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The Poet as Hoarder, the Hoarding as a Way to Let Go

By Camille Dungy

[Editor's Note: Please see Camille Dungy's "Reading Writers" for a correction to this post.]

I remember seven thousand years ago meeting Daisy Fried in the Hilton lobby at the AWP conference in New Orleans. Someone introduced her by name and I told her I loved her poems. We’d never met before and I was, essentially, nobody. I was at AWP to moderate and participate on a panel called “Five Years Out: What We Wish We’d Known When We Earned Our MFA.” I represented the relatively newly minted members of the writers association, and I was delighted to be at the conference spending something akin to quality time with the sort of writers I aspired to become. I don’t recall who introduced me to Daisy Fried, but I was grateful because I had been reading her book and deeply enjoying her poems. I told her as much, and she asked me which ones. I was speechless at that point, unable to give her specifics. Because I had nothing particularly interesting to say to her and she had an active dinner party conversation to look forward to, I was summarily dismissed.

How many Word Crushes come to painful ends when the poet leaps off the page and becomes a person? Perhaps the unrequited love of the poet on the page is the best love of all. One is far less likely to blunder in the face of a poem than in the face of a poet. How many times have you, Dear Reader, been rendered inarticulate in the face of a person whose words you admire?

That’s the sort of blunder that embarrasses me immensely for years after the person at the center of the source of my embarrassment has likely forgotten my blunder, and possibly even my existence. I write poetry in part to try to reduce those sorts of blunders. Poetry, as I write it, is crafted and revised and written and rewritten, and when, in a poem, I want to tell someone something beautiful about themselves, I will have the right words at the right time and they will hear it in the way I intend them to hear. In the real world it doesn’t work like that. Which is yet another reason why the world of poetry is often superior to the world of hotel lobby encounters and small talk.

Another reason why the world of poetry is superior to the world of hotel lobby encounters and small talk is that poetry can be hoarded. All that’s left after chit chat is over is a residue of shame or grief or joy or indifference, but usually not a particularly sticky residue. Chit chat is a here now gone the next minute sort of phenomenon, whereas poetry can be put away and saved for later. For instance, just today I was going through my folders of beloved poems and, in the “F” file, I found two poems from Daisy Fried’s She Didn’t Mean To Do It. The poems were “Settled and “Moving Her Around.” I had about 5 copies of each of these poems scattered throughout the “F” file, which suggests these were the poems I was thinking about when I told Daisy I liked her work. There they were, in my hands, and as I read them again I remembered the feeling of coming across the poems and the feeling of learning to appreciate them, of learning to hear how Fried played language and line, nuance and velocity, vernacular and formality. I remembered the flush of writerly recognition I had when I first encountered the poems, and the feeling came back as if it had never gone away. I also remembered the embarrassment I felt just after I blundered with the poet person in that New Orleans Hilton lobby. It’s an embarrassment I held long after it was useful.

But today I ran across the Fried poems in my “F” File. I was looking for poems about the Iowa, and I knew I had some good ones stowed away. I found the one I was looking for, “Telling Erin About Iowa on Office Time” by Pat Hutchings, and I also found these two poems that were the source of some embarrassment seven thousand years ago. Now that I have the poems in my hands again, as if out of a time capsule (I use the computer for storage so much now that this old file folder was musty and dusty with disuse), I have found a way to soothe my old hurt. For one thing, with the answer to my question I’m not quite so frustrated anymore. By hoarding the poems I was able to provide an answer to a riddle I’d been hoarding as well. After all this time, I can write to Daisy, here in your company, Dear Reader, and tell her that I know the names of the poems that had struck me so. I had hoarded them so I could find them one day when I wanted just the right words, and here they were, ready to salve an old wound which “a long time after,” as Daisy herself put it in one of the poems in my hand, “no one remembers, or wants to.”

This is the sort of wonderful thing a poem can do.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 by Camille Dungy.