Last night I went to a reading by California’s current Poet Laureate, Dana Giola. It was interesting to hear from someone who has had such a long and varied career–he’s a former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, with an MBA and a PhD in literature. He has taught and promoted poetry education all over the state for years.
The contrast between seeing his poetry-as-my-career persona and the more intimate experience of hearing his poetry was fascinating. He, like many poets, writes of love, grief, communion with nature, and all of his human experiences. However polished and goal-oriented he may be in his endeavors, when it comes to his poems he is naked. And thank the gods for it–how else could I feel connected to him and keep any feelings of envy and inadequacy to a minimum?
Because (and this will be no shock to those who have read any of my writing) I do have these feelings. A career such as his is not achievable for me unless I invent a time machine and manage to get started writing well before my late forties. I must focus on what I can do in the time I have, and I must keep my eye on that which makes me want to write whether it leads anywhere or not.
What form does the piece of creative writing you’re incubating want to take?
I’m beginning to understand why so many poetry exercises want you to tear apart a poem and experiment with writing it in different forms.
I already knew that changing the voice of a poem can be a powerful tool–if it feels awkward in the first person, try third or second, etc. I already knew that trying out a specific form like a pantoum or sonnet can be a fun way to experiment with one.
What’s really making me see it, however, is comparing works of mine that deal with the same idea or image in prose versus poetry. As I go through old essays, some of them cry out to be used in a poem. At least one of them already has been.
I realize that when an idea or image is potent enough for me, it could give birth to several pieces, each in a different form, each powerful in a unique way.
Knowing this helps me feel more cheerful about revision…the old saying that “a poem is never done” brings a sense of hope and mystery rather than paralysis.
As I approach my first experience of featuring at a reading, I need to remember the importance of honesty. To be an honest poet is to present myself and my poems in a way that reflects who I really am as a poet, not what I think my audience might admire the most.
I’ve noticed that I am nervous about my reading taking place the Monday after the presidential inauguration. Emotions may be running high, and it is not unlikely that the open mic will reflect this. My insecurity tells me that I should try to generate some work that would address current events.
I worry that people won’t want to hear a bunch of work that has nothing to do with any of the topics so present in our minds and hearts right now. But that’s not for me to decide: I think being asked to feature means being asked to let people see a broader picture of my work. Presenting a hurried and forced set of work, out of fear or out of a desire to be accepted, would be dishonest. Holding back my most authentic works out of fear that they’ll be seen as self-indulgent would also be dishonest.
The poets have been getting to work about the latest catastrophe, each on their own timeline and in their own way. Working through shock, outrage, despair and fear as well as they can…and, when they are ready, they’re starting to pour it out into poetry.
I am a coward in many ways when it comes to horrible things happening in the world around me. Sometimes I shut down, terrified that these feelings will catapult me over the thin edge I walk into an irreversible act of self-destruction.
When I went to one of my regular poetry readings on the Sunday after the election, I knew what I was going to hear during the open mic. A part of me wanted to stay home, afraid that it would be too much for me. But I went, and I’m very glad. I’m glad I found enough courage to show up and be present with everyone’s pain and anger and fear.
A few years ago I might have been impatient with it somehow, wanting the poetry to give me a break instead of drawing me deeper into the emotions of the time. Now it seems perfectly natural that we all (yes, me too) tended to have poems reflecting what was going on. A baby cries with the voice that’s available.
“What do we want?
When do we want it?
—from “The Poets March on Washington” by James Cummins
But seriously…what do we want for our poetry? What do we want it to do? Not that it has to do anything, of course. It can be only for ourselves if that’s what we want—Emily Dickinson ordered that all of her poems be destroyed after her death. We only have them because someone ignored her wishes.
I’m running into this question more and more since I’ve begun sharing my work at readings and preparing actual submissions. I find that my process of revision feels different when I am anticipating reading the poem out loud to a group, as opposed to thinking only about submitting it in written form.
Beyond this, I want to think about how I’d like my poetry to affect other people. Do I want it to help someone understand something? Do I want to make someone feel less alone? Or do I want, in the end, just to give others bits of the oh-yes-I-don’t-know-why-but-yes feeling I get when a poem speaks to me?
If I am sharing my poetry only to get fortune (ha!) or fame (slightly less vehement ha!) or even just to get appreciation and positive ego stroking, I’ll set myself up for disappointment.
What is your fantasy about your poetry’s role?
Where does poetry fit into a life of practical considerations?
The other day, having put some ground turkey on the stove to brown, I made a quick trip to the restroom. Bad mistake, because I had the latest issue of a poetry magazine in there. “Glancing” at it led eventually to me wondering what that burning smell was before dashing out to rescue my carbonized lunch.
I believe, in a part of me I wish to give more power, that any and all times are good times to be a poet. The above anecdote, however, illustrates the principle that there are less than ideal times to manifest certain parts of this identity.
I live in this world, or try to. I don’t exist as an observer on some other plane.
Incubating poems is something I can do no matter where I am or what my hands and feet are up to, but I need balance. Sometimes I need to be fully present to the practical. For as long as I can be, anyway.
“There…there are spiders.”
“Enormous spiders, yes. The size of houses, they tell me.”
“And they eat men?”
“Poets, I am told. Twice a year a number of spiders come from the forests into the square of the one town and they must be fed a poet or they will not leave. There is a ceremony.”
“…A reason not to write poetry?”
“I am told they make prisoners compose a verse in order to receive their meals.”
“How cruel. And that qualifies them as poets?”
“The spiders are not critical, I understand.”
–from “River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay
Something about this makes me smile every time I recall it. Maybe it’s the idea of poets as a unique food; desired by spiders the way virgins were legendarily desired by dragons. Maybe it’s the image of forcing a hapless prisoner to become just enough of a poet to be appetizing to an arachnid.
Are poets really different from other people? Of course not…or if we are, it varies from poet to poet as it does with all humans. However, any differences are more marked in societies that don’t see poetry as a part of mainstream life. The book above takes place in a world inspired by certain Chinese dynasties; a world in which poetry was the province of every educated man…the knowledge, analysis, and even writing of various styles of poetry a part of the civil service exams.
The society I live in is far removed from this. My sense of identity seems to have been altered by beginning to think of myself as a poet…is this evolution, or just a delusion catering to one’s natural desire to feel like a special snowflake of some kind?
Does it feed my ego to think of myself as especially delicious Spider Chow?