As if.

Early in 2011 I ran into this blog post on the concept of “living as if.” In a nutshell, the premise is that if you want to be something, behave as if you are. It is, at a certain level, a simplistic notion. Just do it, as it were. But there is a power to that simplicity. And there is a power to the idea that if you want to be a good person you must merely act as if you are.

Since reading that I’ve tried to implement the idea a bit. I am trying to live as if I am a person who actually attends to her correspondence. And it seems to be mostly working, in that I only have one lingering email at the moment that I really should answer. And miraculously, by behaving as if I am the sort of person who does things like paying her car registration immediately upon receiving the notice, for the first time in nine years of owning my car I got (and put on) my new tags in March, though my registration didn’t expire until May. I mean really this was a major accomplishment. There’s a reason all my reoccurring bills automatically get charged to a credit card. I’ve never managed to be flaky enough to get any utilities shut off but for someone who fronts as all responsible and adult-like I’m astoundingly bad at things like paperwork and bill paying. I would do well to incorporate some other responsible adult behaviors. Things like scheduling dentist appointments and a check-up with my doctor. I wish behaving as if I were a person who exercises regularly didn’t require the actual exercise part. But that too, I should work on.

For right now, though, I merely would like to be a writer. You know, the sort of person who writes on a regular basis.

And so here we are. I haven’t been writing as much as I would like to be in any form. I’m going to try to move toward a habit of writing something (blog, poem, journal entry, real email, letter, whatever) daily. I have in the past couple of years moved back toward writing poetry, but it is not yet second nature enough that I find myself doing it without setting aside time to do it (perhaps this is just a reflection on how my time is spent now compared to when I was younger and writing easily and often).

Unrelated to all of that, today I discovered that one of the passion fruit vines I started from seed is blooming. I have a plant that I bought from Henry Fields, which flowers prolifically and produces a bit of fruit here and there since last year. But it’s primarily a decorative variety. The fruit is edible but not as good as other varieties. Finding plants is hard, though. So I ended up starting a couple from seed. They’re slow to germinate and a bit finicky (well, really, I’m just not very trustworthy when it comes to taking care of delicate new seedlings). But I’ve got two big vines. I’m not entirely sure which plants are which but they are some combination of purple passion fruit and/or fragrant granadilla. And for the first time, one of the two vines started from seed is flowering. I literally jumped for joy and clapped my hands when I saw it.

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.

One of the only certain things

Lately the first few lines of Alice Walker’s “How Poems are Made: A Discredited View” have been floating around in my head.

Letting go
in order to hold on
I gradually understand
how poems are made.

This poem (full text available via google books) is one that has been with me for as long as I have read poetry. It was one of the first to really capture my imagination (there was an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that inspired me before I fell into Walker’s work, but since I don’t remember what it was, it obviously did not stick).

I have been making reasonable progress on my poetry goal for October. I have written or revised 24 things so far, putting me only two days behind. I have been frustrated, though, by the loops I find my creative brain caught in. One of the loops I predicted. It’s no less frustrating for that. I still can’t capture the images I want to capture. I still can’t make the emotions I feel make sense on the page. It is a new loop, though, and while I’m mildly annoyed that my brain is quite so caught in it, my frustrations have less to do with being caught in the loop itself than they do with the fact that the poems I have been producing from that piece of inspiration are utter crap, trite and pointless.

The other loop is what brings me back to Walker’s poems. It is a loop that I think, to varying degrees, I have found myself caught in every October for the past seven years. Indeed I wonder now if I was starting to fall into it last year when I conceived of the idea of dedicating my October to poetry. And it is weird, perhaps, to find myself so melancholy still over a friendship that ended more years ago than it lasted (by a factor of two at this point) but I do. More often, frankly, than I’d often care to admit.
Continue reading “One of the only certain things”

More Alert

My day-to-day life doesn’t always involve a lot of in-person, meaningful interactions with other people. Neither work project requires that I talk to anyone but the project heads and that often happens via email. Two days a week I work from home. The other three I’m in an office that I share with one other person, with whom I exchange pleasantries and not much else. I do have various online outlets that provide a level of conversation that’s deep enough to keep me from going completely batty. Nonetheless, some weeks the world starts to take on an unreal sort of cast.

This is one of those weeks. Brad is working on a project that had him out of the house until late three nights this week. I had dinner with an old college friend Monday night, but other than that I’ve had minimal contact with real live people. Meanwhile I’ve had my head buried in data, trying to sort out inconsistencies and finalize some things. This involves an iterative process running a piece of code that takes a little while, staring at some results, tweaking some piece of the code, rinse, repeat. While I wait for things to run I typically read a bit, or maybe I write something. This week those moments of down time have been filled with poetry. I sit in my office surrounded by piles of reports I’m trying to make sense of, listening to music on headphones, jotting down lines of poetry, while I watch new numbers tumble across the screen in front of me. And the day stretches forward in a way that is pleasant but feels somehow disconnected from time and space (that my office has no windows makes it even easier for my to disconnect and just move into the cave of my brain). It probably doesn’t help matters that the plant life on the westside is apparently conspiring to kill me, so my ears are a bit swimmy and the inside of my skull itches (along with my eyes and nose). This is after the Sudafed, too.

