The following is an essay that was published in Issue #25, the best of RATTLE, Summer, 2006
CONNECTING THE DOTS
–Stellasue Lee/Editor Emeritus
“Sometimes hell is a good place–if it proves to one that because it exists, so must its opposite, heaven, exist. And what was heaven? Poetry.” This, written by Gregory Corso, reflects the very essences of what people who are passionate about poetry believe.
As the editor of RATTLE, I’ve had the privilege of communicating with writers across the country, many of whom I’ve never met. Yet, we email back and forth, talk on the phone now and then, and call each other “Friend.” What I have learned from these friendships is that the main goal for all of us is the desire to be understood. Poets take in the details. It’s in the details that we communicate each image, each moment of the poem.
Mike McManus writes, “I have driven an old Bronco truck across a closed bridge just to see what was on the other side. I’ve crawled within three feet of a snake just to look in its face.”
I have learned great respect for these writers, for their courage, their intelligence to see through a subject and bring it to the reader so that the reader, too, can share in the moment.
Artists of every art form use their work in an effort to communicate. Deborah Butterfield, a sculptor using such mediums as used steel and driftwood, expressed it so well when she said, “I suppose I feel that what’s important is to try to make work that advances you as a human being, that somehow pushes you to keep asking yourself questions, make other people ask questions, and hopefully encourage them to see the world through different eyes.”
I have asked this widely diverse group of poets to write about their process. “Art is not about art, art is about life, and that sums it up,” said Louise Bourgeois.
Steven Smith, whom I published, writes that “…he knows his students aren’t likely to remember the titles of the poems he brings to class, but what he hopes they will remember is his passion, and then go out and find something in their lives to be passionate about.”
Passion is what comes up over and over again in poetry. That’s the very essences of why we publish this journal.
Our United States Poet Laureate and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Ted Kooser, said, “Poetry’s purpose is to reach other people and to touch their hearts. If a poem doesn’t make sense to anybody but its author, nobody but its author will care a whit about it.”
Francine Marie Tolf’s poem, “Maybe She Dreams of Rivers” is a perfect example of poetry at its understandable best. The speaker in the poem is an observer, and she records the details of her experience with passion. Francine writes, “Four years ago, I sat across from a woman asleep on the El train. Now, I’m a firm believer in what Lucille Clifton says, that is, that a poem doesn’t have to be factual, it just has to be true. In this case, I didn’t make up any of the details.”
D.H. Lawrence, certainly no stranger to the pleasures in life, once proclaimed that the “profoundest of all sensualities is the sense of truth.”
To this end, I think all great poetry comes from truth.
Alan Fox writes “… to discover who he is. I have a short attention span. I can only hold one or two new sentences in my mind at the same time, so it has always been difficult for me to follow my own thought very far into its library unless I leave a trail of word crumbs which mark my path and to which I can return. I write so that everyone else alive or to be alive will know that Kilroy (Alan) was here. I don’t know what good, if any, that will do me, but it does give me a sense of connection, intimacy, with friends who email me back with comments and compliments, and with strangers who exist, for me, only in my imagination. I write to keep at bay my fear–no, my certainty¾that one day this earth and all of its treasures will not even be a memory. Hello, out there. I exist. I wait only for extinction.”
His words indeed have the ring of truth, and although we may not share his feelings completely, we understand them because he has written and published a part of himself. Many writers share this experience. Naomi Ruth Lowinsky put it this way: “Writing is how I remember myself. The past flickers by in a thought or an image. If I grab it, put it into words on paper, forgotten worlds open. I am back on the sunlit porch by the lake of our vacation cottage in childhood. My grandmother is smiling at me. Writing is how I find myself. My breathing slows down. My pulse deepens. Writing is my spiritual path, my meditation, my zen-slap that forces me to face what I fear. I write to pray, to praise, to witness, lament, to remember. Once I wondered whether I wrote instead of living, whether I put my writing between me and life like a photographer does the camera. That was a long time ago. Now I know that writing is an organ of my life, like my lungs or my stomach. I can’t live without it. Only through writing do my feet feel firm on the ground.”
Many would ask why poets spend time away from their families, their work, a sun-bright day to close them selves off in a small room to write. What about the reward¾money, for heaven’s sake? A.R. Ammons explained what many writers feel: “…I dream of a clean wood/ shack, a sunny pink trunk, a pond, and an independent income:/ If light warms a piney hill, it does nothing better at the/ farthest sweep of known space…”
I say there are great rewards to poetry other than that green stuff that we exchange.
