Every so often, I like to listen to Stephen Sondheim’s thoughts on writing. This isn’t because I want to write musicals. And while some people may herald Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize as the long overdue blurring of songwriting and literature, I’m not one of them. As much as I like Dylan, I don’t believe a songwriter is also a poet. In fact, one reason I seek out Sondheim’s thoughts on language is because lyric writing is different enough from what I do to make his observations feel fresh.
For example, in one interview, Sondheim said that “words that are spelled differently, but sound alike, such as rougher and suffer, engage the listener more than those spelled similarly, rougher and tougher.” It’s true! Rhyming differently spelled words adds extra interest to the lines. What does that suggest, other than we’re unconsciously spelling words while we’re listening to certain kinds of language? That makes me, a prose writer, wonder about my own work, and how the spelling of words can subvert a reader’s expectations.
Sondheim is an excellent wordsmith. His songs are full of intelligent, character-driven storytelling that illuminate larger issues, whether it’s female misogyny in Ladies Who Lunch, the creative process in Finishing the Hat, or the pre-wedding freak-out in Getting Married Today. His songs are sharp, funny, and self-contained. They just aren’t poetry.
Sondheim would agree with me on that. Unlike the Nobel Prize committee, he doesn’t consider poetry and lyrics to be the same. Because of the richness of music, he says, lyrics must be economical and spare. Complex ideas are pared down to simpler language so that the audience can follow along.
“That’s why poets generally make poor lyric writers,” he said. “Not always, but generally they do, because the language is too rich. … I firmly believe that lyrics have to breathe and give the audience’s ear a chance to understand what’s going on. Particularly in the theater, where you not only have the music, but you’ve got costume, story, acting, orchestra. There’s a lot to take in. The whole idea of poetry is denseness, is concision, is abutment of images, and that sort of thing. You can’t do that when you’ve got music going, and expect the audience to take it in.”
When people equate lyric writing with poetry, they’re often trying to express how meaningful they found a song. The word “poetry” is associated with depth, so to call something poetic is to say it’s beautiful, eloquent, or profound. Thus, songwriters who are adept at language are called poets despite the fact that they aren’t actually writing poetry.
But to say that lyrics and poetry are the same is to discount the role music plays in a song. Song lyrics, no matter how lovely, are meant to work with music. When you separate one from the other, you’re getting only part of a whole. On the other hand, a poem, as poet Paul Muldoon said, “brings its own music with it.”
Perhaps the solution isn’t to give songwriters prizes meant for writers, but to acknowledge the skill and eloquence that goes into writing a successful song. In one interview, Sondheim said it took him seven-and-a-half hours to come up with the line, If I must leave tomorrow / One thing before I go / You’ve made me see the passion of love / And I thought you should know. He added that he wouldn’t recommend lyric writing to anyone.
“It’s very difficult work,” he said in another interview. “And it’s not often rewarding work because I find that I almost make it, almost make it, if only there were a two-syllable work that began with a “B”, it would be a perfect line. And you can’t find it, and it’s very frustrating.”
Whether you’re a musician or a writer, if you’ve ever agonized to find the exact word, you know what he means.
My first publications were short stories, the first in the Fall 1969 issue of the The Georgia Review and the second in the January 1971 issue of Esquire. In 1975, 1986, 1992, 1993, I published story collections, a novella in 1995, and a novella with two stories in 2000. During those years I was also writing and publishing poems and essays. But around 2000, in the process of writing The Story of a Million Years, I essentially converted myself into a novel-writer. Instead of writing stories, I wrote “chapters,” most of which could stand alone as stories.
But here in the early months of 2015, I’ve come back to story-writing with new subject matter and a renewed passion for the form. The main reason I’ve returned to the short story is that a couple of new technical elements have entered my writing process. One of them is that I’ve discovered that my narrative prose can be enhanced by imposing a formal “discipline” on my paragraphs. I’m not sure why I first chose to make prose-writing more difficult than it ordinarily is, but I’ll speculate that it came about fairly naturally. From the many sonnets, villanelles, and syllabic poems I’ve written, I’m accustomed to the discipline of formal requirements–I’d just never considered trying such a device in prose. In the process of writing a story about a character named Hazel Hicks, I noticed that the first several paragraphs I had composed were approximately the same length–and I liked the look of that symmetry on the page! I must have thought something along the lines of Wow, that looks so cool, I’ll bet I can do that for the whole story.
