Sunday, October 6, 2019

At 50, there's a little less shame in my poetry game

At this point, I’ve been writing seriously for almost three decades, and one part of my process has  changed very little in all that time.

It’s the shame.

Nearly every poem I’ve ever written has started like a train wreck, but not a small one — one dainty wheel off the track. Instead it’s been a chemical spill in a cypress swamp, the poison of foolishness spreading up roots and into trunks and limbs and bleeding across the landscape.

I draft by hand — it’s something about that flow of blood from the heart down the brachial artery and into my hand and fingers; this seems significant as the words spill onto the page. I revise on the computer; it’s just easier to see how the lines are setting up — the places where they jut way out, the places where they stop too soon.

The first lines I write are almost always a report about my immediate situation — what I’m seeing or hearing, what’s bugging me. I just wrote a draft of a poem, in fact, and it begins with the line “I’m always anonymous here.” I was in a coffee shop and feeling completely invisible in the good leather chair in the center of the room. That line didn’t make the cut — my first line almost never makes the cut; it’s just a way for me to mosey in to the real start of the poem, which may come on line two or line twenty or line never-ever, give up, take a nap, try again tomorrow.

This poem turned out to be about the death of a loved one. It had almost nothing to do with me, except the fact that it broke me. That original first line reflects how I almost always feel when I’m out and about in my city. I’m accustomed to small towns — places where you always run into someone you know, and you dare not go out without sprucing yourself up a little. Here, I may as well be wrapped in a blanket with my hair on fire. I don’t know anyone, and none of the strangers around me seem to see me. (Turn 50. You’ll see what I’m talking about.) So I’m a little lonely, a little invisible, a little blue. That’s the song that’s playing on my spiritual sound system, and I’ll be honest — it’s not a bad track to write by. I just have to find the pulse of the pain, to return to that arterial notion.

When I started out with poetry, I used to write this first line or two (or ten) and then furiously obliterate them. I felt ashamed of that raw, unartful honesty. It didn’t rise to the level of poetry; it was a diary entry, and if I didn’t blacken it out, someone might see it. I wouldn’t want that.

I seldom had people over to my house when I was growing up, partly because I lived out of the way in the woods and partly because my house was always messy and chaotic. But one day I did, and I remember the four friends in my bedroom with their heads bent together over my journal. I recall that I had some pretty personal thoughts in there. One entry was about my butt and how flat it was, and how I wished I had a nice, round butt like my friend S., who was present and read every word. I was suffused with shame. One doesn’t write about one’s friend’s butt.

My false starts used to make me feel that way — like I was caught imagining a more callipygian self, constructed from the better spare parts of my friends. I wouldn’t just cross through these lines; I’d go over them again and again, scribbling Xs and angles and curlicues so that there was no chance anyone could make out the letters beneath. I guess the Xing motion was a contemplative process for me, because eventually I’d make my way to the real poem on the page, and sometimes I’d end up with something deeply satisfying, or at least promising.

I guess I came to feel that truth and maybe beauty lie just past the shame. The trick is to get to them.

These days, I write with a little more abandon. My shame is drying up — it’s like an emotional perimenopause, and the eggs of embarrassment are few and far between, and the ones that do drop defy fertilization. Love me, love my board-straight arse, along with all of my complicated feelings about it.

If I could time-travel, I might want to visit that girl on her bed, her friends gone silent around her with the weight of her revelation. I might try to tell her to give up her shame — no one in that circle was satisfied with her cushions; everyone there understood.

But I wonder if taking away my shame would take away my power. Just as in comic books and on TV, anger turned the Hulk green and unstoppable, my shame made me rose red and transcendent. Maybe shame was exactly what I needed to reach my full poetic potency — and now that I’m a grownup poet, I can skip the shame, or at least nod to it in greeting like an old friend.


  1. I like you set this line apart-

    "I guess I came to feel that truth and maybe beauty lie just past the shame. The trick is to get to them."

    I came here because I searched "what does in-progress mean in submittable?" and read your article. You confirmed my suspicion that reading that list for signs about my writing is foolhardy.

    Thanks for that and for this. There is much beauty that is never glimpsed or discovered for fear of failure.

    Press on,

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