Hunting the Poem
Half of writing, at least, is getting your story. You have to position yourself in favorable places to get your material. Roam, and listen to people, for no one is uninteresting, no one, and almost all are eager to tell you what's on their minds, and, further, they are all, without exception, terribly creative in conveying to you their experience, impressions and opinions. They are all writers, in a way, with a very specific style, since each has his peculiar diction, vocabulary, verbal quirks, humor, rancor and wit. You may fancy yourself a writer, fool, but you are in fact just sponging off all these other writers, and I don't mean here the authors you misread, but all these other godsends surrounding you, besieging and seducing you at all time, if you'd let them. I'm talking about that surly 7-Eleven clerk, your lovely or annoying neighbors, the garrulous, know-it-all, Bud Lite-swilling prick always at the bar, or that stoic, suffering soul moldering next to you on the bus. You claim they won't talk to you? That's OK, eavesdrop. Annie Proulx certainly knows how. In an interview, she said that people simply ignored women of a certain age, so she could plant herself just about anywhere and eavesdrop all she wanted. Hence her unmatched dialogues. Since I'm no bombshell either, I have the same opportunities, as most of us do. And if you happen to be a sex magnet, as some rare poets are in fact, believe it or not, then you can use those tiresome, swooning come-ons as fodder for your tiresome, swooning poems.
In 2006, I taught a poetry workshop at UPenn called State of the Union, with its central premise the incorporation of politics and social awareness into writing. For one assignment, I asked students to take the subway, get off at an unknown stop, walk around for a while, and then write about it. I did warn them, though not that strongly, admittedly, to not wander around Kensington and Allegheny at 3 in the morning, for example, because then they'd have plenty to write about, but likely from the emergency room. OK, OK, I kid, Kensington is a perfectly fine neighborhood, and certainly upwardly mobile, if you want to get high, that is. Considering that a Penn student seems to get killed or raped each year, perhaps that was not such a wise assignment, and considering that each Penn student pays more than forty grand a year, enough for me to live for two, with beaucoup change to spare, maybe I was just trying to get even. Of course not. In any case, poets are certainly fools, though in our foolishness, some revelation or depth may flare up in this all-pervasive fog. Oh, shut the fog up, will you? Sorry, sorry, I'm babbling to myself again. That's why I must get out of the apartment, right now, to listen and pay attention to all that is not me. Will you talk to me and amber shower me with your marvelous sense and nonsense? Of course you will.
Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the U.S. in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), and the novel Love...