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,
…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…
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…
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…
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.
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.
I am thinking this morning about how I privilege sound over meaning. For example, I don’t care so much what The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock means because I love the sound of it so much. And the sound of it carries the emotion of it, which is more interesting to me than articulating any sort of precise–or even imprecise–meaning. Many of my own poems start with rhyme, rhythm. I long ago accepted that I often don’t know what my poems mean till years after. Poems tend to excavate my secrets long before my conscious mind can decipher them. Which is not to say I believe in writing nonsensically, but while I will fiercely pursue the “right” sound, I am willing to trust that the poem means something even if I can only glimpse the edges of that meaning. I tend to trust my intuition that it has an internal logic and meaning. And that is why I love readers. They reveal the poem and thus myself to me.
* A word on how I’m thinking about this series and by extension the series on writing about my body. In this particular season of my life, it doesn’t seem possible to write every day or near every day for 30 days straight. But it is possible to accumulate over time 30 bits of writing about a particular subject whether “over time” means over days or months or years. Which may mean I launch a series of series, or it may mean I stick with the body and writing as my subjects for the time being. I am concerned more with creating several loci around which to write rather than concentrating on a mass of writing over a constricted period of time. To borrow from Miss Dickinson, I am working on creating an environment on which to “dwell in possibility.”
This blog post is dedicated to Philippa Hughes and Karen Yankosky who through some sort of stealth Ninja mojo finally convinced me to hop on the blog train. (I may be kidding about the stealth Ninja mojo, maybe…)
Also, please check out Color My Palate Sonia Chintha who also hopped on the blog train today!
I haven’t passed on the mantle o’ blogging as all of my usual suspects have been too busy to fall for my own stealth Ninja mojo. But if you’d like to continue the blog train, please let me know, and I’ll send you directions as well as let folks know to keep an eye out for your blog.
Without further ado…
What am I working on?
I am working on a couple of things: a book of love poems, which is about not just the two lovers, but also what has influenced what each of them thinks of love, such as parents, past heartbreak, etc. (Well, it’s supposed to what has influenced each of them, but it may ultimately be the woman’s POV primarily.) For the man’s voice, I’m writing found poems using interviews with the actor Michael Fassbender. (He’s Irish; I’m pretty sure he won’t mind.)
I’m also hoping to work on a series of essays about my relationship with my father. I did 30 days of writing about him (see the fourth question), and I’d like to see if I can flesh them out into some sort of book. I wrote the essays because my father was dying, and I needed a way to reconcile my relationship with him before he passed. I haven’t been able to really look at the work for the past few months since he died, but I’m hopeful something will come of it once I’ve gained some distance.
How does my work differ from others in my genre?
I’m not sure I can say how my work differs from others in my genre. There are so many distinctive voices in poetry these days, I am not certain I could say I’m doing anything utterly original, nor do I really worry about it. I believe that if a writer is being as true to their story or their experience of whatever they’re writing about as possible, then it can’t be just like anyone else cause none of us is 100% like anyone else. If I were to think about some of the things that characterize my poems, I’d say I do a lot of found work, there is a certain musicality to my work, and I think my best poems are highly imaginative and perhaps have a touch of the surreal.
Why do I write what I do?
I have been told a zillion times that for a serious poet, writing shouldn’t be therapy. But it is for me, at least in part. I get a sense of clarity about the jumble of thoughts, feelings, impulses I seem to be processing at any given time. Poetry is the one place I can’t hide from myself. It’s where I find out what I really think, the stuff I don’t even want to tell myself.
I did a reading with the poet and mental health advocate Bassey Ikpi once. And she talked about how she wrote for the other, and that’s something I firmly believe as well. I spent far too much of my life believing I was the only one carrying around my particular griefs and wounds, but with age and wisdom comes the knowledge that while no one has my exact story, there are plenty of women who carry around at least some of the same stuff, but perhaps don’t have the gift I have for giving those sorrows voice. So my job is to grieve and shout and laugh and name what can’t be named and cry and dream out loud for all of us.
What is my writing process?
I’m a binge writer. Which I didn’t know until a fortuitous dinner with the poet Carl Phillips more than a decade ago in which he admitted his own binge writer-ness. Up till then, I thought I’d been doing it wrong, that I was undisciplined because I didn’t sit down at a desk every day at the same time for a set amount of hours. Nor was I good at getting up early to write before work, or staying up late to write after work. I wrote a lot, but I wrote in the cracks of my days at the office. I occasionally got the bones of a poem down on the page after I did my morning journals. Or I would cocoon myself at home for a weekend (perpetually earning the ire of friends) and read and write and read and write. I’ve learned that my process is more about letting myself not have a specific process. I write when and where I can for however long I can. My job as taskmaster is less about making sure I am writing poems, and more about making sure I remain open to poems so I can catch them when they come. And that I’m doing things that birth poems—like reading, looking at art, day dreaming. That being said, a few times a year, I do like to commit to doing a month of writing poems. I don’t always write each day of the month during these times, but I do have poetry on the brain, which is half my battle. I also tend to binge write my blog, generally a combination of short essays and poems on a single theme for roughly 30 days or so. (Starting in May, I’m writing about–GULP!–my body.)
What follows is not a good poem. In fact, I haven’t looked at it since i made one attempt at a second draft in November 2005. (I eventually stole parts of it for another poem.) But it’s an interesting poem, I think, because of what it’s trying to get at—that there is an element of possession to love. We want to both possess and be possessed. That there is something somewhat cannibalistic about love, in how much we want to not only hold the beloved, but we want to have them inside of us, woven into the very fabric of our DNA. Of course, if we’re relatively sane, we don’t act on that deep desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s taboo to talk about, but we all have a whiff of the obsessive about us, particularly when it comes to love. In the case of this poem, the beloved in question is my mother, who I’ve now figured out was actually standing in for both of my parents. Two people I wanted desperately to possess. Two people who could never figure out how to possess me.
I should also say that the poem is dark, and I find myself resisting that darkness sometimes. It feels wrong to have so much fun being twisted, and I don’t want anyone to think I am actually this extreme. But as all great crime fiction writers know (at least the ones who write for the BBC), sometimes you have to push things to the extreme to get to the very ordinary human truth.
Eating Mother (second draft)
There is a certain desire toward
cannibalism of the beloved mother.
It asks an act of violence,
this sacrament of love.
I love you so much mother
I will wear your heart
hanging from my lips,
the best stick parts
gouged out. When
you expelled me. When
you threw me out
from between your legs,
didn’t you smell the grief?
What else is blood but mourning
for what has been broken?
Now I see your teats are a substitute
lacking the rankness of true intimacy.
They are given too freely.
I suckle too for the ghosts
who didn’t make it, those
you kicked out before
they had hands to hold.
What choice have I
but to open my mouth wide
as all our tiny mouths.
you are our beloved suckling pig.
you are our beloved first kill.
We are giddy with blood and delight.
Day to day I don’t know if my father
is hurtling toward twilight or dawn
is just a long time coming.
His mouth is full of stops and starts
and we try to decipher the new
language of words he can’t remember.
We measure him in half-cups and sips.
We pray the steady rise and fall of him
like a rosary of relief and longing.
We memorize each knot of his spine
like a rosary of bone and moaning.
We do not know if we should pray
for an end or a beginning.
We pray instead in icepacks
and extra pillows and cans of nutritions.
We pray not with knees pressed to the ground
nor with tongues busy with sacred groanings.
We pray instead with hands busy with
the work of my father. We pray as if
he is not sand, he is not air.
We pray as if the benediction of our
hands on the sags and folds of him is enough.