April 28, 2010

Dear Schuyler,

My previous letters to you didn’t convey the distress and charge I’ve felt about poetry for quite some time—I suppose they were vaguely timid, unsure of the absolute trust I have in you, unfounded and due only to a certain shared idea of the world, of writing. “Testing the waters,” as the cliché goes. But here’s the trust I’m not auctioning off to anyone else, the trust that draws my insides to the forefront ((No one ever notices how much of yourself you’re exposing when you show someone the sort of things you think about))—I guess that trust is the kind of thing that’s hard to betray from whichever “beyond” you inhabit, or whichever I choose to picture—found of course only in poetry: Did you ever use it as an excuse? I have to drink, I am a writer. No. I don’t ascribe to the logic you do, I’m a writer. Or better: Deadlines? I can’t write for deadlines, I am a poet. I throw the words around, excuse-like. I guess it’s a feeling of entitlement—I get to say it however I want, since virtually every other career label I can conjure immediately demands respect, in one sense or another: When a doctor says “Doctor,” people stumble over themselves to express “impressed”; when my father says “Factory Worker,” people respect the humble honesty, the determination to do anything to provide for his family; but when I say “Poet,” people just look surprised. I once had a woman laugh and say “Yes. And I’m a professional knitter.” Did you face anyone whose respect for you actually vanished with the “What do you do?” conversation? I’ve felt shifts over seconds, the calculation in heads unsure of what to possibly say after that, some kind of shutting down of the lights in her eyes, the ones that indicate excitement for the conversation.

I propose to you the unpoetic ((because I know you’re a believer in that as much as me, I’ve read your poems and studied ‘til there’s nothing left unknown)), the misinformed and slanted poetics of a girl still struggling with the Big Questions everyone around her seems so sure of: Belief, ((Mis))Trust, Sexuality, Respect, Place and Space, Origin, Destination…these are my poetics. I write the questions and my proposed answers and there’s never any feeling of surety, except maybe about Love ((with a capital “L”)); I don’t doubt Love, I only doubt the recipients, the body and mind producing it, the “Where has it been learned?” or “Did this stem at birth?” I understand the belief of some poets in a counter-poetics—an alternative to the traditions poets like Michael Palmer say they’ve witnessed and just couldn’t get behind, a resistance to the “school” divisions dominating poetry, a sort of deconstruction of the poetic tradition. While I understand the need for this and respect it to the highest degree, this isn’t what I do. I do UNpoetics. I stand by both the fact that my work is important, and the fact that Nietzsche had it 100 percent correct when he dissected the concept and function of language to say that it is all, ultimately, false. I wrote to you before of the columns in my mind, that subjects fall under either “Poetic” or “Unwriteable,” and I’ve decided it’s up to me ((as you did of your own duty decades before)) to put the “normal” and the “boring” back into poems. The names of the flowers fall to me in your absence; I promise to shoulder them as best I can.

And I try. I promise, I try. Somewhere in the poems I write for the next ten years, I will include St. Bernard’s Lily, Lantana, and Bindweed, rather than literal heartbreakers who spent hours convincing me to trust… or maybe both. I mean, you made both work, and I’m trying to play upkeep to your “No longer willing,” hmm? Somewhere in it, I’ve some uncompromiseables—never you fear—I have to include anger, to an extent, and eventually the “You-I” you and I’ve already so frequently discussed, and many other tiny notes, like my double parentheses which never even made sense to me, just always felt mine. It only hits me now that I’m the product of two negatives, two failed ambitions: My father’s never-attempted writing career Xs My mother’s all-consuming ((and ultimately denied)) dreams of art school = Me, currently–I never knew any of it ’til the moment of departure, when it came down to a familial fissure of support versus fear, only not  terribly dramatic, as we all knew what the radical, romantic, seemingly-opposite-of-prodigal daughter would do, and the wound healed quickly in her absence ’til she became more once away than she ever had been when present; reflection, though, leaves plenty to be desired, and it’s so easy to be a legend in one’s own podunk, back-woods mind—I’m far more interested in the girl with the un-romanticized bad habits and shoddy short-term plans, the one who keeps the past close, is fearful of the present, and can’t seem to graduate from her own title of “girl,” no matter how many years she sees.

For the sake of clarity in the questions I ask and the stories I tell, I will anthropomorphize my poetics–we’ll call him Jack ((for the sake of Jack Sal and my thesis title)). Jack’s a curious four year-old: curious in every way, he demands to know anything that falls just out of the range of legibility, vision, comprehension, a priori knowledge, collection, recollection, tradition, “business,”  propriety–the curiosity and insatiability of one never quite secure ((how can a child feel secure when he knows so little? But while most children create imagninaries through which to filter the crazy world around them, Jack is content with a drive to know the answers)); maybe thumbing through Benjamin’s card catalogs, indices, tomes, cabinets, correspondences, manuscripts, theses, notebooks, suitcases, shaving kit only to feel the aching absence of “complete” for lack of the briefcase Walter lost over the Pyrenees in September 1940.

