Poetry Speed Dating

Here’s one challenging thing about poetry readings: You have to pick something to read. Usually you have about two minutes at the mic. That’s enough to read one poem or perhaps two or three short ones. You don’t get to lay out your entire body of work like a huge tapestry to be admired.

Tomorrow there’s going to be a poetry reading at the gallery show that’s featuring pieces done on one of my poems. I am supposed to read that piece and one (repeat: one) other poem.

Which one?

This is a special reading, and I want to do it justice. I’m working on a draft of something I think is appropriate, but if it is not done to my satisfaction by tomorrow which poem will I choose instead?

It feels like speed dating, or like a job interview with only one question. No piece could give a stranger a full sense of who I am as a poet. This is why doing a feature was so much fun, but it may be a long time before I get to do another one of those.

I have to accept that I can’t convey all I want to convey on any given occasion. I can only leave the impression of the pieces I am able to read.

Actually, that’s not the only impression I can leave. My presence leaves an impression: my voice, my expressions, and my body language speak to a discerning eye of who I am.

More Than Words

I feel as if I somehow gave birth to two beautiful aliens.

The gallery opening was amazing. The work of sixteen artists on display, along with the ten poems that served as inspiration for them. There were two paintings that used my poem as their source.

How do I describe the way seeing them felt? To say I was touched is ridiculously inadequate. Especially since the subject of my poem was so personal (it’s about my daughter) it was overwhelming to see works that artists made with so much time and care.

I got to meet both artists and talk to one of them in more depth about her process. It was clear that the artists put their hearts into the pieces; that my poem resonated with them strongly enough to bring forth this kind of dedication on their part.

Staring at one of the paintings, I felt my mind journey into the depths of the abstract scene portrayed. I felt the world in it take on a life of its own. I had a visceral experience of the fact that a poem can be more than words, more than a set of ideas. That a poem, or any other creative work, can be a spark that ignites an unknown universe.

On Display

I can’t describe how hard it was to start sharing my poetry with others a couple of years ago. It has become easier and far more enjoyable with experience, but there are still times when stepping up to that mic or podium feels like opening the book of myself and inviting hordes of savage critics to have a go.

Now I get to take another step out of my comfort zone, thanks to a gallery show that accepted one of my poems. One or more artists did a piece about it, and my poem will be on the wall of the gallery with the pieces for nearly a month. On display. With my name on it. When I go to a gallery reception tomorrow, I’ll be introducing myself to people as my name and work are displayed on the wall.

This is such an honor (and it’s interesting to note how much I have been minimizing it when I talk about it to others, emphasizing that it’s a small show, etc.) While I work on overcoming my inertia and submitting more writing to publications, I get to have the experience of standing by my work in public.

It’s excruciating to have that one piece be the representation of me as a poet. It’s like sweating over which poem to read at an open mic, times a hundred.

It’s a wonderful problem to have.

Suddenly, It Sucks

Many writers know this experience. We’re chugging along with our stories or poems or whatever. We don’t think they are perfect, but there are things we really like about them. Then, WHAM! We hit a pocket of insecurity.

Suddenly, everything we have written sucks. It’s cliched. Trite. Boring. Unoriginal. What were we thinking?

I experience an augmented version of this when I am in a depressive phase. Today, I am aware of a general feeling of pessimism about all aspects of my life. My writing is no exception; I am looking at drafts that pleased me a week ago and wanting to scrap them.

Actually, as recently as two days ago I was really happy with a work in progress that I’m planning to read at an open mic this weekend. I had that impish grin I get when I’ve just successfully completed a draft, and was looking forward to reading it. Now I’m not even sure I want to go, and not at all sure I feel comfortable reading my new creation if I do.

The good news is, I’ve been through some crap that has taught me I shouldn’t always believe what I am thinking.

Many Doors

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.

How to Take a Compliment

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.

The Fear of Sentimentality

Recently, I finished a first draft of a poem called “Ladders.” I liked it a lot when I finished it, but now realize that I am hesitant to read it at an open mic or send it anywhere because I’m afraid that it will be heard as sentimental, schmaltzy, cheesy, overly inspirational, or other adjectives that might relegate it to a realm better suited for Hallmark cards than serious poetry.

Why am I afraid of letting some of my poetry reflect the unabashedly inspirational parts of my writing psyche? My prose essays drip with it; I have no hesitation about expressing fierce compassion towards others, trying to spread illogical hope, or digging for beauty in dark places. Why am I afraid to let more of it into my poetry; that a poem speaking inspiration directly to others will be dismissed as too sentimental?

I have spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m a person who has tasted a tiny bit of nonlinearity in this universe, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m passionate about giving others a feeling of acceptance, wholeness, being valued, or just being seen, and I’m not ashamed of that. My poetry should not be ashamed of that either.

It’s appropriate for me to look at a draft and ask if the tone is what I want the tone to be. It’s appropriate for me to ask myself if the poem needs revision to change the tone to one I think will be more effective. But these questions should not be asked out of fear.