The other new technical element in my writing process is my realizing a way to give my subconscious more control in my narrative decision-making. In this case, a novel I wrote very quickly in 2012 (The Faulkes Chronicle) showed me how to invent things on the fly. From my success in making necessarily spontaneous decisions, I learned that my literary imagination didn’t need as much supervision as I’d thought it did. My composing process could function in a way that in forty-some years of trying to create literary art I’d never quite acknowledged or trusted.
These new elements have enlivened my writing life, they’ve made story-composition more exciting for me, and I’m grateful for their arrival in the language-generating lobe of my brain. For readers of the somewhat wonky discussion that follows, however, I offer these two caveats: 1) What works for me may not work for you, and 2) I have no evidence that either of these new “methods” will make my work any more publishable than it ever was.
The Finite Paragraph
Here’s the first paragraph of a story titled “None” that I finished just a few weeks ago:
Hazel Hicks was the first “None” to graduate Crossley State College as a Religion Major. Hazel herself thought it nothing special. She thought it an obvious choice for someone like her. Which is to say, a person who took every form of life seriously but who found all creation stories implausible–even the most entertaining and compelling.
In my font (12-point Courier) and my manuscript margins (1.25” inches on both sides of the page), this paragraph is six lines long. All but one of the other seventy-one paragraphs of the story are six lines long. And that one line is longer because it has a special place in the narrative. I count lines instead of words. Last lines of the paragraph get a little slack–they can be six or seven spaces shorter than the other lines. I don’t justify my lines, and MS Word makes all the decisions about line-breaks–which adds an element of kooky arbitrariness to how the words arrange themselves in each of the lines of my paragraphs.
The number of lines to which I limit my paragraphs matters in ways I don’t much notice while I’m writing. In three other recent stories, I’ve used nine, eight, and five lines. The lower the number, the greater the difficulty in composing a viable paragraph. And I’m pretty sure the sound and texture of the language changes with the different numbers–but not in ways that I try to control.
The main result of restricting the number of lines is that every paragraph requires extensive revision. So I’m revising two or three times more than I ever have before. I’ve put more time, effort, and thought into every sentence than I have in the past.
I try not to start the next paragraph until I’ve at least tentatively finished the one I’m working on. So I’m a slower story-composer than I have been, and my extended attention to the lived moments of my characters produces more detailed and intense scenes.
Tedious though this method may be, it offers a new pleasure that seems to me akin to what a brick-layer or a stone mason may feel while working on days- or weeks-long construction projects. When I finish two or three of these highly revised paragraphs, it pleases me to see them on the computer screen. Visually those paragraphs suggest solidity of accomplishment–blocks of language that can be assembled into a sturdy composition. Actually even a single one of them pleases me, because I’ve worked on it and cajoled all the little pieces of it into forming the right arrangement of words and sentences.
For literary construction, “the right arrangement of words” in a single paragraph requires that the sentences be of different lengths, that they be grammatically various, that they are musically appealing, that they generate some energy and enlivenment, and that their meaning advances the narrative and/or offers its reader something notable, interesting, startling, funny, and/or memorable.
The discipline of the six-line paragraph is much less demanding than the one for writing sonnets, villanelles, or haiku. So my paragraphs still have the somewhat relaxed sound and spirit of prose–but my hope is that now they will also have some of the intensity, richness of texture, and depth of poetry.
Narrative Problem Solving Through Syntax and Diction:
Letting my sentences do my narrative thinking–that’s the principle I’m applying to these stories I’m writing right now about Hazel Hicks. Here’s a paragraph from page 6 of “None,” the story I mentioned earlier–at this point Hazel Hicks has become a school bus driver.
