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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 18 (on refusing to write a short story)

Here is a section from an epistolary short story I’m not writing:*

Dear Vi–

I haven’t been able to stop crying. No, let me be accurate about this. I have only been able to stop crying for short periods of time. I cry when I make my morning coffee. I cry while I unpack another box of books. I even cry when I’m sitting on the toilet  and of course I pee so much these days.

Everything here is green. Which is beautiful and too much all at the same time. Sometimes I look at M, at those eyes I trust with my everything and think yes, his eyes are also too green.

I didn’t think that at home. I mean at my home.

I look like no one and nothing here, but I knew that going in. I said yes anyway. Loudly. Publicly. Enthusiastically.

I feel I need to be as accurate as possible now. So I don’t misname things. So I don’t get confused. So I don’t think “grief” when this is probably only homesickness.

You remember those poems about a lover being a home? Everyone liked them, including me. Do you think I was wrong? And who was I lying to? And why?

Who cries at the beginning of things? Who cries at wonderful and perfect for me? Who cries when it’s taken so long to happen? Why can’t I stop crying?

(Oh, about the pee-ing thing. I’m not pregnant, just middle-aged. Remember that time we talked about everything that disappears after a woman turns 40—why didn’t we include bladder control?)

I hate the phrase “ugly cry.” I told my sister about the weeping—not how often just that I was doing it—and she said,” I hope you’re not ugly crying. You and M haven’t been together that long.” (I also  hate that she said “together” not married. I mean I know it was just a clerk’s office but she was there, wasn’t she?)

I should go now. I’m about to start up again. I can feel the waterworks rumbling just underneath my skin. I’ll write more tomorrow.

I’ll write about how beautifully green it is here. I’ll write about my plans. I’ll figure out how to tell you how damned happy I am.

*Reasons not to write this story: I have an adversarial relationship with commas, sentences and I don’t get along, James Franco, I am much lazier than I appear in the mirror, I don’t know where it starts, having a short story roaming around in me is more painful than the usual giants,  the poems will get jealous and lustful for revenge, if the story refuses to have a happy ending, oh, how that will break my heart.

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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 15 (on truth-telling)

 

Oh, Patti, I am running out of truth to tell.

Of course, if I tell the absolute truth, I am running out of truth I am willing to tell.

Or I’m running out of truth I can tell without my inner editor screaming, “Stop being such a fucking whiner!” (My inner editor has a potty mouth. Sorry.)

Or I’m tired of insisting to my inner editor who is screaming directly into my ear, “But you can’t tell that!” that yes, I can. And being the sly little minx she is, she’ll swiftly change tactics to, “But are you sure that’s what really happened?” And I’ll say something smart like, “It’s not THE truth, it’s my truth.” And then she’ll get all potty-mouthed and furious again and start yelling, “But what kind of person says shit like that about their family?” at which point I make a Negroni and/or turn on another episode of Are You Being Served? just to shut her up.

I have perfected my spiel over the last decade since leaving graduate school about why I don’t go to poetry readings very often or why I don’t read that many collections of poetry. I have become the worst thing an artist can be—a liar.

I say my brain is just too full after writing all day at work to sit still and really listen to someone read poems. I say that what I want to do when I get home is relax and poetry isn’t relaxing, it stirs things up and makes me want to write.

And when I write I tell my secrets. To myself. And I don’t want to know them. I don’t want to know that I keep writing poems to an imaginary lover cause I’m trying to make up for never feeling loved by my father. I don’t want to know just how angry I am at God because even though I get that he’s the best parent ever, I still can’t figure out how to let him be the best parent ever. I don’t want to know that I’m terrified I’m as much of a narcissist as my parents. I don’t want to know how much loneliness I carry around with me, loneliness I picked up decades ago and have just never quite managed to put down.

I don’t actually want to know my truth and the poems, the beloved poems, the betraying poems, the longed-for poems, they never lie to me. And they won’t let me get away with telling lies so it’s better to leave them undisturbed. It’s better to keep them far away from the poems of others which might sing them alive.

It’s better to make that space to write only a few times a year, a door carefully opened for a measured time and then closed again at the end of 30 days. It’s better not to put myself in danger by keeping that door levered open, by refusing to let it close even if having to move between the poetry space and the everything else space is painful and bewildering and the image I return to when I think of it is a pregnant woman continuing to do daily things like wash the dishes and send e-mails and write blog posts while her child dangles partially birthed between her legs.

