One of the recurring jokes in Don Delillo’s White Noise involves Babette’s devout conviction in paying attention to posture, diet, and other quotidian mundanities as a way to diminish her anxiety. As Jack Gladney, Delillo’s bemused “Hitler Studies” professor and protagonist describes:
“Two nights a week Babette goes to the Congregational Church at the other end of town
and lectures to adults in the basement on correct posture. Basically she is teaching them
how to stand, sit, and walk. Most of her students are old. It isn’t clear to me why they
want to improve their posture. We seem to believe it’s possible to ward off death by
following the rules of good grooming.”
Babette’s sublime regard for the ordinary is complemented by Jack’s colleague Murray Siskind, a seemingly Baudrillardian avatar of postmodernism, constantly interrupting with gnomic declamations such “You have to learn how to look,” “People have to learn to look and listen like children,” “We want to be artless again.” The question of whether Murray is indeed an avatar of gleeful PM nihilism or in fact a follower of Zen, praising presence, mindfulness, and attentiveness, has raged for decades and isn’t the point of this post—although you can probably tell already Murray is my hero, and I think Babette’s “jokes,” including additional classes on “Eating & Drinking,” are practical teachings worth more than a thousand MFAs.
The point of this blog is to propose what non-judgmental mindfulness and good writing posture can do for us as practicing writers. In the summer of 2014 I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writing Conference. While there I studied under Steve Almond, who is incredibly awesome and intense and if my writing is ever any good he deserves the credit. Anyway, one of the other teachers that weekend was Anthony Swofford, who had just published Jarhead at the time. My dormmates and I (Hey Bonnie! Hey Jason!) had been pounding jugs of bourbon all day before Swofford’s reading, and thus all I can recall at this time is Swofford waving a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, explaining he re-read it every time he began a new writing project.
I immediately bought/found/stole a copy of the book and started to workshop a story with Steve called “Nobody’s Children,” which was published in Superstition Review a few years ago, and is in fact the occasion for this post. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is structured as a series of brief explanations of the Zen perspective on such sexy topics as “Posture” (“try to always keep the right posture, not only when you practice zazen, but in all of your activities”), “Breathing,” “Nothing Special,” and “Right Effort” (“if you try not to be disturbed, your effort is not right effort”). The central conceit of “Nobody’s Children” was stolen directly from the book, with its evocative statement, “When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door.”
“Beginner’s Mind” teaches us to create things like children, in a state of flow and not expectation. As we age, we invert what should be the correct conception of art: a thing we create added to the world’s plenitude and diversity, which is a good thing, and a fun thing. As adults, however, if you’re like me, we think of art as: something that fails to become what it is or “should be.” We love without hope. We see the cracks, fissures, pimples, noxious smells emitting from our creation and this doesn’t measure up to what’s in our heads. And thus we think it’s a failure—but how can it be a failure in comparison to something that never existed? Any piece of art is ipso facto perfect in its own right, it is itself and nothing else. I believe this is similar to Leibniz’s argument for a greater plenitude.
There’s a Japanese word “Kintsugi” (made famous perhaps by the Death Cab for Cutie album) denoting the practice of “repairing” broken pottery, ceramics, or jewels by leaving the wounds and imperfections visible. Expanded to relate to not just reparation but creation, we can see how this concept connects to or merges with the “Beginner’s Mind” mentality: play like a child, and the heavens will sing. This insight, gleaned four years ago in under the influence in Montpelier, VT, taught me to have the right attitude towards my fragile little stories, this lost island of misfits I visit with love, and hope, looking around me, awakened again with a profound sense of wonder. As Bob Dylan once wrote: “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”
I asked a seven-year-old girl once what the word “imagination” meant, and she said it meant “going further than you can think.” I have been pondering her answer for thirty years. What is it to go “further than you can think?” Is there a thinking beyond thinking, beyond words and that nonstop flow we call “consciousness?” Well of course there is. And I feel it every time I sit down to write or draw. There is something about blank paper that makes me feel like a small blue rowboat about to push off into a wide, bottomless lake, to break the water with my wooden nose.
When I was a kid, I used to draw incessantly. My older brother was off playing. My parents were off doing whatever grownups did, which I always pictured as occurring up in the sky for some reason. If my dad were at work, I’d see him at his desk in a building way up in the clouds. Even if I had actually visited his office, I’d picture it up in the sky. I want to say that I knew his office was on land, but, truth is, what I knew was that his office was somewhere in the sky. There is no explaining this sort of thing. It isn’t about facts. It’s about knowing. Or, perhaps, going “further than you can think.”
Anyway, I drew constantly at the big, low wooden table in my upstairs bedroom with the window looking out on the yard. I always drew with my back to the window. Apparently, I didn’t need the “outside world” for inspiration; blank paper was enough, plus a box of Crayola crayons, the jumbo box. To this day, I can remember the thrill of drawing a battleship. I wasn’t a big fan of war, but I loved drawing battleships. My brother, who was a year older and a foot taller, was off with the big kids – the BIG KIDS. And I imagined the “BIG KIDS” as a country where mythical, semi-gods jousted and had swordfights. So, it was easy for me to see why my brother wouldn’t want me tagging along. At eight years old, I, of course, knew that “BIG KIDS” wasn’t a country and that they didn’t actually joust there. But that was a mere understanding, a puny sort of knowing, compared to the deeper, finer knowing that came from the place in me that knew that the big kids did joust or could joust or jousted when no one was watching.
It was the same place from which I drew battleships that lunged and plowed through the salty waves and weren’t afraid of anything. Or intergalactic space vehicles that could land anywhere and send messages back in code, a language that I, alone, could understand. Or ancient fire-breathing, mind-reading, baseball-playing tyrannosaurus rexes. Or dolphin acrobats that could sing songs inside out. The place from which I drew was beyond logic, reason, words, worry, self-pity, self-criticism, or any need to “succeed.” It was a vast, secret place of freedom and confidence, mystery and surprise, joy and anticipation lodged in a tiny ball of infinity that I carried with me wherever I went. It is the same place from which I now write. If I am lucky. If my need to do well and look good doesn’t get in the way. But, at eight, with a crayon in my hand, I was God: creator of worlds and worlds within worlds. Not a lonely, runty kid.
Everything I ever learned about writing I probably learned from drawing, from drawing at the big, wide upstairs table when I was a kid, when I was God, and knew it. Knew it quietly. The same way your tongue knows the back of your teeth. Of course, I learned the rules of writing in school, which is where I learned to hate writing. I “learned” to write for the teacher, for the grade, for the grammar police. Speaking of which, I am a big fan of the grammar police. Just at the end of the process, not while I am trying to be some place beneath or beyond my “thinking.”
