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.

Wait a Minute…We’re Fish!

First, the fish needs to say
“Something ain’t right about this camel ride…”

(Hafiz, translated by D. Ladinsky)

Self-acceptance. We talk about it, we advocate for it, we want it for ourselves–but we secretly fear that having it, or acting as if we do, would mean we are not trying hard enough. We see the logic of an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, but that logic breaks down when we consider giving ourselves permission to choose ways of living that work well for us, instead of breaking ourselves on the wheel until the choice is made for us.

When my daughter was a toddler, our favorite singer was Laurie Berkner.  Laurie had this self-deprecating grin and contagious laugh that I loved, and she seemed to enjoy her own songs as much as we did. Her song “The Goldfish” talks about some fish that are doing different things in each verse: for example, they go through detailed steps of taking a shower. But then, at some point they stop and say, “Wait a minute…we’re FISH! We don’t take showers! Let’s go swimming!”and off they go into the chorus. The next verse they get into another un-fish-like activity and have the same epiphany.

It was one of our favorite songs to sing with, because we loved shouting that phrase. There was something liberating about it. “WAIT A MINUTE…WE’RE FISH!!” we’d shout with the CD, breaking into giggles afterward. It felt exuberant, unapologetic, life-affirming.

I wish I’d embraced this idea more outside of my kitchen or car. I used to feel such shame when I struggled at a job. I’d sneak off for long restroom breaks that were really just an excuse to be somewhere out of everyone’s sight, get myself together, and go try to act normal until I had to take another one. I think it would have helped me to say to myself “Wait a minute…I’m a fish!” or some metaphysical equivalent. Even if, as many do, I needed to keep the job as long as I could for practical reasons, I might have felt less ashamed and uncomfortable there.

I could have accepted the fact that I was uncomfortable there because it wasn’t my right environment. Have it not be a value judgment but simply a fact: yes, things are going to be hard for me, I am going to feel different, and that’s what it is. I’m a fish in the desert, and it’s not going to come naturally…so I’ll do the best I can, and stop comparing myself to lizards, and try to arrange to go swimming soon.

Ah, but now I hear that voice: that critical voice ripping shreds in my little self-comforting speech. You think everyone else at your job felt comfortable? it says. They all probably hated it as much as you did. They were just as scared, just as ashamed, they probably threw up and had panic attacks in the bathroom too, but they are still there! They didn’t end up in the fucking psych ward. You know why? Because they’re better than you! They tried harder! They’re not lazy and they don’t make excuses! 

There it is. If I cut myself any slack based on my mental illness, that voice is right there saying it’s a cop-out. Imagine how hard it is for someone without a diagnosis to make a life choice that goes contrary to what their critical voice says they should be doing with their life! What courage it takes to choose to obey the call of our hearts or personalities for no other reason than wanting to do so: to be ourselves just because we want to, instead of first having to prove, time after bloody time, that being anyone else doesn’t work.

Hafiz joins Laurie Berkner in advocating an acknowledgment of the fish’s dilemma. The fish in his poem has self-acceptance: it doesn’t gaze at the dry sand and say “something’s not right about me.”  If we accept ourselves this way, then we are faced with the experience of realizing what’s not right around us. We get to look at how far we are from our ocean–and how much we long for it.

One-Note Solo

I wrote this on my old site Not This Song years ago–and today, I needed to read it again. I need to remind myself that it’s okay to do things badly; to be a clumsy novice. It’s even okay to do things at which I might never particularly excel. I don’t need a reason or a justification for enjoying something. Neither do you.

When I was in second grade, the school had a choir, but the teacher chose which students were allowed to sing in it. So if you didn’t have a natural ability to carry a tune at age seven, having never had any practice or instruction, you were pretty much told that singing was not for you.

When I was nine, I had one season on a girls’ softball team. Now, it’s quite true that I sucked at softball. I was afraid of the ball; I was uncoordinated, and–something we didn’t know then–I couldn’t see worth a damn. This interfered with batting and catching. So softball wasn’t for me at that time…fine. But was it really necessary for the adults to shake their heads and conclude that I was never going to be athletic? It quite literally took decades for me to realize that, with my adult body, I’m not completely lacking in physical gifts.

When I was twelve, I got an F in art. Seriously? Who gives a kid an F in art? I don’t have a problem admitting that my clay dragon sculpture looked more like a dragon turd. I have a problem with being labeled “bad at art” and living in a culture where that meant I wasn’t supposed to do art any more.

I know, my story’s not unique. What matters is what I do about it now. Starting to write is a big part of this: I’m defying the messages that tell me writing is restricted to an elite class, or that it’s only worth doing if it will be well received. The bad poetry thing is another example. I also have aspirations toward becoming a bad artist someday.

There’s one area where I really made progress as an adult, and that’s singing. Thanks to the urging of a friend, I joined a choir with him in freshman year of college. It turned into many years of singing with various amateur groups. I finally got the experience of being new at something, doing it just well enough to get by at first, and gaining in ability and confidence as I got more practice. That concept we call…what was it…learning?

The best choir director I ever knew once said to us: “Don’t sing tentatively. I’d rather have you all slam into an entrance in the wrong place than do the entrance half-assed.” He meant it, too.

One day we were doing a full orchestra rehearsal, and the soprano entrance was a fortissimo (very loud) high G. When you’re a soprano, there’s one thing you learn about hitting those high notes: whatever the volume, full commitment is necessary. If you sing it any other way it will come out flat. The only way to sing it right is to be willing to risk singing it wrong.