Benny was twelve, which made him one of the oldest children at Fork Mountain Elementary. He slouched, he had zits and facial hair, and he had a smell Ms. Hicks was pretty sure was cologne. He wouldn’t look directly at her, he didn’t like her sticking her arm out to stop him, didn’t like her making him tell her both his first and last names.
When I wrote this paragraph, I was thinking almost exclusively of describing this boy as Hazel would have seen him as he stepped up into her bus. I had no design, or ulterior motive, for having Hazel extend her arm to stop him, other than imagining that she would, as part of her job, require Benny to properly identify himself to her.
I did, however, have a general plan for Benny. I knew that I wanted him eventually to commit an outlaw act. I wanted him to challenge Hazel Hicks in a way she’d never faced before. I wasn’t sure what the act would be or how it would affect the community of her school bus. And this is where my new method of narrative thinking came into play. In the past, prior to writing the scene, I would have thought out exactly what Benny would do, along with the when and the how of it. Nowadays I’ve excused myself from that premeditated way of composing–planning it out beforehand and then executing the plan in my writing. Nowadays, I tell myself that if I’m sufficiently absorbed in the scene I’m writing, my sentences, as I am generating them, will make the necessary decisions. Composing one sentence of credible action after the other will render each stage of the scene visible–and to sustain that credibility, the decision of what happens will be determined by the words I choose for each phrase and each sentence.
Here’s a paragraph a few pages farther along in this same story:
Frank Hoback’s face seemed to want to convey something to Hazel, but when Benny Sutphin climbed the steps staring straight at her, she wasn’t ready for what she saw. His right eye was swollen nearly shut, and the flesh around it was visibly bruised. She thought she knew exactly what his outraged face meant to tell her. Look what happened to me!
I like to believe that I decided on the black eye just as Benny was climbing the steps to board the bus. At this stage of the composition, I haven’t yet decided exactly what Benny’s going to do. But I have prepared for him to commit a violent act–as a delayed response to whatever happened that gave him this black eye before he boarded the bus to go to school.
Now here’s a paragraph just slightly beyond the previous one:
The children spoke so quietly among themselves the bus seemed to be sounding a minor chord. When she parked it and opened the door, the kids were eager to be free of it. Benny was the last to walk up aisle. She raised her hand to let him know she wanted to speak to him. When she said his name, he slashed her arm with a pocketknife.
And here’s exactly the place where the sentences have done my thinking for me. Hazel’s raising her arm to stop Benny in their first meeting turns out to have been excellent preparation for Benny’s outlaw act. Very likely my subconscious had a notion that Hazel’s raised arm on page 6 would come into play in the story’s turning point on page 9. But it did not confide that notion to me until three pages later–by way of the sentence “She raised her hand to stop him to try to talk with him.” After I’d written it, I revised that sentence (and changed “stop” to “let him know”) so as to make Hazel’s arm-raising less confrontational–thus the phrase “let him know she wanted to speak to him” makes the last clause of that paragraph–“he slashed her arm with a pocketknife”–all the more shocking.
The sentence in which the act occurred made the decision that Benny would slash Hazel’s arm the instant after she said his name. Maybe I could have planned to have it happen that way–Benny’s slashing Hazel’s arm immediately after she utters his name has a compelling narrative and psychological logic to it. But I didn’t. Its happening just in the moment of my typing the sentence made me shiver with shock–as if I’d just seen it happen.
Making-decisions-in-the-writing requires me to trust my imagination to work out the details of a general plan that I’ve brought to the writing. So it more deeply engages my subconscious; therefore, it makes the typing of the sentences more exciting. And it leaves room for changing the plan if a better move presents itself as I’m composing. It infuses my pages with more spontaneity.
