I’ve spent the last few weeks furiously editing my poetry manuscript, going over each word carefully, and rearranging the book. I feel that the finished product is strong—very strong. I worry that I probably wasted a lot of money this past spring term submitting to contests, but I suppose that’s part of a writer’s life these days. I wonder how much money I’ve spent the past three years on contest fees? I don’t even want to know.
Which, of course, makes me wonder: is the contest route the only way to get a book of poetry into print anymore? Of course not. Some presses offer open reading periods. At the same time, however, many of the better small presses open their doors to unknowns (like yours truly) only during contest season.
But I’m getting off track here. I wanted to write about editing and architecture, particularly the overall arc of a book of poems. The last decade has seen the publication of many books of poems that are project-oriented. I think of Tyehimba Jess’s amazing debut, Leadbelly, a biography-in-verse of the famous blues singer. I think of Kevin Young’s Black Maria, a noir-in-verse that’s well worth a read (or re-read, as it were). Books by Jake Adam York, Sabrina Mark, Sean Hill, Danielle Pafunda, and others pop to mind. I don’t know if this is something new in poetry publishing1. And I don’t want to pass a value judgment on this trend, saying whether it’s good or bad. It just is.
And because it just is, I found myself looking for some kind of overarching something to hold my book together. I found it, I believe, but I don’t want to talk too much in specifics here on my blog. Suffice to say that this urge to build a book as a “project” (for lack of a better word) might spring from my love of narrative fiction.
I come to poetry as a storyteller. From my earliest years, I told stories (often whopper lies to whomever would listen). When I first went to college, I wanted to be a novelist and write books and follow in the footsteps my then-heroes, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, and Jack Kerouac. I loved narrative, then, and I still do, now.
At the same time, I have a musician’s love of the lyric moment. As a guitarist, I like getting in a pocket, some blues or jazz riff, and staying there as long as I can, working the scale, working the box. I love how a writer like William Matthews does the same thing in print, occupying a moment in time and exploding it, a al John Keats. Rodney Jones does the same thing for me, though he manages to somehow be a lyric storyteller.
Which is what I want my book to be: a lyric narrative. Or perhaps a narrative lyric. Or something.
I think of the jazz musician’s journey, the way he sets out from the tonic note and occupies that space before returning to the dominate. Jazz is this way—the story of leaving and returning. But it’s not just the overall story of departing and coming home that interests me about jazz. It’s the journey itself, the way the soloist brings himself back home. That’s what interests me. That’s the kind of poetry I’d like to write.
Recommended reading: Michael S. Harper’s Dear John, Dear Coltrane, Ed Pavlic’s Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Love Song for Donny Hathaway, T.R. Hummer’s The Infinity Sessions
1 Of course, in the end, the overarching project book isn’t new at all. See Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems and W.C. Williams’ Paterson among many other, earlier examples.
It was a common scene in any given undergraduate workshop in which I was enrolled: the group would discuss a poem, and afterward, the poet, connecting her life with her art would say something like, “But that’s how it happened.”
The professor would then swiftly remind the young poet that life is life and art is art. Just because something happened in life doesn’t mean that a reader has to accept it in writing. The class moved on to the next poem or short story, and the lesson stuck in my head. Over the years, I have struggled with this tension between life and art.
Last night, I was lying awake, thinking about a possible poem: my mother used to clean houses to help make ends meet. She worked a split shift at the local telephone company, and in the four hour break between shifts, she picked up my brother and I from school, got us home, cleaned a house, came back home, made supper, and headed back to work. Thinking about that routine, I became fascinated by the duality of it all: two jobs, two sons, two homes, two worlds, two lives, and so on. I imagined the structure would be in couplets to emphasize the two-ness of the poem.
Then, as I tried to work out the opening lines in my head, I began to think about how much of my writing emerges this way: from life experience. It’s not such a strange thing, really. I think that many writers turn to the page to make sense of the world. But in the workshops I took, I was taught that on the page itself, I learned that my life didn’t matter all that much. Only the writing mattered.
I don’t want to give the impression that my professors were terrible people. I had wonderful teachers, all caring mentors who helped me as I struggled to learn how to write. Particularly Ed Pavlic at the University of Georgia pushed and prodded me, helping me to find my poetic voice. Without his advice, I’m certain that I would still be struggling to rewrite John Donne and Mark Jarman. Without Ed’s influence, I’d be the same poet I was ten years ago and not constantly evolving and restlessly experimenting.
My teachers, however, knew my writing, not my life. The lines I spun were more important in the classroom that the experience that inspired those lines. My teachers understood that editors and potential publishers knew only the words on the page, not the awkward balding big man with glasses who wrote poetry to try to make sense of his place in the world.
Yet, I can’t ignore my life. I can’t pretend that I don’t write from experience. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many brilliant writers in my life, poets and fiction writers and essayists motivated by theory and poetics. Their work is widely praised and rightly so. But my writing is less theoretical, less motivated by a poetics and more experiential. In many circles, that fact makes me a second-tier poet. In writing about my life, I risk sentimentality. But I think that every piece of art should run that risk.
Of course, I realize that my life experience is a kind of fiction. What I remember about my childhood is very much a narrative I’ve built over the years. But that narrative emerges from actual fact—things that I remember happening. And when I write about those things, I realize that the artifact that emerges (the poem itself) is not the actual experience but a kind of re-writing of that experience. I guess that in writing about my life, I am trying to re-write my past. For each poem, then, I have two memories: the experience that inspired the poem and the poem itself. And at various times, one is the shadow and one is the fire. One is the tenor and one is the vehicle.
For me, the necessary fiction of poetry makes the experience bearable. The poem distances the reality, and the reality focuses the poem.
This is starting to get tangled, and I don’t want to suggest that every poem I write works this way. For me, writing a poem happens mainly in revision, when I am fine-tuning lines, reading the work aloud, and trying to find the poem’s shape. In that process, the experience fades into the background, little more than white noise at the edge of my consciousness.
But in the end, when the poem is abandoned (says Valery), I am left with a thing (artifact? by-product?) of both artifice and experience. It’s trite to say yin and yang, so I won’t. I will say that in the end, my life and my writing have become so entangled that when I read my work, I often can’t remember the actual events any more. I remember only what the poem allows me to remember. And I think that’s enough.
O for a muse of fire,