Cheryl Gatling is a nurse. “One night I had a patient, a woman who was an old friend. I hadn’t seen her in several years, and now she had malignant melanoma. She asked about me. She said, I hear that you are writing poetry. I’d like to read some. I said that I had some on the computer, and she walked out to the nurses’ station and sat at the desk. As she began to read my poems, I realized that one of the poems in that batch was about dying of skin cancer. Shit! I thought. She isn’t going to want to read that one. And, as she read, she pointed to the poem and said, This one, I love this one. I want a copy of that. I printed it out and handed her the copy. She walked back to her room, very thin, with her IV pole in one hand, and her printed-out poem in the other. It was the last time I saw her alive. Poetry provides comfort precisely by going straight to the most painful spot. When a poem says what no one else wants to talk about, and depicts what no one else wants to look at, then we who read it know we are not alone. Poets tell the truth, and the truth comforts people. I am prouder of having provided some little satisfaction in the life of a dying woman than I am of any awards.”
When someone suggested to Philip Larkin that he earn a living by giving readings and lectures, he answered, “It would embarrass me very much. I don’t want to go around pretending to be me.”
So, what is the make up of these poets? Brett Myhren said that when he asked his students to describe a poet, the description that he got was something like a cross between the Unabomber, a disgruntled librarian, and a Greek rhetorician. In other words, someone very strange who knows a lot about something even stranger. The assumption is that poets spend long hours hidden from “normal” society in third-rate hotels because they are deranged in some way and can’t function with the “regular folks.” He wonders where the idea for a poem begins. “It’s true that reading and writing are not usually considered team sports, but that doesn’t make them anti-social. For example, I never hear people say, Gee, baseball players are so weird. They’re always hanging around the batting cages. People accept that this work is part of the player’s preparation. Let me put it another way: Would we assume that a baseball player would stand at the plate and hope for inspiration in order to hit the ball? Baseball players are devoted to something that requires practice (in order to play well). If they could practice in their sleep, I imagine that they would sleep more and practice less. I would. So why is it strange that poets want to practice their craft by reading and writing?”
”Personally, I put very little faith in inspiration as it is normally described. I believe in work, not in waiting for some kind of golden light to descend on my head. For me, work involves reading and writing. Of course, if I didn’t enjoy those activities then I wouldn’t devote so much time to them because I certainly ain’t getting paid much for it. Maybe that is deranged, but it’s better than the insanity of all the other work I’ve done, and it gives me the chance to wear my threadbare toga when I work at home.”
We have to beg the question then, how much money would be enough? There have been many writers often compelled to waste time and energy in order to earn money. Frank John Hughes is one of these talented people. He has lived his poem “An Act of Procreation.” Frank tells me that every word is true, “poverty, hunger, sickness, spinal taps, seizures, stripped of privacy, independence, dignity…” and that all this took place during the early years of his career. (1988-1997) “I was doing theatre and supporting my wife and child on being a furniture mover by day and a graveyard shift security guard by night. During the day I would head off into the city and report to a location the union hall had given me (teamster local 814). I would meet up with the foreman and off we would go with other men to different locations around New York to do commercial or household moves.
”New York. August. 104 degrees. You work the hump strap across your shoulders and squat to balance the refrigerator on your back. You head into the narrow darkened hallway of a five floor walk up on Spring Street. The couple you’re moving watches with a mixture of disdain and awe as you move up the stairs–one step at a time, crouched low beneath the weight–up and up and up to the fifth floor and into the small, dirty apartment they are paying too much for. The flat they will smoke and sip wine in. Where they will order useless items from QVC and play scrabble when its raining. The room they will read crime novels in and where he will enter her gaunt, pale body soon after they wake on the futon.
”I did this for ten years and thank God I did. Here I met the men, got to know their lives and I would write about them for the rest of my days–their names graffitied across my skull–Jimmy Wisely, Eddie Keo, Johnny Walker, Gabe Vichello, Unti, Berti, Itallo and Ziggy–names as real as the lump in your woman’s breast or the setting sun. I was so fortunate to share my life with these tragic and magical men. Together we ate fruit off our pocketknives and whistled at passing asses as we ate our lunches in Central Park. We sweat and bled and laughed together–all of us banished in similar hells, watching our particular dreams recede away from us.
”Then it was off to a small tin booth on a barren strip of land between two exits on the New York State thruway that slashed through Yonkers. I was a guard for an aero space company that did top secret contract work for the government at night. My booth was at the bottom of a mile long drive way that wound up a hill to the clandestine plant. But down there, I was alone; nothing but stray dogs and madmen wandering the soft shoulder of the road before me. I would sit in that booth for ten hours in almost total darkness trying not to go mad with isolation and boredom. I wrote many poems from that tin coffin trying to make sense of the poverty I was putting my family through no matter how many hours I worked. After our bills were paid we were living on $25 bucks a week–a family of three! It was a diet of pasta and more pasta. My weight had dropped to 112 pounds, my wife was down to 88. My son was having unexplained fevers that resulted in seizures and it seemed we were always at some horrible, ghetto emergency room trying to get him well.