As I crossed Union Station one morning to Track 8, going to Grand Central, a woman stopped me to ask where I was going. She introduced herself as Lenore and asked me to wait for her and her friend to board the train. She talked to me ((while her friend was buying coffee at the Dunkin Donuts)) about how she ((Lenore)) was going through a divorce and how the lady with her, Jean, had decided herself the heroine—distracting Lenore from it all. ((This isn’t the actual example, just the touching backstory of the example.)) Jean, it turns out, was from California and had never been to New York City ((She didn’t know the difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn, except that “Brooklyn’s the scary one, right?”)), and had never been on a train before. She grinned and squealed and photographed the train as it approached the station. This woman was at least 50 years old and didn’t give a good goddamn who knew her inexperience–she was too excited having the experience to care. She asked me all about New York: how cold it would be in Chinatown, where they should go for lunch, what it’s like to live there. Then she wanted to know what I was doing in New Haven, then about the boyfriend I was visiting, then about what I did in New York, then all about poetry. This all begged the question: What’s wrong with starving for knowledge? Rather than announcing everything I’ve learned to everyone I meet, why not exist as a sort of human checklist? “Here’s what I DON’T know yet… Do you know anything about it? Please share.”

I gathered your comprehension of and appreciation for the same kind of unknowledge I so love when I came upon  “Hymn to Life”:

A window to the south is rough with raindrops

That, caught in the screen, spell out untranslatable glyphs. A story

Not told: so much not understood, a sight, an insight, and you pass on,

Another day for each day is subjective and there is a totality of days

As there are as many to live it. The day lives us and in exchange

We it: after snowball time, a month, March, of fits and starts, winds,

Rain, spring hints and wintry arrears.

You drop in “un-“s: “untranslatable glyphs,” “[a] story [n]ot told.” These negatives, to me, are as telling as your surety that a snowdrop is a snowdrop. The fact that you insert unknowns into your poems as unknowns tells me that you, too, embrace the idea that knowledge and lack of are on equal ground—a friend once told me that intelligence isn’t the facts from a book, but the ability to get along without the facts or the book, at all. Likely the most poignant part of “Hymn to Life” is your statement “so much not understood, a sight, an insight, and you pass on”—an acknowledgment of unknowledge, a gleaning via what you know, and a release of what’s left between the two poles of “I know” and “Sure don’t.” Later in the poem, you address another sort of unknowledge that I hadn’t even considered:

A Quote from Aeschylus: I forget. All, all is forgotten gradually and

One wonders if these ideas that seem handed down are truly what they were?

I hadn’t taken the time to realize the possibility of knowledge becoming unknowledge in the act of forgetting, even though I spend frequent hours angry with myself for forgetting something I was sure I knew; I mean, I have a hard time recalling my 12’s times tables, which were drilled into my head so very early on.

I once wrote that ((Jack and)) I specialize in “the art of the hard sell.” On one level, I believe this in the very broad sense, as I mentioned in the beginning of this letter, that calling oneself “Poet” is a fool’s game—there’s very little room for poets today, economically, socially, even ((ironically)) ideologically. A few days ago, when given the rare opportunity to sit in front of a television and flip through the channels, I stopped on some family drama, where the mother was having a separate argument with each of her children, simultaneously. The mother wanted her daughter to go to a nearby college to see a poetry reading, to which the daughter replied “A poetry reading? I’d actually rather sell an organ.” This is the attitude I was referring to, the people who can’t process poetry as more than high school or 17th century silliness. But these are the same people who would bleed for movie quotes, The Notebook or Twilight… so who never told them that the kinds of things they like hearing trite and seeing printed on t-shirts and buttons are better said somewhere in the line breaks and parentheticals of a poet? Certainly, there’s something very satisfying in the simplest forms of visual media: I, too, am guilty of using “relaxation” as an excuse to watch what our generation calls “Chick Flicks” and “B-Grade Movies.” As the credits roll on these films, though, we can almost see the moral spelled out on that elementary school learning-to-write-the-alphabet paper, the two blue lines with the dotted red one between: “Don’t be stubborn in love” or “Never give up on your dreams!” They never show us the tiny-type that the movie’s really based on: “Sell them whatever they like to see, and do it rapidly; Promote shorter attention spans so we don’t have to waste so much time convincing them we’re right; And, good God! Don’t forget it’s all about our money!” Our increasingly visual-centered society pushes the poet to the corner, afraid of people who employ more than one meaning in each word they use. I’m thinking this is the hardest sell I can conjure: That of poetry to the masses. It’s not that I want the title being thrown around the way words like “genius” and “brilliant” and “awesome” are ((Again, why does no one allow a place for the poet to teach the misappropriations of these words?)); I’ve always hated the secret diaries that I know hide under each of my acquaintance’s pillows, where they throw down rhyming words and arbitrary commas, and call it all the same thing I call my life’s ambition; but I do think it poetry should return to the place it once held: Deserving of and receiving respect from normal people, the ones who can’t even consider picking up a pen because they know what true poetry is. I also want to clarify that some poets conquer the anti-poetry sentiment by incorporating the visual media on a higher level—I consider this even more respectable than championing the “pure” idea of poetry as words-on-page + words-aloud, it’s just not the sort of thing that coincides with my own poetics.

