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.
This book of poems I’m working on is breaking my fucking heart.
There’s really no other way to say it. I’m at the stage where I’m taping it all to the wall as I arrange the pages into sections (cause Katy Day was right about that!). I know I wrote the poems. I know I know what’s in them. But to see all of that rage and grief all in one place is overwhelming. And I’m also realizing how much I miss my father. Our relationship status has always been, “It’s complicated,” but I miss talking to him about what we’re watching on TV. I miss sitting at his kitchen table and listening as he holds forth on whatever’s on his mind. To read these poems over and over again as I find their right spot in the book is a little like losing him over and over again, which I suppose is how it was in our actual lives together.
I’m also listening to Josh Groban’s new song “Symphony.” Though it’s a romantic love song, it seems to resonate with what I’m feeling and thinking about my father right now.
“I’m staring at the empty page trying to write the things I didn’t say to you.”
“You deserve a symphony.”
“I need to know you feel me with you even when I’m gone.”
I had planned to write something different to you today. I was going to write about the panel discussion I was part of the other night at Forum Theater after a performance of Nat Turner in Jerusalem (which you need to go see!) The other panelists included someone from Black Lives Matter DC, a reverend who works in urban ministries, and a woman who works in the arts in prisons. We were asked what justice looks like for us in our work. I wasn’t sure what to answer. I am certainly concerned with the issues of the day but they don’t often show up in my arts practice. Eventually I said that for me, justice looked like everyone having a voice and like everyone feeling seen.
And that’s why I need to keep slogging through this book though it keeps breaking my heart over and over again. Someone needs me to articulate my complicated grief because they’re desperate to see their own. So on I go…
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?)
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.)