It was probably one of the nicest G’s I’ve ever sung. It rang clear and bright, with a crisp start and plenty of feeling behind it.
Too bad it was one measure early.
I blushed bright red as the conductor prepared to start us all again, but I was able to join in the good-natured laughter and smile sheepishly when the director complimented me on my one-note solo.

Thanks, Maestro, for meaning what you said. That errant note made thousands of great notes possible.

The Fiftieth Person

Once, while preparing to speak at a recovery event, I wrote something like, “Open my heart, and then open my mouth. Let me look like a fool to forty-nine people if it will help the fiftieth person.”

Do I have the courage to apply that idea to poetry as well?

In a couple of days I’m going to read a few pieces of poetry at a recovery event. The audience will be very different from the ones I have faced before–for the first time,  I’ll be reading poetry to an audience of people who may have come for other things and have no interest in the poetry part of the show.  I’m experiencing a much higher level of public speaking anxiety than what is normal for me. I’m trying to revamp some poems into a format that I think is “cooler” or more likely to go over well–and the revamping is at a complete stall.

Not too surprising, I suppose. While my self-care has had some improvements lately, I have been very blocked when it comes to writing. The reasons are both repetitive and unoriginal, but there it is.

At any rate, past experiences give me faith that when the time comes, I will step onto the stage and manage to read. Past experiences assure me that this will happen, and the world will not come to an end. I just have to show up.

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.

Strolling With Sewage

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

Sometimes, out in nature, the lovely spiritual metaphor we encounter is a graceful bird soaring through the air. Or it’s a flower, blooming in response to its inborn clock. Perhaps a river, shining silver in the distance and promising change.

Sometimes not.

I was making a pilgrimage. I’d dropped my daughter off at her classes and driven my longing-to-be-virtuous self to a regional park that has a paved, hilly trail around a reservoir. I was going to walk that trail, a trail difficult enough to make me sweat and ache a bit, and I was going to be purified. I’d purge away the recent days of little exercise; scour away the depressive miasma and drop bits of my recent bout of anxieties here and there on the trail, leaving them behind me when I was done. I’d have a nice conversation with my personal God, too, and come away feeling better and clearer.

Yes, that was my agenda–but, as often happens, my agenda did not control. First of all, my body did not appear to be on board with the plan at all. Far sooner than usual, I began to ache and be winded. So what, I told myself. The trail’s less than three miles. You can do it. Look around at the trees; smell that fresh air. Isn’t this nice?

I drew in a deep, intentional breath, and stopped abruptly as I detected a decidedly un-fresh smell. Surmounting the next rise, I heard a loud motor and discovered a sewage truck just ahead of me on the paved trail. Two men in vests were monitoring the pumping of the trail bathroom’s contents through a large hose into the truck. Waving politely, I breathed shallowly as I walked by and inhaled in relief when I got upwind. Soon I’d gained enough distance for the quiet and freshness to be restored.

I tried again to get into the groove of feeling peaceful in nature, and my mind wandered. But my anxiety wouldn’t leave me, and my mind wouldn’t stop skittering around planning the rest of the day, week and year. I asked my God, out loud, to help me open up and enjoy being out here.

As if in answer, a loud rumble approached from behind me. The sewage truck was back, and I hastily retreated from the trail to let it pass. I had a sinking feeling about where it was going, and sure enough, five minutes later the smell greeted me again as I approached the next restroom being emptied. Is this how the whole walk is going to be, I grumbled, and then reproved myself for my lack of gratitude. Think about these two workers, I told myself. This is what they do all day while you get to walk in the fresh air!

Still, it was distracting, and I really wanted to achieve a certain state of mind. I got a bright idea: I’ll stop and rest for a while, and that will give them time to get far enough ahead that I won’t catch up with them. So I found a bench and settled down. Look now, look at the living gray sky and the brown brush. See the rippling water and hear the chaotic bird cries. Get out of your head. But I didn’t get out of my head. I sank deeper and deeper, burrowing into extreme detail of one of my darker genres of phantasy.

There, on that bench in the fresh air, I (as I tend to do) lost and was abandoned by those I love, became an outcast, and moved beyond the will to live. Birds called me, and I couldn’t answer, trapped in my own mental theater. At last I managed to shake myself out of it enough to talk to my God. Why do I think about these things, God? Why do I do this? I got up and started walking again. If you want me to think about these things this way, that’s okay, but if you don’t want me in that place, please help me think about what you want me to think about.

I kept walking, and kept on talking, and began to feel a creeping sense of virtue (at least I’m trying, I’m saying something, I’m making an effort to ask for divine will and that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?) when I heard the engines roaring up ahead and detected the familiar scent. I’d caught up.

Inspiration came to me. I was almost halfway around the circular trail now; why not just turn around and walk back the way I came? The sewage truck could complete its loop in peace, and I’d be able to do the contemplative walk thing. So I turned around and began. I continued my dialogue, mostly in my head now, and thought about the stress and depression I’ve been struggling with lately.

Then I heard the sound behind me. The truck was back. For some reason, it had turned around too.

That was the last straw. I started laughing. So, God, getting archetypal on me, I see. Fine. Let us contemplate the spiritual meaning of this portable vat of shit following me around.

Are you trying to tell me that I can’t outrun the shit of my life; that I must coexist/walk with it?

Are you showing me that cleansing myself is going to be less simple and more messy than I would like it to be?

Or are you in an alchemical mood, and just shoving a huge lump of prima materia at me? What do you want me to make of it?

I left with questions, but no answers. I wondered if the real message and lesson had to do with the inadvisability of having a spiritual agenda. I’m not sorry for any of it, though–it was an act of intention. Despite what they say about good intentions, I believe an act of conscious positive intention is one of the most powerful things I can do.