Spewing out gorillas and battleships and dinosaurs and space vehicles and flying buffalo, I wasn’t following anyone’s rules or trying to get anything “right.” I lost myself in that most sacred of all things – PLAY. Naturally, drawing has rules. Writing has rules. Brushing your teeth has rules. So, learn the rules. But don’t let them keep you from dropping down your own, personal rabbit hole.
I started to write seriously when I was nearly fifty. By accident. I was slamming my van door when the phrase “He lived in Edward G. Robinson’s head,” popped to mind. I had no idea my mind was thinking about Edward G. Robinson, the nineteen thirties’ movie gangster. I was just slamming my van door. Next day, I got a pen and paper and, beginning with the sentence, “He lived in Edward G. Robinson’s head,” I started writing and writing and writing. I wrote about a guy working in an amusement park on Gangster Lane in a giant stucco replica of Edward G. Robinson. I wrote the guy’s observations about life, death, bugs, mice, sex amongst houseflies, border control, malaria, King Arthur and his famous (make-believe) dog, junkyards. I just wrote. And every time I “hit a wall,” I said to myself: “It doesn’t have to make sense,” and I burst free. “It doesn’t have to make sense”became my mantra, my stick of dynamite, to blast through barriers. I wrote and wrote: eight hundred and fifty pages by hand. I called it “In the Nostrils of an Icon.” Took about a year.
I was working as an educational consultant at the time, and everything I did in the schools had to be “objectives driven.” You had to know what you were going to say, say it, and then check that people got what you said. Which, turns out, was the opposite of my own creative process. I’d come home from work and mess around in the “backyard” of my mind. I’d let my imagination go nuts. My ability to go “crazy” kept me from going crazy. And I realized the biggest creative secret of all (for me) — MY MIND HAS A MIND OF ITS OWN. It was something I knew as a kid with a crayon in my hand, but learned, later, to forget or not trust. My mind, actually, has a LIFE of its own. It’s a kid who wants to go to the park and swing on the swings and go ape. If I let him, all is well. If I don’t and don’t regularly spend time creating, all isn’t well.
I wrote a second book, “Memoirs of a Gorilla,” all about the difference between the freedom of time and the freedom of space. School seems to make a grand distinction between the intellect and the imagination. But there IS no intellect without imagination. Again, I just trusted the kid in me. And then I started writing short stories: about three hundred of them. I went to a local coffee shop and wrote. Writing at home was too solitary for me, but writing in public (at a table near a window away from people) was heaven. I’d wake up, gobble down breakfast, and hurry to the café. I couldn’t get there fast enough. The place in me “beyond thinking” was already brewing up a story. The houses and streets and billboards along the way were all in Technicolor. By the time I got to the café, my eyesight had practically tripled. I’d pour my own coffee, and the “little kid” in me would be so damn happy, I could explode. The gorillas and dinosaurs were all flying around in my head. I didn’t think I was a “Writer,” not a writer with a capital “W.” I just wanted to write.
I’d sit at the table near the window, wave at the sky above the building across the street. My mom had passed away eight years earlier, and I’d wave to her in the sky. “Hi, Mom.” I’d say, “I’m doing it.” Which meant I was writing. My mother was a brilliant writer, but because she didn’t feel she was a writer with a capital “W,” she never let the little creative kid in her play. Now, of course, I found my own ways of not trusting the “kid” in me, the ball of genius that wants to break the rules and fly off the edge, to go beyond “reality” to unknown truths. So, for hours a day, I just took the old blue rowboat out onto the lake. I felt giddy and indispensable. After four hours of writing I would walk around the block and involuntarily start skipping.
See, that was the part I didn’t learn about in school. That writing wasn’t a competition. And it wasn’t serious because it was important. It was serious because it was fun. The sort of fun where, afterward, I felt more myself because I was being exactly myself. Of course, it’s not always fun. Often nothing comes. Nothing at all. But I know I am in the right place, at least, the place where something can come. I always start with the first thing that pops into my head, usually something odd and specific. Like how I used to draw. Like this recent beginning of a story that I wrote in a white heat because I was pissed at something:
I live in the lavender gut of a horse, a beating heart just beyond the wall. And beyond the centuries-old loftiness that is horse, two old ladies sip tea on a white porch in the crabapple South, hoping for something that might squirrel up out of the ground, the age-old ground, the southern ground, the ground at the top of a hill: a thin line of angels listening all boneless and hospitable from above, managing nothing with their tiny, modest, angel hands, hands that might just as well be days of the week. The long-gone Civil War is wearing a small red and gold cap once worn by an organ grinder’s monkey.
Where did it come from? What does it mean? Where is it going? Well, to me, it comes from the place of “flying buffalo” and “mind-reading dinosaurs,” the place from which I used to draw as a kid and still do – a place beneath words that goes further than I can think.And, hopefully, I can wrestle and shape the story into something made of flights of imagination and depths of emotion.
Yes, I learned to write by learning to draw, by learning to observe and imagine. The world is always brand new. Just observe and imagine. A number two Ticonderoga pencil becomes extraordinary if you stare at it long enough. And language doesn’t have to merely describe and explain. It can re-wire everything. Because we don’t just live in a world where “dogs bark.” We live in a world where “bogs dark.” In the end, I write from the place where children live– the senses, imagination, and emotions. I write from that place we all know from long ago, the place the seven-year-old girl called “going further than you can think.”
“We are hungry for the secret news about life.” – Stanley Kunitz
As writers, as readers of poetry and prose and drama, we are, more or less, hungry for mystery and surprise, hungry for understanding that is not washed in the dust of everyday living. We are hungry for the secret news about life.
Like the mythmakers before us, who were trying to ground a belief system and initiate people into society through the use of story and poem and play, we too are hungry to explore who we are, why we are here, the purposes of living and dying, our places in the worlds of space and of time, what love is. Unlike the mythmakers before us, though, as we deal with these existential realities, we know that we don’t have the answers; we know that we don’t know any secrets besides our own; and we know that most of those are still secret from us even after we have spent our lives searching for them.
Because of this, because the human mind cannot be easily explained, the creation of art, as well as art itself, is unpredictable. Sure, we can break down the processes of the brain to synapses firing and axons stimulating and all that electrochemical junk (scientific terminology there), but the mysteries of the mind, of its processes of creation, of why we have certain thoughts and why certain people can produce new cuisines, or a starry night on canvas, or a little night music, or a midsummer night’s dream is beyond us. In fact, that it is beyond us is the very thing that gives art in any form its power; that they had not thought of it in quite that way themselves but they make the connection the artist created nonetheless is what makes an audience say, “Yes.”
Where scientists create narratives of the brain – big bangs and quantum mechanics, electron transfers, and quarks – explainable, empirical, and, they hope, synchronic – we writers are doing something equally important, creating verities of the mind – a man who turns into a domed beetle, a woman weighted down by her waterlogged dress and sinking below the surface of a clear stream growing murky, a catalog of unabashed gratitude – each one a little mysterious yet still familiar, each one individual yet understandable.
