From My Retrospective

May 13, 2011

Last Spring I produced a collection of poems titled “Why I Believe in Winter” in which I tried to capture the landscape of bleak fear which is not fear for being too tepid.  Trying to capture the white noise that plays and suggests the universe is not constructed with meaning or magic, but rather that all is, has been, and will be void, and in that void, one sphere, mostly water, a flare, rising, chokes itself out and leaves neither smoke signal nor act of defiance in the face of the empty terror, white noise, entropy.  I fell underneath my own creative work.  That summer I was thrown into depression, addictions, and unhealthy choices, as I worked to get Winter out to small presses.  Trying to immerge from despair was not aided by either my Fall Workshop, or my introduction to the work of C. P. Cavafy, whose poetry I admire for getting to the heart of the beast which Winter only had the gall to describe, in detail, the fur.

So it was I began this semester, trying to write about joy, but I lacked a guide.  Now, my greatest guides have been Rumi, Matthew Dickman, and perhaps most of all, the fiction of Tom Robbins.  Robbins for me, resurrected the simile: a true joy in language when coupled with an image, like whipped cream of words, fluff in itself but on top of a strawberry or melting in merriment over a hot tart, it dissolves on the pallet and delights in its complementary sweet substance.  In a way, all three of these authors encouraged me to write the work that I had prevented myself from writing for fear of it being trite or overdone subject matter.  Why a simile when you could say it in metaphor?  Does the world need another love poem?  Or another poem about geese?  Or how much flowers are nice?  Will a poem about spring coming be important to anybody?  If not, why write a whole book about these?  Why write an entire section of a thesis.  For that, I have no real answer.  The conclusion I have in the brighter moments of the dialectic, however, is that to answer is not the function of joy.  Joy seems to suggest saturation, a little bit of sweat and in need of a shower is something about a smile.

Depression was one major obstacle for this project of writing about joy.  Attention Deficit Disorder is another.  Although I rarely talk about it, ADD has been a struggle for most of my life.  I used to get held after constantly in elementary school, at home, I’d get angry and not know why, break things.  I was on and off medication, believing I was misdiagnosed, or broken, and in the times between almost failing out of high school.  Looking back, for the greater part of my life I had been told I was not living up to my potential.  This is a longer story than you likely care to read in this letter, but suffice to say, I have begun taking medication for ADD again this semester, and while it does contribute to me getting myself organized, and being able to work at a desk, it is a barrier to the leaping thoughts that often jump themselves into the realm of poetry.

So I have a bottle full of switches: they turn poetry off, and they turn the ability to do data entry on.  This seems like a simple decision for one who has a masters degree in poetry, and no interest in data entry: flush the damn bottle, let all the switches swirl counter clockwise out of your creative life.  But it is poverty that opens the darkest depression, and sends me hurtled into the poetics of self-loathing.  This is the poetry that is not only unhealthy, but is simultaneously completely self absorbed.

The largest challenge I feel I have in front of me is balance, which is something I’ve never been good at.  It is very easy for me to portray myself as or accuse myself of being lazy.  I am trying to balance the scales, but I have found that recently I expect something from this program.  Running on the assumption that these tens of thousands of dollars I have invested here will pay off more than in my writing.  This may be a false assumption.  I see it very openly that I may have to wait years before I see the effects of this choice.

I feel left here, a “slam” poet with an MFA.  The entire world as a sea in front of me, and myself, dangling on its dock, picking at the weathered wood.  This ocean is filled with gilled creatures.  In building myself a breathing device, I had plans for a diving suit, a copper head piece, with portholes and protective bars.  A full diving suit, I thought, that I could certainly construct in two years.  I’m holding a trash bag, thinking about how much oxygen can fit inside it, while someone is asking me to pay, in money that I don’t have, for that diving suit I built.

The constant fear is that I will never be able to pay back the loans.  I have put myself well in the path of fear.  This becomes a barrier to the work I want to do.  I had dreams of an art bar, that perfect diving suit to hold me in an ocean of creativity, even in its saline solute of capitalism.  It is so easy for me to look at myself, in the quieter hours of the evening as a lazy man, who lacks conviction.  At my best times I know this is not true, poetry, one light I have had in this creeping darkness, has changed from a light that nurtured and fed from all the truth and tolerance that can be found, to one that must compete to shine the brightest.  The industry of poetry seems to parallel the industry of education, and if this continues (both in the macrocosm and the microcosm) I believe it is very real threat to art, both for myself internally, and for our nation as a whole.

If the tone of this letter seems darker than you might expect, let me explain.  In this week The Art Bar was rejected from the startup competition in which it was entered, I was rejected from a teaching position at the writing workshop Sarah Lawrence hosts for teenagers, and I was asked to read at graduation, and then asked not to.  Right now, it feels that Sarah Lawrence is actively closing doors to me.  I have tried to provide opportunities, while here, for writers to excel and love their art.  The feeling that I have received is a mild suspicion; it seems to me that those around me expect me to be trying to outshine them.  These are not huge tragedies; I assure you I recognize that.  The feeling comes from not being able to excel, to flourish.  And this is the great fear, to live the entirely of life as a bud, never to bloom.

The more noble part of me recognizes that accomplishment, standards and joy have at least this in common: they can only be achieved and validated internally.  I am hopeful that I will be able to find this balance in the wider world, and that my life will be one in which I am able to nurture my own creative centers.  However at this time, I find there is little to do in this pause, this quiet between the end of classes and the theoretical beginning of a career, but to remark upon the shapes of the shadows.


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