Remember I told you than an actor I met had levered something open in me. I thought it was just being able to talk with another artist as I used to in my grad school days. And while those conversations themselves bore and continue to bear fruit, I’m realizing now that what actually broke me was something he said when I was officially interviewing him, before we started to talk as friends. He talked about truth-telling being his ultimate goal as an actor, and about those moments of emotional truth also being what he was afraid of. (You can read the interview here as he says it much more eloquently than I’ve just summarized.)

I needed to be reminded that what I was made to do–tell the truth–was a damned scary thing. I needed to be reminded that what makes me an artist is that I do it anyway. I needed to be reminded that just as this actor sharing his story with me gave me the permission I needed to fling myself into poetry the way I once used to, that someone was waiting for me to write the truth that would give them the permission to do what they needed to do.

And I have to be fearless not just about facing what comes out from the end of my pen, but about putting myself in danger—by reading more poetry, by going to more readings, by having more conversations with other truth-tellers about how hard it is to tell the truth of ourselves—of telling the truth.

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.

Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 12

Today I have been deciding which poems to murder. it’s unfair they should die, I know, when I am the one guilty of not being able to raise them into the fully fleshed poems they wanted to be, but a poet always has blood on her hands.

There are poems, too, hanging from the wall, learning to get along. I put together a book like a set list. I do not know if that’s the right way to do it or not.

I have been singing for two days now. I thought I’d lost my singing voice completely but maybe I just don’t know anything about humidifiers and this is the first winter in a new apartment. It’s alarming how ready I was to give up my singing voice without much of a fight, except talking to my doctor about it when I get a physical on Tuesday. I like to sing but I don’t see the world in songs, I see it in poems. And well, anyway, next winter I will get a humidifier.

Last night it was all show tunes though I don’t love musicals anymore. “You Can Always Count on Me” and “What You Don’t Know About Women” from City of Angels. “Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I. “Tell Me on a Sunday” from Song and Dance. Today as I walked to a work event from the New York Avenue metro, there was “Good Morning, Heartache” a few times, which is not a show tune but feels so good rolling around in my mouth. I think it wants to push its way into a poem, at least a line or two, but that’s being negotiated.

I’ll leave you with this: A poem whose broken body might end up on the floor tonight. Or it may slink back into its folder awaiting another day’s judgement, another day’s grace. (It’s a Dread Pirate Roberts situation.)

(Do you ever kill your songs before they make it out of infancy? What’s the right amount of time to leave them on life support? I didn’t used to be able to kill any poems at all. This new skill and willingness–what does that mean?)

Here’s the poem. Let’s call it “Italian Study,” which may be a very good title. (Is anyone in the world good at titles, and may I have her e-mail address?) It also should be called “How Dumb I Was at 19” and “O Padova, Ancora Ti Voglio Bene.”

“Italian Study”

In Italy I wear long hair and the olive-colored corduroy skirt that rides my hips like a shroud. I am 19 and I talk a lot—in English and Italian—so I am the one who translates although I do not tell the boy we call “Turtle” what turtle means. I live in a walk-in closet big enough for a slender twin bed, an armoire, a student’s desk. It is narrow and I am not yet wide. My soundtrack is Rick Astley and Jovanotti and Lisa Stansfield and Antonio at Nuovo Bar saying, “Ay canalya” every time I order a cappuccino in the afternoon. Home is via Buzzacarini, an apartment where the mother sleeps in the living room, giving the bedrooms to her son who only likes solo sports, her daughter who may marry a policeman, and the three American girls measured in groceries and rent. We are forbidden to use the house phone to call gli Stati Uniti and we use it anyway and everyone pays what they owe on time but me. On Easter Sunday I scrub and scrub the long kitchen counters when everyone else is at Mass, and I wonder also if tuna with spaghetti is an authentic Italian recipe. I miss my school back in Boston but not my home back in New York. One night I forget my keys, travel all the way from Padova to Verona, dance and laugh and dream of an Italian boyfriend as I shake my hips to Elton John, and watch the sun crumble behind the ancient walls of the Veronese colosseum. The ride home is American girl after American girl after American girl with excuses why I can’t spend the night at their place, spare la Mama the fright of a ringing doorbell at two in the morning. This is the year I learn to be cruel.

 

 

Where in the world am I?

Hi Folks–

Yes, yes, I know I never quite ended the Open Letter to Marc Maron, but I just couldn’t figure out an appropriate way to say good-bye… so let’s just stick an ellipsis on that puppy for now with a heartfelt To Be Continued….

The blog will continue to be on hiatus through the end of April because I’m participating in the Found Poetry Review’s #PoMoSco challenge, which basically is poets from around the world trying to earn badges by doing things like creating erasure poems using an online redaction tool or channeling our inner Tristan Tzaras and choosing words out of a paper bag randomly to create a poem and using something called a haiku discombobulator! If you want to follow my progress, you can find my work here. (Also check out some of the other poets; they’re making some ah-ma-zing work!) I don’t think I’ll be able to earn all 30 badges but I hope to get darned close!

