Honoring the poet inside?
A few months ago I asked some of my students: what are you doing to honor the poet inside you? Now I will turn a version of the question towards myself.
I wonder how often do I feel like a poet, or wear the hat of poet. My day job is teaching creative writing, so I wear the hat of poetry teacher. Yes, we read poetry. Yes, there is some inspiring conversation—like today when a student pointed me into the text we were discussing (i: 6 non-lectures by E.E. Cummings). But I must take attendance. I must read response papers.
I feel most like a poet, most like myself, when I am knee-deep in a poem, when I can grab a handful of language and rub it up against my nostrils, when I can squeeze a verb, like a chef at a farmer’s market. But the facts of my life do not allow me the stretches of time that I had in the past, especially during the school year.
I am married. My wife works full-time from home. We have a lovely 5-and-a-half month old baby named Camilla Wren who is the mostest. There is very little free time these days, but feelings that I never had before are shooting through me. Most days, when I am holding my daughter, this beaming bundle of nerve endings, at least once, I break into tears of gratitude and awe, that someone who has trudged through the valley of darkness can be blessed with such a creature. I like to make up lullabies for Camilla and do little dances for her as she kicks her legs in her bouncy seat. I know that’s not writing a poem, but I feel so alive, and something is happening inside, something is getting tilled.
One of things that I do every day is read the New York Times, glancing at every article, and reading the articles that interest me. I certainly don’t think the Times is the Bible, but I do think it’s our best paper. [I also read The World Socialist Website (http://www.wsws.org/), which I am more aligned with politically. I find it very interesting to see the same story told from different angles, but not so interesting that I watch Fox News.]
I read the paper every day for several reasons. 1. To keep abreast of what’s happening in the world, or rather to keep abreast of the slanted reporting of what’s happening in the world, with the awareness that in many cases what appears in the paper is only the tip of the iceberg. 2. To keep an eye/ear out for phrases that have a kind of resonance. [Maybe I feel like a poet when I am tapping on phrases that I encounter, looking for a certain echo, or timbre.] For instance, a few weeks ago I stumbled on the phrase “purity balls” in the Poughkeepsie Journal. (Small papers are often good sources for quirky stories.) Purity balls apparently are parties some religious men have where they testify to the sexual purity of their daughters. I let the phrase rattle around in my head for a while, hoping it would evolve into something, but I couldn’t get beyond the juvenile and dogmatic: “Why is it always daughters that have to be so pure? Daughters don’t even have balls. Let’s get the son’s balls on the table and weigh them for purity. Let’s get some ball purification ointment going.” It didn’t seem to have a poetic life, so I let it slip away. [I am reminded of a Charles Simic statement, (paraphrased), that his first lesson in the arts was when some older kids in his neighborhood taught him to grab his balls whenever he saw a priest.]
Occasionally at work I get to feel more like a poet and less like a teacher. Yesterday I organized a small reading on campus, featuring an undergrad (Jade Foster), a recent MFA grad (Maya Pindyck, who just won the PSA chapbook contest) and Amy Gerstler (author of many books, including Ghost Girl). Amy read a poem that was filled with phrases from a slang dictionary, published in 1955. It was seamless and very funny and good to remember how important quirky dictionaries are, how they are reservoirs of language.
Afterwards I drove Amy, Maya, and Amy’s husband, prose writer Benjamin Weissman, into the city, and we had a delicious Vietnamese meal at a place called Pho Bang. I feel like a writer when I’m hanging out with other writers who use language, even in conversation, in interesting ways, who make me think.
I also feel like a poet when I go out of town to do a reading. This weekend I am going to the University of Maryland. A few weeks ago I was in at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee (thank you Dolly and Lindsay!) I felt like a writer there. Actually now that I think of it, it was kind of a special event. Usually when I go to read at a college, a professor is the organizer. In this case, it was two undergrad writing students. On my way out of town the day after the reading, they took me to a really nice restaurant, where a waitress brought out a cake that said “Welcome To Milwaukee, Jeffrey”. That was pretty amazing, and touching.
I guess I try to remember where this all started out: me as a screwed-up fourteen year-old in my bedroom in Philadelphia, outwardly talkative, inwardly alienated, with all these thoughts and feelings and nowhere to put them, and grabbing a notebook and pouring myself in.
But what do I feel like when I’m blogging? That is the question. Usually I feel like it’s something hanging over my head, like I need to go out back and get blogged, like I need to post something or else. But at this moment it doesn’t feel like that. I guess blogging is kind of like being in a glass cube, especially blogging for someone else’s site. (Oh, duh, I just realized why this section is called Harriet. I was going to say I was blogging for the man, but then I remembered the name Harriet, and duh, Harriet Monroe.) I have a little blog on my myspace site, and it’s more mellow. It’s like blogging on my home turf. Every person who comes there is just coming to see me, whereas this site is much bigger.
I do like that there are 4 other bloggers, that I’m not alone. I kind of think the Poetry Foundation should rent a house and do a Real World of poetry. Though not with us four. Definitely poets in their 20’s. My other great (bad) idea for a TV show is a Survivor version of a poetry workshop, where each week the workshop members vote off another participant. I can almost hear the confessional comments now, “he was a nice guy, but enough poems about your grandmother already—we get it. She’s dead. Move on.”
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...