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.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Poetry world reels at loss of poet and editor Jon Tribble

“Team Jallison” — the late Jon Tribble and his wife, Allison Joseph

When we’re baby poets, undergrads and just beyond, we often find ourselves looking for mentors or exemplars — writers of stature we can emulate to help us reach our writing goals.

When I was just getting started, I would drive anywhere to see an important poet read, and I stood in countless lines just to exchange a few words and get a scrawled signature in a skinny book. I wouldn’t trade any part of that experience, because it really was a master class in poetry, albeit in bits and spurts.

These exchanges weren’t always the dream experience I’d hoped them to be. Once, in Missoula, Montana, I’d finagled an invitation to an afterparty to meet one of the most anthologized and lionized writers of our time. I happened to come across him alone there, in a dining room where a table had a huge spread of food. I tentatively approached, so glad to have a chance to tell him what his work meant to me — and it did. I had several of his poems memorized, and his words often leapt to mind to define the pinnacle (or nadir) moments of my life.

So I spilled my rambling, nervous sentence to the great man, and his response was a deep “harumph” before he turned his back on me and walked away.

Our heroes aren’t always the people we would hope they would be.

Another time, a little later in my life, I had the good fortune to host a favorite poet for a reading. Her work was astonishing in its depth, its truth and its heart. While it was often arch or damning, there was a great love underpinning it, and I couldn’t wait to spend some time with her.

This poet was a nightmare guest. She refused to carry out some of her commitments as a contracted visiting writer, and in the small city where I lived at the time, no available restaurant was suitable for her palate. My staff and I worked hard to get her the meal she wanted at 10 p.m. on a weeknight (she hadn’t wanted anything at 6 p.m., when food was actually available), and after lots of effort, she didn’t touch the Midwestern miracle we had managed to pull together for her. If you have ever lived in a small town in the heartland, you understand the challenge.

Both of these writers have names you would know, if you follow poetry at all. But yesterday, the poetry world lost a beloved figure whose work you may not have had a chance to hear of.

Jon Tribble was a prominent editor, both of the literary journal Crab Orchard Review and its corresponding Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, which operates through the Southern Illinois University Press.

Upon learning on social media of his death, dozens upon dozens of poets responded with expressions of shock and sorrow. It was astonishing to see how many people Jon had touched within the poetry world — people he encouraged at key times, people he mentored, people whose work he edited and made stronger in the process.

One person, my friend Michael Meyerhofer, posted about an instance where he told Jon about difficulty he was having with a manuscript, and Jon volunteered to look at the loose poems and see what he could do. What he did, it turned out, was to organize the poems “into a proper manuscript,” as Michael told it — “The ordering he came up with was fantastic and ended up being my fourth book.” It was a lot of work, but, Michael writes, “He did all this with humor and nonchalance, like he was just holding the door open for me.” It’s a gesture poets saw again and again from this good man.

As an editor and publisher, Jon Tribble spent many years focusing on the work of others, while his own astonishing poems languished on the back burner. In recent years, I believe at the urging of his brilliant wife, the poet Allison Joseph, Jon sought publishers for his poetry, and the result was three deliciously strong books in three years: Natural State (Glass Lyre, 2016), And There Is Many a Good Thing (Salmon Poetry, 2017), and God of the Kitchen (Glass Lyre, 2018). If you didn’t get a chance to experience the keen sensibility of this rare talent during his lifetime, you still can. Though Jon has left us, his poetry lives on forever.

There are a lot of curmudgeons and brats and lechers and opportunists in poetry, and sometimes you drive miles just to have them scribble on your page. But there aren’t a lot like Jon Tribble, who is remembered today as a generous soul, a talented poet and a kind, kind man. I hope you will give his work a try.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Why poetry? It's how we deal with the blob

This morning my son asked me why I write poetry.

I wasn’t actually aware that Keats (yes, I named my son after the Romantic poet) even knew I wrote poetry, or had much of a sense of what poetry is. He’s six, so he’s exposed to more poetry than he will be as he grows older — Dr. Seuss and other picture books, the little songs we sing.

I was surprised to be asked this question, and gratified, too. He sees me living and moving through a slightly separate world than his own. I’m not sure if I thought of my own mother in terms outside of myself at this age, even though I saw her in her nurse’s uniform every night as she walked out the door to care for patients in the cardiac unit.

It’s good to be seen by the people who love us.

It’s hard to answer this question for someone so young, and I had to take a moment to think of what I wanted to say.

“Remember that dream you had the other day?” I asked him.

