I am in the habit of saying: “Every poem is an opportunity to destroy my career.”
When I say it, I imagine completely new work. Maybe I abandon the typographic experiments of The Black Automaton in exchange for a more traditional sonnet crown. Or I leave behind my investigations into manhood for poems about birds. I mean to surprise readers who have come to expect a particular kind of poem from me. I mean to surprise myself as well.
I want it to mean that I am not afraid of trying something different, that I am not privileging my previous gestures, hiding behind what I know.
But what it doesn’t mean, necessarily, is that I write the poem that demands to be written. You can spend a lot of time not writing such a poem.
The poem(s) that took the longest to write: “City with fire and a gray Toyota,” “City with fire and a piece of silver” and “City with fire and a choir at rest” from The Black Automaton. These three came from one poem I have been trying to work out since the late 1990s. I finished them in 2009. Let’s call it 10 years from conception to completion.
The poem that took the second longest to write: “Family Room” from Fear, Some—about six years.
“Family Room” had gone through a number of edits when I included it in my first manuscript Even then, I knew it wasn’t done, but I also knew I would be less likely to try to publish an older poem in a later book. Plus, the way I felt about the time the poem addressed—the summer my mother died—was likely to change as I aged. I wanted to try to preserve the poem’s original impulses. Editing hadn’t gotten me there. I needed a revision before I lost the poem.
I re-read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because “Family Room” seemed to need that poem’s hypnotic approach to rhyme and how the images feel, to me, perpetually muffled or wrapped in gauze. The revision took and after six years of tinkering with the same lines, I tossed out much of the poem, reconsidering its rhythm and sound, slowing down the action in preparation for the poem’s eventual violence. Here are the opening stanzas of both versions.
a violent movie
that only i seem to get)
the snow in Grandmother’s Zenith
Mom rocks gently, silent
a butterfly husk
in an IV web
Grandmother perches mercilessly
valet to Mom’s pain
faster than the morphine can
commute through serpentine
tubing mutely toting
“Family Room” (2004)
It’s nearly over: the violent film
furies in Grandmother’s family
room, the adults thinking of blood.
Grandmother, falcon on a stool,
perches for Mom to call.
She’ll be at her wrist,
minding the morphine drip,
comfort struggling in her beak.
By now, we know;
we know, but when.
“Family Room” (2006)
The last two in that passage act as a nod to Eliot’s women coming, going, Michelangeloing. When the necessary revision finally came, the poem happened very quickly. It was exhilarating.
It was a long time before I found my way into what became the “City with fire” poems. I felt a need to write about my experiences at the nearly all white church my family attended. It was a fraught enterprise and I had questions and ambivalence about the years we spent in those pews.
I had, however, found the single event I could make into a poem’s anchor: going to choir practice the night of the L.A. Uprisings—April 29, 1992.
Particularly, I remember standing in the church parking lot as buildings burned some miles away. I wondered what I would do if some black folks marched into the lot and asked whether the church held white folks.
the moon, silver coin, flips—heads, tails—and
—from “City with fire and a piece of silver”
Through every version of this poem, one question stayed with me: “Whose Judas would I be?”
Even then, a suggestion of failure lay at the core of a poem.
Citing old versions won’t reveal much. I didn’t get a firm grip until I began what became the printed takes. I will say that while ten years gave me the best versions of this (these) poems I had managed, I don’t think ten years gave me the best poem(s) I’ve written.
But this isn’t what I need to be writing right now.
But what it doesn’t mean, necessarily, is that I write the poem that demands to be written.
You can spend a lot of time not writing such a poem.
Here’s a bit of Craft (un)Work.
HOW TO AVOID WRITING A POEM.
Decide that the poet you think yourself to be should determine the poems you write.
At times I’ve avoided pursuing lines of poetic inquiry in order to perform a kind of irrepressible proliferation of new ideas. I am Innovative™, yes? Yet how many times can I quit pursuit before a so-called innovation is just a gesture? Just a special effect?
I find myself on a Q&A. Another writer asks about how to stop writer’s block. One of my answers: there’s a poem demanding you write it. For whatever reason, you refuse. Thus, that poem is clogging the way for others. Write that poem.
I believe that. But I resist it. Sure, I tend to know precisely what poem is clamoring for attention. But as if to somehow muzzle it, I imagine I have it worked out already. Writing it is a formality. I know how it must go because I know the poet I am.
The tricky thing is, if I tell myself I know how it’s going to be, what I’m certainly going to write, I don’t have to write it because I’ll learn nothing from it.
That was the problem with the proto-“City with fire” poems. It’s the problem I’m having now with a poem about a miscarriage.
Here’s at least one poem I haven’t written.
After my wife had a miscarriage, two close friends on two separate occasions took me out for drinks. Both revealed to me that they knew how I felt about losing a child to miscarriage. To illustrate, one talked about how he and his girlfriend (a married woman) decided to have an abortion. The other spoke of how he had been worried his new girlfriend was pregnant, but found out she wasn’t. He was surprised to be a little disappointed.
Perhaps there are two poems here or one larger poem. One: The miscarriage (my wife and I). The other: the miscarriage (my friends and I). The former, I keep conceiving as a medium length poem—like “Family Room”—something that builds momentum or a kind of tension. A mess elaborate enough to suggest heightened emotion. The latter, I imagine (and have drafted) as a sarcastic, angry screed aimed at these friends.
Neither is what the poem demands. Just what I would like to do.
The former tells me it should be small, taut and understated. In one draft, I countered with something skeletal. Here’s that poem:
internal rhyme (perfect)
internal rhyme (slant)
either internal rhyme (dead) or unrhymed
At first I wrote this as a schematic for a poem, then later felt it would do on its own (a poem that doesn’t happen, like a…). It suited my emphasis on enactment and structure. But it was never satisfying.
The most poemy thing I’ve written of the former: “A skulk of foxes steal away from you.”
The truest thing: “I love your body. I hate it.”
That’s what I keep going back to.
The latter approach—miscarriage and my friends—is driven by anger at their callousness. If I write poems to better understand something, how can I write when I can’t imagine seeing their side, feeling their loss, without somehow cheapening mine. So I refuse the gift a poem could give me, writing instead:
“oops” my homeboy goes “
but, you know, it wasn’t
time”—yet he wrestled
what was right to cut
and let run and whatever
sing up your blues, brother, go
on. seeds seeds seeds
teeming in casual acreages
then reaped unripe. sow what?
And is that poem just a way to avoid the truest thing, that truest anger at the miscarriage, my wife and myself for being angry at her? I love your body. I hate it.
This is what I have avoided. This is what I have. The next poem I write. It will do what it will do. Maybe it will destroy something. Maybe. But if I think about my career as POET too much, it’s likely to destroy a poem. This one. The next one. Whose Judas will I be? The poet’s or the poem’s?
A way of making nothing out of something.
The crippling fat of ego.
An argument I have with myself over and over.
What I doubt I can afford to do.
A desperate attempt at difference.
Disintegration in hopes of integrity.
Something to betray.
When I started this mess seven weeks ago, I hoped I might come to a new possibility for a grander failure. Perhaps I am no closer than my poetry has ever let me go.
Even so: lord, lord, lord.
Poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney grew up in Altadena, California. He received his BA from Howard University and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and is also a graduate and fellow of Cave Canem. In the Los Angeles Times, poet David St. John observed, “What...