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.


Art of Nothing

Thursday my new iPad arrived.  Today, I returned it.

In the two days with my iPad  I tried to get Google docs to work for when I would want to edit my poems or write new ones on my new portable electronic device, I spent time downloading apps so I could read the news in flashy formats, listen to Pandora, play words with friends and tweet about how much I was not doing, I even ambitiously figured out how to download books from the public library.

I decided to stay home this summer to relax, finish my manuscript, and plan a cross-country move.  The iPad, I realized, was useless for progressing any of these goals.

Friday night, I cried through yoga class (for reasons which are inexplicable or which I will not explain publicly) and then through the movie, Crime After Crime.   Debbie, the subject of this impassioned and inspirational movie, lived 26 years in prison, wrongfully incarcerated.  Two attorneys spent six years of their personal time and money to get her out.   Debbie was a devout Christian and Joshua, one of her attorneys, is an orthodox Jew. I was grateful to be in a movie theater, the darkness and the ticket I purchased that contracted me to sit and listen for two hours to a story that reminded me to believe in the power of faith and in the compassion of humans.    I cried for Debbie and for myself.

Where had my faith gone, when I had no reason to lose faith and Debbie, who had no reason to hope, had faith in abundance?  Through faith, the attorneys achieved what seemed impossible and gave the gift of healing and liberation.  My lack of faith leaves me exhausted and keeps me from the joys I am given each day.

I went home to work on some poems on my iPad.  It would have been more effective to do nothing.   Pen and paper would have been more efficient in capturing what my soul was trying to learn.   I set up apps to help me plan my trip to San Francisco.  I longed for maps I could fold, that would not, with the wrong swipe of my finger down a road, turn into an advertisement.

Add up all those wasted swipes I could have done my yoga practice, read another chapter of a book, or practiced with a choir like Debbie. I missed being in a choir.  I felt guilty for thinking this. Debbie could only sing in prison; I could sing wherever I want, but can’t seem to find the time.  I felt I was squandering my time, yet I can never see the end of the list of things to do.

Saturday I felt depleted.  I went to another movie.  I did not enjoy the movie, but felt the relief of the sanctuary of the movie theater.   There is nowhere to go.  All else will wait.

I have trouble waiting.  This staying put is challenging.  It is the hardest part of writing.  It is the hardest part, for me, of living, particularly when I know what I want.   I want to be there, forget that being here is as important.   The iPad, the traffic of LA, the tedium of online applications, the fear that my poems are not ‘good enough’ do not help.   I want the next thing, but there is no form to complete, no fee to pay to make it happen sooner.

And it shouldn’t.   This is where I want Debbie’s faith.  I want to believe that each moment is where I need to be, is a gift, that will lead me to the next one.

So Sunday morning I  went to church, another place we are allowed to sit for an hour and do nothing except listen and sing and greet the people sitting around us.   It has been about a year since I went to church on a non-holiday.   The sermon was about the sacredness of everyday language, how we speak and transform ourselves and others with words.   Like, thank you and I love you and you are beautiful and it will get better.   And poems.  I was sitting, doing nothing, so I could hear that God was saying, “Lisa, just go write.  Don’t do anything.  Write and love.”

The anthem, Simple Gifts from God,  was how I felt about the movie theater, the church, this act of truly doing nothing.  It is in these places that the fix for the line that is not working comes, or the right word to finish that unsettled poem, or the peace to ease my unsettled heart.

It really is simple.  Get paper and pen and make words.   It is simple to buy a map and highlight the route you need to follow.  It is simple to fill out an application and then find gratitude in whatever comes your way.  It is simple because I am free to do what I want.

Like to love someone and to know I matter and make others  feel they matter.  Because we are there, together doing nothing, saying things in everyday language that becomes sacred because it is said with love.

On my way home, I stopped for groceries and bought a used paperback book for my trip.   I went home and un-Lisa’d the iPad (thankfully a less time-consuming task).  I printed my manuscript for me to edit and revise on my trip.  I downloaded an audio book to my old iPod and I finished a job application.

I made time for yoga.   I was a few minutes late.  As I lay down on my mat a put my legs up against the wall, inverted my body and the racing of my mind, my yoga teacher asked “How does it feel to surrender to simply being here?”  Simple.  It is simple to show up and reverse the idea of always doing.  It is simple to not fix what isn’t broken.  It is simple to accept that things take time and that if I do nothing, life will unfold.

I stopped by the post office to send the iPad back.  Thankfully they have a self-service machine to simplify this process and to allow me to do this on a Sunday.

I packed my journal and planned to buy a map when I get to my destination.  I look forward to the long drive of doing nothing except growing my faith that I will arrive where I need to be safely and ready to love.

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.