Sunday, September 16, 2018

the lives of the poets

Image result for mother movie poet desk

Last weekend I spent my time watching that Aronovsky film MOTHER!, alternately laughing about how overblown the biblical allegory was and how unrealistic and ridiculous the depiction of the writing life. The husband character, just known as "The Poet" spends his time doing things like hopping out of bed naked to write, entertaining "fans" than show up at his door and basically destroy the house, and being completely oblivious to everything but his art and celebrity while a terrified Jennifer Lawrence looks on. (I would actually argue that her plight, trying to protect the house and build a home (or interior world) and people keep intruding, is far closer to my creative experience than anything the "The Poet" does.)

Historically, poets wear flowy shirts and maxi dresses and cavort around the countryside waiting for rare inspiration to strike, whereupon we scribble our brilliance into our notebooks secretively. Maybe later on we publish it, but rarely do we show pursuit of an audience lest it distastefully smack of focusing too much on the career and not enough on our aesthetics. I was reading an interview with a poet recently who talked about how she only wrote longhand and then typed everything on a manual typewriter. How detrimental it was, at least for her, to keep any sort of dogged writing practice, how poems just occasionally happened  Nevertheless, she was a poet with quite a bit of published work under her belt, which made me expect some of the talk was more metaphorical than actual. (ie, someone was doing the work of submitting and audience creating).

Since I mostly came into my own as a poet of the internet --in terms of publications and connecting with other writers online through various means--first listservs, then discussion boards, then blogs, then social media--I've always been curious about other people's lives as writers--the triumphs, the disappointments. I've always considered it a bit of literary voyeurism. It's probably the same impulse that leads me to all those fictionalized biographies I so love.  Also a certain curiosity about what goes on behind the scene of someone whose work I am interested in.  I was far more fascinated when I was 20 about Plath's letters and journals than I was her poems.. Since I barely knew a single writer in real life, I wanted to know HOW to live this sort of life. What to read, when to write, where to publish.  What I should concern myself with as a writer.

Truth is, of course, my writing life is somehow neither as picturesque or ordered as fiction would have us believe. Mostly it's a kind of controlled chaos.  In past years, it would be months of hardly writing at all and then weeks of panic and trying to finish things before self-inflicted deadlines (mostly on weekends, one of the reasons I am so protective of them.)   I have memories of periods of solid productivity--the summer of 1996, the fall/winter of 1998, my MFA years.  Other years would be more fallow, or so it seemed, and yet I have books to show for many of those years so obviously I was writing, most likely in bits.  Add up lots of bits and you have a book. (why I make a good poet and a horrible novelist, like sprinting vs. running a marathon) My visual work, outside of  regular design projects for things like the press or the library,  is similarly haphazard and chaotic--odd bits here and there--an obsession then lull.  Then, occasionally,  a large amount of output when necessary.

I did once compose mostly by hand, usually on notebook or white paper snatched from the printer. Yellow legal pads or random scrap paper.  In foraging through files I discovered a poem draft on an RC student govt. flyer I must have grabbed in the office (I was once an officer and hung out in the basement amid scores of old paperwork and where I once remember getting very drunk trying to rewrite the constitution.)  Pages and pages of redrafting and cross-outs.  Half poems, harvested poems. Later I would type them on my electric typewriter or later, a word processor.  Then finally a computer.   Eventually, I realized the keyboard was friendlier to revision and now, with a couple exceptions, I'll compose electronically 99% of the time. I have a dropbox now that makes manuscripts accessible anywhere, but I used to use private blogs and e-mail to store poems on the fly and then put them together at some point in a word doc.

Up until a few years ago, for inspiration and prompts, I still kept hearty notebooks with fragments, though now, I tend more toward loose sheets or cheapie notebooks. (currently, it's a dollar store stenographer's pad.) I have a solid sketchbook/planner I use to organize my life, but usually another, more disposable one I carry in my bag, for writing purposes since most gets typed up and tossed out.  Since the spring, I've been good about writing daily and have scads of new work to show for it. The key seems to be prioritizing that writing, whatever is happening in the day, whatever else gets swallowed by work and the press and all the dailyness.

Now,  I open up whatever I am working on while I eat breakfast as soon as I get to the studio and start typing.  I do a little tweaking and revising as I go, but then I usually hit save and leave it alone for a bit.  It helps to get it out before the day drowns me in e-mails and press work and library tasks. Before I am swallowed up and exhausted.  Later in the day, usually at night before I go to bed, I will glance at it again, and if I am alone (which I usually I am most nights of the week) I'll go to bed thinking about it (though if I'm pre-occupied by other things, I fail in this often.)  The next morning I start again.

Every few weeks I will gather and polish and revise as needed. Occasionally I get a chance, like yesterday's weekend library shift quiet, to send out some poems over the transom and respond to invitations. Daily, though I try to do a little bit of work on the more business/self promo side, updating social media with poem samples, publication news, updating serial projects. I do this with art too, though I am less business-like about the visual stuff. I consider this less po-biz  and more audience cultivation, and I feel like it's important if you want, ya know, anyone to actually read the stuff you're writing.  For all of Emily Dickinson's isolation, the amount of work she sent to others, the conversations she was having, she was far from the isolated genius some would claim her as.

So no, it's not as the romantics would have you believe.  I do have some appropriately flowy dresses, but sometimes I wind up with toast or donut crumbs on the front and all over my notebook and keyboard.  Sometimes I spill my coffee all over my pages.  Usually the studio printer, which I will start up as soon as I get in the door, will jam or run out of paper mid writing session and I will have to stop to fill or fix it. At least once a week,  I will get immediately distracted by e-mail or facebook  and the writing doesn't happen.  If I'm working at home, a cat will walk across the keyboard at an inopportune time and delete something I was sure was brilliant moments before. For all my idyllic-cizing Paris in the 20's, I can't write in cafes or public places--too distracting and I feel self-conscious muttering things outloud to guage the rhythm of oa line or sentence.  You probably won't find me jumping from the bed running naked to go write, mostly because, Taurean that I am,  I never want to leave the bed once I'm in it.

 I do occasionally write things in my head--the shower, on the bus, waiting in line for my coffee-- sometimes I actually get to some paper write them down, but sometimes they just get lost. Sometimes I listen to music and daydream and it will lead, circuitously and unplanned to writing.  I usually read other poetry in print or online with a pen in hand or at least near by (or truthfully, sometimes in my mouth) in case someone else's words spark something.  You might sometimes find me staring into space or at my computer, clicking the top of my pen, and maybe I'm composing a poem (or maybe I'm just thinking about something random like whether I should dye my hair again or if there are new mothman sightings, or both.)

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