Stream of Consciousness

For a week or so I’ve been trying to do daily personal writing in the style of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. In this book, she recommends a thing called “morning pages.” It’s supposed to be three pages of complete stream of consciousness, done without any pauses or editing. You’re not supposed to stop, even if the result contains things like “pause…mind blank, eager to be done, blah blah blah why can’t I think of a single thing to write right now?”

She’s not alone in recommending stream-of-consciousness writing, or course. A poetry exercise I read about calls for ten days of ten pages a day, to be examined later for potential poem material.

I chose 1000 words for my daily target, which may or may not be as many words as three pages but it is a nice round number. The new writing software I’m working with lets you set session targets, which is perfect.

I’m trying to do this to help with my resistance to writing anything that is not meant for a fate involving other people. I’m also doing it because it is supposed to be good for creativity. You’re advised to put the pages away when you finish them and not look at or reread them for a while. For me, I imagine rereading them after a month or so and highlighting phrases I think would be useful for an essay or poem.

I have two main fears about doing this. Firstly, I am afraid that doing it will exhaust my writing energy for the day and I will spend less time working on other things. Secondly, I’m afraid that I will fail at doing it consistently and experience the familiar negative emotions that come with starting and abandoning something.

Non-Zero

“Just get a non-zero amount of words on a page.”

I have a series of files containing the scraps of future poems. Some files have nothing but the poem title. I open one up, stare at it, and if nothing seems to be happening I close it back up again.

I do this because it is a lot less intimidating to look at one of these than to look at a blank page. The act of establishing a place for the piece to come gets me over a psychological bump about starting something. I’ll put in the words or phrase that inspired the idea, give the project a title, and that is that. Sometimes I will let myself stare at the file for a few more minutes and see if something arrives–but that is not the plan. 

The philosophy of non-zero applies to other aspects of my life. Just do a non-zero amount of exercise. Just make a non-zero effort to reach out socially. Setting the bar that low can get me past inertia, and the non-zero amount might grow. If it doesn’t, it is still better than zero.

Ah, the psychological tricks we need to play on ourselves! What would it be like to be someone who just decides to do things and does them?

Not Enough

How often we get stuck not doing anything because we have been taught that whatever we do will not be enough?

I drag myself to a support group meeting. More frequent attendees ask “Where have you been?” I manage to get to a poetry reading. Other poets ask “Too bad you missed yesterday’s event, are you going to make it to tomorrow’s?” I stumble into tai chi. Classmates say “Haven’t seen you for a while, are you coming to the workshop?”

Now, to some people, all of these things might have a very different connotation. These comments might simply mean that these people like me and want to see more of me. But do you think I interpret it that way? No, I interpret it to mean that I am not doing enough, not being enough, not giving enough to that particular community.

It’s easy for me to think that if I compare myself to people who have thrown themselves deeply into one community and seem to devote themselves to it on a daily basis. If I set a standard like that for myself, a standard that fits neither my health nor my current lifestyle nor my devotion to more than one thing, I will always feel deficient. 

If I have the clarity to question my thinking, I see that my feeling of constant deficiency is not fact. I also see that it cannot be fixed by doing more; that I would still manage to find a way to see myself as deficient because the idea is ingrained deeply enough to defy logic.

For me, and for many, many others who are conditioned the same way and surrounded by a culture that continues to encourage the deep belief, the automatic assumption of deficiency is one of the enemies we battle daily. Like our other demons, it is the enemy of creativity and joy. It wants us silent, bound or dead. What it does not want is for us to get up and do something.

Ant Logic

I remind myself again and again about how subjective poetry is. How it’s possible for the same poem to be liked, ignored, sneered at, or adored by different people. When I forget, I think of a poem called Ant Logic. It was written by Susan H. Maurer and published in Rattle Magazine in 2016.

The poem consists solely of the phrase “ant logic” repeated many times.

I liked it. I thought it was quirky and cute. But I have to admit, I was surprised to see it published in a prestigious magazine that receives thousands of submissions for every issue and has turned down pretty much every poet I know.

Well, an editor took a liking to that poem and decided they wanted it. They didn’t need a reason; they might not even be sure why they liked it. They just did.

So Ant Logic has come to be an encouraging symbol for me of why I should submit pieces to publications or contests that appeal to me. It’s impossible for me to know what will appeal to an editor or judge.

So send your Ant Logic in. Read your Ant Logic at an open mic. Be proud of your Ant Logic.

Through the Clouds

I want to believe I’ll be creative for the rest of my life.

I want to believe that if I get very ill I’ll use the time and the change in perspective to write, or at least expand my mind by learning a new language or something. I want to believe that if I die of natural causes at an advanced age, my feeble fingers or quavering voice will still be trying to communicate. I want to believe that my mind is and always will be more powerful than my body.

