Consider the Muse

Those readers who are particularly observant may have noticed a new link in the top navigation bar. The poetry page.

It’s been at least six years since I’ve had a public facing poetry page. The process of creating a new one has filled me with misgivings. I don’t remember the process of selection making feel quite so vulnerable in the past. Perhaps because in the past I had the sense that most of my readers were strangers. Perhaps it is because I feel as if I should have made some progress in the quality of my work since 2000 (which is basically when I was last writing regularly). Perhaps it is an issue of subject matter. My poetry of the past eight or so years feels very different to me than the body of work that came before, though that may be because the work from before is far enough away now that whatever rawness is there feels less immediate.

I think part of the issue is that I feel differently now about my sources of inspiration. There has been a reappearing muse who weaved his way through my work from about 1991 onward. He’s much less of a presence now than he once was, but I still sometimes write things that bear that influence. Aside from the enduring muse, though, my early work had a lot of fleeting influences. The themes that populated my poems remained similar over time but the details changed. It was like I was always building houses, but with different floor plans. And because my sense of self as poet largely matured with that early muse in place, I’ve never felt particularly conflicted about sharing the work drawn from that source of inspiration.

I’m not sure I ever really even thought that much about it until sometime a bit over a year ago when I had an exchange with that early muse in which he took some serious issue with someone (not me) who had invoked his name in the telling of her own story. I was a bit stunned by his anger. I think I had always thought of my poems as being primarily my story with the inspiration as sort of an unrelated piece. More than that, though, I think I’ve never much worried about it because my fleeting influences tend to fade into one another and become unrecognizable within the body of my work (indeed looking back over the years there are many poems I can’t remember the original circumstances of). And when it came to the muse I didn’t worry about it much because I’m no longer making public most of the work that bears the stamp of that influence. Even if I were (and eventually I would like to revise some pieces that touch those stories) I’d still be largely invoking events and emotions of nearly twenty years ago. It’s hard, in those circumstances, to worry too much about the line between one’s own story and the story of others.

In the last seven years, though, a large portion of my work has traced its way back to another source of inspiration. This is the first time since my teen years that any one person has woven their way through this many poems (or, at least, through this many years of poems). And I’m much more conflicted about my relationship to this muse. For the first time it feels weird to tell stories that are not, in many ways, entirely mine to tell. In part this is because the emotions are newer. In part it’s because a lot of the emotions I’m pulling from in these pieces are not healed over, are still very tender to the touch. Unlike the inspiration of my early years–with whom I exchange occasional notes and telephone calls–the recent muse and I are, apparently, quite definitively no longer in each other’s lives. And somehow, again in a way I haven’t experienced before, that makes it feel weird to put those emotions out into the world to fend for themselves outside the context of some ongoing interaction.

If I am going to call myself poet again, though, I need to reassure myself that I am writing poems, that I am moving forward. Taking the deep breath and making them public to the world, letting them go about their way, is part of that process. And so I am trying to let go of my discomfort.

I spent a long time, though, while choosing these poems thinking about what consideration I owed their inspirations. In the end, I decided that, in the case of the poems that were troubling me, I felt most comfortable communicating their existence to the one that inspired them. From there it is out of my hands.

I was amused, then, the morning after having made that decision to read through a backlog of stories from six sentences and come across “The Plagiarist” in which the author plays off the notion of invoking real people in one’s stories as a sort of violation of intellectual property. There is something comforting about knowing that I’m not the only one who worries about my rights to my ghosts.

I know some day I will look back at many of these pieces and cringe the way I look back at things I wrote fifteen years ago and cringe. I hope when that day comes I will still be writing and will have better things to replace them with.

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