Are We Disposable?

(Originally posted on my old page Not This Song, 2014)

It’s a selfish question that hovers around the edges of my mind when I think about the state of our world. I’m not involved in politics, and I tend to be ignorant of many topics that speak of important developments–I don’t like that about myself, but it is my truth. As my readers know, there are times when my main contribution to society involves working on ways not to be an active drain on it.

Those who share some of my issues are often seen as an impediment to the prosperity of others, and certain voices try to shame us when we use the services our governments may provide to care for those who have trouble caring for themselves. I’d like that to be different, but I don’t imagine it will ever be uncomplicated.

In the end, we are all still animals competing for resources, and only the trappings of civilization introduce the idea of giving any resources to the helpless. Some have said that the measure of a civilization’s advancement is related to how much, and how well, they care for their children, their sick and their elderly.

Whatever one thinks about the world situation, it’s pretty clear that overpopulation will continue to be a problem. Resources will be at more of a premium, and there will begin to be more sorting of which kinds of sick or disabled are worthy of help. Mental health may not be highest on the list. Addiction-related issues are likely to be even lower, since addicts are usually seen as deserving their suffering.

This, from a Darwinistic point of view, may be a regrettable but unavoidable thing. But how much should we resist its progress? How much should we fight to be seen as something besides a liability? Is there a place for us in the future?

Sometimes, when my mind is spinning its catastrophic phantasies, I go postapocalyptic and imagine how long I, and many I care about, would last. I always imagine myself as a liability to whatever group I’m with, unable to function very well without my meds, or unable to see because my glasses got broken. I see myself as useless, without a lot of physical strength or swiftness to build or get things the group needs. I see myself as the first to fall behind and become lunch for zombies–unless a friend gives me a helping hand.

And why should they?

Why should they, unless we have some kind of value that isn’t strictly practical?

Why should they, unless those crowded barracks or underground warrens need us? Unless humanity is incomplete without us? Unless there’s a spark that’s worth maintaining, a spark worth a bit of food or a place near the fire?

Why should any society help its disabled, even when a cold equation might say the help isn’t bringing a sufficient return?

I got on this subject with my therapist during one of my dark and hopeless spirals recently, and we talked about the idea that humanity, by nature, will always need its shamans, its poets and its weird people in general, as well as the wisdom of its elders. “That may be true,” I said, “but you can’t deny that in a crisis state the strong and able will be valued most. The women who can bear healthy children, the physically strong, the mentally stable: these are the ones who can outrun the zombies or will get rescued first. You can’t deny that I’ll be one of the first to go.”

Then he told me that, although it might be true in some situations, it doesn’t mean I deserve it. Then he said something that cheered me up: he told me that if it does happen, maybe I’ll discover that the zombies are in need of poets too. Feeling better, I began to imagine my new dream job as Poet Laureate of a zombie city.

I don’t know if we are disposable. I don’t know, not for sure, whether our existence has intrinsic value. But I do exist, and I am grateful for it, and I have a daughter for whom I want to model values of love and not shame. I want her to see me doing my best, and believing I have something to give the world, so that she might learn to believe the same thing.

So I send love to all my peers, and invite us to go down swinging if the time comes, and hold our heads up until then. As a token of my affection, I enclose the opening poem from my potential future body of work:

Brains

Arrrgh brains brains
Brains gurgle thud howl
Brains brains crunch splat
Brains brains brains.

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?

Ghost Writings

Are you like me? Do things you did not write cause you more grief than anything you ever have written? Is the pain of the nonexistent greater than the pain of the inadequate or banal? Is it greater than the frustration of the rejected, the outgrown, or the embarrassing?

Go into the palace of your mind, while I go into mine. Find the door that leads to the room of the unadmitted; the room filled with ghostly manuscripts that were never given flesh.

Take one down from the wall, as I do, and open it. Do you feel the way I do? Are you almost, but not quite, able to hold it in your hands? Do your eyes strain to make out the shifting print, amorphous and taunting you with an unreadable message?

Do you apologize to them? Do you promise to let some of them come into being?

Do you admit to yourself that you are lying?

That it can’t be done; that even if you tackle an old idea you can’t recapture the way you would have given it voice in its destined space and time. It might be better in some ways, or not–but that piece of aether, that ghost, will never take its solid form.

Do you pause in the doorway, suspended in currents of regret and acceptance?