”Through it all we kept going–somehow–into the mouth of it. I think only our being young kept us alive–had I hit this patch in my thirties, I would have been dead. We kept going further into it fed by my need to act and write. As I write this it is 2006. I sit in a house far away from the old Yonkers NY apartment that my wife and son and I almost perished in. Now I write facing the mountains, tall and perfect and purple friends who keep their mouths shut when I go crazy–but even that happens less and less. My wife does yoga while I meditate each morning. My son quietly leaves on his way to the gym and the dog licks his balls all the while keeping one eye on the cat.
“Then we have coffee in the warm sun of our backyard. From there we’re headed up the coast in a BMW that acting bought–in fact, everything we have, has been bought with my acting and writing–that in itself makes those gruesome and relentless days seem almost worth while. But, the dues haven’t stopped–they never will–nor should they–all that changes is how we deal with them. When catastrophe hit, I would always wonder, what did I do to deserve this? Now I wonder, how can I use this experience to help other people? This has transformed my work in so many ways. Writing was always a violent act to me–a way of carpet-bombing myself so that the black smoke inside me could rise up out of the flames. Now when I write, the dues I paid and continue to pay, put me in touch with my own compassion–and that leads me to feel for all the others who suffer. It has moved from the solitary act of an angry man¾to the universal work of a compassionate being.
”I haven’t mellowed–but I have gained perspective which when combined with a little bit of luck and craft can make the dagger even sharper and the hemlock twice as deadly. Time will tell how many years we will lose on the back end because of all the years we fed into the monster at the start–but in a way it doesn’t matter–still we act–still we write–we endure–my wife my son myself, properly fed, smiling, grateful, and left with something that the word ‘happy’ falls terribly short of describing.”
And so it is, I have the experience of falling in love with this man all over again through his writing. I first fell in love with his work in the summer of 2000. My heart reached out to him after reading his submission. His work made me fall in love with poetry all over again. That’s what writing our guts out does, if we are lucky, but most of the time we never know the results of our work because once we’ve written, once we’ve turned our work out in the world, it takes on a life of its own, and we, the life-giver, just move on to the next piece of blank paper.
Jack Grapes recently wrote in an essay for ONTHEBUS, “I became a writer not because I had something to say or stories to tell, but because I fell in love with words.”
I think each of us have come to poetry in our own way, and for Jack, it was the passion of what words were capable of doing. He went on to say, “One could make a sentence out of words, and with sentences you could build cities and fill them with people. To this day, when I go into a bookstore and open a book to the first page, I feel as if I’ve given away all my possessions and I’m standing there waiting for the writer to speak, waiting to fall in love, waiting to be swept away by the writer’s voice, by the writer’s words.”
People would laugh when I told them I opened each submission as if I was about to read the best poem I’d ever read. Somehow, even after days and sometimes weeks of not getting anything in a submission that I thought was great, I’d still open each envelope as if, right in my hands, I was going to find that perfect poem. I still have that same enthusiasm.
Jack sent me an email recently: “….in my own life, I step back and think how fortunate I am to have found my bliss at an early age, and somehow, someway, I’ve managed to live that bliss each day as a writer. I feel like it’s a miracle when we are able to do that. Everyday I pinch myself.”
I called Ray Ronci a couple of weeks ago to tell him we’d chosen his poem, “Snow,” as part of this tribute of the best of RATTLE. It was nice to be in touch again. “Snow” came out in the Summer of 1997 and I guess I’ve read it oh, maybe fifty times since to students, or just when I needed some kind of inspiration. I told him this and he wrote, “Thank you so much for phoning me the other night. It was a great pleasure to literally “speak” to you on the phone. Call anytime! You’re a delight to talk to. I think the telephone is a much under-rated mode of technology these days, and maybe I’m ‘old school,’ but I enjoy a good conversation on the telephone infinitely more than an email. So thanks.” Many of the people I spoke with in this tribute expressed similar sentiments.
Ray wrote that he was “…living in Nebraska when I wrote the poem “Snow” some years ago. At the time, I had a good friend, also a poet (still a good friend by the way), and he said to me, Ray, you can’t do this. You can’t write a poem about shit! Nobody’s going to publish this. Now to be fair, I have to say that my friend had yet to become a parent. Since becoming a father himself, his opinion has changed, but at the time it was very disconcerting. I remember defending the poem and saying, It’s not about shit! But he insisted it didn’t work. Fortunately, I followed my instincts, and I sent that poem and a few others to RATTLE, and the rest is history.”
