One could say the things we write are never unique. How could they be, when there are basic human experiences that provide the material for us all? We make things out of the basics the way a chef makes a complex dish from basic ingredients.
You never know what will reach someone or what will be the most effective way of accessing the heart. Recently, I heard about a submissions call for poems to be used in a gallery show about women’s issues. I decided to write something new for it, but as I sat and pondered several ideas I felt stuck.
There was no doubt I have strong feelings about these issues, yet as I thought of them I felt a bit numb and words did not flow. I could write as a woman who has experienced misogyny and internalized misogyny…yet nothing was flowing. I could write from the perspective of a disabled person terrified of a harsh future in my country…yet nothing was flowing. It went on like this, until I started thinking about my daughter and how these issues relate to her. Like a dam breaking, the block dissolved and words came. On that particular day, that perspective was the way in to my emotions and my words.
This is why the arts are important. This is why we must never stop expressing the same idea in millions of different ways. Every soul has many doors, and we cannot know which ones may open and when. We cannot know which of our poems or paintings or stories is a key to one of them.
I know I am not the only one who has trouble with this concept. I’ve actually worked pretty hard to learn to respond to a compliment with a simple “thank you” and put a period at the end of it. Just say “thank you” instead of making some self-deprecating remark, or some remark about how it’s no big deal, or some remark about how I could or should have done it better and this is why that didn’t happen.
I am getting a refresher course in this skill as I continue to get positive feedback about my poetry from people. I went to a reading last night and had several people respond positively to my recent work. Also, I recently had a poem accepted for a gallery show in June that is going to feature artwork inspired by local poets’ work about women’s issues. Right now, as I write this, some Bay Area artist is working on a piece that is inspired by my poem. My poem is going to be on the wall of the gallery for several weeks along with the artwork. I’m going to be reading at the gallery opening. How crazy is that?
I noticed that after learning my poem was in, I had a tendency to minimize it when telling people. I emphasize that it’s just a small gallery or just a local thing. Why do I do this? The truth is, this is awesome and I feel honored to be a part of it. It doesn’t matter that I’m a relative newbie in the poetry community. It doesn’t matter who else is in the show. I sent in work and somebody thought one of them was a good fit for their vision of the show. I’m allowed to feel good about that.
So are you, poets out there. You’re allowed to send your work out if that’s something you enjoy. You’re allowed to read at open mics. And when you get a compliment about your work, you’re allowed to accept it.
Recently I went to a reading at a local art gallery. Poets had been requested to choose a work in the gallery and write a piece inspired by it. At the reading, the artists were present and heard our work.
Few things are as personal as a painting to an artist, or a poem to a poet. I had done ekphrastic (inspired by a piece of art) poems before, but I had never done one that would be heard by the actual artist. I worried that they might dislike my work or be disappointed that my take on the piece was so different from theirs.
As it turned out, the artist did like my poem. I got to talk with her after the reading and she said the poem gave her a different appreciation for her painting. How wonderful! It gave me real satisfaction.
However, it’s important for me to remember that if she hadn’t liked it, it would have been all right. I would have regretted it, but it wouldn’t mean I had failed.
Why? Because poetry, like other forms of art, is the ultimate in subjectivity. Any piece will appeal to and repel someone on this earth. We need no justification for our reactions or our opinions. This is what makes the arts special.
They can be stressful sometimes, but some of my poems owe their very existence to the presence of a specific commitment about when and how a certain poem will be communicated to another person.
A blessed deadline helped me break out of my winter slump recently. It was an especially useful deadline because it is an event being held at an art gallery and I had agreed to write two poems about two paintings. It wasn’t like submitting to a magazine…miss your deadline and they just don’t consider you. Missing this deadline would have meant flaking out on something that was specifically expected from me and creating a blank slot in the program.
So I got the two poems done. I got them done in time to send them off. I had to finish a version of them even if they felt stupid or awkward or forced. In doing so, I was reminded that finishing a poem is satisfying even if doesn’t seem like my best poem ever. I was also reminded that sometimes a poem can grow on me.
It will be interesting to see what the artists think of my contribution, but I have gained something from the process no matter what happens.
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.
I want to be a bad poet.
I want good poets to shake their heads indulgently at the rawness,
the lack of craft,
the lack of depth
in my work.
I want to be a drama queen with words and images;
when I read a poem a week later.
I want to publish things impulsively
I want to sit in cafes feeling sensual with artsy paper
getting ink on my fingers
while I scrawl the “perfect” phrase
I want that phrase to be so, so imperfect.
What glorious liberation, to be a bad poet!
What freedom to shout, what license to play!
What security to know I am bad,
and never waste
one more moment
fearing that I might be.