Surgery Scheduled

I’ve made a resolution to go through with a procedure I’ve been putting off–and given myself a deadline: June 1.

The procedure involves opening my skin, removing a piece of what I keep buried in there and mailing it to a stranger.

The glistening piece of tissue will sit, in an envelope, stacked in some editorial person’s office. Perhaps, in time, the envelope will be opened and discerning eyes will gaze upon the raw flesh.

Perhaps he or she will find something in its cellular structure or colors intriguing. But it is more likely, given the realities of this field, that the biopsy I cringed to share will be thrown out hastily lest it begin to stink.

But I am determined to go through with it, if for no other reason than to treasure the fact that I did. To push through my perfectionism: which journal to submit to? Which poems?

To push through my second-guessing: I should wait until I’ve been able to look at them more in a real workshop setting. (No money for this, and there isn’t going to be for a long time.)

To get that first time out of the way. To just pick a publication, choose a submission according to its guidelines, do a little polishing revision and send it on its way.

Now all I need to do is buy a frame for my very first rejection letter. I’m truly excited about that. I’m not just saying it–a rejection letter will mean I met my goal.

What We Think About That

On the topic of what’s poetry and what’s just therapy or self-expression–in the library today, I found myself sensitive to how many poems do in fact tell stories about the poet’s childhood, or relationships, or an incident (unusual or mundane) in their lives.

I found a thick tome claiming to be a collection of Pushcart Prize-winning poems and flipped through it (it’s one of my guilty secrets, that I’ll flip through an anthology and only finish reading the poems that catch my eye quickly.) Among those few that caught me today were two that most definitely tell personal stories.

“Penumbra” by Betty Adcock creates an image of a six-year-old girl out on a backyard swing the day of her mother’s funeral. “Sequence” by Marilyn Nelson is a series of ten slices of a woman’s life, ranging from childhood through relationships and back again. One person’s story, in each case, but they had phrases that speak to me.

Yes, we overcomplicate the idea of subjects for poetry. In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams describes a fictional most-beloved-poet:

He wrote about the light in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the darkness in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the girl who had left him and precisely what he thought about that.

Here’s a Poem, Now Sleep With Me

Romantic poetry is–well–romantic. But some of it stands out to me as a more blatant bid not only for a partner’s affections but for very specific acts. These poems often reflect the times and culture of the poet, especially when they are a plea by a male poet for the female object of his affections to “come across.”

John Donne’s “The Flea” is one of the examples I remember strongly. In it, Donne argues with a female companion who is resistant to getting physical. He uses the image of a flea that’s just bitten both of them to claim that their blood is now mingled in this creature and that wasn’t a sin, so what does it matter what their bodies do? “Thou know’st that this cannot be said
a sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead…”

Another commonly taught example is Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” In this one, the male character uses time and mortality as an argument, spinning images of history and eternity to convince the object of his desire that it’s folly to waste time on this whole getting-to-know-you business. He warns that if she is obstinate time will snatch away all chance of joy:
“then worms shall try
that long-preserved virginity,
and your quaint honour turn to dust,
and into ashes all my lust.”

When I look at poems like this, I remember the cultures these women lived in. Sex is complicated in my current culture, but the stakes were higher back then. Sometimes I feel anger on behalf of a woman like this, being cajoled into a decision that involved far more risk for her than for the man. An irrevocable decision, one that, according to current beliefs, imperiled not only her future prospects but her immortal soul. Hey, Donne, flea or not there’ll be plenty of shame for that girl if she’s found out. Hey, Marvell, notions of honour aren’t “quaint.”

Well, I suppose poetry is a more ethical weapon than alcohol or drugs for a would-be Casanova. Seduction poetry can be amazing, too; I just prefer it a bit more subtle. I like it to be sensual and evocative–but not directive. Make me have interesting thoughts–but don’t tell me what to do, and why I should do it! I can make my own decisions.

Poetry or Therapy?

I’ve been holding back on rough drafts. I’ve been overanalyzing whether an idea should even be allowed to get to the rough draft stage or not.