“Many years ago,” Ray writes, “DeWitt Henry, one of the founding editors of Ploughshares, said to a colleague of mine, Ronci’s a good poet, but he’ll never make it as a poet because he’s too into Zen. At the time he made this judgment, I had just won an AWP ‘INTRO’ Award, a scholarship to Breadloaf, and the John H. Vreeland Award for Literary Composition from the University of Nebraska. My response to Henry’s comment was, (being the Italian that I am): Fuck him! And yet, as it turned out, Henry was right. I used to be a poet who practiced Zen meditation. Over the years I became a formally ordained Zen monk who writes poetry. I’m still a poet, but I’m a monk, first.”
That’s the thing I want readers to know: Writers are people, living their lives, working, loving, playing, writing, and, maybe, this goes back to what was said earlier by Brett Myhren about the perception his students had of what a poet was. People are somewhat afraid of us when they find out we are poets. The last poem many people read was in college, and it might have been Keats. They didn’t understand it then, and they think we do, so therefore, people don’t know what to say to anyone who understands a poem written by Keats.
Micki Myers writes, “A writer friend once remarked that he liked it that every time we met, I didn’t fill our conversation with stories about my children. As every parent of young children knows, this can be something of an accomplishment, since one’s children seem to become the only topic that comes to mind in those early years. Only later did it occur to me that there exists a sort of sentimental expectation that once she becomes a mother, a female poet will cease to have any other subject, and expect others to be as invested as she is about their darling endeavors immortalized in print. Luckily, I have for a long time been more interested in writing about other people—some entirely fictional, some not—and now that most of my waking hours are spent paying attention to those children, slipping into the world of a poem populated by others is an incredible luxury.
”I often wonder if having small children improves a writer’s ear, as it is so often assailed by the variously penned rhymes in their books. Invariably, their favorite will be something particularly awkward, which you will have to read over and over until its clumsy syntax has hammered out an obituary for your own sense of rhythm and line. On the other hand, you will never read aloud so much in your life, so it is an excellent opportunity to listen to your own ease with language. It is always suggested that writers read in order to improve their craft; it is less often noted that listening plays as important a role. For a poet, especially, listening—to the music of the words as you write them, and to those words once they have taken their place in a line—is essential. Lead ears will drag a poet to the bottom of a lake faster than concrete slippers. Once the children have gone to bed, I can listen to what the characters in my poems are saying, and a poem only really works when what they say is a surprise to me. I only hope they offer up that reward before my own bedtime comes around.
”As a writer, I am tantalized by the fragments of other people’s stories you might hear in a song, or a newspaper article, say—something that provides you with all the ingredients for a larger exploration into that character. Often, I will become engaged in a long series of poems that revolve around a character, so that the poems become small chapters in a larger narrative. I like the way poetry allows you to distill an important moment, the way a camera can do when it lingers on a close-up. It allows me, as the storyteller, to fill that space with the unexpected observation or epiphany, or at least to provide it for the reader to experience. As a reader, I enjoy that payoff. I like to remind my students that an essential element of poetry writing is about control; as a writer, you have to know when to let loose, and when to close in; you have to be able to edit mercilessly and know when to stop; you have to trust the white space to do its work for you. I have found that people tend to think that poetry always tells the truth, but of course this is not so. Being a poet means lying in order to preserve a greater truth. Being a poet means telling the truth and allowing people to think it a lie.”
The statement I’ve heard over and over again as an editor is that writers write in order to live. That’s such a simplistic way of saying why we write, and perhaps Colette Inez said it best in her introduction of her first book, The Woman Who Loves Worms: “I write to survive the darkness by signaling my light.” Colette goes on to say, “I once heard the poet James Dickey describe sex as a stay against death. Writing, too, for me keeps Sénor Muerte at bay. And keeps me visible, a visibility, my secretive parents who lived in a time when illegitimacy sent one into hiding, did not want for me. Better that I be a pious child living in shadows. More importantly these decades have brought me a sense of worth that comes with seeing my words pulsing in print attended by my first and middle name given me at birth, Colette Inez. I write. I am.
“I suppose all along autobiography has been at the heart of my writing. Certainly my work is informed with the chronicle of a life whose early discouragements have been largely surmounted. But, that is not the whole story. My curiosity about the physical world is strong, and writing has led me to probe dimensions of macro and micro surrounding, knowledge I might never have explored had I not become a poet, a writer, a grateful writer, thankful for the power of teeming words artfully arranged on the page.”