Writing (like any art) in its own peculiar way holds up mystery in order to be confirmed; it holds up proof in order to show the question mark. Art is natural science, history, philosophy, psychology, theology, experience and enigma pressed into a superball, but one with a big chunk missing from it. And that superball is bounced in a child’s room, with unheard of abandon, and with all of the crazy spin that missing chunk causes and that child can muster. Where it ends up – under the bed, crashing into the lampshade, hidden among the toys, lodged between the wall and the dresser, simply gone until it strangely, magically reappears months later in a shoe that had already been checked – is anyone’s guess.
Art is all of this. Writing is all of this. And here is the most wonderful thing about it: it always fails to satisfy our hunger completely.
And this, for me, is where the joyful pain (the painful joy) of writing lies.
Whenever I sit down at my desk, I’m hungry for words; I’m hungry for understanding – even though I know that they’re not completely available to me, that they are in a sense beyond. I believe in the pursuit of words, in asking questions, in exploring the ambiguity and complexity of being human. I feed my insatiable hunger for language as I write: for sound and sense, for rhyme and reason, for glee. I write, and I know that I’m writing from and within my own ignorance and toward my own failures, my inability to know it and to say it exactly the way I want to say it, whatever it is.
Wordsworth said, famously, that the process of writing poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.” For me, though, it is the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in anxiety and uncertainty, in pain-behind-the-eye head-thumping mistake-riddled frustration, and finally (every once in a while) in satisfaction and thus something that resembles tranquility (until I of course work on the next poem, or until a month or two or a year down the road I of course see something in my finished poem I don’t like.)
Feeling comfortable in this unsure process, having the techniques learned, then letting both go, letting the unanticipated, the newness take over, in a sense, feeling lost, that is what gets me moving toward something. As I write, it is right for me to feel lost. Because that spurs discovery. The great guitarist from the band King Crimson Robert Fripp once said, “The key characteristic of mastery is the assumption of innocence within the context of experience….If you walk out on stage not knowing what you are going to do, you might just do it, but not as a novice, where you really don’t know what you are doing. The master has integrated all of the skill set of a professional and then throws it away. Or assumes the innocence.”
Planning, practice, patience, passion, concentration, discarding, perseverance, worry, wonder, confusion, ignorance combine to move something forward toward artistry and someone forward toward mastery. I know I must approach my work with arrogance and humility. We know this. When we create art, we want our god hand to shine like yellow fondant-drape sunlight on the steeple, on the whole cathedral of our creation; we think that we can satisfy that hunger for knowing and saying, but the closer we get to art, the more we appreciate what we cannot do and what we must push ourselves to become.
And for me, more and more, what I cannot do yet (and may never be able to do) and what I must push myself to become (yet may never become) are the true gifts, the ones that keep my hunger gnawing.
A few years ago I had a shoulder injury and I smoked a lot weed to dull the pain: it didn’t get me high or provide any relief, but it woke my senses and made me want to paint. My mother had been a painter, I loved watching her paint scenes from her Louisiana childhood. Unlike Mom’s work, my new watercolors have few landscape or people in them,. They are not “representational” — but you see a go-for-broke sunset once and it’s an occurrence; you see it through the years and it ends up haunting you. Recognizable shapes now appear in my work. The vacant lot behind our house interrupted by a neighbor’s dog traipsing through it; the live oak blown down in last September’s storm suddenly commands my view.
The colors in my watercolors have changed, too. I am partial to blue. In Vermont, I translated the blue-green of hemlocks and spruce, the midnight-blue of a mountain stream into washes of watercolor crosshatched by swatches of sonic blue. But blue isn’t dominant in Georgia. Think sedgy greens, hibiscus reds, burnt oranges with mucky browns smudged in. How to get to the soul of these colors, to make more of them than a mosaic of offhand impressions? My senses awake to new colors —and they recoil from them too. I’m a sucker for anything that activates “my blue” — a mouthful of turbid down-home south Georgia churchy blue. How to transcend well-worn cliches of the Deep South and its gothic trappings? I’ve read too much O’Connor and Faulkner, have seen too many “charming” local color paintings of coastal Georgia to get through to the hurt, bruised blue of the horizon.
I once thought all forms of landscape were biographical, and it’s still nice to think that’s true. There’s a soundtrack to my paintings, arpeggios of turbid waterfall blue saturating my paper or canvass. I used to put on music when I worked, but now the music backbeats inside my head. The live oaks down by the marsh behind my house show scars from a hurricane that blew through here a century ago; a rope swing hanging from one of those oaks tragically reminds me of a lynching that happened not long after that historic storm. Words can’t do these images of justice — photographs, and landscape painting won’t do it either.
A few blocks away from my house come the voices of the reborn, the saved. They sing about how they’ve survived through storms, lynchings and Jim Crow in tin roof shacks down on Cathead Creek, but if I painted folks living here, I wouldn’t do them justice, couldn’t bring their stories onto canvas or paper.
I pass the church and head down River Street toward the graveyard to do some watercolors. Through the canopy, I see Cathead Creek. Bees and dragonflies hum. Buzzards soar. A realist might depict the scene in muddy russets, gravestones fallen into knee-high grass haunted by regret and neglect. A realist would sketch in a tumbledown shack downhill overgrown with Confederate jasmine. But I am not a realist. I try to pry loose from this landscape a story, and all I come up with is a hacked- together tale of myself. Figurative painting does much the same thing — transferring an image from nature onto paper or canvas, leaving the essence, its original story, its ur-story, untold.
Monet spent his life painting the same scenes at different times of the day. The Rouen Cathedral in luminous early light or in a September rain. In his late career, he painted water lilies floating in a blue-green evanescence. Blindness contrived to make him a great abstract painter, made him look beyond refractions of light into shifting permutations of blue. “One instant, one aspect of nature contains it all,” Monet said. “I’m no good for anything but painting and gardening.”
In 1899, Monet completed the scene of his pond at Giverny. Across it, he built a quaint Japanese-style bridge. He was apparently quite pleased with how it turned out, as he painted the structure 17 times that very year, with each painting reflecting changes in lighting and weather conditions.
Fifty years later New York’s Museum of Modern Art displayed a permanent exhibition of Monet’s water lilies — one painting occupies an entire wall — intriguing painters of the New York School who considered them an early iteration of abstract expressionism. The paintings are not so much about plant life, garden life, as they are an extended meditation on Blue shifting out of darkness into silvery aquatic light. Monet spent years painting his beloved water-garden, moving closer and closer to its watery essence. The edges of his pond moved to the limits of the frame until he had erased the horizon altogether. From there, his work becomes a study of water and how it reflects light and the world above it. That is, he moved closer and closer to abstraction.
