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…
In the interest of total and complete honesty, please know that I’d much rather be finishing the last pages of Lisa Kleypas’ Midnight Angel than writing right now. In an alternate scenario, I’d like to binge-watch two episodes of Murdoch Mysteries instead of writing right now. Are you sensing a trend?
All I want to do is read and watch TV. I don’t want to do laundry. I don’t want to eat healthy meals. I don’t want to do my taxes. I don’t want to set up a grocery delivery for this weekend. I don’t want to write this blog.
When I was a child, books and sleep were the only way I could escape from the fear and anxiety that plagued my home life. I generally went to “take a nap” an hour or so before my mother arrived home, hoping that by the time I woke up a couple hours later she’d have sealed herself in her room for the night. The rest of the time I lay in bed or whatever safe spot I could find reading, occasionally age-appropriate literature like the Mary Popppins series or the Little Women series, but generally completely inappropriate literature like the endless stream of Harlequin romances I borrowed from one of my aunt’s friends, Victoria Holt novels, and all of Mario Puzo.
Decades later, in grad school, when starting to write about my difficult relationship with my parents, I escaped again—this time to TV. When I didn’t have to be on campus or I didn’t have homework due, I’d spend hours and hours unable to do anything other than stare at the TV. I don’t remember in particular what I watched, but we had cable so I’m sure it was a frenzied assortment of high and low brow movies and whatever TV shows were popular in the early to mid-oughts. With the help of conversations with assorted friends and after fantasizing a few too many times about throwing myself down the stairs at the place I was working for the summer, I went to see the on-campus psychiatrist who informed me I had “depressive disorder, unspecified.” She put me on Zoloft, which helped me bear the pain of baring myself on the page and helped me to live a life apart from copious doses of screen time.
I’m no longer on Zoloft, and I’m no longer depressed, though, like everyone, I do need a good wallow every now and then. There is something going on with me right now, but I can’t tell you what it is. Not because I don’t want to, but because I simply don’t know. I suspect there’s something I’m processing at the deepest levels—possibly because I’m at the culmination of all the poems about my father, possibly because of the anxiety-ridden zeitgeist we’re all feeling, possibly because my hormones have turned into assholes—and it will reveal itself to me when it’s good and ready. In four pages of journaling, or a new and unexpected poem, or it will just fall out of me during a friendly conversation. Till, then, excuse me, I have some literary kissy face to eavesdrop on.
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.