“I think there is some truth to the idea that a lot of people have had the poetry ‘beaten out of them’ in school,” says Jeffrey McRae. “I think there’s less truth to the idea that there is a preconception about poets in general. I don’t think people think that much about poets. So many different kinds of poems are being written today, it’s hard to guess what kind of poetry it is most people think of as ‘poetry’. No it isn’t. It’s easy: it’s Shakespeare’s sonnets; it’s one of Keats’ odes; it’s long, stichic Wordsworth; it’s ‘The Wasteland’ and that confounding red wheelbarrow.
“But who is the poet? Most out there are not significant to the development of the art form: I’m not—I can’t speak for you—a Miles Davis, a Stravinsky of poetry pushing the art into the future. I think we’re mostly anonymous advocators and practitioners. We do other things. Come to think of it, even the great poets are just regular people doing other things with most of their day. But to see the significant in the ordinary, to comprehend the vitality of the present moment as often as is possible, and then to respond, to express that comprehension—perhaps that is the domain of the artist?
“I got married December 2005. It is now February 4, 2006 and my wife is at an art residency for two weeks. She’s five months pregnant. We’ve been together for nine years, but been married just a month. We’re into day two of the residency and I just want her home. So I write a poem that starts there and goes somewhere else. There’s impetus, a certain emotional pressure, so I start to push ink around. Lots of people would write a poem about that same situation, I think. Maybe I’ve spent more time reading poetry. Maybe I think about form, about how to write a poem a little more than most non-poets. Maybe that’s the only difference. An awareness of experience and form—thinking about form or pattern, shape; how to shape the expression, to express the shape of the impulse.”
Anger seems to play a large part of our writing. John Herschel writes that “… If you write poems, even your best friends won’t care. Your enemies might notice, but their attention will inevitably wander. Freedom of speech is also the freedom not to listen.
”People who think writing poetry is therapeutic are not writing poetry. Maybe more poets have been driven mad by trying to get a line right, than the mad have been driven well by writing a good line.
”In America we don’t like useless things. Ours is a culture of uplift and good intentions. The pathologically optimistic are suspicious of a poem’s reluctance to sing along. But maybe useless is useful in a world blind to its own impermanence.
”Anger is probably the only reliable substitute for inspiration, and given what’s happening to this country, everyone should be sublimely inspired.”
When I spoke with Karla Houston and told her we wanted to reprint “Cheap Talk” in our tribute, she told me the poem came about because of something a student said, but he didn’t realize that she had heard him. “He was so full of himself, so bold, so full of the notion that sex was only for the young. After class, I went to my office and vented, and this is the product of my irritation at his bluster. The poem is the anti-romance-novel version of sex. No nubile breasts heaving against the chest of a handsome and mysterious stranger–no earth moving. This is the more practical version, full of worry and frustration and hope.
”Writing for me, then, can be a way to express anger or frustration; it can be a way to sort out the ironies, the incongruities of this all-too absurd world. Even more importantly, I like to play with words. In an Isabelle Allende short story, the narrator says, words make their way into the world without a master and anyone with a little cleverness can…do business with them. I try to set up commerce with them. I like the infinity of words, combinations of image, sounds, the expression of ideas through them. I like the way words sometimes fit softly next to each other or sometimes slam into each other—like having sex. If you go about writing or sex in the wrong way, go about it selfishly, or go about it hurriedly, the end result might not be satisfying. Do it the right way—with care and attention, with, maybe, a certain amount of sweetness, the end result can be extraordinary—like making love.”
Sam Hamill is a good example of one who writes from both love and anger. His poem, “Eyes Wide Open,” was inspired by a touring exhibit of the same name put together by the American Friends Service Committee at the beginning of the Iraq War. “I have watched over the last half century as the very military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican president, warned us about has taken control of our government and of our lives. As our infrastructure and environment crumbles, we pour more money into arms and war, destroying more infrastructure and environment elsewhere, along with countless innocent lives. Elections in Chile are more transparent than our own. In every other industrialized nation in the world, there is a national health care system. Our schools can’t compete with those of most of Europe, Japan, and many others. ‘National security’ brought Hitler and Mussolini into power. The machinery of death saps our moral fiber even more deeply than our financial.
”The Friends’ exhibit was mostly row upon row of old boots. Which reminded me of that song from my childhood growing up on a horse: ‘Empty Saddles,’ indeed, especially given the phony bravado of our cowboy-president in his cowboy costume. The boots reminded me of my time in ‘the Corps,’ of all those brave, often foolish, almost uniformly naive young soldiers who are told time and again, You ain’t paid to think. We called ourselves ‘cannon-fodder.’