Finally, I haven’t yet added it to the publication page, but I had a lovely start to National Poetry Month with a poem published in Open Letters Monthly. Check that out here.

Sooo, how are you all celebrating National Poetry Month (and Jazz Appreciation Month)? Inquiring minds want to know…

See ya soon,

P.

Open Letter to Marc Maron, Day 21 (on learning to claim my voice)

…But again, there’s no sexy way to say, “I had narcissistic parents who fucked me up and I’ve just figured it all out so now I can have a healthy relationship” while also trying not to spill your martini (with a twist, preferably of orange instead of lemon, but definitely not an olive). This is the part of the letter, Marc, when I really wish you were actually writing me back. Sigh…

My pastor told me today that what he appreciates about me is that I’m honest. By which I think he means that I’m not afraid to speak my mind. When I was a kid and into my early adolescence, if I needed something from my Mom, I would write her a note, leave it on the fridge, and then endeavor to be fast asleep in bed before she came home. She terrified me on a good day, much less if there was any chance of a conflict (that is her saying no and dismissing whatever it was I wanted to do). The extent of my understanding of her then was that if she said “maybe” to a request that usually meant yes.

I suppose I was fairly vocal outside of the home—in the drama club, with my friends. But I heard so often at home that I was a follower (a title I earned I think because I often zoned out to escape the intense emotions I felt at home) that it never occurred to me that I was a leader, and that I was, in fact, demonstrating that every day by being the one to speak up about what I thought whatever community I was in should do in whatever situation.

As I’ve become more comfortable with myself, speaking my mind has become second nature. My struggle recently has been to stop saying, “But I don’t really care what happens” after spending 10 minutes talking about how exactly I think a situation should play out. (My very smart boss has taking to pointing out, “But obviously you do care.”) I’ve learned to speak out loud but I’m still working on the part where I know what I’m saying has value. Whether or not I influence the final decision, my voice matters.

There is a train of thought in poetry that all poetry is political and it’s taken me a long while to truly understand what that means. All poetry is political because claiming the right to have a voice is a political act. It’s political whether we’re talking about politics with a capital P in terms of state craft and such, or if we’re talking about the politics of being part of a community—at home, at work, in church, in a relationship. Having a voice is the first step toward action. And that’s what’s so dangerous about having parents who are not invested in helping a child find his/her voice. That kid—by which I mean me—grows up spending a great deal of time reacting and struggling to act. That kid also grows up not understanding that being the voice with the wrong answer is not the end of the world. It doesn’t negate her right to be heard. And she doesn’t have to stand on an absolute bed of certainty—by which I mean piles of research and what have you—to risk speaking and thinking out loud. Not being right is simply an opportunity to learn; it’s not a reason to abdicate one’s voice.

One last thing I’ll say is that I’m a fairly intuitive thinker. I’m not a facts and figures person in the sense that I retain individual facts and figures to support my positions. I tend to take them in, swish them around in my brain for a while, retain their essence, and then let them go on their merry way. So I have an informed opinion, I just can’t always easily tell you what brought me to form that certain opinion. I just know in my gut that I’ve taken in enough information to give a valid opinion. But as I wrote earlier, one of the outcomes of growing up with parents like mine—like ours—is we can feel like we’re always on shifting sand, which makes it difficult if you’re an intuitive thinker to own your voice. You’ve never been taught to have that internal validation and without facts to back you up, offering an opinion on anything always feels like jumping off a cliff and forgetting the damned parachute every single time.

Which is why it’s so important to have a community, no matter what an introverted misanthrope you prefer to be. (I mean myself, of course. But feel free to join my club if you’d like.) We need others to affirm our voices, our right to speak out loud for a good long while before we can finally begin to do that for ourselves. And even then, I for one, still need a refresher course more than every once in a while.

To be continued…

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 19)

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…

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 15)

I should add that one of my brilliant things is making lists. But that one’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? As is, perhaps, that my heart isn’t quite in this right now. But you have to push through. We’re all phoenixing through our lives more times than we want to admit.

I mentioned earlier that I’m newly 45. For the most part, I wear my age lightly, though I perhaps work too hard to work it into the conversation when I first meet someone. I’m grateful to look young, but I do want to be taken seriously for the decades of life experience I have. I know being a wunderkind is all the rage these days, but perhaps it’s the Gen Xer in me, but I still think experience and battle scars count for a lot. The reason my age is on my mind is because today, as I was hoisting myself off the blue couch after a particularly lovely afternoon nap, I felt my age. I actually felt the weight of every single day of the last 45 years (16, 425 days to be exact) pooling in my lap as I tried to stand. It’s not that anything particularly hurt—though I seem to have already developed arthritis in my back—I just felt old.