The other hard sell ((The other hardest sell, if I’m really honest…)) is convincing the already standing, already respected poets of the time that my words are worth hearing, as well. People who know poetry seem to be just as resistant to me and mine as those who don’t—maybe moreso. So I’m becoming quite the pitch-person, almost door-to-dooring like some cosmetics peddler, with Jack struggling to keep up, tripping over the suitcase ((maybe more of a basket, woven from the branches of the very same tree from which Nietzsche plucked “the leaf”)) of tools, beliefs, and broken rules I’m trying to sell. It’s tough work, and I don’t know where the road ends, but I think the message sits somewhere in the margins of each poem I produce; these are deeper than subliminal; enjambments sticking like a tick behind the ear—thriving without the listener’s awareness: the discovery of some of these listeners that, certain enjambments, once vocalized, aren’t what they expected, are challenging them to question the humor or sorrow or philosophy allowed within the boundaries of the title of “poetry.” I’m afraid I light up like a child offered candy when I profess my hidden agendas: I want to share my questions, to confuse the audience to my own degree of confusion, and if they’ll wander with me far enough into the maze, show them the shortcut out, the knowledges I have, and the truth that it’s okay to not answer all of the questions.

But James, there’s something I need to get off of my chest. It’s the kind of deep, dark ugly that, were it to be allegorized, could break up a relationship or start a war between two allied countries. I hope this doesn’t sever my connections with you, or the poetry world proper, but… I want to talk music and confess quite clearly that it is how I came to poetry. There. I said it. Growing up in a public school environment in the South, rap music was as familiar to me as breathing, but there were moments in my day where I was forced to hybridize. While walking to my “creative writing” class, I would hear Jay-Z insult “You know the type: Loud as a motorbike, but wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight,” then have to segue immediately into Keats. Eventually, the cynicism of “being the smart kid in a school of underachievers” kicked in, and the cross-cultural frustration erupted after class: the “hybridization” mentioned before became a physical performance of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” over “99 Problems.” Somewhere in there ((and this might be an even more embarrassing admission)), I also became enamored with Slam Poetry. Music and poetry are a two-man tightrope act, enabling each other along the line of rhythm. But I want to discuss the invariables of my relationship to music: I’ll ask for mandolin whenever possible, not the “finest” of instruments, but like simple hand-clapping, inspiring of lines and enjambment and staccato. I demand harmony ((with a lowercase “h,” not like “everybody in the world gets along”)) in any singing, only feeling the words when pronounced double-punctuated, escalating once separated from each other and sorted across the musical staff, a formula for the heaven I was raised on, like stanzas across a page. I believe in both the violin and the fiddle, and I believe in the difference between the two, something like the short line and the prose poem. I siphon lyrics, or maybe sift them like flour and baking soda and salt, searching for myself, and on finding that “Me” falling through the cracks, I cling as much there as to words on a page: “I come from [Carolina] with an appetite for my own myths: music, love, and what they mean. I’m told it’s borderline obscene.” While I can never manage to pull off blatant rhyme ((moat, boat, goat, float)) for fear of Dr. Seussing the masses, I really admire the way that adding a melody seems to validate the presence of these bouncing sounds. I also find a poetry I could never come near verbalizing in the final vibrations of a guitar string plucked, but not curbed ((maybe the most successful poetic translation of it is Nada Gordon’s repetition of “When the moon hits your eye” in her book, Folly)). Music, whether enjoyed in a room alone, with the door locked and the phone unhooked or at a concert hall seating tens of thousands of others, is a deeply and ultimately completely personal experience. We might have the same favorite song, James, but there’s something I get out of it that you don’t, and something you hold onto in it that I never even saw—music taught me the “You-I.” I understand that this has the potential to fuel the fires of “Your poetry isn’t that good/It feels exclusive/Relying on the ‘You-I’ is a cheap trick that involves your not working hard enough to open the poem up to subjects other than the ‘you’ or the ‘I.’” But these things, all of them, could be no further from the truth.