I want to believe my drive toward thought and clarity can always overcome issues with my body. And there is some truth and merit to the idea; there’s truth in the idea that my mind and soul have a great deal of power. There’s truth in the idea that the battle for clarity is not hopeless and that it’s well worth fighting.

That belief, however, is not always backed up by actual experience. My experience has been that my mind’s activities are linked to the functioning of a physical object known as my brain. This organ, whether I like it or not, is a part of my physical body. It’s affected by every other organ I have. It relies on the contents of my bloodstream for oxygen and nutrients. When my body gets sick, or is affected by hormone fluctuations, or takes a new medicine, my brain gets a different cocktail. There’s a tipping point to these things beyond which it’s very hard to muster enough energy or original thought for any productive act.

The truth is that for someone like me, the state of optimal body and brain function is more like a theoretical norm than an actual one in the sense that there always seems to be something going on. As I age and experience more physical issues and age-related cognitive decline, the clouds may get thicker. This thought scares me quite a bit.

As I often do when I feel fear, I grope for a metaphor. Today it’s astronomy.

Astronomers, as least the old-school or amateur types who must perform their observations from the surface of the Earth, try do their field observations on clear nights. When it is cloudy, they reschedule, because the portable instruments they have may not be powerful enough to get anything useful through the cloud cover.

But what if the climate changed and it was always, or nearly always, overcast? They’d have two choices: give up astronomy or build more powerful instruments (or do all their observations from space, but in this metaphor that seems like a post-death thing and we are looking at this lifetime.)

Even if they began to build better instruments, they’d have to accept that they now get less data for more work. They’d have to decide it was still worth the work and dedication.

I have to accept a similar thing. I have to believe that an effort I make on one of my bad days is still vastly, stupendously superior to doing nothing.

The Things I Must Not Write

Some poems, and stories, and essays of mine are not ready to be written because they concern other people too directly. It’s a pity, because I’m sure they would be rich, and dark, and searingly honest. I know some people write memoirs and let the chips fall where they may, but for me it would feel wrong to write really raw stuff specifically about people who are still alive.

Part of my decision is based on fear, I know. The fears many of us have about confronting sources of our deep and sometimes illogical terrors. I’m all about trying to face my fears more often, but I also know my own limits and know that pushing certain things would harm people who don’t have the capacity to deal with it.

I’ve sometimes been advised to write pieces and simply not share them with anyone–don’t read them, don’t submit them, don’t self-publish them. Occasionally I do write some things for a recovery activity or when working with some kind of counselor. In general, though, I feel frustrated at the idea of writing things I am supposed to keep secret.

It doesn’t make sense. Journaling is so highly recommended for creative types; why can’t I get on board with private writing? Is it that I have a hard time giving myself permission to create without some small chance of it enriching others? Or is it just ego?

Tea Works Better When You Drink It

Pretty frequently, my daughter reminds me that the untouched tea, or coffee, or snack near me is doing me no good sitting there.

By the same token, getting my writing seen and appreciated by more people is a lot more likely if I actually send it out. Submitting pieces might not lead to them being accepted by a certain publication…but not submitting them definitely won’t. Reading at an open mic might not help me get new connections and meet people who like what I have to say…but not reading definitely won’t.

Recently, I sent out a couple of different pieces in response to submission calls I had heard about. Just local things, but I was very excited when one was accepted. I would like to get into a more regular habit of submitting work. I have everything I need to do it; I just need to acquire some discipline and get into a rhythm.

It helps when I have a clear notion of why I want to submit work to publications; what I want to get out of the process. I suppose what I want most is to be more open to possibilities. Also (and this part is important) I enjoy a childlike pleasure in having something out there because it means there’s always the possibility of a nice surprise coming.

The Trap Door

An old dating show had prospects standing on a trap door above a dunk tank while being asked questions. At any moment, the contestant asking could push a button and splash! It was all over and the next person would move to stand on the trap door.

I often feel as if I’m in that situation. The feeling grows stronger when I meet and interact with new people, especially if I have a strong desire for those new people to like me and want to see me again. Everyone can have the “If they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me” feelings, but mine tend to center on a few specific things.

For example, yesterday I spent the day with a group of writers at a workshop (an awesome experience, and I am so grateful I was invited despite my lack of funds.) The social part also went well, but I did have one instance of the “trap door” feeling. It happened during lunch when the topic of psych meds came up briefly and several people expressed the common attitude of all psych meds being bullshit and/or evil.

The gears rumbled to life in my head and I began to project. So, if and when they know that I’m someone who chooses to take medication, they will have contempt for me. They’ll decide I am weak, or lazy, or unwilling to face difficult times, or just a compliant sheep controlled by Big Pharma. They’ll write me off. And if they would write me off for this, how quickly will they write me off once they know I am a drug addict in recovery? Should I speak up and tell all of these things about myself as early as possible so they can go ahead and write me off instead of wasting their time?

I felt the trap door opening under my feet. I felt the familiar brick settling onto my chest. I felt the familiar loneliness that tells me “You don’t belong. Don’t get fooled into thinking you could.” 