Making it new comes naturally for most artists–it’s a basic of the artistic inclination. But the longer you practice your art the harder it becomes to produce something original. Musicians’ careers offer an audible demonstration of this principle. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell (singer-songwriters of my generation) are never far from my thoughts when I think about aging artists. All three of them were extraordinary for their talent and achievement in their twenties and early thirties. Although it feels disrespectful for me to say so, Mitchell’s powers diminished first, though what she wrote and sang remained interesting. The lingering interest may be because the new songs (“Come In From the Cold,” e.g.) evoke a listener’s memory of the old songs (“I Could Drink a Case of You,” e.g.), thereby enabling a dedicated listener to hear a past masterpiece simultaneously with the new “pretty good song.”
Dylan and Simon had stellar middle periods. Simon’s Graceland was arguably the finest pop album ever recorded–but since then there’s been a decline in his level of achievement. Dylan has gone on recording superb music, though it has to be said that he’s recorded nothing that’s in the same league with “Blowing in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Masters of War.”
It’s Dylan’s ongoing viability that I find comforting, though it’s also disturbing in certain ways. I appreciate his belligerent and successful refusal to be locked into the box of “Folky,” but I can’t quite digest his disavowal of the idealism we heard in those early songs. I don’t like his commercials for Cadillacs, and I have a lot of trouble with both the sound and the concept of his album of songs Frank Sinatra made famous. But I’ll tell you one thing I do like, and that’s his “Things Have Changed,” which was written for the 2000 movie Wonder Boys. And I think his 2012 album Tempest is evidence of his ongoing viability as both a songwriter and a performer.
I’ve never been that much of a fan of Miles Davis’s music, though I’ve always recognized that his work and his contribution to jazz was that of a master. But I’ve also always thought that his move into rock and funk around 1968 was a huge mistake. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the necessity to make some changes, and to make big changes rather than small ones. And doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I’d been Miles Davis. I’d have probably made a worse move. An interesting comparison would be Ray Charles’s decision to record Country & Western songs, a move that revitalized his career.
Trying to make art is, in my view, the most rewarding possible life, which is why most artists understand it to be a lucky privilege. But the noble challenge is to keep making new art without– well, I don’t know any better way to phrase it than “falling on your ass.”
If Bette Davis is right, that “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” then it’s for sure that an artist’s finding a way to stay creatively alive in his or her senior years will be a challenge all the way to the end. You can’t stop trying to make your work new, and you can’t stop being afraid you’re going to fall on your ass. And here’s the ultimate difficulty–you can’t anticipate whether your new work will be viable or be the visible sign to the world that you’ve finally taken the fall. Art-making is a gamble; you don’t bet money, you bet your talent, your identity, your self-respect, your life as you have known it.
When archaeologists finish a dig, they throw in contemporary objects with the backfill so that future archaeologists know the site was previously excavated. The objects must be resilient to the elements and insist their epoch—things the crew has on hand, that they don’t mind leaving behind. Coke bottles, pennies, a soccer ball. Years ago, when my archaeology prof told our class this, I couldn’t help but imagine more strange and resonant objects interred to affect irony or gravitas….
A toothbrush in the grave of an Incan king whose diet of sugary maize rotted his teeth to abscess, resulting in death. A knife in the former trash pit of a “vegetarian” monastery, in which archaeologists uncovered the notched bones of small mammals, birds, and fish.
Meanwhile, in poetry workshop, we wrote associatively in order to subvert our sophomoric reflexes for cliché and sentimentality. When we read poems, we examined what our prof called, after Pavese, “the image narrative.” We asked: How does one image contextualize another? What inference can we draw about the emotional or dramatic situation by the progression of images? If reordered, would they tell a different story? Who’s on first. What’s on second. We bullshitted because we knew a little but didn’t know enough. We threw ourselves into Jim Simmerman’s Mad Libs exercise, “Twenty Little Poetry Projects”:
5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
10. Use a piece of talk you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…”
We learned that poems should guide us rather than we them. We read Eastern Europeans like Šalamun and Szymborska. We traveled to Europe together and hiked the Slovenian karst to a cave, now collapsed, rumored to have been Dante’s model for the exit of the Inferno. I stepped on nettles and my prof picked the leaves off a nearby plant and told me to rub them on my searing foot. “The antidote,” he said, “often grows near the poison.”
