Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Making the commitment

Thanks to those who commented on my previous post -- you have helped me to focus my thoughts on this.

It's not just about publication. In fact I think it's only about 1% about publication. Do I want to have a book published? Hell yeah. I want to see my book on the library shelf, I want my very own ISBN, I want a beat-up copy of the thing that I carry around to readings and read from. Sure. I love books more than anything, and having one with my name on it would be a huge kick.

But what's much, much more important to me is the process of it. Writing the poems, rewriting them, putting them together and listening to how they talk to one another, looking through the individual poems and hopefully seeing past them to some larger vision. It's that larger vision I am after, and have so far found myself shying away from.

I have felt myself, many times in the past, come close to a place of risked commitment with my writing. I have allowed myself to steer clear of difficult material and difficult form. I have dropped a poem before it's sufficiently revised, too lazy to do the work of pushing on it as hard as it needs to be pushed on. It is no coincidence that my several-year writing hiatus began shortly after I started getting some publications in particularly nice journals and a few finalist nods in chapbook contests, no coincidence that I went (within about six months) from seriously contemplating selling my house and moving to wherever I could get accepted in a good MFA program to spending my evenings farting around online or watching tv.

The truth is, if I spend my evenings farting around online or watching tv, nobody's going to care. I'm not suffering under the delusion that if I don't publish a book I will somehow have deprived the world of the opportunity to appreciate my great and powerful vision. *snork*

Just as two people can have a perfectly wonderful and committed and fulfilling relationship without ever getting married, so can a poet devote herself to writing, and write (yes) great and powerful poetry, without ever publishing a lick of it or giving a shit about publishing. But me, I want to make that public statement. I want to say, yes, here is what I am, what I do. Here it is, world, it's not just mine, it's yours. And so far I've gotten cold feet every time I've come near that point. I've left off revising the poem because it got too hard. I've shied away from writing the difficult poem, instead choosing to whine into my journal or take a nap or, yes, blog. I've written individual poems, but have not made myself step back and take the long view of them, made myself ask what my larger vision is -- and for me, putting together a book will, I think, be one way to make myself do that. I've been at this for over twenty-five years and I feel like I'm still just farting around with it, and it's about time I took it to another level.

I should say here that this is just me, my own process, where I want to go. Just because I want to make that public statement of commitment doesn't mean I don't respect those who "don't need a piece of paper from the City Hall, keeping us tied and true" (thanks, Joni Mitchell) -- I admire and even envy those who do write purely for themselves, who will push their work as hard as it needs to be pushed and take the difficult risks without caring whether the poems ever go out into the world. But for me, imagining my work in that more public format, envisioning a book, helps me to write towards a vision that's beyond my little self -- because I find it all too easy to get bogged down in my own little self, and I want to write towards something larger. I want to say to the world, this isn't just mine, this is yours, this is a part of the Big Something. Boy, that sounds self-aggrandizing and high-falutin', and I don't mean it that way. Sigh.

I don't know if this babble will make sense to anyone but me, and I've already screwed up the post and blown away half of it once so maybe it would have made more sense if I hadn't done that. (Grr!) It's just that I've been thinking about why I write, and it's not just for the fun of pushing words around; it's something that feels larger than a hobby or an amusement or even a craft. Letting it be that large feels like a risk (and certainly the risk of sounding like a self-important hoohah is a big part of that). The risk is to push my work beyond the place where I am personally comfortable and let it be about the poetry, not about me. The risk is to try making a book out of it, something that can go out into the world all by itself without me. The risk is to look at a whole bunch of my work from the past several years and ask myself what the point of it is. What I have to trust in order to do this is that there is a point to it -- and that's difficult. But I've been at this for twenty-five years, and it's about time I stepped back and looked at my body of work instead of just looking at one poem at a time, and asked about the larger vision. Because I doubt I have another twenty-five years, and if I'm going to take this stuff to the next level, I think it's about time for me to start looking at it differently -- and I think that thinking in terms of a book rather than thinking in terms of poems will help me to do that.

(I've read interviews with poets who've published their first book late in life, and they usually have a reason for it -- circumstances, illness, child-raising, or just plain didn't even start writing until later. Me, I've been writing since I was a little kid, have been serious about it since I was an undergrad, 25+ years. I have no excuse. I just haven't tried. I've been lazy, is what it boils down to. )

So, all of that may or may not make sense. But I did want to clarify that it's not just about wanting to have a book out, wanting to see my name in lights (ha!) or whatever. It's about wanting to see beyond my little self, making the self subservient to Poetry (and I don't mean the journal of the same name). I don't just want to express my little self. I want to be in service to something larger. And for me, that begins with trying to understand what I do as a body of work. And so far, that's a risk I've mostly let myself get away without taking.

Boy, am I full of hot air tonight. *grin*


Lyle Daggett said...

Just to clarify -- although in my previous comment I talked pretty much about publishing a book, I wasn't assuming that publishing a book was necessarily your main goal or urge or whatever the right word is here. :-)

It definitely *is* hard work -- writing poems, working on them, getting them right, getting them so they say what we really need to say.

When I'm writing a poem, I usually reach a point in it where I start to feel the ground going out from under me, where I just have to trust the "voice" or whatever thing it is that the poem comes from, where I just have to trust that somewhere ahead in the unknown space there's something I really want to say. The poems I've written -- and, for that matter, the poems I've read by other poets -- that feel truest to me usually have that point, somewhere, of just letting go and saying the unknown thing.

The fear that comes with this is actually a helpful thing. The fear is a signal that I'm really close to whatever it is that I really need to write. Sometimes it takes a plain act of will -- often accompanied by very real trembling, by quivering breath, by a rush of excitement, the whole thing.

I'm not sure how coherent all of this is -- but I think my point is that in my experience, for what it's worth, when I've come up against the fear you speak of when working on a poem, I've found that the fear itself is what I need, that I won't avoid it, it's part of the process (again speaking just for myself here), that the fear is an ally, that what I need is to walk right into the fearful place, to write into it and through it.

Thanks for posting about this. It's pushed me to think about this whole subject.

Ivy said...

Anne, I certainly understand the need to publish a book -- it's a need that's almost inexplicable, like lust or something. For me, I finally saw that a book is equivalent to a frame for a piece of art -- unneccesary perhaps to some, but I think it just adds something to it, brings it out, makes it more.

Wanting it badly enough will help you push through the barriers. Good luck! I'll be cheering on from the sidelines!

Garbo said...

Anne, I think your comparison between risk in relationship with another person and in relationship to your art was very apt. I notice that when I've put writing out in the world and no one cares about it, it feels exactly like unrequited love.

My motivation to risk more security and approval in order to be creative is increased when I see people older than myself who have taken those risks. Whether or not their work is appreciated, the people themselves are special and admirable in a way that I aspire to be.

jenni said...

dammit i just wrote this comment and it got lost. sigh.

anyways, in a nutshell:

keep writing. i think we all go through these feelings of insecurity. the only time i don't is when i'm writing. sometimes i write just to escape the insecurity.

Trista said...

Wow. Congratulations on your engagement!

Anne said...

Lyle: Yes, I think that point where the ground starts to go out from under you is often the place where the poem really begins. At least it is for me. I don't know about you, but lots of times I don't know what I need to write until I'm writing it -- or, more accurately, until I've already written it.

Ivy: I like the image of book as frame!

Jenni: Yeah -- I think for me right now it is more frustration than insecurity, but it's all in there together.

Trista: Hee! Thanks. ;)

Anne said...

(Dang, I knew I'd miss one.)

Garbo: I'm glad to hear that comparison works -- from someone who knows a lot more about relationships with other people than I do. :)