Sunday, March 17, 2013

There Is No Wisdom Here

I've started a lot of posts lately, only to let them peter out. And it's okay—like with poems, sometimes they have to sit a while before they can tell me what it is they want me to say. I've grown used to it, and these little essays have sometimes left me wondering what the hell I'm doing as a poet—am I on a break? Am I lying fallow? Am I writing posts because it is somehow serving my poetry?—so it's been comforting, in a strange way, to have similar patterns emerge with this kind of writing.

But today, I started being a poet again. I'm not sure what happened. I've spent a fairly literary week, so I suppose that helped. It was spring break, which also probably helped. I started the week (or ended last week, I suppose) at AWP, the ridiculously huge conference of writing programs, which happened to be in Boston this year. Caron Andregg, from Cider Press Review, where I work as the managing editor, flew in from San Diego and hung out with us for a few days. We did some time at the book fair, she sat on a panel, and I ate various meals with various people I don't often get to see. I collected more than my fair share of hugs. Then I had a couple of international students come for dinner on Wednesday, because campus during spring break is a bleak, lonely place. I ended the week with a visit from my friend (and poet) Kathleen Clancy and, while we talked about all kinds of things, we also talked a lot about poetry. Because we often do.

And when Kathleen left, I sat down to organize my thoughts for a revision workshop I'm running next weekend at The Barred Owl. The workshop was already pretty much assembled, since we had to reschedule it from January, but I hadn't really looked at it since then, and I wanted to spend a little bit of time with it before I got sucked into the last half of the semester. I felt the need to read through my exercises and think about what sample poems I could use to discuss the aspects of revision I would discuss—I wanted to find a poem with all four purposes of sentences (declarative, interrogative, imperative, exclamatory) in it. I also wanted to find a poem with all four types of sentences (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex) in it. In doing that, I realized that I'd need some examples of the kinds of revision exercises I'd be working with, also, and that the only place I knew I could find those was in my own work.

I should add that I'm not a fan of talking about my own work. Part of it is that I think of some of poetry as magic—I don't know where it comes from, so I don't know how to talk about it as if it were intentional. Some of it is the result of hard work and hard thought and more hard work, but some of it just happens. And I know I'm supposed to pretend it's intentional, and people are supposed to pretend to believe me, but that whole discussion seems like a waste of time to me. And when it comes to discussing the intentional part, I worry that I'm the only one who's really interested in how I made the decisions I made. So I'm always worried about sounding like a douchebag when I talk about my own work. A lot of poets are, and those who aren't? Maybe they should be, a little. Because a lot of us sound pretty douchey and it doesn't serve us or the work well.

So there I am, digging through my files. I have a lot of partial poems—completed drafts that aren't complete poems, or scraps of poems that I don't know what to do with, or even single lines. I have one document titled "accident etymology" that just lists the words related to the word "accident." I have no idea what I'm going to do with that, or why I thought it was a good idea to list them, but at one point I did. I have poems that I knew were going to suck when I was writing them, and poems that I thought were pretty good at the time but really, really aren't, and poems that are 15 or 20 drafts in and still aren't actually poems yet. I am not going to count them, but trust me on this: there are a lot.

I haven't submitted any poems for publication since my cousin Turquoise got really sick—that is, since it became clear that she didn't have long to live. That was about a year ago, when it really hit home to me, when people started telling me that I needed to plan a visit NOW. It all took a couple of months, maybe a week or two more, but it felt much faster than that. I know that I graded papers during the last half of that semester, but I don't remember doing so. I know that I worked and spent time on the treadmill and worked some more. I know I didn't sleep a lot, to the point that one of my friends brought me a small handful of Xanax in case I decided I needed a little help (I didn't—they're still in my kitchen cupboard, and I'm not sure what I'll do with them. I keep forgetting to give them back to her, and they're probably expired now anyway).

And I drafted a lot of poems that April—many of them part of the "Dear Turquoise" series (some of which will be coming out in a chapbook this year, most of which will not). I wrote and wrote and wrote. I didn't revise much—once I wrote a Dear Turquoise poem, I often couldn't bear to look at it—but I wrote at least one poem a day in April and kept writing as my brother and I went to visit her in early May, and then after she died at the end of that month, I wrote a few more. I also started the FFTDS lists at that point. But I wasn't revising. And I wasn't—apart from the chapbook manuscript—submitting.

After I went through my workshop notes this afternoon, I sat with my notebook (I still do much of my early-stage planning on paper, not on the screen, even though I type faster than I write, or maybe because I type faster than I write) and made notes in the margins about which of my poems might work as an example of which exercise. I don't have poems for all of them, and that's okay. I also made notes about which poems or poets might be good to use as examples for other exercises or concepts (hint: if you need an example of an exclamatory sentence in a poem, Whitman's got you covered).

As I dug through my own documents and sliced a swath across the poetry internet, I found myself pulling out poems I knew were desperately incomplete. Some of them have been sitting forever, untitled except for their first line, full of sandbags dragging them to the bottom or helium sailing them far too high overhead. They were bloated or starving—or, in one spectacularly bad poem, both at once. My phone rang, and I ignored it. The dryer buzzed, and I ignored that, too. One of my dogs pressed his head against my right foot and farted, then sighed contentedly in his sleep. I did my best to ignore that. I checked the thesaurus and the etymology dictionary. I checked in on Facebook and email to give my brain a quick distraction while a puzzle worked itself out somewhere in my head. The mantel clock chimed one, then a few minutes later two, and a minute or so after that, three.

There isn't any wisdom here, or anything pithy I expect you to take away with you. It's just that sometimes things take the amount of time they take, that's all. Tomorrow, I go back to campus. But today, I got back to work.


  1. Yay for being a poet again, Ruth! (OR more accurately, I'd say, Yay for feeling like you're being a poet again because you are always a poet imo). And yay for revision mojo, too! I always pray to the gods of revision mojo. ALL WAYS. I found wisdom about that in this post though, Ruth. Right here: "It's just sometimes things take the amount of time they take, that's all." I'm feeling it. I still and always will wish it would be time for my work to be mostly complete and revised rather than mostly partial and un-revised, but...that's just crazy talking. I'll be at your revision workshop in spirit next weekend. And I will try not to freak anyone out who is there in person by levitating anything. ; )

  2. I encourage you to levitate some shit. For the record. xoxo


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