These moments are part of life for me, and I try not to let them control my actions. I try not to let them trigger defensive counterjudgments or mentally put people into boxes, but it’s hard sometimes. I’m aware that when I do that I am judging people in the same way I don’t want them to judge me.

Poetry…Because Drugs Didn’t Work Out

I used this phrase when meeting my new psychiatrist and got a quizzical look. He’d just asked me what coping mechanisms I use to deal with my symptoms. I’ve used the phrase before with others, or referred to poetry or writing as my “newest vice.” Some people get it right away, some don’t.

It’s like one of my favorite snarky T-shirts, that says “Writing…Because Murder is Wrong.” That one either gets a laugh or a vaguely uncomfortable look.

Poetry, and other writing, are indeed a coping mechanism for me. Doing them is part of my ongoing efforts to break the old patterns that want to keep me silent, ashamed, and stuck. Doing them can help me get through the disorientation or despair of an episode, or at least give me reference points before and after.

Poetry, and all art, is a form of therapy as well as whatever other purposes it has. Some might sneer at those who seem focused on this aspect of it, or draw distinctions between such people and “real” artists. I believe there’s a place for a critical voice in our process, but I also believe there’s a special corner in some hypothetical hell reserved for those whose contempt or elitism discourage creation.

The word therapy comes from the Greek root for to serve. Psychotherapy translates to serving the soul. Whether it’s our soul or others, or what the ratio is, the service exists. When we create something–anything–we influence the world.

Reminders

No matter how well I am doing, I must not forget what I am. No matter how much I am enjoying being a poet, or how invested I am in being a mother, I must not forget the conditions that have the ability to destroy it all if I don’t deal with them as responsibly as I can.

I live with a mental illness, and I’m an addict in recovery. These things become less and less obvious to people as I rack up more years clean and have the good fortune to stay out of the hospital for years as well. But serious mental health crisis always has the potential to happen–and, of course, relapsing back into my addiction would bring all my progress crashing down on myself and my loved ones.

Many of the people I meet these days don’t know about my past. Sometimes I am nervous about if, or when, or how to talk about it. I don’t know to what degree I will encounter stigma. Sometimes I expect, on some level, to be “written off” as a new acquaintance gets to know me. Not that I can’t be written off for many other things about myself, or just for general social awkwardness.

At any rate, my learning and growth have to be balanced with continued maintenance. New adventures have to be undertaken with an honest knowledge of my limitations. Even when I can “pass” for normal, I have to remember and accept that I am not.

Through a New Lens

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.

Why to Go to a Poetry Reading

So I recently gave tips on how to attend a poetry reading, but why should you? What about them makes it worth your time and effort? Why leave your comfort zone for it? Here are some reasons I find apply to me.

  1. It gives me perspective. As I hear different styles of poetry read in different ways by  different poets, I maintain a realistic opinion of my own work. I’m reminded of how subjective it is; I am left feeling neither inflated nor deflated about it.
  2. It gives me ideas. When at a poetry reading, I am listening without distractions and my mind wanders in a specific way that promotes new connections. It’s common for me to get a flash of inspiration for a new poem I’d like to write. I keep paper and pen handy during a reading and jot things down between poems. By the end, I have a bizarre mishmash of seemingly random words and phrases that carry the seeds of multiple new works. I may or may not follow up on each of them, but the seeds exist.
  3. It gives me a sense of community. I find groups of people very challenging because of my odd fluctuations of energy–I’m always waiting for people to write me off as they find out more about me or hang out with me long enough to get a feeling for the inconsistencies in the way I present myself. My bipolar disorder and the depressive phases come with it can make me feel “other” more often than not–yet, with all that, going to readings helps me affirm my identity as part of a creative community. It lets me see poets of all ages and backgrounds and realize that no idiosyncrasies have the power to un-poet us.
  4. It changes the way I write and revise poems. When I expect to be reading a new poem out loud, I end up paying more attention to its sound and rhythm. It’s important not to get carried away by this; the way the poem looks on the page is still just as important. However, thinking about sound adds a layer to the process of refining a draft.
  5. It re-connects me with the part of myself responsible for poetry. Daily stresses make it easy to lose touch with this, but after a good reading I feel stronger and more centered. Toxic people, the news, pervasive fears–all of these have lost some of their power when faced with the power of creative thought and the love that drives it.

How to Go to a Poetry Reading

If you are anything like I was, you might be very intimidated by the idea of one of these events. Maybe you don’t know what to expect, or maybe you expect the atmosphere to be uncomfortable. Maybe you think it will be a roomful of snooty intellectuals who will dismiss you as not hip enough, not educated enough, not artsy enough…not something enough.

Maybe the idea of actually reading your poetry to an audience of strangers feels so exposing that you cringe at the thought. Why not just pass around the contents of your underwear drawer, or strip naked and do a Charleston at the microphone?

