Welcome To My Bed

Poetry: what I think I know.

I do not claim to be an expert on anything literary.  I am, at best, an enthusiastic novice.  I like words.  Words and I get along REAL WELL.  I'd say I read roughly one novel and one poetry collection a week. This is probably more than the average person, but I'm lucky enough to spend most of my time at work leaning against a counter with a book in hand.  Roughly five years ago, things were very different: I was new to the parentless world, at college as an art student, journaling furiously, showing none of my writing to anybody.  I read the same few books religiously (The Bell Jar, Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Please Don't Kill The Freshman), mining them for clues on how the whole words thing works.  But I did not read poetry.  Poems were a nebulous form that seemed almost evil because of how powerful people claimed they were.  You could memorize them, carry them around mentally, spit them out at anybody else like a spell, sing them to the tune of popular songs, wrap them in a love letter and use them for personal gain.  As a teenager, that power in economy was terrific and horrific at once.  I wrote poems every day, excruciatingly bad poems saturated in angst that made my few friends uncomfortable and my teachers shockingly proud.  A few of them ended up in the high school lit mag, but I had no delusions about grandiosity or success in the form.

At college, slam happened to me.  With all of its flawed format and silly hierarchies of rock star poets and gimmicky performance styles, it was exactly what I needed to make poetry accessible to me.  To make poems a scary, evil power that I too could possess.  This is what I sounded like in my early slam days:


It is embarrassing to hear myself rush, to hear how little control I have over my voice, how many things I repeat.  But this is exactly where it happened: where I found the power of poems.  The poem in the video is nowhere near my best work.  It isn't even something I can watch or listen to without cringing.  If I went back to it, there is so much I would change, so many thing I would arrange differently.  But showing this is important because it shows how much things had shifted by February of my first year as a writer admitting she is a writer.  Here, I am playing with language, repetition, a circular narrative that grows and changes and builds in a small, three minute arc.  This is important.  This play is how poems happen.  They are games you play with language to say something unexpected, but, like anything worth the effort, you have to be willing to be bad at them before you can ever hope to be good.

The immense power inherent to poems is in the things they allow you to say.  A poem, at its best, is a transgression of silence.  There is a reason why poets have been enemies of the state in countries and culture the world over since the beginning of language--poetry gives us license to say dangerous things, to say them quickly and starkly, to pare away all the white noise surrounding the heart of what we mean and present just that heart and only the heart to be consumed and sometimes these hearts make us sick.  They have an intense power when it comes to protest, witness, and education because they are so distilled.  Poems are the kind of writing that works in small strokes and creates big changes in thought.  They provide a space where huge leaps of comparison can be made, where two things before unalike are suddenly the same.  Poems travel great distances in single steps because of the way the images in them enter into a conversation, because of the way a line breaks, because of the multiplicity and music of sounds, the connotative and annotative meanings of words, the suggestion of a world much larger and more complex than what is said.

In less than two weeks, I am responsible for bringing what I now know about poems to students at my former high school.  I've been given five hour-long sessions to read poems by other that I love, poems of mine that I feel proud of, poems that might help people like me (latent writers scared of the magic they might produce) understand that poetry is far from dead.  I'm not going to talk about Billy Collins or Ezra Pound.  I'm not going to beat over the head with history.  The best way to get a kid to fall in love with poetry is to show them that it is a way to find voice in a world where everyone talks but few listen.

I could hem and haw about poems for a week-long workshop and still not be winded.  But I want to know what other people might say.  Writers, friends: why were poems an important discovery for you?

The Bibliography of Loss

I haven't written here in eight months. For everything, there is a reason and season, if not a proper rhyme. My father died in July. Simple as that tiny sentence; bigger than anything I can (or will) ever write here or anywhere else.

Following this, I threw myself into many things. I worked two jobs, spent endless driving hours bouncing between Providence and Boston. It felt best to move more than was comfortable. In stillness, people approach you. Hang at the fringe of a party and someone will ask how you're doing. It's rude not to answer. They're only concerned, and rightfully so. The conversations that accompany losing a parent are unlike any others. Such an experience becomes public no matter what you do or say surrounding it. Everyone finds out. Sympathy becomes oppressive. Pity, pervasive. The faces of friends are suddenly gutted of kindness, deeply hollow, wanting only to drink in as much of your sadness as possible. They can't help it; tasting your loss could make their own future losses somehow easier. You are a walking premonition. A how-not-to guide for grieving.

My best friends have always been books. Like many children, imagining was the greatest escape. It continued to be into the final stretch of my father's battle with innumerable chronic illnesses. I read The Autograph Man; the first scene, I reread three times and cried on the commuter train. Big, wet sobs in front of strangers too horrified to ask. And then I read White Teeth and decided that along with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I had the start of a syllabus for a lit class on the immigrant humor-histories of diaspora. To finish out my comprehensive tour of Zadie Smith, I sat a long weekend with her essay collection Changing My Mind, which had me bawling even more than the novels. Her piece about off-color humor and its place in her family life hit particularly close to home.

I started The Brothers Karamazov and in the middle of it, the end. I haven't been able to push forward more than a hundred pages since. (I blame most of this on having come to the first person interjection of the elder Zosima's call to faith, which should probably just be dramatically staged in my living room with funny accents and stick-on mustaches to expedite the process so that I can say I've made it through.) Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World broke my heart by presenting itself as the first book post-death that I would've bought for my father. Our phone calls where we talked about recent reads are the thing I miss the most. He was an expert on the hierarchies of Herbert's Dune, favored speculative fiction above most things. I feel closest to him now when I find something madcap and unapologetic. I also have my greatest troubles with the future, because he can't bodily be in it. I cry about weddings of complete strangers. The thing I am most proud of is that the first piece of writing anyone's paid me for publishing came out 2 days before he went. That I got to see him smile at our triumph.

He made me a storyteller and storylover. Which made this next one a particularly difficult time, given the elusive presence of the brilliant storyteller dead dad. I picked up Infinite Jest at the end of the summer as a challenge to myself. I hadn't been writing. I hadn't been able to read more than a few pages of poems a week, where my appetite usually went through two or three hundred times as much in the same time. Before. Such an ugly word to think of when talking about a person's life. Foster Wallace wrote the guilt of remembering a better before and the guilt of searching for a better after, and the numbness required to run from both, and the ways we are all bred to expect some escape, and a lot of nonsense about puppet shows and trash and radio engineers and Canada that wasn't even close to nonsense because it kept me from thinking of the hospice and the ashes and the eulogy I wrote mostly about a seagull feather (weeping nearly enough to short out my computer). The power of words lies in their ability to imagine ourselves different. Reading asks us to go somewhere unfamiliar, to trust that the unknown can be good again. I can think of no other conversation I wish someone had started with me in person.

I am (un)fortunate enough to know a handful of people who have done this dance. The I-wish-wouldn't-say-you're-sorry-for-my-loss dance. The please-shut-up-about-it-and-take-me-to-a-stupid-movie dance. All of us are heavy readers. I can think of no other effective coping mechanism. If someone asks about "how I'm doing" in that eyebrows raised kind of way, I tell them what I'm reading. Most seem deeply thwarted by this, but I much prefer sharing something truly useful to harping on a wound that is unlikely the scab over, perhaps ever. Luckily, there are enough titles on my must-read list to keep me distracted for at least six lifetimes.

I guess what I'm saying is I needed a long, deep breath, voices unreasonable and irreverent to talk me out of taking loss so seriously. I come from the future. The thoughts here are hard-nosed, but happy.