Words substantially like those spoken to me by a young poet named Dan on the first day of the workshop, second session, in the dining commons
Yeah, I started off writing poetry as therapy too. I’ve gotten into exploring things more intellectually. I think that’s the case for everyone, going from therapy to something broader. Well, maybe not for T.S. Eliot.
It was important to me to capture my feelings when I started out. Nowadays I have an idea I want to get across to people. A lot of my poems, the heart is there, but not the head. I think I might want to go back to a lot of them and approach them in a different way.
When someone says you’re not a good poet, you should take it as a challenge. I have a teacher I took my work to who’d say “You can shorten this” or “This is a cliche.” I’d work hard on it, bring him things to show him what I was learning. Take it as a challenge, don’t give up poetry.
* * *
Did I mention why I gave up poetry? I gave up poetry because Garrett Hongo said I was a very good nonfiction writer and an OK poet. We were sitting in a corner of the big Bread Loaf barn in some period of downtime. Nearby one of my nonfiction classmates was playing the piano for women draped across it. A few nights before, Garrett had given me a look on the dance floor, when we were all out there shaking our rumps, and said, If only you could write the way you dance. I pestered him about that for a few days, because I wanted to know what he meant, but he only looked embarrassed. Looked like everyone but me was drunk that night.
I literally turned off my poetry after that day in the barn. All there’s been since is a few pieces of doggerel too short and spare to be essays, and late-night dallying in front of the magnetic poetry on the fridge.
Dan looked at me confused when I said I’d turned it off. People like to think writing poetry is an impulse, like love. Really, I don’t believe that about love, either. I turn it on and off, just like a spigot, with no squeaking, even.
It is even worse to romanticize writing than it is to romanticize love. We’ve got this whole cult of writing, poetry in particular, where it’s supposed to be suffering. People go mad to do it — everyone loves Sylvia Plath, right? All the teenagers at this writing workshop do. We aim to blaze and burn out early, artfully. There was this girl in my classes with Martin Espada once upon a time who would show up two buses late to class, sighing and spilling coffee on her already ink-stained hands, throwing down her notebooks and clutching her artificially wild red hair and wailing, “Oh, I have such WRITER’S BLOCK!” She’d bought the whole package. Martin raised an eyebrow and went back to teaching a poem about janitors.
It’s a kind of intellectual anorexia, this cult of poetry. Workshops are all about fluffing your poem and trimming its nails and recoloring the parts of it which were born too light or too dark. It’s read in a wraithy tone of voice, and it’s all about inspiration, not work, and god am I glad to be out of it. What I loved most about turning myself over to journalism was writing because you needed to get information from one place to another. The editor wanted your information to be on some reader’s dinner plate. It was a relief to not have to wait for the muse to strike. Poetry is a beast of workshops and readings, and now that I’m back on those catwalks I’m glad I work in a genre which has a tenuous relationship with them. I don’t miss wondering whether hers are bigger than mine, or whether I’ll ever end up getting a piece in Ozymandias Review.
I needed to get out of poetry to make sense of my life. Under Martin’s tutelage I’d been studying Pablo Neruda, who said he wanted his poetry to be a roof over his readers’ heads. He wanted it to have handles: to be accessible. Martin, meanwhile, was a regular Old Faithful of fumings about workshop-circuit writers who wrote about the perfect brie or putting a new wing on the house in the Hamptons. Bathroom Tile, he growled; this is Bathroom Tile poetry. He let us out of class to go to a protest, and stood watch over us, smiling from under his Kangol cap, out of his Castro beard.
It was my first protest, in an unseasonably warm winter with sun glinting on the signs and chanters. People were carrying food to the kids occupying a building over a change in workstudy rules and welfare rights. I wanted to help. Bemused, Martin excused me from a second class period to be outside.
It’s hard to live with Sylvia Plath all the time when there’s people in the streets and a nice breeze.
In the end, I gave up poetry because it was one more thing going on in my life. I was midwifing sheep and trying to make cable TV shows and editing part of the newspaper and breaking up with and returning to the bisexual boyfriend who’d provided so many poetic ideas. I had a year to settle down to one subject and make a thesis out of it. My thesis was in nonfiction.
and here we are tonight.