I’ve been obsessing over some commentary I read from a poet who runs workshops, one who stressed that aspiring poets who apply for her workshops should be very sure that their work is “poetry, not therapy.”

I’ve been turning that lens on my poems, asking myself sternly whether a poem has any kind of larger impact or is simply a novel way to express my feelings.

I have no problem with a poem being both art and healing–but how do I make sure it’s not only the latter? I tell myself I should simply apply my normal standards: Is there attention to word, to sound, to image? Does someone besides me find it moving in some way? Do bits of it stick in someone’s head?

Nevertheless, I’m struggling with a drive to censor any would-be draft that is inspired by anything to do with my personal experience, especially experiences from childhood or youth. I’m struggling with a voice that tells me I should only write about universal, non-personal themes.

After all, no famous poets ever write about their own experience or internal world *coughbullshitcough*

I pushed through some of this to complete one draft last week; a draft for which the notes have languished in my folder for months. Is it something that would pass muster as more-than-therapy? I don’t know. Do I care? Yes, but not enough to keep from being glad it exists as a draft now.

Without Ever Saying It

Several days ago, I read Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts” from his longer work “Lessons of War.” “Naming of Parts” is, justly, the most famous excerpt of this work, and I cannot get it out of my head.

Take a look. It’s online. Maybe you can tell me why it touches me so. What I know is that it’s a poem that creates a mood and a feeling in an organic way; it brings you into it without ever saying anything about how it wants you to feel.

A lecture, outdoors, on a spring day, about how to assemble a rifle. Imagery of the beauty of flowers and the flight of bees, interspersed with instructions about the rifle parts.

Images of color, of stillness. Images that parody what will come later. But never obvious.

The poet never, even remotely, says, “How ironic that we are assembling instruments of death in a beautiful, living garden.”

The poet never writes, “This serene garden will soon be replaced by a bloody battlefield.”

The poet never says to us, “These young men, attending to these practical lessons, will die far away from this peaceful place, and that is sad.”

If you examine the poem in detail, you can draw the metaphors and parallels from each phrase, and admire the subtlety of the word choices. But, today, I am responding to the poem as a whole.

It did what I would like to get better at doing. It made me feel something and have no idea why; it carved a niche in my brain and made itself at home.

A Tedious Delusion

I came across a poem by Marge Piercy in the library today. It’s called “For The Young Who Want To,” and it begins like this:

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Artists of all kinds have felt this way; experienced these attitudes. The thin and blurry line that separates talent from delusion is so nebulous, so subjective–yet the way others see us, and often the way we see ourselves, is based upon it.

We fear not being taken seriously. The young fear being looked at indulgently, their work dismissed as unpolished or shallow. The older fear being dismissed as “not good enough” and not even having the excuse of youth.

We fear. We fear the “tedious delusion” more than we fear harsh criticism. We’d almost rather be called bad than banal.

Why do we expose ourselves to this kind of judgment?
Oh, right. Because writing means too much for us to stop, ever, unless our soul dries up.

And what’s so bad about knitting, anyway?

Feral Phrases

It’s getting crazy there in the cage.

Poets say that when a wonderful phrase or line just won’t fit into a poem, or the desired poem just won’t materialize around it, it’s a good idea to toss it into a box or a drawer and leave it there for later use. This helps keep us from forcing a poem to come into being just because we love our special line.

My box feels like a cage, and my fragments are starting to turn on one another. My brain feels as if there’s a spitting, clawing fight going on. And that’s not all–not only is the cage full, but there are at least five longer proto-drafts that want to be developed into the “rough” stage, and I can’t do it right now.

My current bout of depression has sapped my creativity as well as my confidence, but tell that to the cage. They don’t care. They’re fighting for their existence; their chance to come into the light.

I try to feed them with hope and promises; I tell them that this dulled state of mine won’t last forever. I ask them to have faith that their turn will come. I request them to line up neatly, in the order they arrived, to be considered one at a time in a serene manner.

Yeah, that’ll happen.