As someone who started going less than two years ago, I’d encourage you to go to one. It’ll open up new aspects of your writing. Here are some tips that might help:

  1. Get there early. Find out where it is and allow plenty of time to get lost, find parking, etc. The reason to get there early is that many of these places are on the small side and you want to get a seat close enough to hear clearly.
  2. Introduce yourself to people and admit you are new to this event.
  3. If anyone asks whether you’re a poet, you say YES.
  4. Bring your poetry, even if you don’t think you want to read this time. Bring at least several different pieces, because what you want to read might change depending on what you have heard. There is often a break during which you can sign up if you didn’t before.
  5. Allow yourself to notice that you don’t adore every poem that is read at the open mic, or even every poem read by a featured poet. Notice how subjective it all is.
  6. If you choose to read, respect the time limits.
  7. Don’t forget to silence your phone.

I predict you’ll find yourself hearing some poems you don’t think are all that great; poems that make you think “Hey, I brought poems I think are better that that. Or certainly no worse.” Whether on that day or a subsequent occasion, you’ll step up to that mic and read something. After it’s over, you’ll see that no one snorted in derision. No tomatoes were thrown. You did it, and the world did not come to an end.

Sweet, Sweet Deadlines

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.

Porn for Poets

If the main purpose of porn is to inspire and facilitate fantasy, the poetry equivalent for me would have to be ads for workshops and retreats. Magazines such as Poets & Writers contain multiple listings that render me dreamy-eyed and wistful, imagining myself scribbling away under a linden tree on a remote estate or perched, bright-eyed, on a chair as a teaching poet reads my work.

Some workshops are priced lower than others, but aside from the rare scholarship offers   they are all out of my reach.  Alas, just as in porn, sometimes you get what you pay for. On the other hand, there do exist some good, free online resources and opportunities for writers–certainly a cut above the internet’s jungle of free porn options.

It’s important for me to be aware of these and understand that when I feel isolated as a poet, it isn’t because I lack money. Sure, workshops are fantastic, exciting, sexy. I’m getting excited right now just thinking about a couple of notices I read this month. However, a poet can form ties and get criticism in other ways. My most important barriers are emotional and psychological, not financial. My level of connection and my development as a poet are my responsibility. “But I had no disposable income,” is not a suitable epitaph to rest above a grave filled with unwritten truths.

What Do I Want?

Do I know? Do I really know?

I’ve been watching a show called Lucifer, in which the Devil owns a nightclub in LA and has a psychic power to draw out a person’s deepest desires. He only has to look into their eyes and ask. They look mesmerized and blurt out their ambition, or secret love, or person they want to kill.

It makes me think about what I would say, if put on the spot and somehow uncensored. What resemblance, if any, would it have to anything I might predict myself saying? It seems like splitting hairs, I know. If I think I want something, supposedly I do. Whether it is a good idea, or whether I’d be happy if I had it, is beside the point. The wanting is in the thought.

Or is it?

What exists on the surface of my thoughts can be very different from my truth. A lifetime of conditioning, fear-based filters, and cognitive fallacies interfere with a clear vision. We think we want to be happy, but we may have little to no idea what happiness would really look like for us.

What is my real ambition? My real desire? What would I cough up under Lucifer’s gaze?

Sure, I want the basic things most people want. Ego gratification, love, security, good things for others I care about. But there is something else.

It’s hard for me to describe, but I’ve experienced it and I want more. I want to carry it around like a rare jewel and give bits of it to others as talismans. Hell, I want to carry it in myself like a virus and transmit it to others just by being with them. I want people to come away from an encounter with a vague sensation that something is different.

Is it hope? Is it joy, wholeness, love? No words are adequate for the thing I have found somewhere on my journey. The thing that drives me to read poetry, or write it, to catch glimpses of what I desire. It’s illogical and capricious. It’s immortal, indestructible, nonlinear. In the coming era of my life, I am not sure what role I am meant to play. I just know I want to serve the thing.

Maybe Lucifer could draw a better description out of me.

I’m Broke, but Here’s a Poem

I want to contribute, and sometimes what I have to offer seems meager. I recently started taking a tai chi class with a group of people who regularly support some charitable causes, and there are usually various solicitations going on. They’re good causes, but I cringe internally at every speech because I am barely scraping together the basic fee for the class I am taking there.

After a recent workshop, I was inspired to write a poem dealing with the subject. It occurred to me that I could send the poem to the visiting teacher who gave the workshop; that he might enjoy it. It might please him to know that his teaching provoked such thought, or he might like it in and of itself.

Sometimes it seems like a lovely idea. Sometimes it seems lame.

I think I am going to do it, though, because sending it clearly fits in with one of my basic values: the idea that I should present myself to the world as I am, offering what I have to offer, and let others decide whether they want it.

Poetry Dress-Up

I’ve been trying outfit after outfit on my newest poem in progress, and nothing works.

Advice essays by poets for poets often advocate experimenting with different poetic forms. Though free verse is incredibly popular, and is often a go-to, using a form can take  a draft in new directions. I haven’t done it very much–tried to do a pantoum with one draft, but usually blank verse is as close as I come to a form.

