Like It Rough?

I’ve been thinking about the term “rough draft” lately, because I banged out three rough poems in the last couple of days. Not from scratch; each came from notes that had been sitting around in my folder for weeks or months. I was going to see someone special today, and I like to share poem drafts with him, so I went ahead. The results were like the Three Bears, in my opinion–one I like a lot, one’s pretty okay and one still feels stilted.

Rough: what do I think about when I hear that word? I try to embrace the fact that all poems will be rough when I first pronounce them arrived, but what does that mean?

Rough, the word itself, makes me think of harsh, uneven terrain. Rough makes me think of aggressive, physical sport or play. Rough makes me think of angry sex and grimy leather and grit.

A poem, a statue, a life can’t ever become polished if it isn’t willing to be rough.

Taking those inky scrawled notes and turning them into a draft; turning them into one of the infinite possible drafts that could have emerged from the same notes, feels like an act of supreme brashness. And it is. It’s bravado and chutzpah and in-your-face.

Revision is a time for humility. A rough cut is not. Even though I make a lot of changes in the process of creating a draft, overthinking will drain the juice out of it. Time, later, to devise changes that will improve without eviscerating.

Gotcha!

So there I am, sitting sedately in a support group meeting, attentive to the speaker, and my mind wanders just a bit…and suddenly, I get this grin on my face. I’m not sure what it looked like to an observer, but my guess is that it was something between a cat spying a bird and someone conceiving a particularly naughty fantasy.  It was the grin that comes with the gotcha.

Stephen King’s protagonist in the novel Misery, who is a writer, talks about the gotta–a sublime moment when a story catches hold. He describes it viscerally: “—but I gotta see how this ends.” I gotta know will she live. I gotta know will he catch the shitheel who killed his father. I gotta know if she finds out her best friend’s screwing her husband. The gotta. Nasty as a hand-job in a sleazy bar, fine as a fuck from the world’s most talented call-girl.

Love it. But right now my equivalent is the gotcha. That moment when my brain nails down a key line, a frame, a voice for a new poem. What will the poem look like? Don’t know yet, but it exists now. The fact that it hasn’t actually been written; well, that’s important, but the gotcha is like the Big Bang. I can play around with words, and the result might be pretty or even have some merit, but without that pulse of energy it’s not mine.

At the first possible moment I slipped out of the room, acting as if I’d just noticed a silent buzz on my phone (which, suppose, I had, if one allows a metaphorical buzz on a metaphorical phone) and found a quiet spot. Frantically, I entered the words into my phone in stream-of-consciousness fashion.  Then I went on with my day. But traces of a secret smile lingered at the corners of my mouth: I know something you don’t know. 

O Brave New World?

One of the next steps on my neophyte poet’s journey involves meeting some actual poets. I live about 45 minutes from Berkeley and 90 minutes from San Francisco, so there are events I can attend. I’ve been reading and researching, while trying not to let myself get overwhelmed.

There are several kinds of poetry events, and I feel as if I would belong more at some than at others. But that’s just assumptions on my part at this stage–until I check something out for real, I shouldn’t talk myself out of anything. It’s just my insecurity that pictures me surrounded by edgy urban twentysomethings who will cast me out for not being politically relevant enough.

Learning about events and readings also fuels my insecurity by showing me how many poets are out there; names upon names that are unfamiliar to me. Do I have the mental capacity to care for my family and live with my issues while also learning a whole new culture and taking in the work of hundreds of new poets?

As I’ve been doing, I broke it down into small, specific and attainable. I found a coffeehouse in Berkeley that has a reading and open mic every Monday night, and I’m planning to go. If I don’t like it, I’ll remember that there are many flavors of events out there.

Ultimately, I need to find a way to connect with fellow writers in a way that works. It’s so easy for me to get the impression that the only way to become a published poet is to dump the rest of your life and do full-time networking. Hell, nowadays it’s easy to get the impression that to succeed at anything one has to become an expert networker and social media mogul.

I can’t let that idea stop me from writing. It’s true that my mental health issues make it challenging for me to be consistently extroverted. It’s true that, while my blogging is helping me make progress on the social media thing, I have a lot to learn about self-promotion. It’s true that my family needs a great deal of my time right now. But I have to believe–I have to–that if I write poetry that speaks well enough, it’s worth doing.

Meter in the Bathroom

Ah, reading poetry…truly it seems as if the very phrase evokes an image of leather chairs, delicate teacups and classical music playing in the background. Or perhaps a bohemian-looking cafe, rich and dark with philosophy and angst. One way or the other, there’s a feeling that reading poetry is somehow a more serious and elevated activity than reading other things.

I’m not immune to this canalization, which is why I feel so sheepish about the amount of poetry I read in the bathroom. At this moment, the bathroom contains the collected works of Eliot and Yeats, a thick Penguin anthology, and two recent issues of Poetry magazine. I admit it–sometimes the bathroom is the only place I read any poetry during the day. It seems somehow disrespectful.

