To be a poet or not to be a poet.

I’ve been fickle in my choice of reading material lately. I’ve been slowly plugging away at Cadillac Desert for months now. I’ll finish it eventually but it’s not an uplifting read so I take it in small pieces. For Burning Man I retrieved Yes Means Yes off my bookshelf. I’d read the intro and first chapter when I first bought the book but then set it down. I think there’s a lot of interesting useful stuff in there (and some of it I’m sure I’ll eventually write about) but I’m sort of not in the mindset to sit down and devour academic arguments about sexuality all in one fell swoop. So again, one chapter at a time. Meanwhile I also started Kara Kush right before Burning Man. This novel about the Afghan war with the Russians is something I’ve meant to read for ages but never quite got around to it. A week in the desert seemed the perfect setting for it, but so far it’s not grabbing me. I may set it down for awhile and come back when I know I can just spend a day reading and see if getting far enough in makes it more interesting. And so I set Kara Kush aside for something “lighter.” For some reason Alice Hoffman’s The River King seemed like it would fit the bill. Don’t get me wrong, Hoffman’s stuff is lovely and generally an accessible read but light it is not. Her work is beautiful but deeply sad. I’m about halfway through and will likely finish it this week but in the meantime I was moved to grab and reread Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.

This is one of my favorite books in the world. * It is beautiful and sad. There are places where the imagery is simply devastating. She paints complicated pictures of people, interactions, moments. This time through, though, the things that grabbed me most were simple one-line interjections. Things that made me stop, mid-page and think “Oh. Yes. This!”

How people get power over one another, / this mystery.
This line is in the middle of a description of Geryon sitting on a plane waiting for the food cart while reading an Argentinian guidebook. The way the line just sneaks in and then is left alone reminds me of my own thought processes these days. I find myself thinking of people who have had tremendous power over me in the past. In some cases the thoughts are directed toward figuring out how to unravel that power because it still trips me up in my day-to-day life. In other cases the thought takes more the form of a question. Is that power still there? I am surprised, sometimes, to find previously colonized corners of my heart now empty. No grief, no regret, just wisps of memories that aren’t even really wistful.

Then a miracle occurred /in the form of a plate of sandwiches.
I hit this line while halfway through a burger and fries, so it wasn’t my current hunger that made me stop at the line. I’m someone, though, who often forgets to eat until I’m too hungry to really think straight, so the idea of miraculous sandwiches resonates. Mostly, though, the image made me smile to myself because it reminded me of my first day at Burning Man this year when the appearance of a plate of sandwiches was, perhaps not a miracle, but a delightful reprieve from having to take care of myself.

All of a sudden the night was a bowl of silence.
I just love this line, even if I can’t articulate why I love it. Rachel McKibbens proposes exercises using ghost lines. This would be an excellent line to try working from.

Of course the problem with soaking my brain in Carson’s work is that she has a style I could never hope to emulate. And I am left with a despairing feeling that I may never again write a good poem (though, I suppose, one could question the again in that sentence; indeed if one takes Anne Carson as the bar then I have certainly never written anything that even approximates good). This time last year I decided to try to reclaim my sense of self as poet. I set myself a goal of 31 poems during the month of October. Ultimately I think wrote 27. I won’t argue that many of them were any good. But really that wasn’t the point. To be a writer one must write and that is something I haven’t done much of in the past few years. Right now I am debating whether I want to challenge myself to the poem a day goal for the month of October again (though more often than not it worked out to be multiple poems some days and zero on others). It seems like the exercise helped me slowly ease back into thinking in terms of constructing poetry last year but the habit didn’t stick. I think I have written a dozen poems since the end of October, which is still probably more than I wrote in the previous two years combined. The problem is that when one is out of the practice of poetry it is hard to stomach the results of attempting to regain that practice. Still, there is at least one poem in me that is desperate to be written as I have twice in the past week found myself compelled to try to capture a particular image on paper. I could do worse than spending a month trying to get it right.

And speaking of the ghost line exercises, Ladytron’s lyric “There’s a ghost in me/ who wants to say ‘I’m sorry’/ Doesn’t mean I’m sorry” has been rattling in my head too much lately. Perhaps a poem on the subject could get rid of it.

I still toy with the idea of putting up a page of poetry here. (I actually keep a site of poem drafts as I write them, but there aren’t that many people I’d be inclined to share that location with). The problem is that the things that I have written in recent years that I like address topics I’m not entirely sure how I feel about sharing. There’s older stuff that I’m relatively happy with that I could make public but I’m not sure how I’d feel about a page heavily tilted toward poems ten or more years old.

* As an aside I will note that one of the things I love about Autobiography of Red is the form of poems as novel. She does a similar thing with The Beauty of The Husband. But while the Autobiography of Red is a coming of age story perhaps best classified as magical realism, The Beauty of the Husband is an all too devastatingly realistic telling of a marriage doomed by infidelity. For this reason I find it easy to recommend Autobiography of Red to others but am reticent to suggest The Beauty of the Husband. After all, I spent a year and a half of my own life avoiding reading it precisely because I feared that Carson’s knack for highlighting the sad beauty of truth would make it unbearable given my life at the time. As I’ve been reflecting lately on that particular year and a half, though, I’m tempted to put it in the queue as the next reread (because of course it makes sense to reread things when my bookshelves are quite literally overflowing with wonderful things I haven’t read yet).


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