“The way of the sword is not a way of compassion. For that, we must—as Lao Tzu demands—lower ourselves, learn a little humility, learn to listen…”
Tony Gloeggler feels that writing is one of the things that defines him. And, he says, “I’ve been doing it for thirty-five or so years and it is still how I figure things out. I’m not a writer who sits at a desk and writes every day. I write when something is eating at me and I walk around with it for a long while and start to put it together in my head. If it’s still bubbling and there seems to be a poem worth putting in the time, then I’ll try to write.
”I think writing poetry is just another of those things that always makes me feel like I don’t quite fit in. Like when I was a four-year-old and wore this big heavy leg brace and a huge Frankenstein boot on the other or when I was a superstar schoolyard jock with hair down to my ass or when I was a long hair and never touched any drugs or when I’m the only Caucasian in the group home where I work or I’m a poet who perfectly understands why hardly anyone reads poetry or needs to. But mostly I feel at home when I’m writing, like I’m doing one of the things I’m supposed to do and when I get it right, when a poem is done and I can tell it’s good, well, it just lifts me.”
There are so many reasons why people write. As well as love and anger, those two very powerful emotions, there is what Erik Campbell calls “persuasion.” Erik agrees with Carl Dennis, that poetry is a kind of persuasion and he says, “My goal in writing is to convince the reader that reading does not waste their time. If writing is a kind of persuasion, it’s also a kind of conversation. This is why my litmus test for attempting poems is identical to that which I use for essays: Would this idea make for an interesting conversation? If I can honestly answer in the affirmative, I begin to write. Later (often, too late) I figure out if the idea is too big for a poem, too small for an essay, too idiosyncratic to be of any use to the reader, and so on. But more and more often it works.
“The rendering of the idea always comes very slowly for me; everything I write goes through so many drafts it’s downright silly. The ideas behind ‘Poet and Audience’ aren’t mammoth ones, yet I spent about ten years off and on with a poem before I thought: yep! I mean if I’m going to ask a reader’s time (and say, in effect, please read this instead of doing something else) I believe I have a duty not to waste it, to persuade the reader their time was well spent. I like to think that we have a duty to show each other a good time, in writing and in life.” And, by the way, Erik is writing from Papua, Indonesia. He thought that the jungle was a great place to concentrate. The word home has many connotations and is rich with images. Lorine Neidecker wrote in a poem called “Home,” no fact is isolate. For the writer, home is where they are. Erik has certainly proven that. His first book is just out, a winner, Arguments for Stillness.
“My best poems were surprises,” writes Robert Wintroub. “I learned to feel when a journal line ‘sounded,’ and a chord emerged, to treasure that fleeting moment and to grasp by the throat that word or memory or phrase that squirted up into view. A few years later I decided to try my hands at sculpting. I always had a talent for drawing what I saw, but thought myself incapable of working in three dimensions; but I plunged ahead and the next day confronted a twenty-five pound bag of water-based clay and a naked, lithe young woman and the admonition to make the clay like the woman; the deliciousness of making the mauve clay resemble the figure before me was a shock; not only was it apparent to me that I could do it, but working the cold, damp clay with my hands added a shocking sensuous element of delight.
”I learned the mechanics and language of sculpting: armature, working in the round, throwing the mistakes away, and most of all, not becoming too attached to one view or one line, forcing the rest to conform, so resonant of mistakes I made in poetry when I fell too in love with one phrase. Once I mastered the mechanics and anatomy, an arduous process spanning some years, I moved from copying the figure before me. I became a dedicated Starbucks fan, sitting with drawing pad and stick of vine charcoal, sketching endless forms and it was during that process that my poetry years returned to help. I would sketch vague and overlapping shapes, rotating the paper and squinting with one eye until a line, an angle, a shape caught my attention and drove me in some direction. The shape might resemble an arm from below or the curve of a neck but I again learned to plunge ahead without thought, following that lurking image, like a Michelangelo elbow emerging from granite. As the figures revealed themselves, the surprise was the same as that I experienced as a line of poetry flowed from the inkwell. The rest, the transformation to a clay Marquette, the mold, the lost wax, and finally the casting of the bronze were all but finishing touches on that first flash of surprise at seeing something unsuspected, unplanned. The poem is as durable as the bronze because both come from the same mysterious place where creative images and phrases sleep till a wormhole from one universe disturbs and rattles open a pathway to another.”
“I’ve allowed experience to implode within me. Long before I had words for it, I was imploded with experience,” writes Ken Meisel who feels that his writing is like birthing. “Even now, I’m in a rhythm of implosion and explosion. The writing is the explosion. To whit, this approximates physics, really. It is seed and womb. It is the act of creation.
