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Journal, Day Five

By Patricia Smith

First of all, since this is my last missive before the big day, listen up: MERRY CHRISTMAS.

That’s right, I said it: Merry Christmas. Not Happy Holidays, Best Of the Season, Cheery Holly, Have a Pleasant Yule, Season Greetings, Fantabulous Frosty, Bestest Wishes, Happy Times of Snow and Ice, Sweet Season, or any other of those wimpy little politically polished sentiments that have found favor nowadays in an attempt to kick The Big Guy out of the equation. Sorry . . . but while I respect all realities, I am a colored girl, born and reared rigidly Baptist, and if I don’t give big public ups to God, I will be summarily booted out of the club.

That’s my reality.

And it explains why glittery-grilled rappers, hefting their trophies on televised music award shows, always blow solemn but juicy kisses to heaven before thanking any of the 6,521 people responsible for the success of their latest joint, “Baby, Your Booty Makes Me Want to Pop a Cap in You.”

That’s their reality.

Whatever you want to call the day of You-Know-Who’s birth, for me it’s always been more of a time for reflection than the traditional Remorse-arama of January 1. There’s something decidedly melancholic about sitting in front of the telly as the final seconds of the year wind down, contemplating a sad feast of tepid champagne, praying that Dick Clark makes it through to the commercial break, and joining roughly a universe full of other folks to wallow in regret and pen empty vows onto Page 1 of brand spankin’ new journals. Ah, hear our collective sigh.

I’d rather experience my revelations, ask myself the huge why-am-I-here questions, after some typically joyous holiday experience, like fighting an 80-year-old woman for the last $29.99 cashmere sweater in a plastic bin at Filene’s Basement. Roughly three seconds after clocking her with a swift right to the jaw and watching as she crumples to the floor with her walker and writhes pitifully under the florescent lights, I’m pretty sure I’d say You know, maybe I oughta rethink my life.

But I haven’t been rethinking my life so much as retooling it, giving it what it needs to flourish, finally.

Penning these blog entries at the close of the year has been an invaluable “See ya, 2006,” but now I find myself in a quandary (quandaries are nice, by the way—mine has two bedrooms and an attached garage). I began the week in a mild panic, wondering if I’d be able to fill this space everyday. Then, as you know, My Muse took care of that—The Esteemed Imperial Inimitable Goddess Ms. Gwen showed up with her suitcases and a tasteful little whip.

As this stint nears its end, I find that my head is crammed with ideas, probably enough blog entries for another year at least. I love this talking out loud, and then hearing from the folks I most love to talk to. It’s funny how I never feel this inspired when I sit down to pen an entry for LiveJournal or MySpace. Maybe it’s knowing that practically everyone here shares a passion for words and the magic they’re capable of. I don’t have to introduce the concept. And we don’t have to wallow through candid snaps of Jake Gyllenhaal’s crotch (LiveJournal, yesterday) or the gushing, exclamation point-ridden prose of pimpled preteens from Idaho (MySpace, damned near every day) to find each other.

The fact that we all gather here just proves how much we crave community, a place where we don’t have to explain just why we’re so quirky, driven, bellowing, shy, cocky, depressed, goofy, distracted, manic, or weepy. Because there’s just one answer to practically every question: Hell, we’re poets.

So, how to say goodbye? (There’s a languid Sinatra ballad revving up in the background right here, one that will play softly until the end of the entry . . . )

I know . . . I forgot to talk about my MFA program, and I think somewhere along the line I said I would. So:

I’m at Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine, and so far it’s been an absolute marvel. (Maine, of course, is where quite the other states go to learn how to be white and quaint, but since it’s a low-res program, I’m only there for 10 days at the beginning of every semester.) I’m contemplating the intricacies of the ghazal, wrote my first villanelle, intend to master sonnetry (a word I made up—like it?). My first semester mentor, Dennis Nurkse, is partly responsible for my poetry becoming tighter and more concise while managing to convey more. I’ve always wondered how that worked.

The faculty is stellar, I get to hang out with Tim Seibles, the place looked like Norman Rockwell painted it, I’m writing more than I ever have, I’m constantly discovering new poets, creative souls surround me 24-7, and I’m soaking up all that knowledge I missed out on while I was—uh, writing and performing poetry. But not officially. Not academically officially. Not legally. Not in a legally official academic way. Oh, pshaw—I’m having a blast.

And, speaking of MFAville, I’ve pretty much gotten past the nightmare of waking up in my dorm (!), grabbing a card key to go out into the hallway to use the loo (!), and encountering a row of annoyingly perky early-risers lined up at the mirror of a communal (!) bathroom that’s equipped with one toilet (!) and one shower (!). Let’s just say that when I rise to greet the world, I am nappy, crusty, old, and evil—and ill-prepared for perkiness.

I’ve also managed to move past a curious incident, when another student, offering me a ride, slid open the door to her minivan and said, “We’re going to put you in the back of the bus!” Ahem.

Like I said, the place is perfect for me. It’s pretty much like the real world. Who knew?

Why, you may ask, am I in an MFA program? It’s all because of Cave Canem, and if I sign off on this without mentioning the extreme wonderfulness that is CC, I’d deserve to be—well, booted out of the club.

It was at Cave Canem that I learned that the key to being a good teacher is to learn all you can from your students. And the classrooms at CC’s legendary summer session are filled with folks for whom the term “sheer brilliance” falls woefully short. I entered my first semester at Stonecoast immediately after leaving there, and I was buoyed by the confidence (not to mention the many hilarious practical suggestions); I needed to ace my re-entry into academia. Because of my CC chillun, I am blessed to know exactly what I wanted to do with the second half of my life.

Cheesy it may be, but I want to take this line, this time, to kiss every one of them and thank them for throwing my life into such sweet chaos.

(Heads up . . . Cave Canem is also the home of the only poet I’ve seen who has the chops to step into Gwendolyn Brooks’ shoes someday. Don’t tell anyone . . . but her initials are Remica Bingham.)

OK, this is running long (again) and at the Poetry Foundation office in my chill hometown of Chicago, the very patient and charitable Nick T. is drumming his fingers on a desk. I’ll end by saying that this is the first year in a long line of years that I am doing exactly what I want to do exactly all of the time with exactly the people I want to be surrounded by. The demons are at rest.

And because my husband—the best poetry editor the world has ever produced—has been begging for his own entry all week, I saved the best for last.

Boof, you rock.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, December 22nd, 2006 by Patricia Smith.