly, that the poems also help me to find the people who I need to keep pushing, prodding, pulling, and making me know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am well taken care of.
*Full Disclosure: I did read in Barnes and Noble two or three times when I lived in Chicago. But Chicago is an unusually receptive city for poetry events. People there have been known to given readings in the middle of restaurants standing on chairs while diners make their way through their courses. Ah, if only it weren’t so cold there…
Sorry for the late notice but I’m on Katrina Murphy’s Questions That Bother Me So talking poetry in honor of National Poetry Month! We’ll be live from 1-3 pm ET., and you can listen online!
I believe there’s also an archive so I’ll post that later today or this week.
As always, thanks for hanging out with me on the blog!
For April—National Poetry Month—I’m trying my darnedest to write a poem each day. I don’t plan to post them here; the poor darlings will be too newborn to be out in the world any time soon. I did, however, want to share the draft I wrote today as it was a direct result of the “ecstasy of looking” I wrote about here. (And it’s also part of the Love Poems series I’ve been working on since last November. At least, I think it is…)
Poem Left in His Pocket on a Page Torn from a Book
I admit you still feel strange to me
in the most ordinary of ways:
how, for example, you look at me
as if I were enough or
how when I put the white tulips you sent
on the kitchen window sill and wait
for the sturdy light of morning
each yellow heart glows
and still, I do not weep.
In the seven days since I last posted, I’ve thought about a lot of things to write. Ultimately, however, I couldn’t get myself to write them out loud because a lot of what I was thinking felt too much like crying over milk that was spilled decades and decades ago. So I decided to just keep silent in the blog, though I have continued to do my morning journaling every day.
I don’t know what to write now—I’m so tired from an unexpectedly long day that included travelling to downtown DC for the first time since surgery—but I feel like if I don’t write something today, then it’ll be December and I’ll have wretchedly few days checked off on the calendar on which I’m tracking the days I’ve blogged.
I think maybe I’ll just leave you with this photo I took yesterday. What I love about it is how much personality the tulip has. I haven’t quite made up my mind if it’s leaning its head on the wall’s shoulder cause it’s lonely or tired or melancholy. Or maybe it just feels like flirting with the wall. Whatever it’s feeling, this image reads to me like everything I’d want to say in a poem if only this weren’t one of those days when words simply cost too much.
It is raining
It is raining and the sound of the rain is prettier than the sound of fingers clack clacking computer keys
I have nothing to say
I have too much to say
I am too full of all that I have to say and empty of language with which to say it
The right words have not yet been invented
Even the right words would not be enough to hold all that is waiting to be said
It is raining and in another state my father lies dying
In another state my father lies dying and I check my wound for signs of infection
My wound hurts but still I must get up, I must sit down, I must sleep, I must brush my teeth
I keep forgetting everything I remember to say as I walk the long hallway
I walk the long hallway cause that’s what you do when you have a wound like mine
I do not know how to heal my father
My mother is watching American Idol and she is happy
I am watching my mother watch American Idol and I am happy
The girls are singing about heartbreak and heartbreak and heartbreak
I am not sure what my mother does while I walk the long hall
Every day my father asks how I am doing
Every day I am raining
Every day I check my wound