But is it? Naturally, it’s better to read it there than not at all. And why should there be any requirement for where, or how, we allow poetry to speak to us? Elevating and intellectualizing it too much may dissuade the neophyte from trying it out. Perhaps it’s not bad to enjoy it in such a mundane, casual way. Not all the time, of course, but kind of like the balance between the “quickie” and the longer lovemaking sessions in a sexual relationship.

All right, then, I’ll try to get over my sheepishness. When I grab a book or a magazine in that most humble of libraries, I’ll just imagine it as a hurried tryst. “Missed you too, babe, but I’ve only got a minute.” It’s still a good minute.

The Word Resound

#108 on my List of Things I Know Are Wonderful To Do And Wish I Did More Often: reading poetry out loud. Not to an audience, or even to a friend, but to myself and an empty room. Reading a poem out loud causes me to interact with it differently–I adore the way a poem that works looks on the page, and would not want to give that up. But saying it out loud does things for me.

Saying the words slows me down, for one thing…I’m a fast reader and tend to zip my eyes over something and take it in almost as a gestalt; this isn’t good when a poem has so many juicy words and phrases that can be individually savored.

But it’s more than that: reading a poem audibly creates a sense of ritual. I am invoking something with the vibrations of my voice, something that is a blend of the poet’s energy and my own. The other morning I read one of my favorite works, T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. I had never read it out loud before, and I found the parts that had moved me before to have a new poignancy and a new feeling of identification.

I go through phases of disorientation related to my mental health issues, and I’ve found that reading out loud steadies me. When I read something meaningful, I am sending a message out from a more centered and less frightened part of myself. It makes sense from a neurological point of view, but also from a spiritual one: it’s like reciting a prayer.

Try it, if you haven’t. But you have to be completely alone, so that you don’t fool yourself into thinking the message is meant for anyone but you. And no murmuring: say it loud and clear! It’s an important message, after all.

I’ve Got a Little List

I’ve read that part of working toward a goal is the art of breaking it into tiny, doable steps. Some people make “vision boards” on which they portray steps toward their goal like little islands in an archipelago. When it comes to my desire to publish poems, I’m trying to follow this advice, because I will become completely overwhelmed if I don’t.

The other day, I decided to create a tiny task for myself. So I got out my recently acquired copy of Poet’s Market and went through the publications list with a highlighter, marking every publication whose needs might match what I have to offer. I wanted to generate a list of publications to explore further–visit their websites; think about ordering sample copies, etc. Since my budget is extremely limited, I have to do a lot of winnowing when it comes to ordering things.

The list was getting pretty long, so as a way of culling it I decided to (at least temporarily) screen out those publications generated by the writing department of a university, except those in the Bay area.

As I often do, I simultaneously pampered my tactile self by making the list on my creamy linen paper with my favorite smooth-flowing ink pen. When I finished the list, I punched holes in it and put it into a new binder instead of leaving it where it could get mixed up with things and lost. There it sits, in lonely splendor, waiting for me to do something with it.

One small task. One trivial activity that took me away from my daily concerns and re-centered me in my creative dreams. A short break from worrying and trying to cope with mental health, recovery, parenting, money, weight, and whatever else I’m trying to keep afloat about. I’ll take it.

Too Late?

When I get excited about poetry–writing it, revising it, thinking about sharing it with others–the peanut gallery in my head gets loud. I hear all of the usual stuff from it about how many other writers are out there, how big the world is, or how crazy I am to think people would ever want to read anything I write when there are so many amazing poets to explore. I hear all of the usual self-destructive monologues from my addiction, trying to convince me that this, like everything else, is futile and wouldn’t I rather have a nice handful of pills instead.

When those don’t work–when my creativity is flowing too well, or my self-care is too good that week–the peanut gallery brings out its ammunition of last resort. That ammunition is my age.

When I read books by poets about writing/being a poet, they often speak of a process that started when they were quite young. By the time they are in their late forties, like me, they have been writing for twenty years or more. They have published books. They have degrees. They’re teaching. They’ve spent decades discovering and refining their voice.

What place is there for a poet who did not discover herself to be a poet until later in life?

It was always there; I know that now. But for decades I repressed my creativity so ruthlessly that it could not get out. Instead of writing words, I ate them, and my eating disorder ruled my life. When that was no longer enough, I added drugs to the mix. Now in recovery, and learning ways to manage my bipolar disorder that leave my creativity more intact, I have witnessed the rather slimy birth of a poet who appears to be me.

So, that’s what it is; I am a middle-aged novice poet. Is it too late? I know that all the training and classes in the world are no substitute for having something to say, and I believe I have something to say. But I also know there’s no substitute for experience, patient practice of a craft and learning from one’s mistakes. Is “catching up” possible?

I find myself doing math in my head; calculating around the age and cause of various relatives’ death to estimate how many years I might have left to write. I know it’s silly, and I know none of us know how much time we have left. But that’s what goes on for me.

I don’t understand what it is about poetry for me; I don’t understand what is driving me to become the adult in the kindergarten class of a strange school. I guess I don’t need to understand. I just need to take good care of myself and maximize the years I do have. If I can shout down that peanut gallery regularly, my desire to have a body of work can be a powerful force for resisting self-destructive impulses when they come.