I do not think I am the only one. You don’t have to be as old as I am, or have stifled your creativity for as many years as I did, to have a ghost library. We all have one, no matter how large or small.

I cannot change mine. The spirit behind words may be nonlinear, but my personal timeline only moves in a single direction. But when I think about trying to write, I can be conscious of the delicate brush of cobwebs against my skin, reminders of my last visit to that room.

Ink Runs From My Mouth

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry…
–Mark Strand

 

That’s what it’s like for me when things are going well.

When the veil between me and the fire of my self is thin.

Poetry, then, is more satisfying than food; more life-giving than rain.

The boundaries of my skull contain all that I require.

I need not fear boredom, or loneliness, or abandonment.

And when the veil is very, very thin–I need not even fear dying.

I want more days like that.

I want to remember the truth about how much I want that.

Too Late?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poet Mode

(Originally posted on my other site, Not This Song.)

Bad Poet still makes me smile when I read it. More than that, the feelings behind it have really marked a change in my relationship to writing poetry. I’ve written several more serious poems since then, and not worried much about good or bad. They please me, and that’s enough.

What I didn’t expect is that writing poems is really different from writing prose. Now that I am doing it, I seem to have unlocked a need to do it. When I go a while without creating one, things just feel wrong. Often, I’m not consciously aware of the feeling until the next poem happens and I feel relief. It’s kind of like when you haven’t masturbated for a while–you get started and your body informs you that hey, this isn’t going to take long and by the way, where have you been?

Writing prose can have these qualities, of course, and I’m hardly the first writer to compare writing to masturbation. Heinlein said it best in the words of Lazarus Long: “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of–just do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” The connotation being that writing is personal, self-involved, and potentially not something anyone else cares to see.

After meditating on what’s special about writing in “poet mode” for me, I’ve concluded the following: Poet mode turns down the dial on my intellect and lets more of my emotions through. Poet mode allows me to write things without trying to explain them too much. Poet mode pleases the artist in me because I get to play with lines and structure. But for me, the most powerful thing about writing poetry is that poetry feels useless.

Now, you know I don’t mean that. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without poetry, and I agree with the poet Hafiz, who said “religions are the ships; poets the lifeboats.” What I mean by saying that poetry feels useless is that I can’t weasel my way into thinking that I am writing a poem to serve any immediate, practical purpose. With prose I can do that: I needed to do that in order to start Not This Song. As personal as some of the stories get, I convince myself that they are helping someone.

I’m not saying that a poem I write won’t ever inspire anyone or help anyone feel less alone. I see that there’s no real reason to assume my poetry is any more useless than my prose. I see that my psyche isn’t making a logical distinction here, but it exists. Perhaps it’s because of the emotions vs. the intellect; I’ve spent a good part of my life thinking that my only, or main, value lay in being smart.

I think this illogical feeling about uselessness or impracticality is part of what makes writing a poem so satisfying for me. You see, every word I write is already a rebellion against the critical, shaming voices trying to convince me not to write. Writing a poem is a sharper rebellion, a rebellion more overt because it’s not trying to explain or justify itself. If I dig deep, I see that part of my satisfaction of finishing a poem comes from the gleeful relief of being able to yell “Fuck you” at that inner judge (and all those who taught it to be that way.)

You see this? I wrote this. Why? Because I fucking felt like it, that’s why. No, nobody’s paying for it. Do people think it’s good? I have no idea. What am I going to do with it? None of your damn business. Don’t like it? Nobody asked you. Fuck off.

Don’t flee in terror, poetry community–I promise I would never speak to an external, human critic that way. This is only about my internal process, and once a draft of a poem exists I have no problem with constructive criticism. I hope to learn more about polishing and revising my work, and I find myself salivating at descriptions of poetry classes and workshops. I’m making an effort to read more new, modern poetry and not just my old favorites. Whatever continues to come out of this poetic Pandora’s box, I hope to keep the spirit of Bad Poet firmly in mind. Permission to be a neophyte, to be imperfect. Having the humor–and the humility–to see and accept the immature but endearing antics of my developing self.

Bad Poet

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;
smile sheepishly
when I read a poem a week later.
I want to publish things impulsively
like this.

I want to sit in cafes feeling sensual with artsy paper
getting ink on my fingers
while I scrawl the “perfect” phrase
and oh,
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.