Today the light’s diffused through clusters of ocean cloud, shadowing the tombstones darkening Cathead Creek a quarter mile away. But I’m not a real painter, I have given up trying to imitate what I see in either prose or in watercolors. I look across River Street to Cathead Creek. whose story includes an ancient shrimp boat scuttled in tidal muck. A snow-white egret hunched shank-deep in the outgoing tide.
The rest is stillness, silence.
I joined AA thirty years ago, and the stories I heard from other recovering drunks changed how I saw the world. I realized that the pain and suffering these folks caused in others are part of my story; that they’re collective property. Listening to other drunks has triggered stories in me. How to use what I’ve learned in “the rooms” of AA to see beyond what pains me to the barely discernible landscape of sobriety?
All landscape has a subtext. Proust wrote a book’s-worth of pages about the garden outside his childhood house, but his word-paintings were attached to a narrative of childhood loneliness. These were stand-alone descriptions — Colombe on an exceedingly lovely summer evening, Proust drifting in and out of childhood dreams. Like Proust, like Monet, ex-drunks tell the same story till they get it right. At some point they tumble into dark self-realization and see the world differently, and are changed.
Walking down River Street from the cemetery, I pass a rusted-out trailer, a growling junkyard dog chained to its front porch fiercely alive in his aloneness. A Chevy pickup with flat tires squats in the front yard, its truck bed brimmed over with empty beer cans.
Down River Street are other shacks and trailers; none aspire to be stand-alone beautiful, but an abstract truth links them together. No matter how poor their occupants, each has a potted plant or two, a winterberry tree to welcome the stranger. The truth lurks in a latticework of stories those on River Street tell one-another. If I were up to it, I’d paint their arrival, following emancipation, from Sapelo Island, settling in to grow turnip greens, and raise hogs and chickens.
Paint the past a translucent isinglass blue. And me, a white guy hovering into spectacular invisibility: as in much of my life, I’m incognito, a drunk although I don’t drink anymore, and farther down the street, I’m neither here nor there.
Recently a friend showed me the pleasure that can be had in not knowing something. Something a younger and far less patient version of myself would have been very insistent about “knowing.”
My friend’s name is Dean, and we were standing in his kitchen sharing a meal of barbecue and potato salad when the subject of our parents came up. “God bless America,” he said (what Dean means when he says “God bless America” is “by the grace of God”). Then he added, “my mother saved me. I love her. She’s gone now but I carry her with me all the time.” In that hour at the dinner table we spoke about our mothers. We shared their strengths and resilience and the blessings they’d brought into our lives — how they might have been aloof or maybe drank a lot or beaten us or shamed us, but were still our mothers and therefore part of us.
Later, when Dean said good night, I saw an old man of French and Cherokee descent who’d led a tough and volatile life, but also a deeply fulfilling one. And he ended our conversation with a word or phrase in an unfamiliar tongue that sounded beautiful to me. “Oh-shee-tay, my friend,” he said as he shook my hand. “And you will never find out what that means, because my father made me swear never to tell anybody, just like his father before him, and his father before that.”
This of course greatly roused my indignation. And my imagination. And because I’m a writer, and it’s my nature to get swept up by language and its myriad hidden treasures, I went to find out what “Oh-shee-tay” meant. I’m now ashamed to admit that I tried to look it up online, and when that yielded nothing, I guilted and begged Dean a little, and when he still wouldn’t tell me, I resorted to eliminating possible meanings by carefully noting down the context every time he said it. I didn’t get far. The most I was able to gather was that it did not mean “f*ck you” or “go to hell.”
Mystified, I found myself driven progressively deeper into a place of search and puzzlement — which, looking back, I now suspect was the kernel of a lesson I think Dean was trying, consciously or not, to impart to me. And the lesson I found in that deep dark forest of not-knowing was that language at its richest, contrary to the uses civilization would have for it, wants one thing more than anything: to be relational more than rational.
I bring this up because we live in a time of distancing, due in no small part to how we use or abuse language, and the stories we tell ourselves. Most of us are acquainted through essays like Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” with the corrosive effects of language on public opinion and social freedom when we don’t pay enough attention. Yet I’d go even further than Orwell to suggest that by naming or needing to name everything that exists in our world, we abstract ourselves from it and thereby impoverish our sense of its possibility. Rather than a genocide in Rwanda because one group dehumanizes another, it’s now about our states of mind. Steeped as we are in a hyper-Cartesian outlook on science and culture, it doesn’t matter whether what we seek is the name of a secret admirer or the suspect responsible for the latest bombing or shooting; our insistence on clarity and certainty has colonized us. Patience, deliberation, and awe and wonder and mystery have all been replaced by a growing feeling of alienation, loneliness, and above all, fear — that we will flunk the exam, not land the plum job, fail in our witch hunt; be on the losing side of a game or an election or a war.
To explain what relational language sounds like, a friend once described to me two possible ways one might give somebody directions to a place. How do you get to Grandpa’s new house? One version of the answer, he said, has us taking a left onto Latona Avenue from 50th Street in Seattle, going three blocks and then looking for the yellow house with the big red door. The relational version would sound something more like, that place where you got your first tattoo? His house is two blocks from there, kitty corner across from the burrito truck where we had breakfast last Saturday. Look for the watering can you gave him, it’ll be just outside the fence.
Why is it useful to think in this way? Because it’s inherently creative and intimate instead of distancing and static. The one approach favors efficiency and saves us time, but lost in that is our inborn capacity to envision the world as a place of possibility, alive with not one but many stories.
Perhaps this is why I so love the petroglyphs of my southwest desert home, with their wordless multitudes of possible meanings; why my appreciation continues to grow for those who chafe at binary and nondualistic views regarding gender and politics and who choose an infinitely circular way of thinking instead of the tyranny of the linear or the square. One of my favorite short stories by Ursula K. LeGuin, “She Unnames Them,” suggests what can happen when we take the things we love out of their limiting conceptual boxes. How would the world change, LeGuin seems to ask, if we came to understand a dolphin or whale not by the letters that make up its name but by its clicks or songs over the vast distances of an infinite ocean?
William Stafford, in his poem “Cutting Loose”:
Arbitrary, sound comes, a reminder
that a steady center is holding
all else. If you listen, that sound
will tell you where it is…
And could this be what Dean was trying to tell me, in his own way, when he said, “Oh-shee-tay?”
It’s been three years since I’ve actively written, rewritten or revised a solid piece of writing. It’s been three years since graduating with my MFA and for all kinds of reasons, the writing was put on pause.
That’s the question when you’re in an MFA program. What’s life like afterwards?
For me, it was a hopeful one. I’d continue working full-time and write in the evenings. On the weekends. Be finished with my novel in a year, tops! Wouldn’t I be so much more productive without my night classes at Cal State?