When I say music is a personal experience and imply that it is a moving one at that, I’m not talking about shitty pop songs that will be forgotten in a week’s time by all but the most loyal or eclectic radio-listener; I’m talking about music that endures, music that conquers. For some, it’s Erik Satie and his delicate piano-playing, like a mouse skittering across the keys. For others, it’s The Replacements and the penchant for finding a message more honest if the man delivering it obviously has no business singing to begin with. For me, it’s somewhere in between, some combination of The Who’s destruction, Chris Thile’s prodigal picking, Janis Joplin’s attention to sounding unpolished and passionate, and the full-body experience of seeing, hearing, and participating in mewithoutYou’s “We probably are the guys you just caught digging through the dumpster behind Whole Foods for dinner” presence. I mean to say that music and I are working on the same premise: We want to speak to a “You,” coming from the place of an “I,” the only place a creator really has, if he is honest. My poetry isn’t pretty or conventional or “for anyone” by any means—I’m breaking the rules people swear by ((not, not, NOT to be some kind of rebel or revolutionary, but because these are the only things that make sense to me: the unrules, in hand with the unknowledge, the unpoetic)); I’m breaking the line to disrupt what you think I mean, often to make a bad pun that will go unnoticed for two or three readings; and I’m addressing an ever-fluctuating, sometimes-specific, sometimes-multiple “You.” Music, though, is where my love of sound, my focus on consonance, assonance, and the playfulness I find in a word for the syllables’ sake stems from. I remember waking up many mornings to The Beatles’ “Good Morning” ((my father’s idea of a funny wake-up call)) as much as the first time I read “Howl” or The Captain’s Verses.

Jack and I, we have an interest in Baptist beliefs versus Islamic fanatics, but always bear a sympathy to both. We have a wall up against alcoholics, though I drink too much myself, and fuel Jack on in anger and spite, because we’ve both come in contact with the heavy hand of boxed wine, malt liquor, and men who knew too much of them both. We both think girls are pretty, but prefer the idea of a stereotypical man at the end of the day. We have a penchant for Southeastern charms and morals, but disagree when fundamental human rights are called into question… ever. We would choose Ginsberg as companion, were we stranded on a desert island, or at least his books. We want for a day during which everyone, everywhere dropped our cynicism and disappointment and suspicion, just tried for 24 hours to submit to romantic, idealistic notions: to the return of chivalry or an acceptance that, somehow, all people should be provided for. Naturally, all ideals wouldn’t align, but what of the compatible? What of the ones who would thrive, not being mocked for their smiles and wondering? Would tin cans tied to bicycle fenders ring more sweetly than the standard? Every 33rd or 57th or maybe fewer ((9th? 4th?)) “Missed Connection” ad on CraigsList or in The Village Voice or The Free Times ((of holyholy Columbia, South Carolina fame)) is an attempt at this–making some hint of sparkle in the dimmest of commutes. Jack and I, we admire these people, willing to throw themselves out to an audience of potentially everyone. Maybe what I’m really trying to get at here is that this is my audience: the in-between and confused ((I don’t even want to go back and see how many times I’ve used that word in this letter, James)), the people who have leanings and instincts and sympathies and fears. There’s no deep, intellectual analysis for the existence of Jack and his leanings, or mine by extension; I’ve stumbled through every “school” of poets on the spectrum, gleaning and passing on, and I could explain them all to you, but that would be a novel-length work functioning as a tennis game: Agree, but Disagree, then Agree, but whoaaaa, Eliot was a racist prick, in the end. I’d rather leave some questions open to any reader I find: either to explore single-handedly or to accept as a part of the whole.

The reason I mock the standard “Here is who I am and why my poetics are as such” kind of critical introduction, James? Because I can’t write like that—I can’t be so formal and serious. I think it’d kill me to have anyone think I wasn’t ready with the next joke or pun, and I never want to embody the much-envisioned self-serious writer. I don’t have the majority of the answers, and I feel entirely lucky when I figure out one more little detail of myself—a person I’ve lived with for 22 years, one I’ve literally spent every moment of my life with, inside and out. How can I explain to a reader something I don’t understand, myself? This is why I’m asking questions, direct questions, so much of the time: because I want answers. I am certain of one thing: The only way to obtain any sense of my poetics and life and basis for any of my effects is to follow the circles—the ones I’m talking in, writing in, thinking in. As I said about my poetry, there’s nothing pretty about it, but gleaning one “because” is like a Rosetta Stone for my writing: Eight or nine lines before figured “Inaccessible” will soon be made so obvious you’ll throw down these pages. Think stolen material, think continual reference to the same handful of sources over the span of a hundred poems, think a refusal to alter for the aesthetics preferred by any one group of… oh, anyone.