You are a writer because you write

This is a dangerous assertion.   A political statement that “staggers” and “shuffles” and “dislocates,” just as do the poems of Doug Kearney, who asserted this truism about writing and writers at PSA’s Red, White, and Blue : Poets on Politics panel at the Hammer Museum.

Yes, says my writer self who feels guilty for not doing more than just writing (like this).  And, hell no, says my other writer self who knows how writing is not just writing, but work (like foregoing summer travel to hunker down and get the manuscript done).

Either way, it is a transformation, as Kearney, Prageeta Sharma, and Matthew Zapruder noted in their discussion of poetics and politics.

Poetry transforms the writer and the audience, even if that audience is just the writer.  So it is not just writing, but writing something that surprises you, the writer, surrendering to something other than LISTEN TO WHAT I WANT TO SAY.

For Kearney it’s a stagger and a shuffle, a throwing the audience off-balance, that achieves this transformation.

For Sharma, surprise comes through mocking the authoritative voice of the canon, of the paradox of creativity supported by the institution of academia.

It is not just politics and poetry, but the politics of poetry.

For Zapruder it is inescapable.  Poetry.  Politics.  It is Sappho writing the first lyric poems under a moon reflecting, on paper, her own thoughts and feelings (Zapruder’s image, not mine).

Poetry.  Confessions. Politics.

The poem as the only place where they could be themselves (Sharma and Zapruder).

But how can we be ourselves in the institution of academia and politics, in the public?

Particularly when the poetic self is so often not the self the institution hired or the public will like:  the anxiety, as Kearney pointed out, of autobiographical interpretation of each poem.

Is this what people will think of me?

Versus the poem as our own imaginative “danger room” where we can crash and fail and flail and be ourselves and not ourselves, as we need, to find that transformation.

Sharma, in talking about art in the institution of academia, called the poem a product that proves success.  More specifically, the public poem, the published poem, the poem published in the right journal.

If I am not being published (by the ‘right’ journals) or validated by an institution, can I continue to call myself a writer?  What do writers do besides write and teach writing?   If I leave behind teaching and the pursuit of teaching college, will I still be a writer?

I simply want the lightness and time to slip into that poetry mind more often, the space of Keats’ “negative capability” where paradox and contradiction exist, where I can stagger and shuffle and go into the danger room of thought.

Reentering that room after a long absence is scary:  did I lose my edge?  how out of shape am I? where to start training to regain ground?  and how, poetically, does one measure the regaining of ground?

Suddenly, the striving for a title or position that seems to fit the writer persona, the proper resume with the right publications seems secondary to the writing and the living.   I enter the danger room, pick up a word, and start with one rep, then two, then three . . .

Suddenly, I am a little be closer to being a Poet & Writer.

The Neverending Conversation

In a recent exchange with my mentor, he wrote about poetry not as an end product (the poem) but a process (the series of revisions that lead to the poem).   Sometimes at workshops or in my reading, I find myself more interested in the process than the poem; I want the story behind the poem .

Recently, I looked at the workshop packet I submitted my first semester in my MFA program and my latest draft of my final manuscript for the program.  It was much like reading diaries from high school.  I was naive, audacious in my ignorance.  It was pleasing to see that, despite the recent feelings of inertia, I am indeed in flux, in progress.   I patted my now wiser self on the head.

In the same email, my mentor commented on the “stigma” of publishing revisions of poems already published, questioning if there was not such a stigma would more poets do it?   We as a culture, as a society, perhaps as humans, like to know where things are, like definitions, like everything outside ourselves to be predictable.  I talk about this with my student when teaching about stereotyping because I want them to feel safe in exploring and recognizing their own stereotypes.  We all do it or have done it at some point.  So, with writing, it is not surprising that once a poem is published we would not want to stumble upon a new version of that poem a year or five years later,  particularly if you have that poem in a book (books aren’t supposed to change), memorized it, or cherish the poem like a friend who helped you through one of the pesky unpredictable moments in life.   It’d be as if the poet came back to say, “eh, that was OK, but now here is the what the poem really should be like,” or, “this is really what I wanted to say in the poem.”

