Monday, November 01, 2021

back to the source

After a month-long rest from writing, November brings new thoughts and new projects. I've been musing over a project that is somehow a rif on The Wasteland--which coming up on its 100 year anniversary, seems entirely appropriate somehow, not only for this, but for me and all my poetic questionings and foibles of late.  My questioning of whether to go on writing poems or why to go on writing poems when mostly the world at large and sometimes even myself is indifferent to doing so somehow. And yet, I always say Eliot was the one who broke things open for me in poetry. Who, after years of writing terrible poems about cats and rhyming and maybe beginning to understand poetry, found me in a grad school class at DePaul studying British Mondernists --who of course he is claimed by, even though he was born in America. (interesting side discussions could be had that Plath, though she spend her last years in the UK is always dismissed as "that American woman" who married beloved Ted Hughes. )

Interestingly, it was not my first encounter with The Wasteland or Eliot, him being a favorite in English Departments, esp at the point where professors were only beginning to look to diversify their canons. I had spent plenty of time with Prufock as an undergrad.  Had taken another class devoted to British poetry that had us reading The Wasteland. I was probably around 21 and remember it being a more difficult read and one I was happy to move on from, full of too many footnotes and pompous pronouncements. Being 21, my interests were far more on play rehearsals, and theater parties, and figuring out what to do with the rest of my life than decoding cumbersome, almost purposely obfuscated texts. I was an English major, sure, but I much preferred reading novels and plays to poems in general, despite writing some very bad ones on occasion.  

Fast forward about 3 years and I was in the belly of the beast..a grad English program in Chicago  devoted to Literature, where our electives were even more precisely  laid out by literary period.  I spent some time with the Romantic poets, with 1850's Victorian novels, with Milton and Medeival Romances.  I wound up in Modern British Poetry class in the fall of 1998, from which I really only remember Eliot, though I know we spent some time on Seamus Heaney and Stevie Smith. My most vivid memory is sitting in the class and listening to the recording of Eliot reading his own work. It always has the same effect I later learned hearing Sylvia Plath read her poems--like some sort of spooky oracle. I was intrigued. I began to write more poems.

And perhaps it started that summer before.  A year into my grad program I was still figuring out what to do after.  I'd come in imagining I would get certified to teach high school English, but also idly dreamed of getting a Ph.D and teaching college-level. I was still very interested in theatre, though I no longer worked hands-on with it. I took as many dramatic lit classes as were offered during those two years and kept interviewing for front-of-house jobs at theater companies like Victory Gardens (around the corner from my apartment) to no avail. I was looking at dramaturgy and performance studies programs when it seemed like teaching might not be right for me. That summer, I started writing poems after a year or so of not really writing them at all. They were okay, but I still had no idea what I was doing. 

Cue Eliot, and a several week span in which we dissected The Wasteland, bit by bit. It was a lit class, of course, not a writing one at all, but it was far more useful than any of the creative writing classes I took before or since (and that includes my MFA studies years later.) Suddenly, it seemed all things were possible in poetry. Even in MY poetry.  It was terrifying and exhilarating and suddenly I was off--writing a huge number of poems through the rest of the fall and into the spring. They weren't all great, and even the better ones, looking back now, kinda overwrought, but all that writing made me feel like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.  And that solved many of my uncertainties and quandaries. I would write and find some sort of job I did not hate--preferably literary or artsy, but it didn't matter the field.  Of course, having no job experience and only knowing pretty much how to read books and write essays, and maybe some theatre tech stuff, it wasn't easy.  I interviewed at bookstores and the Newberry and a few places in Chicago before that disastrous decision to move back to Rockford. But it did get me working in libraries, which led me to something that fulfilled that goal. 

The poems from that year were many, and garnered my first acceptance that wasn't a school pub or vanity anthology. By the time the issue appeared I was back in my childhood bedroom that summer and waffling uncertainly about life. I had put a book mss. together that last spring in Chicago and called it Taurus (a title I later resurrected for an unrelated chap project.)  I wanted to complete a book at least before I turned 25. I sent it to the Yale Younger Poets Contest, and of course, it was terrible, but as the contest system goes, it probably wouldn't have mattered if it was brilliant. The poems were about women in history, in literature, mythology, and art. A better, abbreviated version with a few of the better poems became The Archaeologist's Daughter a few years later. More important I suppose than it being good, was that it was done. I had succeeded in my vow to write a book of poems by 25. It was bad, but I could do it. 

Of course once the real world had its hooks in me, I wrote less.  When I started working at the elementary school that fall, I was so exhausted most of the time from early mornings and chasing around children for story hours, I scarce wrote anything. The summer of 1999, which I had off, I spent writing fiction, hoping to turn it into a cash cow to get me out of the library.  Another library, of course,  finally got me out and back to the city I never should have left.  And then came more poems and the wide open world of online journals and blogs and internet literary community. And it's all history from there. 

Still, the Eliot stuck with me.  That permission and inspiration I first felt with The Wasteland, So much so, a decade later,  I wrote a poem for Poetry Crush about old Tom.  (see below)  The sort of writing I went on to write--the better poems later--still owe a great deal to that text.  And Eliot's life--his banker quietness and tragic wife, is also of great interest. Which is why, over the summer, I started contemplating playing around with the original to write something new.  I am in research and revisit mode write now and for the next couple weeks and we'll see what happens. I intend to spend some time looking for a door or a window that leads to something interesting and I am almost certain it will.


Dear Tom. 

I’ve thought about it and you’re right, April is the cruelest month. I think of you all afternoon at the bank, the sleeves of your dress shirt rolled just above your wrists, holding the short stub of a pencil bent over the massive wooden desk, wiping your forehead and beginning again to write. Oh Tom, my nerves are bad tonight. What are you thinking? When summer came it wrecked me. I dreamed of clairvoyantes and tiny pearl eyes for weeks. Your voice a yellow fog that licked its way up and down my spine. I wrote poems about coffee spoons and clties crumbling around me. I imagine you the calmness surrounded by tempestuous women and hundreds of unruly cats. I have known the hours, known them all. But really, that is not what I meant. Not at all. 

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