However, my current project has me so stuck I am desperate. So I tried doing it as a ghazal. (Basically, that’s a series of couplets that all end with the same word.) Then I tried doing a set of tanka (a five-line Japanese form with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern.) No dice.

Experience with forms is something I’ll get more of if or when I manage to take some actual poetry classes. For now, I suppose I’ll try a couple more forms–then, perhaps, give up and put the draft aside for now. There are other fish in the somewhat murky sea of my imagination.

Starburst

I now have THREE poems stuck in pre-draft limbo. One has been there for two days, one for two weeks, and one for at least a month. What is this thing in me that will not give me permission to sit down and hammer out a first draft?

Well, besides mental health issues and a lifetime of experience at self-sabotage.

In desperation, I did a starburst on one of them. It looked like this:

FullSizeRender

The starburst is a brainstorming technique. You put a single image or word in the middle and start drawing associations; some will be important and some not.

My image for this poem has been clear from the beginning: a glass mug of hot water with a chamomile tea bag in it. Pale brown-gold threads are drifting out into the water as the tea starts to be absorbed.

The image, like many of those a poet chooses, is a tool for crystallizing a moment and the thoughts and feelings that went with it. The starburst helps me elucidate some of those.

I’d like to say that the starburst promptly galvanized me into action–well, not yet. But I know I’m closer, both because of such things and from having coffee with a fellow poet yesterday.

Fear Not?

I chose today’s piece because fear has been clamping down on my creativity lately. Just like any other emotional state, fear comes in both useful and useless varieties when it comes to writing–with the useless kind, my brain freezes or flees into escapist behaviors. So…

(Originally posted on my old page Not This Song, 2015)

How much does fear rule your life?

Those who do some kind of deep self-examination are often surprised to see how deeply, widely, and diversely fear is imbedded in their psyche. I don’t think I was surprised to find its presence in some deep places, but it was enlightening to see how much of my daily behavior is fueled by it on some level.

It’s hard to admit how afraid I am. It’s easy to buy into the idea of courage and strength being incompatible with the presence of great fear. It’s easy to forget how different we are from one another sometimes; that something only mildly frightening to one person may be a source of utter terror to someone else.

There’s an old story about two soldiers in a trench during World War I, waiting through the tense hours before a charge. One sits calmly, while the other paces incessantly, chain-smoking and talking nonstop. The calm one makes a disparaging remark about his nervous comrade, and the other replies: “My friend, if you were as afraid as I am, you would have run away a long time ago.”

I am afraid the way that soldier is. Too afraid to pretend not to be, too afraid to carry things off with style. I need to comfort myself with stories like this, becasue when I scratch the surface of my skin hard enough to penetrate the thin layers of maturity and faith I find a sea of fear. I think I need a hundred words for the many different varieties of fear, with their subtle shadings of meaning and manifestation.

If you’ve ever been afraid the way I am, you know that it doesn’t respond to logic. Oh, some fears do, or they can be soothed with emotional support, or by questioning them with cognitive-behavioral techniques. But there are kinds of fear so primitive, so nonverbal, so far beyond any mental construct that our attempts to soothe them feel like trying to send a T-rex to therapy.

One kind is what psychologists call “annihilation anxiety.” It’s what it sounds like: fear of utter destruction, unmaking, nothingness. Its roots lie very early in life–in the stage of complete dependence of an adult figure and the terror that losing said figure’s love would mean destruction–and it’s nonverbal and primal enough that sometimes I don’t even realize it’s come up until I’ve been reacting to it for days.

Primal fear comes up in our old baggage and in new baggage that got influenced by the old. It’s what is operating when we do things in our relationships that just don’t make sense; when our therapist and friends and whoever have a clear, obvious idea what should be done, who should be confronted, who should be left, but the thought of actually doing it is–well–unthinkable.

What to do about it? Oh, you already know what I’m going to say. There is no swift and logical cure for this kind of fear. There’s no cure at all–only the chance to go into remission. To fight the fear to a standstill and wait for it to get tired and take a break. But how to fight something you can’t see, or speak to, or argue with? Can a sword cut darkness?

No, it can’t. Nor can clever words convince it to retreat. There are only two things I can do: first, stop acting out in a futile attempt to drown the fear under more familiar pain. Then huddle close to the fire. Feed the fire, watch the fire, and don’t let it go out, and try not to think too hard about what will happen if it does. Feed the fire of my Self; yes, and the Self, whatever mystic force that is. Everything I am that is not nothingness. Everything I am, and was, and will be, that is the opposite of nothingness.

Laureate

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.

Oak Tree Debate

Have you ever written a story specifically to help you with a poem? I have a poem that’s been incubating for a couple of months now. Like many, it started from an image and a thought, but it will not coalesce into a phrase that serves as a “hook” for the poem I want. So, as I talked about recently, I’ll write about this as prose and see if that begins to help the process.