One of the things I’ve been reading is Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant. Holy shit does that woman manage to take some seriously brutal subject matter and make it … beautiful is the wrong word, but moving. Her treatment of a childhood full of abusive alcoholic horror is honest and raw. And chilling.

So let’s recap the state of things by the time was driving to work this morning. My sinuses are a mess. I’m on the edge of what may very well be an ear infection. I’ve been on close to the max daily psuedophedrine dose for two or three days. I’ve had actual conversation with exactly two people so far this week. I’ve spent the better part of yesterday reading poems about child abuse. And my brain is tethered to the real world by only a shiny ribbon.

Then I see the amber alert: child abduction, suspect driving a silver dodge van with a dent on the right side. Or something to that effect. On the one hand I suppose that is a more useful description to post a freeway sign than the normal alert that includes a license plate number. I mean what are you supposed to do with that as you’re hurtling down the freeway? I know some people have better short-term memory than I do but I have a hard time believing that most people can actually process a sign like that and remember enough of the plate number for it to be useful. I know I can’t. As an experiment I’ve tried memorizing those while driving. Inevitably, even when I’m trying to pay attention to it, I’ve forgotten most of it by the time I even get to the next sign. On the other hand, aren’t there a whole lot of silver dodge vans around? Is that really enough information to be anywhere close to useful? (As it turns out there are apparently fewer than I thought given that I didn’t actually see any silver dodge vans during the rest of my drive to campus; and I saw a whole lot of cars). Given that one of the big California news stories this week has been about the guy in Sacramento who actually managed to apprehend a child abductor based on info from a newscast, I would tend to suspect that people right now might be a bit more inclined toward acts of attempted heroism than usual. So that really vague electronic freeway sign worried me.
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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!”

Continue reading “To be a poet or not to be a poet.”

Unburying the muse

Lately I have been reading more. I also watch more TV than I previously ever have in my life thanks to hulu. On some level I feel a bit guilty for this but on another I am delighted when I actually get passing references made to popular shows. I also mostly watch TV while doing something else (eating, copying and pasting numbers into tables, sewing, crocheting) so I don’t feel that the time is wasted. But I am even more delighted to be reading again regularly. Lately I have been pulled deeply in Sharyn McCrumb’s novels. And reading her descriptions of the mountains of Tennessee and the people of the small town she sets the Ballad novels in leaves me filled with a certain longing. In part it is a longing for that life, for knowing the names of the people around you, knowing their histories. I recognize that as the idealized myth of the small town. There is always a line between the insiders and the outsiders. And there are things about small towns that plan and simply suck, even if you are local, even if you hate cities. I think McCrumb does a good job of capturing some of the distinctions between insider and outsider, and some of the ambiguities of small places. But she does an even better job, I think, of capturing why even an outsider might stay. And I will admit that her characters leave me reminiscent for certain people from my youth. And the books dredge up some of my own ambivalence about having left rural WI. As much as I spent years of my adolescence wishing I were anywhere else, I recognize why my parents, outsiders still after nearly 30 years there, stay. And sometimes, I find myself auditioning fantasies of returning (or moving somewhere else similarly scenic and sparse where I would have to learn the social order from scratch; which I practically would anyway if I returned to Cazenovia).

More than that, though, I find myself longing to write. I find myself trying to imagine putting together a story that would grip readers. I find myself sinking into that feeling that there is a poem at the tip of my pen waiting to be born. But, despite this, I fail to bring pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I bought a notebook for poetry and a journal. Both are still nearly empty. I reopened an old poetry project. I copied and pasted a few lines, moved a few things, wrote a draft of a poem that I think fits into the series. But ultimately I have done almost nothing to reclaim the reality of writing. It has been some 10 years since I thought of myself really deeply and primarily as “poet.” Now if you asked me to describe myself I don’t think it would even make the list. I feel the need to change that but I’m not sure how. I don’t think I will ever publish novels. But I would like to at least write poems. I would at least like to again feel that words are friends welcome to drop into my home at their slightest whim.

Perhaps to that end I will try to organize my old poetry that I like into an online collection (as it used to be on previous iterations of my web spaces). Perhaps I will succeed in writing here more, as I keep telling myself I should. At the least I will continue to read and to long for words, with the hope that by inviting myself into their homes I will open the door for things to flow the other way. And I’ll stick that poetry notebook back in my purse where it belongs. Maybe I’ll even fold it open for a few minutes with pen in hand first, just to see what happens.

Related fragments of reflection

Five years ago I wrote the following lines in a poem:

The Santa Ana winds
always leave me reeling in fever
unable to sleep.

This might explain why today I feel as if I spent last night partying despite having really had a quiet evening watching TV and folding laundry. I keep slipping into a zombified haze of reflection, despite attempts to actually be productive and make progress on one of my current projects. Of course it isn’t just the winds. Air quality is also lousy as a result of various fires and my throat is dry and scratchy. Lately the phone conversations with my mother start out “so are the current fires anywhere near you?”

Last week I started a job which involves a commute to UCLA three days a week. I’m still figuring out the best time to make the commute within the constraints of a normal workday. Meanwhile I have realized that it has been way too long since I swapped the CDs in my car for something new. Most of what is there is from a hard time in my life and brings with it interesting memories.

Continue reading “Related fragments of reflection”