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Essay

Poet for a Year

Tired of plot and pacing, a prose writer immersed himself in the world of verse–and lived to tell the tale.
Introduction
"In the fall of 1997, I moved to a partially renovated one-bedroom apartment in Somerville. . . . I was a short story writer and a failure and a masochist and I felt certain, within a month or so of my arrival, that poetry—what I took to be its particular brand of exalted suffering—was just the thing to cure me." Steve Almond tries to be a poet for a year.

In the fall of 1997, I moved to a partially renovated one-bedroom apartment in Somerville. This struck me as a fine place to lick my wounds after the glorious persecutions of grad school. I was a short story writer and a failure and a masochist and I felt certain, within a month or so of my arrival, that poetry—what I took to be its particular brand of exalted suffering—was just the thing to cure me.

I was tired of plot and pacing and point of view. They were an affliction, by which I should be taken to mean that my prose was an affliction. My best friend in Boston was the poet Dave Blair, a loud and hearty fanatic who had the poor judgment to feed me volumes of C.K. Williams and Thomas Lux and Yehuda Amichai, poets who made the work seem dashing and tragic and wry. My uncle was also supplying me—battered volumes of Kenneth Koch and David Ignatow.

I went to readings every week. This was the upside of living in Boston, to be counted against the general frostiness of weather and manner. I saw Frank Bidart and Rosanna Warren and Robert Pinsky. I saw Tony Hoagland and Carl Phillips and Maxine Kumin. I sat toward the back, uncombed and feverish, nodding and scribbling while my head thumped with the profound revelations of the truly lost.

Occasionally Dave would come with me, and afterward he’d drink while I made thoughtful observations. I’d like to fuck Seamus Heaney’s voice, I’d say dreamily.

I knew next to nothing about versification, but I was crazy for enjambment, a device suited to my lust for the easy gimmick. I enjoyed using terms like “good line” and “syntactical pivot.” In more hysterical moments, I imagined they might get me laid.

But nothing got me laid back then. I was the kind of guy who would walk into a bar and find a woman to fall in love with and stare at her, trembling, until her friends summoned security. Then I’d run home and compose a poem:

Last night I saw a woman
across an Irish bar and for a moment
understood what it is to be drunk.
I was constantly composing such dreck. I set myself the task of one poem a day and stumbled around in my underpants, pooping out pale imitations of Auden and Philip Levine. I was the Dale Carnegie of poetry: dogged and well-meaning, with no sense of occasion. I was prepared to make anything into a poem, because a poem was just a suite of words designed to express how deeply empathic and observant the poet was.

I memorialized my neighborhood:
The End of East

This might be how the world looks
to Tony the Barber: quilted in reliable
gloom, but smooth, like Sinatra
in the wee small hours, or talc.
Two doors down, in Winter Hill
Bakery, sweet rolls cuddle the racks
above dusted cornmeal and the bakers
wear thick mitts to yawn the ovens open.

Down the asphalt, past the Osco, Star Market
clerks preen in the small celebrity
of their registers, sending laughter
through bridgework, their husbands at home
on disability. There is to all of it
a clarity on days such as these, when
the sky is an IV drizzling the walkways
and alleys, painting the moments gray.

The clock atop St. Christopher’s tolls
stubbornly at random and a boy
in a Bruins jacket stutters the sidewalk
searching for change in the swept gutters
while the coughdropped crossing guard watches
the local girls giggle, their backs bare and goosey,
flags of skin set against the wind, streetlamps
lit like wheat along their profiles.
Yes, the sky was an IV—internal rhyme!—and the sweet rolls cuddled and I was not only clever, dear reader, I was a man of the people. I had walked those streets! I had heard those tolls! I had coughdropped that crossing guard! I was going to be a new kind of poet, not obscure and effete, but gritty and plainspoken.

The next step was obvious—I wrote a poem about professional wrestling.
The Long Memory of Killer Kowalchek

Bronco Capiletti, him I remember
June ’56 under the Garden’s heatlamps
and then again in November
tendons unsnapped at the anklebone
angle of a sapling uprooted
his barking throat a darkly scented sausage.