Then life happened. I fell in love. Sold my house. Moved to a new city. Got married. Every now and again, I’d pull up a story, or part of my novel, and see the parts that needed change. I’d reread sections and see where I could make things better. Wrote notes about future characters, and little scenes that seemed full of promise. And then I’d put them away, and tell myself that later – I’ll have time later.
That’s why I’m a slow writer. It’s not that I wait for inspiration, or the muse to appear. It’s more of a feeling, a yearning, for what I’m not sure, but when I feel that sense of longing or nostalgia, I can spend hours, sometimes days, fully committed to the page. The last two years, however, I just wasn’t feeling it.
After getting married, my husband and I were in the early stages of designing our home, which involved tearing down his parents’ garage and in its place constructing a mother-in-law suite of sorts, formally known by the city of Los Angeles as an accessory dwelling unit. This would be our home in his parents’ backyard. Drafting and designing plans with an architect fully took up whatever free time we had. As we hit the spring of 2018, we had been married all of four months, and were excited to break ground in the summer.
A decision had to be made. After moving to LA, would I continue my full-time position and make the two-hour commute each way? And what about the writing?
This seems like a roundabout of a story. But here’s where the writing comes into play. I had been aching to write again, to feel that sense of urgency on the page, and this next chapter in my life seemed to be the perfect moment for me to make a big decision.
People say you don’t need to quit your day job to pursue your passions, and for a while that rang true for me. It did until it didn’t. I wanted the luxury of time, if only for a year, to spend my “full-time” energy on the writing. To just see what I could make of it, and then go back to the grind.
My grind? Teaching. For years, every waking moment was dedicated to my students and how I could be better for them. My writing needed that version of me.
It seemed crazy to just quit, to lose my medical benefits, to live off of savings. But then, along the way, there’s been a sign or two that perhaps it’s not so crazy.
I believe that your writing speaks to you. That even when you’re not working on it, it’s there, in the background, hovering. It goes where you go, your shadow of sorts, helps you see the light differently, hear the conversations of folks you didn’t know you needed to hear, and sometimes it’s silent until it’s ready to remind you of what you really need to do.
I know this to be true.
Three weeks before I was to give my employer notice, I attended a work event in the desert city of La Quinta. It’s only relevant to my narrative because of the last day. I wanted to treat myself to something nice, to have a small moment of luxury before we broke ground on our little mother-in-law abode, and so scheduled a pedicure at the resort salon in which I had been staying.
When I arrived, there were two other women also waiting, and we sat quietly in the lounge. That week, I had been thinking a lot about my future, and if I was really going to go through with quitting my job. As I sat reviewing the pros and cons, the nail technician, a petite woman with dark blonde hair pulled back in a bun, approached me. I’ll never know why or how I was lucky enough to have her work with me, it could have been any other person, but the ether determined that it was meant to be her.
“I’m Isis,” she smiled. We shook hands, and as we did, I just kept thinking about her name. Here is where the writing came through the ether and said hello. The muse coming to life. You see, the main character in my novel-in-progress, her name? It’s also Isis. I couldn’t get over this coincidence. It’s not a name you hear beyond CNN and Fox News.
And yet, I had found Isis, or she had found me. I first met my Isis in 2009. She was my third grade student, all of nine years old, spunky and lively, and the muse behind my novel, the protagonist I had been carrying with me ever since I met her. I never imagined I’d encounter another person with her name.
And yet, here we were. We talked about the origin of her name, why her father chose it, what it meant to her, and how since 9/11 no one likes to say it. How they shorten it to Is or Izzy. When I told her I was writing a novel about a young girl named Isis, her eyes lit up, and she was genuinely moved. “When you finish, you must send it to me. I would be so happy to read it, just to see my name.”
This moment between us was like the stars had aligned in that small desert community. Here I was, on the precipice of leaving my career and tenure, questioning my decisions, and there before me was the namesake of my project. It was like a slap in the face, but in the kindest way, telling me, yes – you need to do this. It was the writing speaking to me, assuring me of what I needed to do.
It’s three months later and I’ve quit my job, moved to LA, and live in my husband’s childhood home with his parents. Days are spent on site of our construction project, and to make extra cash, I work as an education consultant. The writing? It still hasn’t started. I have many excuses, and they’re all valid. But I know I need to push myself harder to make it happen.
I didn’t know it then, but a trip to the airport would be the push that I needed. It happens one early September morning at LAX. I’m leaving for a work trip to Kentucky, tired, and unaware that I’m about to encounter another muse of mine. On my lengthy search for something to eat, I find a small food court not far from my gate, and in that court have a moment of reckoning.
The food is unimportant, a breakfast burrito, but it’s where I sit that matters. I could have walked back to my gate with my suitcase and burrito, I could have sat at a random table across the room, or simply eaten standing. But for whatever reason, I situate myself at an empty countertop in the back corner of the food court. It’s attached to a restaurant not yet open, and I’m not yet aware of what it is, or anything beyond that nice spread of a counter, where for someone at LAX, seems like heaven.
I pick a stool and sit, and then move over a few more. I’m not sure why, there’s no real reason, no one in my way, I just intuitively move. I reach down to pull a water bottle out of my luggage, and that’s when I notice it – my muse, the image of a bird, from La Loteria deck of cards, painted on the wall beneath the countertop bar. I am firmly planted in front of El Pajaro.
La Loteria is a card game of chance that uses images on a deck of cards. Each image has a distinct name, and a number. And in LAX, it’s also the name of a restaurant. Here I am, sitting at the counter of La Loteria, the wall beneath lined in these beautifully iconic images. There’s El Gallo, La Sirena, La Luna, but only one is most important to me.
El Pajaro, the bird.
Years prior, my professor Merrill Feitell gave me the same card (I still have it) and told me to write a story about it. A few months later, that story appeared in The Superstition Review, (you can read it here) and so here we are.
My writing is again speaking to me, reminding me of the work I must complete, regardless of all the hopping around I’ve been doing, from city to city, job to job, from uprooting my life, to starting over – there is one item that needs to be at the forefront. The writing. All of it. Every story, every character, every draft that needs a revision, every note I had written down, those scenes of promise – they demand my attention and I owe them that much to give it. Isis and El Pajaro – they were the necessary reminders I needed to get it together, and finish what I set out to do all those years ago.
Have you ever had your writing come through the ether? Maybe you’re not as slow of a writer as I am, and don’t need that kick in the rear. But I do, I did, and I’m so thankful for it.
This past summer, the Review’s Student Editor-in-Chief Jackie Aguilar interviewed Laura Esther Wolfson, author of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, released this past June with University of Iowa Press.
Did the essay “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors” inspire you to write the essay collection of the same title? If not, what inspired this collection?
There was no single inspiration for the entire book; each section had its own inspiration. I remember the triggering moments for only a few of them. I wrote the sections sporadically over the course of a decade and half, and one by one, they appeared in magazines. The title essay, written around 2013, was among the last to be written and individually published.