The time: May, 2011. The place: a residential drug rehab center in Northern California.

The center was set in a lovely area, surrounded with picturesque roads (and, ironically enough, wineries.) The buildings of the center housed about forty addicts in various stages of detox and early recovery.

Once you were deemed past the worst early detox symptoms, you were allowed to leave the house and walk about the grounds. There was an open area, away from the main compound, with a single bench. The bench faced the largest oak tree I had ever seen in person. It was the only tree in the field, and seemed sentient when you looked at it long enough.

People were encouraged to spend time there, thinking deep thoughts. I didn’t need encouragement; it was a pleasure to get away from people for a little while.

So that’s the image: a huge oak tree, spreading its old and complex branch systems against the sky. The pattern of branches seen against morning sky, and midday sky, and evening sky.

Some people might have used the place for meditation, and some for prayer. I sucked at meditation, and while I had nothing against prayer I couldn’t concentrate on that either. My mind was occupied, more often than not, with what I later came to call the Oak Tree Debate.

The subject of the debate was simple: Did I want to live? And, even if I did, did I deserve to live?

The oak tree, it seemed to me, was my judge. It was the embodiment of all that was natural and true, while my drug-tainted, mentally ill and self-destructive presence felt like the embodiment of all that was not.

Even the bench I sat on felt soaked with pain and toxicity. I thought about all the addicts who had sat there for decades before me. Ashamed, grieving, belligerent or hopeless. I thought about how many came back to the bench more than once, having relapsed after weeks or months or years. I thought about what the oak tree might think of them, and of me.

The trouble with presenting a case to my arboreal judge was twofold: I was not competent to be the best advocate for myself at the time, and I did not speak the oak’s language. My case was inconsistent at best, and even if the oak did render a verdict I could not be certain of what it was.

In the end, I had to go from that place without a clear conclusion to the debate. It has continued, off and on, through years of recovery and treatment for my mental health issues. Perhaps it will never end–but when I can, I choose to imagine a verdict that tells me to keep going.

Just As I Am

Today I’m wrestling with a common question: go to a poetry reading or not? One of my favorite monthly ones is happening this afternoon, and I want to go–but I’m not having a good day.

Not having a good day, in this case, refers to my bipolar symptoms. The depression and disorientation are up for me right now, and it is hard to focus. When I am like this, I feel a bit alien and more socially awkward than usual. How much of this is my perception and how much actually affects others is hard to determine.

Would going to the reading do me good? Yes, almost certainly. It’s an opportunity to connect with the poet I am and disconnect from mundane worries.

So what’s trying to keep me away? Ego, of course. Not wanting to show my vulnerability. Wanting people to like me.

Let’s break it down, however. Some of my poems that touch people the most are my most unguarded ones; the ones that expose me. One of my favorite things to say to myself when I am blocked is “When all else fails, tell the truth.”

I’ve written it before, but for me it bears writing again: my best qualities come forth when I offer myself to the world, just as I am, and let others decide what to make of it.

Shapeshifting

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.

Beginning the Process

So, I just did the first cross-post from my other site. There will be many in the upcoming weeks. I picked an old post for the first one, but they won’t be in any particular order from now on.

I won’t be transferring everything. Some old essays feel less relevant because they talk about very specific things that were going on at the time. Some may also be edited a bit. But I want to preserve my favorites.

That being said, I also want to have plenty of new posts about what is going on with me now. How the poetry readings are going, what new submissions I am doing, and how I continue to navigate the journey to a more creative life and deal with the roadblocks that appear.

Today I’m heading to a poetry reading in Benicia, CA. I’ve been to it before, and it’s a mellow atmosphere. Familiar readings are nice; I get more comfortable with repetition and more willing to share brand new and less polished works.

Joining

I’ve been thinking about my two websites lately. The first one created, Not This Song, was focused on my experiences of living with bipolar disorder and living in recovery from my addiction to painkillers. It ranges far afield in topics and uses metaphors from just about anything. This site was created later, to focus on my poetry and my experiences with writing and creativity.

At the time, the distinction made sense. Lately, however, I have been struggling with writing frequently enough on either blog. I’ll want to write, then get stuck about which site to update with those words–and the thought of updating both seems like too much when I am feeling overwhelmed.

Life and art are blending together, and it is harder and harder for me to separate them. I have decided to join them together, making Not My Last Words my only site. I’ll still write about a wide range of topics, but most of the time they will be linked to some aspect of my creative work (or lack thereof.)

Over the next couple of months, I will cross-post my favorite things from the Not This Song archives so that they will exist in the archives here.

If you are a poet who has found this site, I hope the other topics won’t bore you. I hope to create a site that speaks of one person’s creative efforts and progress in such a way that others can identify.

Mentioned

img_1701

My first poetry award! I received a Second Honorable Mention in an annual Bay Area poetry contest. At their monthly get-together, I read my poem along with many other winners (there were four categories) and got to hear theirs.

