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20 Reasons Not to Write

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

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Learning Curve

“When I began writing those poems I had had the dream that I would celebrate my sixtieth birthday with a book of joys, a book speaking of fulfillment and happiness. But on the final re-reading I saw clearly that is an elegiac book and that the seeds of parting were in it from the beginning. This is where poetry is so mysterious, the work more mature than the writer of it, always the messenger of growth. So perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are.” — May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

A poem for me begins with a phrase that swims its way up from deep within my body, or a snatch of conversation that tumbles over and over on my tongue, or sometimes even a method—a collage poem or something excavated from someone else’s text. But it never starts with an idea. There is no plan for what I will write. Though I know I will discover something in the writing, I do not know until the words are secure on the page what my question is. Writing poetry—and actually all of my literary writing—is like speaking in tongues: I let go and let my better self takes over, the part that never strays from its intimate conversation with the Creator. I remember when my first chapbook was published how shocked I was when everyone said that the poems were so sexual. It took years for me to see that the poems I thought were just a celebration of music and musicians who moved me were also poems about hunger, about longing, about wanting to be touched. In retrospect it’s clear that the person I was then—caught between my fear of intimacy and my equal fear of being in relationship—would puzzle that out on the page. Writing is my way of thinking, it is my safe place to feel and my safe place to reveal myself to myself.

I have always thought my best poems were the ones I didn’t understand. I instinctively know that the logic of them makes sense, that they are “right,” but I usually can’t articulate why I feel that way, what is so right about them, or even what I am trying to say in them. Over time I’ve found that those poems, the ones where I almost can’t decide if they are successful or not, are usually the ones in which I’ve made some huge leap forward—in style, in understanding—and it may take months, and sometimes years, for me to understand what the attempt is.

Poems are mysterious creatures to me. I am suspicious of high school teachers who claim that what is going on in a poem can be assessed with multiple-choice tests. While I agree that there are many poets who are better at probing the mysteries of their poems than I am—I am not the type of reader (or writer) who needs every metaphor to be logical or every motive to be crystal clear for a poem to be satisfying—I also think that even the most ardent sleuths of their own work are, at most, just giving their best guess of what the poem is about. And that to me is the most joyful part of writing, that the more we write, the more still there is to be discovered.

A Story About Not Leaving

My father lived with us till I was about eight going on nine. I have plenty of memories of being a tween with him and I have plenty of memories of visiting my father’s father and stepmother with both my mom and dad as a kid. But I have very few memories of him in the house with us, partly I suppose because our schedules were opposite–he worked nights, and I worked days, so to speak. We lived in a semi-detached house adjacent to a string of  vacant storefronts (at least I don’t remember any actually businesses) that were constantly burning down. (Ultimately they paved paradise and put up a Burger King and its parking lot.) This poem is based on a faint memory I have of watching the building closest to us burn one night.

Theme and Variations on a December Night

1.

We stand at the window, my sister and I
the house next door burning, our house
night-hushed but for the hum

of sleepy eyes opening, closing.
Houses further down our neck of
Merrick Road empty

their families, parade of sneakers, slippers,
bare feet. Arms wide with books
and photographs and children. My father

urges our small faces to the window
overhead his camera sighs and clicks.
I don’t wonder how long Daddy will wait

before herding us to the street. I know
we won’t leave—this time or the twice more
that house burns. I know already

my father will choose another time to leave
arms wide with books and photographs.

2.

We are always practicing for fires.

3.

We stand at the window.
We watch.
I want to remember so
I can tell the story of us watching. So
I can tell a story about not leaving.

4.

There is a window.
I am standing at the window.
At the window I am standing
my blue gingham nightgown blinking.
A house next door burns.
Next door a house is burning.
One house in a long block of houses.
In a long row of houses
end to end chimney to chimney
a girl watches.
Books and photographs are carried by others.
A burning house is left by others.

There are books. There are photographs. There are children.

5.

this moment
I carry
this bird wing
disguised
as clavicle

wait
wait
wait
wait
wait

for the father
to arrive the father
to show his awesome powers

know with uncertainty the father
the underbelly of salvation
his great burning wings

6.

She hoards
the relentless gossip
of fire her skin
won’t yield
its smoke-choked
sobbing

New (found) poem

I should tell you how ridiculous I am sometimes. I should tell you how most of my best ideas and insights come from me being ridiculous. I should tell you how much I love writing found poems, that there’s a particular kind of lightning I feel pinging around inside me as I excavate the poem hiding in someone else’s text. I should tell you that I laughed nervously to myself when I decided to use Michael Fassbender’s interviews as the basis for a series of found love poems. I should tell you that I could make up the woman’s side of the conversation from my own hunger but I needed someone else to ghostwrite a lover. I should tell you that shame and hunger would appear in these poems even if those films didn’t exist. I should tell you that I never understood what I have in common with Wonder Woman until these poems. I should tell you that poems are fiction and true too.

“The Penultimate Proposal”
(from Found: A Love Story)

So, you’re in this prison on moral grounds?
Shall I show you something that’s really

going to make you laugh? We are prisoners
of a coming-of-age situation: bodies

deadpan, naked except for hunger.
Hero or monster, you must understand

hunger is a notorious maze, my heart just another
prize-winning protest-of-one.

Is your silence how it feels just before
tender violence breaks out?

(Poem found in “Michael Fassbender on playing Bobby Sands in Hunger” by Sheryl Garratt, Telegraph, 10/18/08)

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