As those years of writing were passing, I did not conceive of the parts as a collection. Only very late, when almost all of them were written, did it occur to me that they belonged together.
What was the most difficult part in the process of creating For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors [the book, not the essay]?
It was difficult to write regularly while working full-time, caring for infirm, elderly parents, managing a degenerative illness of my own, and sharing a studio apartment with another person plus two cats, the latter, bellies bulging, stretched out across my keyboard or patting my pen with their chocolate point paws. It was difficult to pursue the essay form (or whatever it is that I write; readers, including reviewers, do not agree), given the ubiquity and primacy of the novel and unceasing reminders from gatekeepers that collections don’t sell. Finally, it was difficult to resist the seductions of social life and the Internet. I failed again and again, at all of these things.
Writing is at times a healing journey for writers. Was writing these essays a healing journey for you? What did it give you?
I approach writing as a process, with little thought to outcome. It’s true that each section is about some sort of loss, and that I fashioned each loss into a written creation, so that the writing resulted in certain gains. Writing these pieces did make me into a better writer, and publication of the book did make me into an author, serendipitously providing me with a readymade new identity just as my health worsened to the point where I could no longer continue at my day job.
However—and what follows here is a catalogue of many of the topics the book covers—(the) writing and authorship did not save any marriages, remedy childlessness, restore health, or make up lost income. In fact, writing and publishing the book heightened my awareness of those lacks and losses.
None of this is a disappointment, though; I did not write in order to heal.
Your work as a Russian linguist looms large in many sections of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. Can you expand on how your knowledge of other languages and work as a translator/interpreter has affected your writing and transformed your view of writing?
An awareness of the world as a large and multifarious place led me to languages, and languages then increased my awareness of the size and diversity of the world. Between my awareness of the world and my interest in literature, history and international affairs there exists a similar circularity.
We translators and interpreters often fret that our work is not ‘substantive,’ i.e., that our language expertise is in service to the thoughts, information and knowledge of others. However, deep and sustained language study and language work (as a translator, interpreter, transcriber or terminologist) lead inevitably to a grasp of whatever topic is taken up in the documents or meetings assigned (for example, international humanitarian law, nuclear physics, renewable energy, etc.), as well as a general familiarity with geography, geopolitics, history, international affairs, foreign cultures, language acquisition and immigrant adaptation, both linguistic and cultural. It is these latter topics especially that find their way into my work.
Knowledge of other languages gives me a varied palette, providing access to more—of everything: more worldviews, literatures, stories, current events, histories, jokes, folktales, proverbs, syntaxes, grammars, etymologies, words, and most of all, more meanings, and more meaning.
As a translator-turned-writer, I am of course obsessed with accuracy and style; le mot juste is crucial. For the translator, this means fidelity to the source document. For the writer, it means fidelity to the thing depicted, whether that is something that exists in the world outside the creator’s mind and soul, or within.
What writing project are you currently working on? Does it have a connection to your essay collection “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors”?
I’m now at work on a long autofiction about love, infidelity and chronic illness, with embedded nuggets of flash literary criticism and flash international affairs punditry. Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra is the working title. The voice is recognizably mine, and it partakes of many of the same obsessions present in For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. However, it is an entirely separate work.
This much is true: I haven’t been writing much lately. At least not creatively. Or with any kind of fervor or grace. I have been writing, though. I’ve been writing copy. Like that scruffy guy in Mad Men. The one who eventually cut off his nipple. Ginsburg. I’ve been writing ads and newsletters and product descriptions and stuff like that. Content for websites. It pays the bills and then some. It affords a life of minor plenty. But it does not inspire. It’s commerce, it’s not art. Though, sometimes, and only sometimes, I like to joke that it’s the other way around, and that it is in fact art, not commerce, as periodically an occasion presents me with the opportunity to splash a bit of that woebegotten grace around the page/screen. You’ve seen the work I did for that luxury hotel? In Chicago? So I’ve been writing but I haven’t been writing. I’ve been losing writing. Displacing water. Something-something.
In lieu of writing, I’ve been thinking of writing. I’ve been reminiscing. Pulling notes of old harmony from the sticky depths of my glial stew. It has given me that subtle kind of joy that’s so often associated with nostalgia for things gone by: years, cardigans, cross country trips with my brother.
To that end, I have been thinking of firsts. Not those kinds of firsts. These kinds of firsts. First story written; first story/essay published; first book (what book?); and so on. You’ve been there right? Not writing like you feel you ought to be. That self-generated guilt. Rafts of the stuff. Right. So here we go.
First Story: I started writing my first story outside of Orland, California. I was living at the Farm Sanctuary. I was living in a communal home and surrounded by hills and the smell of cows and ducks and pigs and the like. There were three donkeys and no horses. There was a herd of skittish sheep that ran through the hills like dirty laundry possessed of a poltergeist.
I was younger, then. Twenty-two, I think. I was a vegan, then. And strong. And kind of angry. But mainly happy. And careless.
There wasn’t much to do out there. The internet connection was spotty.
Out there, you could spend time with the staff who lived in the communal house and those who didn’t. You could walk the hills. You could run them. You could go into the forests if you could catch a ride or to the Black Butte Lake Reservoir on an old mountain bike. You could suck down beers and smoke a single cigarette while watching the sunset with a woman named Anne. Those are things I did.
Too, there was downtime and alone time. So I read and napped with a cat whose fur was a luminescent shade of gray that trended blue when hit with the sun. I read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Haruki Murakami. Toni Morrison. Yukio Mishima. Pearl Buck. Borges. Peter Singer. Whatever was leftover from staff that had come to live in the communal house before eventually leaving. I read magazines. Sometimes the cat would pee on my shirts. The staff who’d been there for awhile said it was because it liked me and didn’t want me to leave, though I, too, eventually would.
It was after I closed the back flap of One-Hundred Years of Solitude that it struck me: I should write a story/I will a story/Let’s write a story! And like in fairy tales of and the lore of writers new and old, the story came to me prepackaged and ready to use.
All I had to do was write it.
Which I did.
In between my chores and after dinner in the communal house. While I emptied feed troughs and mucked barns. It was about an old guy who was friends with a ficus tree. As it goes, the story was called: “Ficus Tree.” It was probably clichéd as all get. But I had to write it. Like a new tooth coming in and shoving aside the old. A tendril pressing through the hull of its seed.
There was a scene I remember liking, the man leaning against a pane of frosted glass in winter and the skin of ice evaporating around his profile as he sat and drank.
When I was through, I printed it out and shared it around with my housemates. It was momentous (for me, at least), as it laid bare the roadmap my life was looking for.
That story, though, is long gone. I’d saved it on a hard floppy but who knows where that ended up. Maybe my mom has a copy somewhere. Probably it is full of typos and tense errors and springs too tightly wound. I’d like to see it again, if possible. I’ll ask her if she held on to it. I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.