The Marauder’s mask was black and pegged
I shaped of his neck a new wobble,
ripped his raccooned eyes into sleep
as the angry congregations of Wisconsin
curled thin around curses
pelting the tarmac with pasteurized loss
Pasteurized loss? Yes, you see, the fans were from Wisconsin, which is a state with many dairy cows and . . . oh, never mind.

* * *

You are wondering now about the beret. Did I buy one? No, my hair was itself a tragic beret, set atop my skull in unfortunate receding contortions. A black mock turtleneck, torn at the shoulder, was as orthodox as I got.

Wardrobe mattered, because I meant to read my poetry as well. That was what poets did. None of my work had been published, but that was a petty detail as measured against my poetic ego, which was Byronic in scope. I was soon a regular on the open mic circuit, those sweet gatherings in which half a dozen narcissists sit around a gallery space earnestly pretending to listen to one another.

I quickly mastered the poet voice, a sonorous patois with precise enunciations and dramatic half pauses that stressed the gravity of each syllable. Years later, I would crack up friends by reading, say, the ingredients on a soda can in my poet voice.

Soon it was on to poetry slams. The most prominent of these was held in the basement of the Cantab Lounge, a dim grotto that trembled poetically when the subway rattled past. The crowds here were huge (in the 20s) and drunk, and they favored two varieties of poem: the Degradation Poem and the Funny Poem.

The Degradation Poem was about oppression. It invariably showcased aggressive alliteration and many words with the suffix ation. These poems were sort of like rap music, if you removed the music and inserted righteous indignation. The Funny Poem was just meant to make people laugh.

I was offended by both forms, because I was—despite my inexperience, my lack of formal training, my being basically a poem-o-matic machine with no off switch—a serious artiste. I felt, furthermore, that slams were antithetical to the spirit of poetry, which was about articulating the universal soul, not forcing poets to compete like trained poodles.

At the same time, I was wrenchingly lonely and had no integrity to speak of. I mean by this that I began to take part in slams. I would like it noted for the record that I never won a single slam. Nor did I ever memorize any of my poems. The slams did loosen me up, though. I started writing what might be termed the Quirky Poem.
Extremely Short Men

Not dwarves with their sad monstrous heads,
their stunted sailor struts, but those smaller
versions of ourselves. Occasionally tyrannical
(see: Napoleon, Capone) more frequently quiet
before history, drawing from women the urge
to hug and other awful forms of trust
leaving for private moments the memory
of pencil marks on walls, visits to doctors,
those certain varieties of anguish that lengthen
like August shadows until they are far
enough away as to seem humility
What was I getting at here? Primarily that I felt like shit about myself, but also that I had a sense of humor, but also that, despite my sense of humor, I was capable of deeply confusing—and therefore conceivably sage—final lines. This would become an unfortunate trademark of my oeuvre.
“I Hate Indian Summer”

          I hate Indian Summer,
with its glib promises like the early hours
of love before anyone burps or tells the truth.
I hate Indians for that matter, their spent
nobility and chirping casinos, the wrongs they drag
behind them like a doom we must forever heed.
          You hear so much about the light
is the annoying part, the coppery light,
the autumnal light, the hue of dying leaves
under the full moon. God, I hate the full moon,
its fat romantic doubletalk and dopey yellow
winks. Would you believe I’m in love?
          Fallen hard for some tootsie
who writes pamphlets about Indian Summer
and Indians and full moons, who has nothing in common
with me but an occasional bad mood and a taste
for chicken mole, who won’t let me be
even when I plead with her to never leave.
You will notice a couple of things. First, the weird indentation. Is there some greater aesthetic purpose? I very much doubt it. Second, that I am a bigot willing to say stupid things about Indians in an effort to sound edgy. Third, that utterly nonsensical final couplet. What can I say? I hate to disappoint my fans.