Szymborska, in her 1962 collection Salt, describes a series of objects removed from their original context, placed inside the neutral and nearly humanless interior of the “Museum”:
Here are plates but no appetite.
And wedding rings, but the requited love
has been gone now for some three hundred years.
Here’s a fan—where is the maiden’s blush?
Here are swords—where is the ire?
Nor will the lute sound at the twilight hour.
Since eternity was out of stock,
ten thousand aging things have been amassed instead.
This poem always reminds me of lyrics from Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” from Blonde On Blonde, released a mere five years later:
Inside the mu-zeeums
infinity gooooes up on triiiil. . . .
For Szymborska, however, the objects, even as they reassure us of our species’s long tenure, seek sovereignty from their contexts of time, place, and ownership. “Metals, clay, and feathers celebrate / Their silent triumphs over dates.” When the poem veers into the present, Szymborska presents us with a fraught, dramatized relationship between the speaker and one of her possessions:
As for me, I am still alive, you see.
The battle with my dress still rages on.
It struggles, foolish thing, so stubbornly!
Determined to keep living when I’m gone!
Szymborska turns on its head the idea that objects merely reflect their owners. So, often I give students the title story from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and ask them to use objects to reveal character, not only through what they own but also through how they look at objects. (The latter is the paramount virtue of ekphrasis, but that’s another essay.) The objects in “Museum” seek to continue being, and the poem implicates the owner in interfering with the dress’s ability to “keep living,” and the dress with the owner’s ego.
Of course, a real dress—excepting certain fashions—usually poses no threat to a person or their ego. The threat the dress and other objects seemingly pose in Szymborska’s poem are only projections by the speaker, and projections, like the caricature outline of our host on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, give us the sense and shape of a person, even when they don’t step into the frame.
Bruno Munari, the great 20th-century Italian designer, opens “Theoretical Reconstructions of Imaginary Objects” with a description of the journey an archaeological fragment makes once excavated:
[The] fragment passes into the hands of other experts, who try to reconstruct the whole animal, man or object (as the case may be) on the basis of structural measurements and analysis of the material and so on. . . .
As everyone well knows, the genuine part is left just as it was found while the reconstructed parts are made of quite different materials, partly to make the reconstruction work stand out.
Munari uses this practice as a model for an artistic exercise, one that demands that we rely on what’s tangible and present as well as speculation. Among the materials he suggests we use are torn wrapping paper, sheet music, and other documents, things that once had a shape and function before being torn up.
Let us set our imaginations to the task of reconstructing something which we assume to be unknown and build up a fantastic and unexpected thing according to the structural and material data provided by the few fragments we have to go on. . . .
. . . join up the various fragments. To do this we must study the outlines of the fragments and their internal structures.
Munari’s exercise, if followed literally, results in a collage, but the process described here reminds me of the process of writing a poem or, at the very least, an ideal model for the poet’s craft. Szymborska uses the fragments (the objects in the museum) and their outlines and internal structures (almost always and spookily human) to create tension in her poem, to arrive at a fantastic and unexpected conflict. We may even assume that Szymborska didn’t know about this conflict until she wrote through the poem.
Many beginning and—forgive me, all, for I’m about to sin—vacuous, established poets attempt to reconstruct known things, that is, those experiences that contain no unknowns. Either there’s not enough depth to the experience to excavate further (the mundane) or the experience has already been excavated. The poem acts as the backfill and the subject matter’s simply what the poet has on hand. Coke bottles, pennies, a soccer ball. As Stephen Dunn writes in “Archaeology”: “No need, really, to dig.”
In “Twenty-First Century Exhibit,” Tomás Q. Morín, a self-proclaimed votary of Szymborska and the author of the wonderfully strange A Larger Country,introduces us to another scenario that converses with the Polish poet’s “Museum”:
At the Museum of Natural History,
three guards . . .
marched us into the exhibit
crafted to look like an office purged of its desks,
its loping workers, the maze of gray-board cubicles.