The little kid in me is very excited about this. When I enter a contest or send off a submission, I look at it as gathering experience. I’m still so new to sharing my poetry that I need experience to become comfortable with the process. But I’d be lying if I said getting some recognition isn’t fun. This comes on the heels of doing that small feature, which was also an honor.

Here’s what I want to say to poets who haven’t yet read their work in public: TRY IT!

I first read poems in public on June 4, 2016. That’s less than nine months ago.

Cards

The reading was an amazing experience. My concern that the audience would be small proved to be correct, but that’s really the only thing I would change. The longer time allowed me to get into more of a groove, and doing so allowed me to read a couple of poems I wouldn’t feel comfortable reading at a two-minute open mic. They went over very well.

Because I had no books or chapbooks to offer, I thought I should at least have some cards to give out. So I went and had some inexpensive ones made at Staples. Let me tell you, designing it was a bit of a mental hokey-pokey.

I’ve had business cards when working in biotech. I’ve had them when I was working as a counselor. This is the first card I have had that describes me as a poet and writer. What should it say?

In the end I went with my name, the names of my two websites, my contact info and my unofficial motto of  “One Metaphor at a Time.”

Giving them out to people felt very strange, especially the idea that people who know me only by my poetry will know a great deal more about me if they choose to visit the websites.

I tell myself that’s OK. I write my best when I am my most authentic, even if that means I am authentically broken.

Peanut Gallery

My feature reading is tomorrow night. I’ve enjoyed preparing for it. I have also spent some quality time listening to the peanut gallery of my insecurities. Twenty-five minutes seems like a long time, although I know from other public speaking experience that it will probably fly by.

Beyond the normal insecurities one might have about public speaking, however, are a set of insecurities more specific to the type of sharing I’ll be doing. Here, in the spirit of putting honesty before pride, are some of them:

–I arrive and find that the audience is a fraction of its usual size because of the inauguration and the protest marches. This one has some practical basis, but there’s nothing I can do about it. It will be what it is.

–The audience, of whatever size, is disappointed that only a small amount of my poetry immediately relates to current events. They judge my work as self-involved and frivolous.

–The audience is baffled by the wide range of topics my poetry spans. They judge me to be without a unifying vision.

–The audience discounts anything I have to say because I am at the higher end of my weight range and don’t fit their picture of what a poet looks like.

–The audience sneers at the hints of spirituality present in some of my poems. I am written off as a kook rather than a serious poet.

–The audience is repulsed by the personal things they learn about me through hearing a wider variety of my work, and their view of me is now altered by prejudice and misconception.

There is a sample. The thoughts range from reasonable to ridiculous, but they are mine and deserve acknowledgement. Here’s the good news, though–I have faith that none of these insecurities are going to stop me from enjoying myself. I have another persona that emerges at times like this. It’s authentic, but is somehow able to place hesitation aside. The insecurities will probably come back when I’m done…but when I’m up there, it’s going to feel amazing.

An Honest Poet

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.

Just Call Me Ebenezer

Not because I hate the holidays (even though I do.) It’s because I am being a miser with my poetry lately.

Last post, I talked about how I’ve been asked to do my first feature. At the poetry readings since then, I’ve had trouble choosing what to read at the open mic. I don’t want to read my “best” stuff, or my newest stuff, or the stuff that feels most personal…you get the idea. I want to save the good stuff to read at the event, which is in late January.

Understandable, but I shouldn’t get too fanatic about this for two reasons. One, there aren’t going to be a huge number of people there, and something I read at an open mic will be heard by many who won’t attend this event. Two, and more importantly, I need to stop worrying that a member of the audience at an open mic has heard my poem before. It is OK for a poet to read the same thing more than once.

All of these feelings are part of my desire to show people who I am as a poet. I don’t want to waste any opportunity to speak to someone, and that’s a good way to feel. However, I do my best work when I am not approaching things with an attitude of scarcity.

Twenty-Five Minutes

I’m featuring at my first poetry reading!

To “feature” means that you are the poet who spends a larger chunk of time reading your work, as opposed to the 2-5 minutes during an open mic. I will have 25 glorious and terrifying minutes to read multiple poems and give the audience a greater sense of who I am than a single poem can do.

It’s a small and intimate venue in Berkeley, and there will probably be less than 20 poets there–but it’s still exciting to me, and it’s a great compliment to be asked. Usually the featured poet is more established and published, and I am what is diplomatically referred to as an “emerging” poet.

At first, I told myself that the host who invited me was just being supportive and wanted to give me the opportunity as a growth experience (Me finding it hard to take a compliment; what a shock) but the next week another of the hosts, who doesn’t know me, asked me independently.

I’m really grateful for the kindness and welcome I’ve found so far in the Bay Area poetry community, and I can’t wait until January 23! I’m having such fun imagining which poems I will read and in what order, as well as being inspired to finish some new ones.

What Do We Want?

“What do we want?
Immortality!
When do we want it?
Now!”

—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?