Sunday, August 13, 2006

Difficult material: Some things take time

Oddly, I have now written two poems about my father's death in the past couple of months -- one while I was in Provincetown, and one last night. He died in January 1994; I've written about it since then, of course, but almost nothing that felt like a real poem. (As opposed to, you know, just scribbling or working stuff out for myself or therapy whatever.)

I won't go so far as to say that now my dad's death is just "material" like anything else; of course it's still something that cuts closer to my own heart than, say, a poem about a squirrel running around the yard. But I feel like I'm working with it a bit more, shall we say, impersonally now -- and that feels like a good thing, a useful thing.

The one I wrote in Provincetown came from an exercise in which we were to write about emotional pain using the language of physical pain. I wrote about grief & about the time I had a corneal abrasion, which was pretty much the most exquisitely painful thing I've ever experienced (I'd rather break a bone or go through major surgery again). You can't keep your eye open because the light hurts too much. You can't keep your eye closed because the eyelid pressing on the scratched cornea hurts too much. It's this inescapable thing, kind of like the early days of grief. I wrote the poem feeling rather detached about it and actually fairly cheerful, whereas another poem about how difficult it can be to go into stores and try on clothes when you're a fat chick made me feel like throwing up as I was writing it. Go figure.

One reason I held back from writing about my father's death was because, well, you know. "Death of a parent" is on everybody's list of the "oh god not another one of those PLEASE don't send me any more of those" topics . It's really hard to write anything about it that hasn't been said a billion times before. And yet, if part of the work of poetry is to help us (both reader & writer) grapple with the difficult, to understand what it is to be human, grief & loss is inextricably part of that. It might be the biggest part of that. Not to write about it feels dishonest, incomplete. The trick, I guess, is figuring out how to tackle this material so that it's not just catharsis for the poet but also gives the reader a reason to bother with it. There I go again, stating the obvious. But I'm not sure how to be any more specific about it than that.

I don't know that I've managed to be successful with either of my "dead dad poems" (hi LKD) -- I make no claims for them at this point. But I think, I hope, that with these poems I'm starting to move beyond personal catharsis and beyond "oh here let me bestow upon you this wisdom I have gleaned from my own pain" and into the real territory of poetry ... whatever the hell that is.

It only took twelve years to reach this point with this particular material. Sheesh.

What is your own "difficult material"? Is there something you hesitate to tackle in your work, even though it feels important to you? Is there something you're waiting to write about? What are you waiting for? I'd like to know.


Collin said...

My mother's affair in the late 70s and early 80s. I've only started writing about it in the last two or three years. Also my father's illness and infirmity. Neither of them are in good health these days, and I've started trying to "reconnect" with them again through my writing.

jenni said...

My most difficult subject is my sisters' ilnesses. I think because it is so difficult to explore that type of grief -- it is akin to death. I do believe though that at some point I will write about it. I'm just not ready yet.

I like the exercise! I think I will try it. Thanks!

Laura said...

I've been trying to write a poem about my brother (previously estranged and now dead) for years, with no luck. Still trying, though. I don't think I could write about my grandmother -- my guilt over her last days especially. And there's a category called "abuse stuff" that just stays boxed up somewhere.

BTW, I emailed you a call for submissions (for the Poem, Revised anthology) a couple of weeks ago -- do you know if you got it? If not, I can resend if you think you might be interested.

Lyle Daggett said...

The thing that comes to mind immediately for me is also the death of my father. He died -- actually committed suicide -- in 1999. So far I've written one sentence about it in one poem, and that's it.

I don't think it's because of the difficulty of writing about it, as such, but more the "oh god not another dead father poem" kind of thing you were talking about.

To put it another way, every poem exists in the context of many other poems that have been written before it. And much talk and other writing and culture and so on. I find that it takes me some time to sort out what I actually feel from what I've heard and read that people commonly feel about whatever it is I'm writing about.

Or to put it still another way, it's the struggle to avoid not just the cliches of poetry but also the cliches of thought.

LKD said...

I don't know that I have any subjects that I consider difficult to write about. I began writing in my adolesence as a means of putting down on paper what I could not/would not utter out loud so writing has always been, on some level, a form of therapy for me. Even though I don't actively use it as a place to emotionally purge anymore, I'm still shocked by what comes out in my poetry in terms of anger, hopelessness and bitterness. I know for a fact that writing dead dad poem after dead dad poem was the only way I could effectively grieve after my father died. And perhaps, it's how I still grieve.

I guess what I'm waiting for in my writing is the truth and courage. I think I've grown so accustomed to fictionalizing or um, lying about what I write about--even something as simple as writing about a crow outside my window when the damned bird is really a blue jay or mourning dove--that I don't really know where the truth is or what it looks or sounds or smells like anymore. As far as courage goes, I'm waiting for a fearlessness in my writing that I think will come with my embracing of the truth. I think the two go hand in hand. I don't think the truth will set me free or necessarily make me a better writer, but I think the fearlessness that comes with it will cause me to let go of what I consider to be the SSDD voice in my writing, a voice that is too contrived in its bitterness and distance.

I'm waiting for truth and courage because I believe good writing should possess risk. Good writing should be dangerous. I need to get the hell out of safe-ville.

Erin B. said...

Being gay. It's not something I can, or want to, escape, & though my poems are rife with it, it still gets at the flapping bird in my chest every time I pick up a pen. I like to think this means I'm meant to write about the subject, write through it, as a means of letting go & coming to grips equally. Hopefully through the process some good work will surface. Trust that, Anne. It's a truth I remind myself over & over. Best.

Anne said...

Thanks, all. Those are all pretty tough subjects, sounds like! (Though I do want to say here that "difficult material" isn't necessarily the same as "difficult issues from one's own life." I suspect that there are lots of poets who are holding back from tackling, I don't know, their personal recasting of Macbeth or something, and not anything autobiographical.)

Lyle, "the struggle to avoid not just the cliches of poetry but also the cliches of thought" ... yes. I'm going to chew on that one for a while, I think.

Erin, odd - I don't write directly about being queer very often either. In my case I think it's mainly because I don't write a lot of love poems or lost-love poems or anything else that requires a pronoun, and while being queer certainly impacts my life outside of any personal romantic entanglements (or lack thereof), it's something that seems to come up more obliquely in the poems these days. Though for the first few years after coming out to myself it was certainly front-and-center.

It's good, I think, to know that others wrestle with difficult material like this too. Thanks, everyone.