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I Keep Them Because I Need Them, Part 1

Ephemera from Robert McDaniel, sundry pictures and postcards.

I need to see how I got here or to remember how I write and to have faith in my process. I salvage lines and fragments from a shoebox of early drafts. Keep copies with my friends’ handwritten remarks and later compost for unused darlings, the ones I killed with red ink, and I cherish my friends’ comments and eagle eyes for pointing out my blind spots. Sometimes, I can’t read my own work clearly because, instead, I am focused on pulling a thread through the muck of my mind. I want to fly, but I am wearing heavy earth shoes. All of my writing is an attempt to shake off the dirt, despite how rich that soil might be.

I edit on the wall. Hard to write at an angle because the ink runs dry. Early drafts are horizonal scrolls which let my vision manifest. Like making a zine or a mock-up of what I would like to see in the world.

Maybe I imagined this, but I thought I heard Samuel Delany say at a reading: “I am a liker.” And I like Delany’s liking and I like to like. I like beauty. I fancy thinking and gazing at whatever catches my eye, a type of magpie poetics. I like narrative and I like to be surprised, and I like to have my senses scrambled as in Dickinson’s definition of knowing poetry, as if  “the top of my head were taken off.”  

Building a brick house out of matchsticks. The analogy is illogical, yet this impulse towards the composition of impossible parts must hold.

There should be pleasure, some playing with the tools. I like gel pens because it’s so cool to write in gold or neon green. And the pleasure of filling notebooks to bursting. I use photos, found images, any kind of print, and heavy tape on the covers. Not quite collage, just fooling with scissors, especially when I’m stuck. I cut up my work by lines, even single words or cut and paste the same line until it’s in the right place. I crave textures, materials, a sense of bounty by filling out the notebook, so that at least I have something rough in my hands. Not that a digital format isn’t pleasing, because it certainly is.  I love the forgiveness of composing online, how I can delete, spellcheck, and shape.

Brenda Coultas's drafts of poems with marginalia printed in red ink.


Early Drafts of The Tatters, a meditation on the end of print culture

Drafts are real-time captured by an interruption of the text, my quick, maybe violent slashes and notes catch my brainstorms, the little bolts of language and revelation that dash to consciousness. I get Jack Kerouac and the scroll because I also hate to pause. I want a continuous narrative, to see a poem as physical, as manifested. Like the hand-cranked film strips shown on the wall in grade school (1960s).

Before I moved to New York, I ran a vintage clothing business. I had hundreds of 1940s dresses, rayon with padded shoulders, and that was my archive. To be a poet in New York City I gave it all up and began to collect by cataloging street-finds, furniture, the ephemera of the departed, their belongings hauled to dumpsters or tied into bundles and left waiting for trash pickup. I still have the family albums of strangers; one time, I contacted a name on a collection of 1950s grade school valentine cards, the low acid paper kept the cards looking new and the hearts bright, rich red. I had thought there must have been a mistake to have tossed these mementoes, so I gave him back the archive of his childhood. He confessed that he had deliberately thrown it away when clearing out his mother’s estate, because she owned multiples of everything. In the end, I questioned my gesture. Maybe some things are best left alone.

I want to do what a photographer or filmmaker does—to create an image, although I am not writing with light. Many friends and relatives are photographers. I love darkrooms where the secret art of alchemy is practiced. Hence the title of first book, Early Films, an attempt to imagine poems and stories as if they were film stills.

Closed and carted away, the film lab on 1st Street. Like a speakeasy inside a dungeon: behind the door, a work house of film developers (humans, not machines) developing reels of super 8 and other stocks. Low tech. I have two super 8 projectors in my closet. However, the film is too delicate for my rough hands, so I can’t splice with any grace. The camera wants something to happen, so I worked at a type of animation by shooting a few frames and making action by moving things to feed the lens. At Coney Island, I made a landscape out of found plastic forks and knives and shells. Mostly I moved my body, my eye, to create an action.

A few months after 9-11, banners of sympathy came from across the globe and they were displayed on fences around Trinity Church, the main refuge for rescue workers. In trying to process a collective trauma, I stationed myself by a garbage can and filmed crowds moving among improvised shrines. Looking at the footage now in 2018, thinking of how long a three-minute reel of film can be when one is counting every second, every frame, knowing there are no retakes, only the forward unspooling of time.

My unfinished films are made of mistakes, however—attempting to create, like learning to see, to get a lucky shot, to realize that paper is extremely affordable, and even more low-tech, which serves me well. And my short foray into film taught me to focus, to think about composition and to practice for I have never arrived at being a poet, I’m always working my way there.

This summer at the Whitney, I watched the unfinished super 8 films of David Wojnarowicz, including Fire in the Belly (shot between 1987-88 during the AIDS crisis), Mexico City maybe after an earthquake and during the Day of the Dead, sewing his mouth shut with red thread and sewing a severed loaf of bread together, coins dropping into a bandaged palm, ants swarming over a crucifix.  Despite the fragile medium of small film stock, his ruins have riches. He understood what the camera craves.


Special thanks to Robert McDaniel for providing ephemera picture at top, photo by Brenda Coultas.

Originally Published: November 7th, 2018

Brenda Coultas is the author of the poetry collections A Journal of Places (online, Metambesen Press, 2015), The Tatters (Wesleyan University Press, 2014), The Marvelous Bones of Time (Coffee House Press, 2007), and A Handmade Museum (Coffee House Press, 2003). Her poetry can be found in anthologies, including Readings in Contemporary Poetry: An Anthology (2017), What...