I’m feeling a little bothered by the fact that yesterday when I was putting the poems from my manuscript on the wall, I was already scheming to take a photo to put up on Instagram. This is not a “social media” is bad situation. I think social media is a tool and, like any tool, it can be used for good or for evil.
What really bothered me is that it was a physical manifestation of my need to be seen, which is not a bad thing in and of itself; everyone deserves to be seen. But having had a childhood where my parents never took the time to see me, that need to be seen doesn’t feel like a normal human reaction to me (which intellectually I know it is). It always feels like a wound (which it also is).
I have obviously based my career as a poet on displaying my wounds to anyone who’ll look. But still, when that exposure is not quite intentional, when it feels like a reaction to something that happened long long ago rather than a decisive action, I feel what I guess is shame, or something close to it. I feel like I’ve lost control, which is another thing I dread. I also feel like I’m doing something wrong as a poet by letting you into the early part of the process. Maybe I feel like I’m jinxing it. Or maybe it feels like hubris: who am I to brag about the book I’m writing like anyone really cares?
And perhaps that’s what I’m really fighting. That leftover-from-childhood voice that’s screaming its head off: You don’t matter! Nothing you do matters! No one cares! Stop trying so hard to make everyone care cause they just won’t! You’re not worth caring about!
And yes, I do know that that voice is an asshole. And I also know it’s dead wrong.
And so I’m going to keep listening to Josh Groban’s “Symphony” and start some preliminary work gathering poems for the next collection while I give the Dad poems some time to rest and breathe before I look at them again. And yes, I’m going to prove that damned voice wrong.
I was excited to write to you on Thursday and had emailed myself a blog post I scribbled during lunch to share with you. But I got home late from an invigorating conversation about Nat Turner in Jerusalem (if you see the show at Forum Theatre next Friday, yours truly will be on the panel afterwards) and thought I’d just post it on Friday morning. Except the menstrual cramps started in the middle of the night and I spent Friday having the worst cramps I’ve had since I entered puberty a zillion years ago. I think it was my uterus’ payback for letting me have a month off from menstruating last month. Neither perimenopause nor having a woman’s body in general are for the weak. I’m just saying…
And you don’t need to know any of that to read the post that follows, which is about poetry. But if this is indeed some sort of journal of my 48th year, it didn’t seem right to babble away happily—which is what follows—without ‘fessing up to having spent a whole day wishing I could rip my uterus out of my body. Sigh.
On that disturbing image, here’s the post I meant to share with y’all on Thursday. And yes, all the excitement there within still applies… or will in about another day or two when my hormones are done being monsters.
Several people have told me I should write a book (of prose not poetry), and I think they’re right but I don’t know what to write a book about. I saw this piece this morning about what it means to write what you know as I was flitting around the Interwebs, and I asked myself: Well, what do I know about? And I know about poetry, or I should know about poetry, or I know about writing poems, and anyway, I started writing about poetry. I know what I don’t know about poetry, I know what I don’t care to know about poetry, but I have no idea what I actually do, in fact, know about poetry. So I’m writing from a place of discovery (remember that manifesto of mine?) and perhaps one of the things I will discover is that I’m not writing about poetry at all even as I write about poetry, and that will be fine.
I don’t know if this project will persist, and that’s fine too. Maybe all I will discover is that I do not actually want to write about what I want to know about poetry. Maybe the only true thing will be I am interested in writing poems, but I’m not so much interested in poetry. Perhaps I will discover that when I say “poetry” it does not mean what I think it means. (See what I did there? she wrote, suddenly feeling anxious that she was doing far too much thinking about poetry and what if that was the type of thing that dries up poetry forever?)
More to follow, but obviously not on the blog, because that would defeat the purpose of writing a memoir about writing poetry… or something like that…
Thinking about all of the women on whose shoulder I stand, and I’m dedicating this to them.
The Makers of Memorials
by Paulette Beete
They sing. The sing blue songs
their mothers wore.
They sing grief, bone-thick & left-handed.
They sing songs cross oceans, cross sidewalks.
They sing skies sealed shut.
They sing men born wearing walking shoes.
They sing women born palms up.
They sing from mouths without lipstick,
charts without notes, pianos without tunes.
They sing back-door songs & apron-
tied-low songs. They sing.
Unmaking the made into something less
teeth-breaking. They sing
dead crops, dead gods, men
put down, men put out,
dreams put off. Off key, off beat, they sing.
Steady. Loud, Relentless. They sing
instead of, in spite of, next door to. They sing
in clinics, in bedrooms, on corners. They sing.
Women in blue & purple, in thorn tiaras braided
from agains & nevermores & never minds.
Songs of children lost, of savings lost,
pawn tickets lost.
They sing. They sing. They sing
blue songs of our mothers,
holler-songs of our blue mothers.
They sing the slow leak that will drown
the world. They call God home
for the re-making.
(This poem has been previously published in Beltway Poetry Quarterly)
Here are some things you should read:
And in case you’re not tired of watching me read poems yet, here I am at the now gone but not forgotten Monday Night Poetry and Blues in Charleston, October 2011
Oh, and you should definitely watch this, often, and honestly, I’m kinda judging you right now if you’ve never seen it …
So I need either a better filing system or a better memory because today’s been about finding poems I’d forgotten I’d written. Sigh.