I did manage to write one poem that transcended my pretension. It became my go-to option for the slams.
How You Know You’re an Adult

Suddenly, socks don’t seem like a lousy gift at all,
a nice pair of socks, silk, or a cotton blend.
And a subtle color, too, slate or ochre.
Suddenly, you see yourself in nice socks,
you covet other men’s socks,
you walk around the city where you live coveting other men’s socks.
With their socks, your life might come together more convincingly.
Figures of authority would be given pause.
Women would associate you with words like sangfroid.
You’re not obvious about this new—what to call it?—concern.
You don’t linger around the sock racks looking forlorn
or urge your friends to go barefoot in your home.
You drop hints, though,
keep up a healthy correspondence with the surviving grandparents,
make a point of thank-you notes.
You do these things: exhibit a little grace, a little love
and just like that: your feet slip inside the fabric
and you rise and walk like a grownup.
People loved this poem, mostly because it wasn’t a poem at all but a mini-essay that I’d cleverly fricasseed.

* * *

I think we all know what comes next. Yes, I needed a manuscript. I needed a manuscript because I needed to be able to refer to my manuscript in casual conversation. I needed to be able to say, “I’d love to join you, but I’ve got to work on my manuscript” and “I wonder what Jorie Graham will think of my manuscript.”

I did some checking into this manuscript business, and it turned out they didn’t have to be very long. I had perhaps four or five manuscripts on my hands. But how to release them into the world? All at once? No, that seemed greedy. Two at a time, like a double album?

It was my pal Dave who gently suggested that most poets did a fair bit of winnowing, that there was a certain internal logic to a book of poems.

“Right,” I said suspiciously.

One might write literally thousands of poems before amassing enough for a manuscript.

“Sure,” I said.

It wasn’t about quantity, but quality and cohesion.

At this point, I began tuning him out. What I needed was a title! With the right title, the rest would sort itself out. I devoted an unusual amount of time to this task, nearly a full day if memory serves. And I came up with a humdinger, Seven Essential Dreams.

I mean: wow!

The subtle euphony (more internal rhyme). The piquant irony of those last two words, honoring, as they did, the vital role of the subconscious. The cheerfully blatant evocation of Berryman.

There was just one problem: I didn’t have any dream poems. To a poet with a more elastic sensibility, this wouldn’t have been a concern. But I was seized by the notion that the book should contain dream poems, seven in fact, and that each would signify a thematic concern. And so I set about thrashing these poems into existence. Oh, it was a sad and puny thing—running headlong into the limits of my imagination—but it had to be done.

I completed the manuscript within a few weeks and forced no fewer than four actual poets to read it. Their response was, in retrospect, idiotically generous. There was an awful lot of red ink to be parsed, but in my version of things, these were quick fixes. I was going to be a famous poet, without even committing suicide.

It was around this time that I sent a batch of my poems to a rather more well-established poet, whom I had met at a writing conference. I expected, if not an offer of tenure, at least an invitation to read to his nubile undergraduate subjects.

Instead, he responded with a curt note suggesting that I was not, in fact, a poet, and that I deploy what he called my “considerable ambition” in the creation of prose. As an object lesson, he included one of my poems. It did not look edited so much as stabbed to death.

* * *

Will it shock the wizened reader to learn that this rebuff was enough to send me skittering from my destiny? I hope not.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that my year as a poet was a rather persistent affront to those who spent their lives at the task. Instead, I simply set my manuscript aside, intending to whip the monster into fighting trim within a matter of weeks.

In the meantime, I returned to the writing of stories and found my work strangely transformed. My sentences—though painfully unenjambed—expressed a sense of urgency. I used fewer words to greater effect. I no longer viewed confusing the reader as an alluring narrative strategy. And, most surprising, I showed an ability to slow down when my characters were in emotional peril. The result was a sensual and psychological compression, the forging of a lyric register that felt (at least some of the time) earned by the heart rather than asserted by the ego.

This is my rather grandiose way of suggesting that poetry did me far more good than I did it.

The good news is that I still hang out with poets and still turn to poems when my language goes south, Dave Blair’s wonderful debut, Ascension Days, being my latest obsession. The even better news is that Seven Essential Dreams remains unpublished.
  • Steve Almond is the author of two story collections, My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction book Candyfreak. His new book is a collection of essays, (Not That You Asked).

Essay

Poet for a Year

Tired of plot and pacing, a prose writer immersed himself in the world of verse–and lived to tell the tale.
  • Steve Almond is the author of two story collections, My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction book Candyfreak. His new book is a collection of essays, (Not That You Asked).

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