During the darkest days of my degree, when it seemed as if I would never resurface from the depths of my own inadequacy and self-loathing, I was asked to write a poet’s statement. The goal was to consider why it is that I write poetry, what I am trying to accomplish, where I am failing, where I am faltering, and to find a way out. This piece is the unedited version of that (full of things that reveal my sadness, my ineptitude, my frustration, my arrogance, my struggle). Enjoy. Or don’t. I can’t make you love me. It is what it is. (the poem at the end is meant to be a culmination of all my personal writing tics).
Academic poetry is like customer service, usually awful.
– Anonymous (it was me)
My weakness is in my knees
– Anonymous (still me)
Pesto, West Ho!, This is My Poetry Manifesto
My Dad recently told me that some people are brilliant writers because of how they can say a thing and others are writers because of what they have to say—the special way that they see the world and what they have to say about it. He said that he thought I was the latter. This is not to say that he didn’t think I was the former too but, on sobbing phone calls with your desperate daughter, a man must not be greedy when grabbing for parachutes.
He may be right.
I hate the idea of the kind of hubris it takes to say that one wants to change the world, but is there really any other reason to write poetry? I always dreamed that one day I’d end up working in a women’s prison, or a juvenile detention for girls, or maybe even just a high school running some kind of after school writing program. Through writing, I figured, I would find a way of showing girls that they are enough, by themselves, inherently, just the way they are. So, it should come as no surprise that, when asked what concerns me as a poet, I want to discuss girl’s who hate their own bodies, society’s attempts to control female sexuality, the persecution of the other woman, the embarrassing idiocy of humans dating, elitism, exclusion, and an inability to talk of things as they are. (I just want to write without all the bullshit). Though, it’s not always as grim as it sounds. I am also concerned with joy: creating it, spreading it, celebrating it. Nobody ever confessed on their deathbed that they wished they had spent less time laughing. No grave stone ever read: here lies Joe, who enjoyed being miserable.
Having very little to say for myself is an irony I am uncertain about, uncertain because I’m not sure if it’s terribly sad or hysterically funny. A writer with nothing to say in their own defense seems to be not a very good writer at all. Perhaps it is a parlor trick I haven’t yet figured out.
In 1994, I sat in the hallway of an elementary school and wrote a story. Because when my seventh grade teacher had asked if he was disturbing me, what with his teaching a class and all and I paying very little attention, I had answered truthfully—yes. I was, after all, writing a story and trying to win a competition. He was not angry, they never were. He was certain of my abilities, as they always were too. He gave me a table, a chair, and a hallway of possibility. “Come back inside when you’re done,” was all he said. He was certain I was going to be something. My entire life, everyone has always been so certain that I would do something important, that I was going to be somebody important, that I was going to do something with my life. Nobody has ever not believed in me, and I have to wonder if they’ve gotten their hands on some faulty data. I used to be certain I was going to be a writer. Now, I wish I had tried to become an engineer. Lately, I’ve started to wonder if my writing is like a magic trick, if my writing is just misdirection. Look, look over here and ignore what’s behind that curtain ma’am. I’m starting to think that maybe my writing has never really been anything other than worthless, and that I’ve somehow conned people into liking my work simply because they like me. Though what kind of asshole thinks they are so likable as to hold such power? It seems entirely impossible that something could be true for so many years. And yet, I’m genuinely starting to believe that my writing might just be a long con.
I am haunted by questions of quality. I almost want to be convinced that how I view poetry is wrong, because at least then I could finally get some sleep. I wish someone could convince me that trying to hide, and darken, and keep secret, all the things worth knowing, in the pursuit of stimulating something abstract, value being irrelevant, is a valiant pursuit. I don’t understand the trend to obfuscate, to obliterate. Meaning has never been so afraid. Poems that try to numb, poems that pare it down to the bare minimum, the absolute least amount acceptable, poems that refuse to speak because in the silence I’m supposed to come up with it all on my own, poems that hold me hostage at gunpoint. Poems that are a thin blank it. But, we shall come back to this.
Why do you write? The answer is entirely too cliché and yet, very true. I write because I have to, because no other shoe fits right (though lately it feels like wearing socks on broken glass sidewalks). Some days it is as simple as—because I liked the way it sounded. I wrote it because I had a thought and it seemed like magic. I put it in a drawer, after, because what kind of egotism is it to find your own thoughts so wonderful. Nonetheless, that’s why I wrote it. Some days I write because I had to say a thing, because I couldn’t let the words go unsaid, because somebody had to stand up and say something. What kind of jerk thinks they can change the world? But maybe poetry is just that selfish and naive. I write because I’m trying to find my place in this world. I write because one day I will die and I want to leave behind something that says I was here. I was here; I said some things; someone will remember that I existed because of the words I wrote down; someone will remember me because of ‘something she said’.