“Poets absorb loneliness into themselves. And then they actually bother to figure out what silence or loneliness actually says to them. You know, how it’s a ghost in the attic whispering after 3 am.
I write poetry because I never could figure out
what the long blue sweep of waves
incoming on a beach in the summer of 1977
and me with my arm around a blond girl,
and sipping red wine, had to do with a boy
being killed on a stretch of highway
in his brand new silver Corvette, just after
high school graduation. All by himself.
In brown bear country.
“You know how random events get lodged in the mind and take on a cold bright resonance…This, by the way, has nothing to do with guilt. It’s more about paraplegic reality. It’s postmodern. How you can love something or someone with all your heart and then, you know….
“You can’t write poetry without absorbing loneliness. At least I can’t. Loneliness, solitude, these are the doorways, the gateways, to art. These are the allies you have into reverie. And poets reconstitute profound emotional experiences through relaxed, although hyper-focused acts of reverie.
“Memory is the junction. It’s where emotional realities meet at a truck stop for a smoke and a chat with the contextual narratives, or the significant events in our lives. You can’t get to that junction, you know, without going through the town of reverie. For me, reverie is an act of commitment to what is. It’s an act of recapitulation. And that takes relaxation and strong gazing. And good poetry is the result of all that.
“Poets like me are the folks that sniff through attics, spend time in the back alleys behind restaurants looking for evidence of decay, whatever; or we listen to a couple quarreling in a bar and figure to ourselves that there’s no end to configuration; you know, how things, people, configure into unique realities….The improvisation is the act of delight a poet gives to a particular subject. It’s the act of originality that embellishes just knowledge. It’s the ring of fire around the rose. It’s the halo. The light.”
Here is yet another example how through poetry we are forced into looking at life, our life, other people’s lives, squarely in the face. We write to find honesty. Here is what C. K. Williams said about his poem “Gravel”: “The thing that interests me about it, and what made it really possible to write, was the great disparity between the poem’s two themes, children playing in gravel, and men aggressing my wife on the subway. I wanted to write about what happened to her, but wasn’t able to until I found that frame to give some emotional distance from me. Maybe that’s what poetry is all about.”
“To Women Named Emily” seems odd to me now,” says Joseph Jordan, “very much a poem written by a kid about things he could not possibly know. I was eighteen when I wrote it, spending the last summer before college holed up in my room scribbling away at notebooks and pretending not to hear when my parents asked me when I was going to get a job. That was a fecund summer for me–I wrote the first poems of mine that were really poems–but its genesis came years before then, when, as a boy, I would creep up the steep stairs that led to the remodeled attic where my father did much the same thing. They were times of endless quiet writing and rewriting, punctuated by curses of frustration or naps of capitulation, the clack of his keyboard mesmerizing. I was always the kind of kid who wanted to be a grown-up, ASAP, and as far as I was concerned what grown-up men did with their time was write. That summer before I went off to college I was just doing what I had always supposed I would do.
”Why do I continue to write, now that I am myself at least technically an adult and have long since lost the illusion that all adult men are writers? To some degree I still write because it’s what’s done, at least by me, and I can’t really imagine not doing it at least occasionally. The application of words to the world is how I understand it. But there’s more to it than that. I write because I find words funny, and compelling, and strange, and shoving them together makes me happy in a way that nothing else I’ve ever experienced really has.
”Of course there are other reasons: To vent my political rage; to bathe in the complexities and oddities of my favorite baseball team; to bug people; to garner the respect and approbation of others. There was a time, even, when I did it because I thought it would help me get chicks, though that turned out to be woefully out of line with reality. I write because I’ve heard of Virgil, and, not being a religious man, the only way I can think to be alive fifteen hundred years from now is for some poor sap to be forced to read my stuff in class, unlikely as that is. I write so that I’ll remember. I write because otherwise, I’d have to do something else. I write because I love to read, and maybe someday someone will get some small fraction of what I get from a Neal Stephenson novel or a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, out of what I’ve written. You see–it’s both egomaniacal and altruistic. I write because it seems a better thing than just to, you know–not.”
Ron Alexander also starting writing as a child. He says he was an enthusiastic reader and, “…not long after I’d finished all of the Hardy Boys novels I sat down at my father’s Underwood to write my own book. My story also involved two brothers who solved mysteries, and though I gave them different names and made them taller, there was virtually nothing else about them that was new or different.
“That was lesson number one: Writing wasn’t going to be easy. Perhaps on an unconscious level, I realized that I hadn’t yet had any real life experiences to write about. In any event I put away the pages, finished high school and college (majoring in design), went on to get a masters degree in business and set out to make a living, which was what a child of Depression parents was expected to do.