As I delve into new territories as a writer, I keep going back to poems that I was sure are done and revising.  Drastically.  I could conceivably write and rewrite this manuscript for yeas to come.

I started a new poem today (in my head).  This was exciting as I have not written much new stuff lately.  It was disheartening as it involved one of my two recurring themes in my poetry:  my mother and a past lover.   (No, I am not going to confess which one it was).  My first thought was “Damn, I thought I was finished with THAT.”

My second thought was this is writing. Do love songs every lose popularity?  Do humans ever reconcile the love and loss of a mother?   I am pretty sure there is a quote about storytelling and how writers just tell the same story over and over.  Am I  just writing the same poem over and over, only my perspective has changed so drastically that the poem is unrecognizable as the same poem, or at least passable as a new poem?   (This feeds my also recurring existential crisis as a writer.)   I want to think maybe it just makes writing easier since I can just keep revising what I once said because this is what writing is, why people write:  to work out what ever holds our obsession, to find our lessons (though this is the primary criticism against confessional poetry).   Or maybe it is like the ideal conversation where I can keep refining what I say until I am as clear as I long to be, until I change my mind again.

The Yamas and Choosing Not to Work

Most people don’t get the concept of turning down work.  It has taken me six months of practicing to get it down.   I think it should have a yoga pose name:  I-have-better-things-to-do-than-grade-for-half-pay-asana.   I won’t even try the Sanskrit name.

On Monday the new school year begins for most schools in LAUSD.  (Thanks to furloughs, it is a late start.)  The school where I worked full-time up until January, when I took my leave of absence and started working as a substitute part-time, is transitioning from a year around school to a traditional calendar school.  So, unlike any other year, everyone had the summer off.    Sadly, this also triggered a round of displacements — teachers losing their position at a particular school, though they still have a job with the district — in addition to the pink slips given to many new, not fully credentialed teachers earlier in the year.   Yet, despite the extra time and a pool of displaced teachers somehow there are heaps of English teacher positions unfilled (and other subjects, I imagine, but I have only been offered English jobs).    Meanwhile, the LA Times is intent on proving how the teachers we do have are mostly unqualified and the cause of the failure of the education system.   I wonder, if we got rid of all these supposedly horrible teachers, who would teach all these students?  However, this question is a digression.

Needless to say, my week has been filled with emails and calls asking me to come back full-time before my leave is up in December.   Is the universe is testing my resolve or waiting for me reveal a hole in my plan?   I no longer hesitate in saying no.  Yet, they do not really hear my no; instead, they then ask if I would take the positions as a long-term sub ( essentially offering me the chance to do all the planning and grading for half the pay — so now that asana name makes sense).  What a deal.  I am grateful for the offers.  Afterall, in their panic to fill these positions, I am sure they do not realize how illogical this offer is.  Part of yoga includes 5 observances, or yamas.  The third is asteya which literally means non-stealing.  However, the essence of it is faith in abundance.  If nothing else, this year has been a year to practice asteya. 

Still, even between starting this entry, going to yoga, and coming back to proofread, I had to explain this once again that I do not want to work full-time.   Each time I turn down work to choose time to create I am forced to affirm my choice for how I want to live my life.  What an an affirming week as they think if they offer me the position  in different ways I will cave or if they get me in for one day I will feel obligated to stay on until a full-time teacher is found (which likely would be January when I am back from leave because why bother look for a new teacher if a sub will do the work for less pay).  If so, they overestimate my sense of obligation to LAUSD.  The first yama is ahimsa, or non-violence, which includes kindness towards the self.   Sticking to my resolve is kindness towards myself.

Moreover, all of this reminds me why this year has been difficult.  You might think (as I did) that not working in order to focus on finishing my manuscript would be relaxing and easy.  Instead, I’ve had a year riddled with sinus infections, bronchitis, and anxiety attacks.   Moving from what has always been expected or learned to be the wise and practical route — to always choose work — is no small journey.  It is not a vacation in Avila Beach, though only through persisting down that unmaintained road was I able to bask the easiness of an Avila Beach vacation and three-day work weeks.