I write for the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. I write for the waitresses, the stay-at home moms, the girls who throw up their lunches, the women who want more. I write for the men who do things without thinking, the men who say “I was joking” when what they mean is “I’m not very funny”, I write to find my way out of this bitterness. I write for anyone who will listen. I write for someone who thinks what I have to say has value, who thinks I offer a wisdom outside of their own. I write for the person who gets my jokes.
While many don’t appreciate it, or perhaps find my poems all that funny, one of the clearest evolutions I’ve made as a writer has been incorporating humor into my writing. Incorporating jokes and dialogue into my poetry is a relatively new advancement. I have also started trying to write with constraints (both on form and content), something that may be seen as progress. I guess you could say it’s a willingness to step outside my box. I value it because it makes me uncomfortable and from discomfort great things may come. It often bothers me though because it always feels so gimmicky. It often feels like splattering words on a page. It often feels entirely meaningless.
If I wrote a poem that made no sense, that offered no perspective, no wisdom of experience, no point, but it made the reader think something amazing: did I do that?
A man builds a piano. A man builds many pianos. Many men build many pianos. They all play music. One day, Beethoven strikes a key. The rest is history. No one ever asks the piano builder about his artistry.
He is not a magician, he is a coincidence. An accidental breach of meaning, the day someone drew a treasure map through his mine field of nothingness. And why would I call him poet? The cartographer is the artist, she is the word wizard. He is a cross word puzzle, she is the high score. Be contrary. Be different. Be exactly everything the world expects of poets, but act like it is news to you. Be Oppositional Defiance Disordered syntax. Strain to buy the con of academic poetry. What are we even doing here? Do you think they laugh about us at the grocery store? Down at the coal mine? In the coffee shop across from the police station? Waiting in line at the airport? I do. I think they laugh about our oblivious elitism, how entirely worthy it’ll be one day when we starve to death because we wanted to write a poem about principals and obfuscation. Is there a janitor who might clean up this mess?
I am desperately envious of writers who are certain that they are writers. To have the certainty that what you have is worth sharing, is perhaps the greatest gift a person could ever have.
I am terrified that what I’ve learned in grad school is right. I am stop calling your parents because they’ll hear it in your voice, silent and breathless full body sobs on green and peach Berber, kind of frightened. I am no longer tethered to a certainty. I have lost my anchor in this race. When I first started grad school, I remember talking to many of the creative stream students about their work. The majority of them had told me that they never share their work.
“Never been published?”
“Not even online?”
“But you’ve at least read your work, out loud, no?”
At the time I couldn’t understand such a thing. What was the point in writing if you weren’t going to share your work? I now understand entirely. People keep asking me to read at poetry nights and I keep saying no (that’s not the shocking part). What shocks me is when they’re surprised by my answer of “no, thanks”. Why on earth would I want to continue sharing my work? Last term I took a fiction course and received an A. So did everyone else in the class. The A is worthless, entirely meaningless, a waste of tuition dollars and time spent and tears shed. I have recently been given two interim grades, one in poetry and one in a fiction workshop, both B+. If I had been getting B+’s in my academic courses, I would’ve dropped out by now. This isn’t to say I don’t deserve those B+’s. Most days I am still plagued by these markers of my quality. There are a few days when I remember that if my A is entirely worthless, then so too are my B+’s. Though, if everything is worthless, what are we even doing here? Back on track though, my incredulity is then with the shock that follows. If you tell someone their work is shit, you cannot then be surprised when they don’t want to rip their chest open and show you their heart. You can’t be surprised. The surprise is what gets me. The surprise is constant. The surprise is what is surprising.
I wrote a love poem for my butcher, asked him to meat me halfway
I said I had the chops if he did, to grind this thing out
We bantered across the glass case, I wasn’t sure could hold my weight
He told me about his childhood, standing beside a jar of giant pickles
I was worried my heart was already too full but he assured me
That he would take whatever room I had, would shave himself to fit
He said, “no matter how you cut me, our love is prime”
Eyes flickered with candles and surrounded by bowls of olives
I smiled and said “Sir, my loins do ache for you”
And he laughed, because it was funny.