First Published Story: I was spinning my wheels and waiting to get into graduate school when my first story was submitted and accepted for publication.
I was living with my mom and stepdad in Carbondale, Illinois. It was a good time. I hadn’t a job yet had some money. I drank whiskey with my town friends. I ran fast around the lake situated on the campus of the local university.
The story? Well, it was accepted by the Paris Review!! It was such a shock. Like realizing, suddenly, I could levitate at will. I’m kidding. It was accepted by The Thieves Jargon, an online-only publication. You remember it? I feel like people liked appearing in that one. Like getting something accepted and published by elimae. Like elimae, The Thieves Jargon has gone the way of the ghost. Even its archives are extinct. Scraped from the face of the earth. Like river silt washed into and swallowed by the ocean.
The story was heavily (and I mean heavily) influenced by Rick Bass’s “Mississippi.” My story was called “Agnes is Gorgeous.” It was about a guy and a woman named Agnes. I don’t think the guy had a name. I think it was in written in the third person. Or maybe it was the first?
(I’d started working on it New Orleans, on the floor of my friend’s apartment, writing under the swirl of the ceiling fan and caressing the keys of my gigantic Dell Inspiron laptop.)
In the story, the couple were together, though I don’t remember what they did together or what drove the story. My sense memory tells me that they were nice enough to each other, that they were perhaps too dependent on each other, that they had a box fan in the window. Probably they drank iced tea and were familiar with each other more often than not.
Anything else, I don’t know.
What I do know is that when I received the acceptance email from the editors at Thieves, I damn well did levitate up the stairs from my mother’s basement and into the kitchen to tell her and my stepdad that I was to be a published author. It was the most incredible feeling I’d felt in a long while, as I’d already been loved by someone not my parents. It was validation that my work had some merit, however fleeting or thin. While Thieves was still up and running, I’d come to publish another tiny story or two in the magazine. Stories about deli workers wrapping steaks in thick white paper. Laborers. The times I knew when I was between schools and standing on ladders and swinging sledge hammers and breathing in crystalline silica dust and coughing it up at night after hours and hours of drinking.
First Published Essay: The one season of little league I participated in, I tried my best to emulate Will “The Thrill” Clark, first baseman (at least when I was a player) for the San Francisco Giants.
He wore number twenty-two.
His first homerun occurred during his first professional at bat, off of Nolan Ryan.
I admired him because, when in the box, he held his bat like a hobo held a bindle stick, slung carelessly behind the back, its end tipping toward the ground in a careless little wag and dance.
I was living in Wisconsin when The Thrill would come to feature in my first foray into essay.
I was working for the state, at the time.
I was most definitely hating life, at the time, and my own in particular.
I had a cubicle, then, and was checking my Twitter account and in the doing, saw that a literary magazine I followed had a call for writing having to do with baseball. That magazine was Hobart Pulp. I hadn’t any thoughts of sharing pieces of myself through writing or writing of baseball until the moment I saw that tweet. But when I did, I said to myself: Let’s write about little league and Will Clark and being a kid with a younger brother being raised, at that time, primarily by our mom, who was doing her best but who did not, when taking me to the Hibbett Sports Store at the Carbondale mall to buy an aluminum baseball bat and white leather (fresh!) batting gloves, did not buy me a protective cup (I already had a ball glove). And I, being in fifth grade, was too terrified and shy to ask for one, as doing so would implicitly/explicitly imply and foretell that I was growing up, so off I went into the fields and dugouts of the sporting complex with nothing but my reflexes and a polycotton fabric blend to protect me from the potential energy stored within a baseball.
As mentioned, I had a stupid job (it really was) in a stupid department in a stupid state and though I didn’t like to, I did my work and still had plenty plenty of time to sit there in my desk chair, idling with my two screens open, my official work stuff always up, my writing stuff off to the side, always ready, at first, to minimize the page, and always ready, later, to just keep it up.
So when the prompt hovered in front of me in my cubicle area, I pulled up a fresh Word Doc and started typing away about Will Clark and being from a broken home (ha), the only one among my friends with divorced friends.
I wrote about striking out all the time and Will Clark’s beautiful swing, as gorgeous a thing as Ken Griffey Jr’s, and how it was almost more gorgeous than KG’s because Will Clark looked more like a guy who’d just clambered down from a deer stand than an athlete who could loft balls out of the park as easy pressing a glass to the little piece that made ice fall from an automatic ice dispenser.
I wrote it sent it out and it was accepted and published, I think, in 2015, April, the usual month Hobart holds kicks off its baseball theme.
I guess it was a coming of age piece, in a way.
It was so much fun to write while sitting in that drab cubicle, in the sense that it provided a kind of sanctuary from the doldrums I was so often kicking around in those days.
It was a pleasure to think of Will Clark and how I saw his glove and cleats in Cooperstown, a place he’ll probably only ever visit as a guest. In the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of having a poem and short story accepted by Hobart and asides from my own personal sense of accomplishment, they’re just a damn fine journal whose staff work tirelessly to highlight excellent writers across the board.
We’re at the end now. This mosey down memory lane is the most writing I’ve done in awhile. It was fun. It felt good. It said to me, as I was writing, stop taking on so many freelance projects, guy. Your job is enough. Writing is more important than a few extra bucks. And it is. So I should. And maybe I will. If I know what’s good for me.
Spoiler alert: My new story collection Scoundrels Among Us isn’t going to win the National Book Award. It’s not even going to be nominated. It’s not going to take home the Pulitzer Prize or the Pen/Faulkner Award, either. None of those accolades will be mine.
But am I crying? Heck no! I’m not bitter because truthfully, the deck is stacked against me. I never had a shot in the first place. And I’m not alone, either. Thousands of terrific writers aren’t going to win these prizes – not because they’re bad or inferior to those nominees but because of the kind of books they write. Plain and simple, these writers are: Just. Too. Funny.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that what our culture deems Great Art is typically synonymous with Serious Art – subjects containing gravity, tragedy, emotional heft. The story must deal with dramatic circumstances, and with a straight face. War. Divorce. Poverty. Oppression. Think Grapes of Wrath and A Farewell to Arms. Think To the Lighthouse and Beloved. (All amazing books, by the way!)
To make the audience laugh, to spin yarns of absurdity, parody, satire, or – Heaven forbid – slapstick is akin to the artist not wrestling meaningfully with anxiety, trauma, sadness, anger, or pain. This is what our culture implies, anyway, through its judgement. Just look at the track record.
Peruse the winners of the big literary awards – National Book Award, Pulitzer, Pen/Faulkner – and you’ll find a few outliers (Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, John Kennedy Toole), but in general the majority of prize-winners tackle dramatic subjects using dramatic voice and tone. Sure, humorists like Twain and Vonnegut wiggle into the conversation of “serious” literature. But these are the rare exception. Over the past sixty years maybe a dozen comic novels or collections have taken the top prize – in all major awards combined.