He had told me about a dream where he was in a building and a big blob was taking it over, inflating into the hallways and bulging out of doors and windows.

“You thought about that for a long time,” I reminded him. “You wondered what the blob was and how it got there.”

He remembered. The dream both scared and fascinated him, and it clearly stuck with him. He asked me about it more than once. Where did the blob come from? Would it come back to another dream?

My poetry is just a written version of his thoughts about the blob, I explained. Sometimes our thoughts take over, and we work hard to make sense of them. For me, the words that I attach to this process are not rooted in regular syntax. I don’t think about big truths in grammatical sentences, and neither does he. Instead, words and images come, and I find myself trying to make connections.

What I said to him simplified this idea a bit.

“I write poetry because my thoughts are too big for regular words,” I said.

He nodded. He knew just what I meant and was satisfied.

Monday, January 7, 2019

When the poem writes back

Last week, something wonderful happened: My second full-length collection, Passing Through Humansville, published at the very end of 2018 by Sundress Publications, reached the hands of those readers who had pre-ordered it.

One by one, friends started writing me notes of congratulations and posting photos on social media of my book in their hands. It’s a beautiful thing to see the work that began in my notebook beautifully produced and present in places all over the country. My poems are, generally speaking, the best of me, and these poems are the best of the best of what I had to offer.

But is the best of me good? That’s the question, and it gives me pause when I see my loved ones holding my work. The question is not even a writerly one; any of us might take a moment to look around at the life and work we create and wonder if we’re reaching our potential or contributing something meaningful to the world. I hope we all do wonder this, just as I hope we all put forth some effort to make our one life mean something.

Poetry usually isn’t much fun. For me, the drafting begins with something like shame. I write out a word, a sentence, a set of connections, and then I can’t believe my foolishness. It’s my habit to obliterate those first words — just scribble-scribble-scribble over them until not a single letter can be picked out. That blacking-out (or bluing-out, more accurately — I have a thing for blue pens) seems to be part of my process. I approach what’s hard to approach, and then I back away from it in a very forceful way, and then I approach again by a more deliberate path.

After the drafting and its weird embarrassment, I begin revising, a process that is less shameful and more tedious. There’s not a lot of joy in sweating out each word and casting and recasting each line, and there is a fair amount of second-guessing in the process. Ultimately, I make a decision, and then I question that decision for a bit, and then I say the hell with it and call the issue settled.

Then comes submitting. I generally like this process — after all, I’m giving my poems a real, live audience, even if it’s just an audience of one harried editor. It’s kind of fun to see if they sink or swim on their own, and so much about the process is instructive. Editors always seem to go first for the poems I include as filler in a submission, for instance, and poems I love sometimes take longer than the others to find a home. I do not like sorting through submission guidelines and coughing up reading fees, but the human contact is nice, even when that human says no.

Putting together a book is another difficult task. Readers seem to like the relief that sections provide, so I spend a lot of time figuring out what goes where. (With my first book, I labored over this section issue pretty hard, but my editor, the brilliant Erin Elizabeth Smith, suggested I eliminate sections altogether, and that was the right decision — but wow, I spent a lot of time taping and retaping those pages around on a bare wall.) There are things in the editing process that we argue for and things that we let go of along the way, and that’s an invigorating set of exchanges, but again, it’s a lot of work.

One of the final parts of the writing process is that weird angst of having my actual book in the hands of actual readers, and I won’t go into that again. I notice, though, that I’ve not mentioned any real delight along the way, and a reader may well wonder — was there any?

In fact, there was. Writing poetry brings one distinct pleasure, and that is the satisfaction of having written. This is a feeling that only comes when the work is viable, as there is no pleasure in “having written” garbage. When we’ve written something we like, it feels very nice.

Beyond this satisfaction, though, is a feeling that’s downright exhilarating, and these are the moments when you’ve written the poem and the poem writes back. You scan the piece and, improbably, you discover something — some insight you didn’t plant there (or at least not intentionally). I’ve even found dense layers of imagery in a poem that I didn’t calculate; they just sort of showed themselves upon later inspection. My own poems kind of floor me sometimes, not because they’re amazing poems (although there are some I’m very proud of), but because they seem to operate independently of my consciousness. They have their own consciousness — and that’s a weird and breathtaking discovery on a printed page.

Sometimes we think we’re writing a question, and we’re actually writing the answer to that question. Sometimes we write out our fury or frustration and peace peeks through. Sometimes we’re just writing along the best we can when the poem says, “Let’s show her what we can do.” This is the thrill of it — when a poem is a horse that can take us into astonishing wilderness but then knows exactly how to bring itself home.