I’ve also turned my attention back to the book about my Dad, or about me and my Dad, or about the uselessness of language in the face of grief, or probably some other theme I can’t currently see.
I’m sooooo close to the end, and by “end” of course I mean only the end of writing enough poems, which is the beginning of figuring out how to put them all into order in a way that makes sense, which I suspect will be quite tricky given how narrow the subject matter is.
I read a a handful of the Dad poems last night and they seemed to land, and out loud they didn’t seem like too much, so that’s good. (By too much, I mean that it wasn’t so much sadness heaped upon sadness that people started sobbing so loudly that I couldn’t continue, though maybe I wouldn’t have minded that?)
When this book goes out in the world, I wonder whose voice my readers will hear in their head? If they’re lucky, maybe it will be Armie Hammer, though I suppose that would be odd since it’s a book from a daughter’s perspective, but honestly, I’d be okay with my work in his mouth.
But seriously, who would you want to hear read the audiobook (do books of poetry even become audio books, is that a thing)? I wouldn’t want it to be me only because I don’t like listening to myself. I mean I like that so many people have actually watched the video from last night’s reading, but I listened to the song at the beginning (which I started too high on, sigh…) and then couldn’t get myself to listen to any more.
I didn’t mind listening to myself over the microphone last night mostly because I read so differently than what I’d rehearsed at home that it was like hearing the whole thing for the first time. I forget sometimes that I’ve been performing in some way or the other since I was a kid, and I really do come alive in a different way when there’s an audience. I forget that I have stage presence.
I’ve been thinking about how it’s a sin (don’t worry, venial not mortal) to forget who we are, to not see what our particular superpower is and walk in it. Because we’re scared, or some other reason that ultimately boils down to fear. (Fear is the one human constant, don’t you think?) It’s hard to embrace the spotlight of our own authority but we must if we’re to do what it is we’re put on this earth to do.
My particular superpower right now is resisting the siren call of the TV, and instead typing up this definition poem I just found hiding in the back of a file cabinet. It will (maybe) make up for the poems I mercilessly slaughtered today to put them out of their misery, that is, if it escapes the merciless guillotine itself. Good luck poem, good luck!
Last night while I was taking my make-up off, it occurred to me that I was so obsessed with Call Me By Your Name—I mean I’ve seen the movie and will probably buy it, I’ve read the novel, I’ve listened to the soundtrack countless times on Spotify and just bought it, and now I’m listening to the audiobook, in case you were wondering what I mean by “obsessed—that I should write an essay about it. I started pondering it again in my journal this morning: “… that’s what people do. They take that thing that keeps hanging about and investigate it on paper. But one needs a great deal of courage for that and it’s unclear if I actually have coraggio!”
(Says the woman who’s been obsessively writing poems about her dead father.)
I, of course, then quickly changed the subject.
Then out fell this:
I am scared of writing an essay about Call Me By Your Name because I’m scared of being wrong about it. I’m scared of missing some essential point. I’m scared of making a mistake.
It is somewhat frustrating that I don’t trust my own voice. One wonders how I have ever written poems and sent them out into the world. But I’m realizing now that because I’m a confessional poet and I am intimately acquainted with myself (or at least getting that way), I can’t actually get it wrong [in my poems]. There’s no one to say that my truth is flawed. Well, people can say it, but i feel an authority when dissecting myself. It’s when I think about weighing in on something in the public realm that I get shaky.
I’m realizing it’s why I don’t write more current event poems. I don’t want to be called out for having the wrong POV or missing some crucial fact. I don’t feel the same way in conversation, just if I commit things to paper, possibly because I’m reportedly an expert on putting things on paper.
Or maybe it’s as simple as that kind of writing somehow feels the same as doing my homework as a kid, in the sense that it relied on knowing “outside’ information. And deep in my subconscious, unless I’m in a state of flow (which takes more laboring toward if I’m writing prose), there’s my mom being relentlessly unforgiving if I make a mistake.
Mistakes are a sign of sloppiness not of the act of learning. Erasures on the page of homework are unacceptable; you must throw everything out and start again. Erasures earn scorn even if you have indeed arrived at the right answer.
Today, still, with near everything except maybe the poetry, making mistakes just cost me too much. I have to restack the bricks of my self-esteem. Yes, I keep coming back to: how can you move forward as an artist without risk, without discomfort? You can’t always depend on your subconscious taking over and bulldozing you through whatever it is you have to say.
I am also realizing as I write this that walking around like an exposed nerve when I’m knee deep in the poetry is not just about being vulnerable to the feelings I’m experiencing by examining my wounds and scars. I am also vulnerable because of the act of committing those things to paper. I’m showing you my homework.
PS Not sure what the next steps are but it’s time to start making some. To more fully commit. Stay tuned. (Stay tuned?)
Here is a section from an epistolary short story I’m not writing:*
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.
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.
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.”
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.