The disparity is equally pronounced in film. According to filmsite.org the Best Picture Award has been given to a comedy just 14% of the time (and that’s only tracking data up until 2001; anecdotally, I can’t remember a full-on comedy winning in the past seventeen years). Sure, a few have been nominated, but not many; and the fact that they never win tells us a lot about how our culture ranks their importance.
(Let’s not even mention humorous songs. These get banished to the novelty graveyard faster than you can say, “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”)
So it’s apparent that our cultural critics poo-poo the value – the seriousness – of a good laugh. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Even philosophers have historically beaten up on comedy like a bunch of drunken footballers.
However, there might be hope. The tide may be turning. New research has discovered all sorts of evidence that comedy is no joke.
By the way, I’m not arguing that comic fiction is better or more valuable than dramatic. I’m saying down with these sorts of stratifications! There’s room in our lives for all kinds of art.
The truth is that humor is a powerful way of coping with, raising questions about, and addressing the grave, troubling, frightening issues. After all, “Suffering is the destiny of all of God’s creatures; but to laugh in the face of suffering . .. that is distinctly human.” Someone famous said that, didn’t they? Wait, I said it. It sounds kind of right to me, though. Anyone can suffer, but to bring joy out of suffering? To raise questions about inequality, war, life, pain, and death while also making us laugh? That’s special. But it’s not simply a matter of giggling at agony; it’s that laughter brings us together. It binds us.
There’s a feeling of connection in sharing a joke. Humor welcomes us into its world. Humor takes us by the hand and says, “You’re going to like it here.” Humor lets our guard down: not only the guard of the reader, but of the writer. Humor embraces cognitive dissonance and critical thinking, and perhaps most importantly, humor is democratic.
It’s the voice of the people. In a day and age where diversity is crucial; when more than ever we strive to become a multicultural society and finally live up to the promises of our American Dream, in which all peopleare created equal – in this day and age, embracing the concept of comedy as serious literature might be the key. Laughter is the song of humanity, the salve for our burns, the spigot for our grief that floods the parched soil of tragedy with life-giving water. (Exaggeration is another nice form of comedy.)
But don’t just take it from me. Take it from those philosophers, who eventually came to value the democratic power of laughter: “In comedy there are more characters and more kinds of characters, women are more prominent, and many protagonists come from lower classes. Everybody counts for one.”
My love for poetry began when I was eleven. A neighbor, an artist, gave me a book of poems. She must have seen my hunger and fed me. The book was archy and mehitabel by Don Marquis. Archy is a cockroach and Mehitabel is a cat in her ninth life. These two live in a journalist’s house, and when the journalist goes to work, Archy hops up on the typewriter and writes poetry. In a previous life, Archy was a free verse poet. He records his thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and Mehitabel offers him many stories from her treasure trove of nine incarnations. Mehitabel has an exuberance for living, (toujours gai), and so does Archy in his grouchy way, but he has a darker, more philosophical vision. He has to throw himself headfirst onto each key to operate the typewriter, and he can’t make capital letters because he doesn’t weigh enough to hold down the shift key. I was inspired. I read and re-read this book. It was surprising, funny, and took on every subject from the mundane to the celestial. The language was ordinary but also possessed its own original elegance. I loved the flow and construction of the lines down the page and was amazed at the lack of punctuation, how it wasn’t always necessary as I had been taught in school. Poetry was liberty. It was wild. I learned from Archy what I would learn again later from Leonard Cohen who wrote: Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers.
I immediately wanted to write it. I remember the day I wrote my first poem, sitting in the living room listening to my parents and their friends talk. It was one of those social occasions where the kid sits there all dressed up and remains quiet. It was raining outside. Bored, I went over to my mother and asked if I could get a pencil and a piece of paper. I came back into the living room and sat in my chair by the window. The poem I wrote was about the rain. I titled it, “The Rain.” It was fascinating to me, to take what was inside, feelings and thoughts, and connect them with the outside—the rain on the inside and the rain on the outside. I wrote the poem in quatrains—without knowing what a quatrain was—and at the end of every other stanza I repeated: “What’s a poor child to do?” What can a child do in a world of adults that often seems false, trapped in convention? This was the 1960’s. I didn’t know how to articulate my growing concern about the world that was so troubling. I loved my parents, they loved me, but something was wrong. Many things were not being said, and I felt them. I wanted to be able to name how I was feeling and what I was witnessing, and to do it in an interesting way. I wanted a rhythm to it and some rhymes; I wanted to make pictures in words, with a connection from the inner to the outer landscape. I wouldn’t read Emily Dickinson’s poems until I was in college, but I had the desperate desire to tell my truth and tell it slant. This process would become my way of being in the world.
For years I wrote poetry without any instruction. My father told me he used to find little scraps of paper with writing on them on the floor of my bedroom. When I published my first book, he said he wished he had saved those scraps. That was a sweet idea, Dad, but I don’t think it would have made our fortune. Poetry is a continuous experiment beyond the realm of the marketplace. Alive and ever-changing, shape-shifting. Poetry is beyond anyone’s grasp or control. As a young woman, I adored that about it. So much of life looked like a trap for a woman. Poetry was a place where I couldn’t be hunted down. I wouldn’t let what was wild in me be domesticated out of existence, and every poem I wrote, from a scrap on the floor to a poem published in a literary journal, was an escape hatch.
And yet, poems show us to ourselves; they tell all the truths, the secrets we can barely tell ourselves, so poems are also the opposite of escape.
At first, poetry had nothing to do with schools or teachers, but then I spent many years studying it. One of my greatest experiences in a poetry workshop was a three day seminar led by Jack Gilbert. I filled two notebooks, writing down what he said. Here are a few lines:
Poetry is a living object.
Get stark, primal energy into the poem.
Good poetry is truly caused by something.
Real surrealism has to have truth in it.
Get away from writing cleverly and write from a deeper place.
One of the functions of poetry is to teach people feeling, to reawaken feeling.
I can never get to the end of learning my craft. It’s infinity on fire. And as a fellow poet said to me recently after I complained about my frustrations with my work and about the art in general, “Susan, it’s just a poem.”
What? I spent hours, days, weeks, months trying to get this poem to fly, and it’s just a poem? I thought he’d lost his mind.
But he’s right. And I could relax and start again, ever the novitiate.
When I write, I don’t throw myself headfirst onto my keypad like Archy. But I admire him for it, finding his own writing process and doing what he has to do:
are always interested in technical
details when the main question is
whether the stuff is
literature or not
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
Poetry is the beauty and the burning. It’s silence to sound and seed to sunlight. A way of being intimate with all things, of praising them, a way to think and feel far into things. Poetry pinches us awake, sings to us in strange and familiar melodies. It belongs to everyone.