I did a performance this morning–a reprise of a #blacklivesmatter piece comprising four poems woven together with a song—for a university audience, to kick-off a teach-in with students and some faculty on race and social justice. There were three performance poets on the bill—young, dynamic, strong writers. And there was me, and an acclaimed playwright who I’d once studied with and who’s in her 60s, I’d guess. Like most page poets, I didn’t memorize my poems, and the cadence was much slower and not quite as ferocious as the younger performers. As I performed, I became keenly aware that, given the average age in the room, some of the students might not have recognized the song I was singing (Wade in the Water) or known any of the references in my poems. And while I’m sure they’d all studied poetry in their English classes, I wondered how many of them had been to a traditional poetry reading. And I realized that they just might not be moved by my work not because of the quality of my writing or because they don’t like poetry but simply because I’m decades older than them and they can’t relate.

I freely confess that I, like many middle-aged people, gripe about twenty-somethings all the time and how we couldn’t possibly have anything in common and they can’t possibly understand and blah blah blah. But it’s one thing for me to think they’re too young for me to bother with, quite another for them to think I’m a dinosaur. This is all conjecture, of course, and there could have been kids in that room that were deeply moved by my work or got something out of it. I think maybe what I’m really thinking about is that deep ego blow when you realize that despite the fact that you feel young, and you look young, you really aren’t. It’s not that I’m old, but, still I’m not young. And while I agree that youth is a state of mind, it’s not actually a state of mind that anyone else has to share with me (and about me) if they don’t want to.

Why does it feel more disheartening to be thought of as old (or “not young” than it is to be thought of as fat or not very intelligent?

To be continued…

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 6)

Yes, I think it’s time I started calling you Marc. And you should call me Paulette. I used to hate the sound of my name. Maybe because the only time I heard it at home was when I was getting in trouble for something I didn’t understand I did wrong. I admit I’m ready to forget the story about the time I came home with a straight A report card in third grade—after pulling Bs in handwriting the previous two trimesters in handwriting—and my mom’s reaction was, “Your jeans stink. Why do you smell so bad?” But I think that’s the definitive story of my childhood. Or maybe one of five or so. But at any rate I hated my name. I had this big plan when I got to college—did I mention I went to BU too? COM class of ’91—to tell everybody to call me “Paulie.” But I just couldn’t do it; it felt like a lie. It’s not surprising I wasn’t able to reinvent myself because I didn’t have enough grasp on who that self was to reinvent it. That’s what parents do, or are supposed to do, give you a sense of self. And if they fail in that fundamental area, then you spend a great deal of your life chasing down leads as to who you might actually be.

That being said, I am lucky in that I always knew I was a writer. There were several hardcore years of dallying in theater but even so, poetry continued to haunt me and spill out in me. Sometimes in stream-of-consciousness letters and in some very terrible scripts I wrote for my college classes and occasionally even in poems. And like any good poet, I was always good at suffering. Though back then, in my 20s and my 30s it was always for the wrong reason. In other words, men.

To be continued…

Curious what this is all about? Check out day 1 which explains a bit about this project.

Writing About My Father, Day 31*

I am like a cat on the couch rubbing
my face–nose, mouth, cheeks–across
the blue velvet. This couch is my father’s
money, a small forgotten-about portion
left to the three kids he had first
and left first. No, he didn’t forget us
but he didn’t remember us either, not the way
the phone company he’d worked for through all
its identity crises had remembered that once,
possibly with a blue pen, my father had signed
our names and his name on company insurance documents.
My father’s money, too, bought the giltwood, caneback
chairs dressed in golden yellow upholstery and a blue,
white, and gold bracelet. And some bottles of wine
and several ice cream cones and a pound of unground
coffee. It may even have bought something hanging
in my small closet though I don’t remember now
and even if I were to push the hangers one by
one down the painted rail, I couldn’t be sure
I’d recognize my father. I am not a cat and the coffee
is long spent and the chairs are only chairs and my father
was a little too surprised when I wore a pretty black dress
and red lipstick to see him in the hospital his last
Christmas. And even when I scroll through my bank statement
sometimes and look for the small portion of the small portion
I’ve stuck into savings I see a little grace, I see a little
security, I do not see my father.

*I wrote this draft on September 6 after writing my morning pages when I didn’t really think I’d been thinking about my father at all.

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