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I Aspire to Kwame-ness (Ode to the Desk)
Prolific output is my weakness, and writers who can crank out poems, pages, chapters, books are my inspiration. They mirror my hunger for more of anything literary, they represent the labor hunched over the desk — backaches, neck pain, the late night struggle of kicking sleep off the face. But, oh what sweet pleasure.
Besides Kwame Dawes, I’d add Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Juan Felipe Herrera and Gary Soto, Chicano writers who also move through multiple genres, breaking apart the narrow and constraining shelves that were supposed to keep them in neat, manageable boxes — reined back, if you will.
Indeed, these writers must scoff at reports of “writer’s block” and at the notion that something besides sitting down to write has greater priority. Okay, so I’m projecting, but you catch my drift. In order to be this productive, they must be that dedicated.
Even with my own meager output (he winks, trying to be cute), I’m frequently asked if I ever sleep, or if I ever intend to slow down. The short answer is no. I can find no reason to. I am 40 years old, but look 30 (he giggles, nervously) and this is my greatest enjoyment — this one-on-one exchange with the computer whose blank page darkening is my only evidence something interesting is going on.
I feel a sense of responsibility to put ideas out in the world that many before me could not, either because they didn’t have the opportunity or privilege of space and time, or because their lives were cut short.
I’ve also had to learn to accept that some writers, who have all of these things (space, time, life), tread a different path and will produce very little. Though I spit on the notion that what little they produce is undoubtedly pitch-perfect or extraordinarily polished — as if those writers who pour it out are always sloppy and rushed. On the plane of creativity, writers inhabit every configuration: slow and sadly lacking, quick and uneven, among them. Process, progress, revision and craft are individual, experiential.
Where does one place a marathon writing fiend like Joyce Carol Oates? It’s a very subjective scale. (Though I find that her most vocal critics don’t read her work, they just react to the growing number of books.) Mad respect, JCO. Keep trucking, girl!
Lately, since I’m less ambulatory, I’ve learned to reach for the keyboard as a substitute for walking, traveling, intellectual stimulus. I tried the Proust method of writing on the bed, but nothing compares to the way my body responds to the desk — my familiar dancing partner.
I can’t blame my condition for this burst of productivity, however, since I can trace my craving for isolation to my college years, when I preferred to stay in my apartment during Spring Break and other school holidays instead of going to the beach or going home. I’d ensconce myself for days, barely eating, constantly writing and rewriting. I’d leave messages on the answering machine like “I’m out of town for the next two weeks” until my friends caught on, and then when I really was out of town I’d arrive to a series of “I know you’re there, pick up the phone” messages.
Or maybe the origin of my recluse ways goes back to the years of my childhood: the crowded apartment with 19 people, the fight for the television, the couch, the one chair at the table that didn’t wobble, but never a battle for the small cluster of books that stared out with disinterest into the theater of our living room. How I loved the silencing of the chaos when I kissed the page.
I have a one-year sabbatical coming up — 16 months of freedom from administrative duties and academic responsibilities. (Lihn Dihn isn’t on Harriet this time around to berate me for being an academic poet. To all the haters I say: F. U., I’ve got health issues; I need the insurance.)
Sometimes it hits me that in a matter of weeks I can do whatever the hell I want with my time, and I almost start to weep with gratitude. I can see it now: me and my BFF, my writing desk, my magic carpet, my time machine, my porthole to anywhere. Me in a Hawaiian shirt and house slippers, with a fresh bottle of wood polish on one hand. Just you and me, baby, my brown and my beautiful.
Remember that awesome Linda Pastan poem “Ethics:” “If there were a fire in a museum / which would you rather save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow?” I look around my tiny studio, its walls crowded with art, its floors balancing stacks of books, and it’s a no-brainer: I’d give my desk a fighting chance. I’d push it out the window and let it do what it does best, fly.
I’ve slept on that desk, I’ve cried on it, I’ve shared my simple joys and complicated grievances with it, my reliable and faithful partner of so many years, I’ve made a promise to it that it would never suffer neglect.
So any chance I get I press myself against it, and love it the way it should be loved, oh my Kwame, my Gary, my Juan Felipe and my Benjamin, there are desks in the world growing cold and numb, and too many writers whose apathy and vanity let these majestic creatures starve.
Here, my pet, lick these words off my hands.