In the center of the room, a water cooler
The speaking chorus then lines up for solos to answer the question: What does this water cooler mean? “A metaphor for the modern personality,” one says; “the perfect marriage of form and content,” pipes up another. And it should mean something if it’s in a museum—shouldn’t it? At least this is how our speakers, trusting as they are, go about their visit to the exhibit, until the installation’s artist—who, the speaker says, “had been hidden among us”—
crossed the rope
and knelt at the cooler, his lips working the spigot
while the rest of us stared, tongues too dumb
to say anything as the water hiccuped and disappeared.
He gleefully pointed at his rounded belly,
and then waddled to a door without a doorknob
marked with the universal triangle for toilet.
His work begun, he signaled to an unseen hand
to soften the lamps above us to a kinder orange
so he could more easily study us, his creation,
so he could attempt to learn what can’t be learned.
Morín’s poem has the same absurd quality as Szymborska’s, but here, people and objects aren’t in direct conflict with one another. The conflict is between people in that both sides—the viewers and the artist—both try to read into each other’s made thing, the exhibit and the viewer’s reactions respectively. The meaning that each side comes up with is perhaps too perfect, too calculated to ever be true. The water cooler is not meant to be the perfect marriage of form and content. The viewers’ flaws that the artist prizes don’t, as he thinks, confer character.
Morín writes: “How could anyone ever know this by looking?”
What we see we know somewhat
Be it but a little –
What we don’t surmise we do
Though it shows so fickle
Several problems here arise.
1) When encountering a poem about knowns, the reader (like the viewers at the Twenty-First Century Exhibit who, desperate for meaning, examine the water cooler and postulate about the intent behind it) will attempt to read more into the poem than is present. Example (my own; only for demonstration):
The spilled water on the floor holds,
for a time, some shape
all its own so that we may
say it is water and not waters.
OK. Simple science here—the cohesion of H2O. Regardless of the merit/aesthetic of the writing—and our poetic tastes—I think we can all agree that the poem functions as an impression, the recounting of what is, the excavation of knowns. For some, this kind of writing is resonant in its simplicity. For me, however, I find myself, for better or worse, anticipating that the poet has a greater design in mind. Because we know so little except for the fact that water has spilled on the floor in a puddle, I start to see this image as a kind of metaphor. But for what? I, too, might stretch myself to say that the puddle represents “the perfect marriage of form and content.” Would I be right? Probably not. Why do I read more into the poem? Because why else would the poet tell me about the water unless I should care about it for some reason. I’m certainly not going to come over there and mop it up.
2) If you write the meaning of a poem into a poem, it’s like excavating what’s already been excavated.
3) If you allow yourself to write associatively, however, you run into a new problem, a problem not unlike that of placing a toothbrush in the grave of the abscessed Incan king. Sometimes our next logical choices are too perfect. By that I mean they’re ironic. In that way, too, they become about knowns. Writing associatively may have subverted my reflex of cliché and sentimentality, but it, too, can become a sort of reflex.
4) No poem, like an archaeological site, yields a complete picture.
The poem is an excavation of the senses.
A spade smiles light at us, its bowered curve—a devil’s
Memory rusts out an odor like nightcrawlers.
Morning steams music. On Access
Road, Geneva and I saw a tanker on fire.
No, the container wasn’t on fire. The contents were:
the flames like wet plaster whipped
on a dead man’s head.
All French royal deathmasks were destroyed in the Revolution.
We use our deaths to create life.
On a sign staked into a lot, I read: Land
For Sale / Perfect For Church
The wide field of abstractions: scrub
brush, rust color, many same-nails.
I once saw a woman on the train wearing
a nail on a chain and wondered if it was some passion.
When I heard a broken window slashed a friend’s arm, I saw the wound
open and suck close, healed.
Emmy once dug a hole in the unfinished
basement and dragged a whiskey
barrel her mother bought for flowers into the hole so
her friends wouldn’t have to go upstairs
for the bathroom.