“During my business years, I was usually chosen as the department report writer, covering such diverse and fascinating topics as finance, planning, marketing and economics. And I got paid pretty well for authoring these dry, factual papers. It wasn’t until my company was sold and disbanded that I decided to try my hand again at fiction. I retired from the corporate world and went back to college. That was twenty years ago and I’ve never doubted that decision. But like the vast majority of writers today, I suspect, I’ve never received more than a few dollars for anything I’ve written or published. Yet, writing is still the most difficult¾and most satisfying–thing I’ve ever done. It’s taken all these years to fully understand and accept that I write for myself. I have neither the time now to discuss the guilt and frustration associated with my failure to earn a living–doing what I love most–nor the space to elaborate on the fact that few in my family care that I write and that the majority of my friends don’t show much interest, either. Did I wake you? they ask when they phone at ten o’clock in the morning. So, in this context, when Stellasue Lee, then editor of RATTLE, telephoned to express their admiration for ‘“The Raid”’ and asked to include it in their twenty-fifth issue, I was elated. Too rare a moment in my writing career, perhaps, but an immensely satisfying one. As I said, I’ve never doubted my decision to become a writer. But to paraphrase the aging actress, when they asked her about growing old: It ain’t for sissies. She could have been talking about writing.”
We found Frank Mitrovitch Prosak living the teaching life these days. He writes us that he often wears a white shirt and a conservative blue necktie. He says that “…in this shirt I breathe, and sometimes I touch the tip of my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Once I was a boy who was afraid to fall asleep. I returned day after day, but I returned reluctantly; in this world, I feared lying down and being blown back into the shadows.
“For a winter in the 1940’s, my baba Prosak massaged my feverish, limp body with herbs and raw duck eggs until I solidified into a man of words. My father, Dmitri Fyodorovitch, who is now with the Light, danced on the kitchen floor and nailed me to this world with stories and songs; I, too, not knowing what else to do, tell stories, write, sing songs, and dance on the kitchen floor.”
Writing is about finding the voice within. It’s about learning what you think, and having a voice to communicate that to others. I think it was Robert Frost that responded to someone who asked him what his poems meant, You want me to say it worse?
Like so many of us, Richard Vargas grew up in a family and a society where he felt controlled and manipulated, and he thought he had only two options: “…go with the flow, become a worker bee, accept all without question, or you can start asking why? and make a lot of people very nervous. I opted for the latter. I wanted a voice, my voice, something they couldn’t take from me. On the corner of Central and 5th, in downtown Albuquerque, a homeless man sits surrounded by several boxes and plastic garbage bags filled with his belongings. All day he sits there and writes. The bus I ride to work goes by his corner at 6:30 am, and he’s there, writing. All the trappings we associate with comfort and home, he’s given up or lost, but he didn’t lose the will to write. This is writing stripped down to its bare bone. Personally, I just want to communicate. I want to give a different look at things, make people realize that when it’s all said and done we have a lot in common. Writing poems ain’t sacred, or mysterious. It doesn’t require a college degree. If someone told you it’s hard, they lied. Say what you feel.”
In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1798, by William Wordsworth, he writes, “It is the honorable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind. The evidence of this fact is to be sought, not in the writings of Critics, but in those of Poets themselves.”
Writing is discovery. We write to find order in our lives, to invent ways of understanding our world, and to document that understanding and then to communicate it.
As I sit here at my desk in Sherman Oaks, California, in a room nine feet wide and twenty-seven feet long, paneled in wood, with a sloping beam ceiling and a floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace at one end, a wall of glass over looking the garden at my right shoulder, and hundreds, if not a thousand books, I am surrounded by little slips of paper from which I’ve been gathering the words for this essay from so many of the people I’ve grown to admire, and yes, I might as well say it, love. I am obsessed with details, for it’s the details of our lives from which we write.
Two weeks ago, my adopted daughter, Jillian Alexander Gregory, was killed in an accident. She would have been forty this year. She was driving down the hill from Mammoth, her three-year-old strapped into the child seat, and from accounts, may have hit a patch of ice, went into a spin and over compensated. She went off the cliff. The baby survived with minor injuries, but our Jillian was gone. I am obsessed with the details. Did she leave soup on the stove? How was she wearing her beautiful auburn hair that morning? What shoes did she have on her feet? What was she thinking… I’ll never know, but I will grapple with this the rest of my days and I trust it will spill out of me in everything I write. That’s what I do, write! I present to you the world I know. It’s an open invitation to share it with me. That’s why we write, not to be alone.