No one will ever know.
All skeletons are ecstatic. They clack like spoons.
We can measure out the earth in the marrow-worth. Liberté, égalité, fraternité ou la mort.
The broken jorum says, “Now
you’re the vessel.”
“But you have no mouth to speak,” respond.
Philip Barker, author of Techniques of Archaeological Excavation, calls archaeology of the “unrepeatable experiment.”
Every archaeological site is itself a document. It can be read by a skilled excavator, but it is destroyed by the very process which enables us to read it. Unlike the study of an ancient document, the study of a site by excavation is an unrepeatable experiment.
One cannot return to the site of an excavation and find things as they were before. The very nature of excavation is to remove objects from their original context. But isn’t that the work of the poem? To remove fragments (i.e. of language) from the strata of experience, to bring it to the surface, to polish it clean and white as a bone?
Ander Monson writes: “Any fragment is an art, an artifact. Is an echo of the whole. Is an echo; is the whole.”
Writing a poem, too, is an unrepeatable experiment. I argue that one cannot write the same poem twice, though we might occasionally complain that one poem feels like another. Just because the dirt looks the same doesn’t mean that wherever you spade in will bring up the same finds. Sometimes we have to dig around the same site before we have a good picture of it. Archaeological reconstruction deals with relationships between objects. The antidote often grows near the poison. Who’s on first, what’s on second.
I’ve asked several poets in interviews or casual conversation if they’ve ever had the writing of a (semi-/) autobiographical poem change their memory of the experience. Of course, this question is slippery. How would we remember a change in our memory? In “Cartography in Absentia,” a poem from my second manuscript, the speaker insists: “ask yourself: What memories did I have then? / Can you know?”
This is a question I often ask myself, and sometimes I’m able to locate within my life the particular stratum to which a memory belongs. This happened here and this happened here. In doing this, however, I’ve realized that the act of writing a poem sometimes mixes the strata until they’re indistinct. Therefore, it’s the point of view that’s changed in the poems. Remember, point of view is not just who’s looking but from where they’re looking. When a poem mixes the memories, my vantage is skewed and something of my current self gets mixed in with something of my old self. It’s something I have on hand, something I don’t mind leaving—can’t help but leave—behind, and in this way, the poem is not so much an excavation of the original site as it is an excavation of that site and its previous excavation(s), that is, recollections. And each time we return to that poem to revise or read it, we add in something else to the backfill and each reader adds something else to the backfill and so on and so forth until we have the ruins of a whole civilization of minds.
The poem is determined to keep living when we’re gone.
Joan’s Letter to Mr. Jones; After the Fire Festival On the Feast Day of Mary of the Candles
Dear Mr. Jones,
Forsythias’ impossibly small blossoms were promised, but these mouthed back, earthward—yes because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones¹. What body part, what geography— indecipherable, my finger’s archipelago strums uncertain foliage where a second season moves through me unacknowledged. Today when I stood in the street, I felt my shadow burn its betrayal through the pavement. I recognized my heart’s sobriety as a true misfit. I wanted to tell my old lovers that they could all stand next to me. That the draining of blood from their lips was anger, not abandonment. I wanted to explain to them, shoulder to shadow, that when they passed through the waters, I would be with them; and when they passed through rivers they would not be overwhelmed. When they walked through fire, as in my song², they would not be burned³, they would be bridegrooms. They would not be strangers unrecognized by flame. Of all the things I wanted, the one thing I wanted most was to create the past differently. Mr. Jones, I fear my own interpretation of self as selfless. As if once given I will be permanently troubled. My words cross through the law. Our children will gossip, live with dreams knotted to the back of their throat; the air in their next century will be thin, their voices misunderstood, they will pray as if to a secretly dressed tribe whose image will be found sealed in stale envelopes. It might be someone like this who blesses us?
¹ Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man” from Highway 61 Revisited
² “My Song” refers to Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc”
³ Isaiah 43:2
Thank you to Marcia LeBeau for the inspiration/impetus