“Fiction has a truth exceeding that of history”
The buildings on the frontage road drifted past the bus window, brick engaged in possibility. Does anyone ever consider that there is a dreary side to being a writer? That it involves paperwork should come as no surprise. Sheer volumes, actual or virtual sheaf, not only to be edited but ordered, processed, that has nothing to do with creativity, entailing an endless shuffling of words, phrases, like the alphabet tiles of a pocket puzzle. Noun? Verb? Extra-grammatical relations? All the seemingly endless prospects to be compared and contrasted through the incessant drudge of formulation. And then there are the questionnaires.
It was one of those chores he always put off, but the bus ride had provided him with ample time and, as the result of his recent dissipation, he hadn’t any expectations of fireworks from the low spark of his neuronal circuits. Overcoming a singular ambivalence, he’d sucked it up, dutifully filling in the blanks of the questionnaire from APIS (Advanced Poetry Interactive Services), yet another load of bull, a scam that promised something from nothing. He’d been asked the same questions so many times, more so since the Pillsbury, as if being awarded the prize somehow confirmed that he knew, at the very least, the secret answer to the question, What is poetry?
And, as always, he answered that question differently each time.
Poetry is all about a weaving of sense and sound into a composition that is exterior and interior in nuanced relationship and provides a breadth and depth (bandwidth if you wish) not available with linear rationale. Thus the poem is multi-sourced and multi-voiced.
It was another of Nora’s referrals and he had to ask himself why he shouldn’t at least be getting paid cash money if he was going to prostitute himself. Not the empty promise of poetry pie in the sky assurances that his participation in the survey would bring paying clients for his services as a mentor and teacher, and on-call poetry tart. Not that he was averse to self-promotion, and there was a vague similarity to that of dashing off publisher’s blurbs for the backs of books. In those instances, at least he was putting out for friends and people he liked.
Yet one more boilerplate question to be checked off: What is it like to be a poet?
Being a poet is like being the triangle player in a large symphony orchestra. Come in too early or too late and no one will hear you no matter how hard you bang on your instrument. Come in at the right time and you will be heard as tantalizingly ephemeral, but you will be heard.
Then they want to get personal. Why are you a poet?
One of the reasons I am a poet is that I realize there is such a thing as the inexpressible and so I am challenged to discover some formula to decipher it. As a poet I bounce my words off the cultural landscape to hear their resonance, their echo. George Steiner has said, “All signals we emit are potentially resonant with values and intensities beyond those of bare information.”
How do you go about writing poetry?
It didn’t matter what he answered, someone was bound to take issue with what he said.
Writing poetry is more like a dance, it’s a series of gestures, albeit linguistic gestures, and movements, to its own music, and in this flow the mimetic arises, and the sequence of these actions signify, never as an object, always as a verb, and becomes, like myth, the thing said.
Asked the same question at another time and place, he would undoubtedly have come up with something different, perhaps contradictory.
There is a matter of elongation, a stretching of meaning and sound to move from one level to another and once that is reached another step has been taken as all things now and forever are in the past. The delight is in the opposition of meaning and sound as in homonyms but in this case the multi-syllabication allows syntax to enter the picture and force the subject away from meaning into action.
If he could put his finger on it, it probably wasn’t poetry.
What advice would you give a beginning poet?
Questions like that brought out his cynical side, not that it was ever all that well hidden in the first place.
Find something else to do. If you must and enjoy writing poetry, keep it to yourself or share it with a few like-minded friends. Once you consider reaching a larger audience and begin to think in terms of “a public,” you have left the real world behind and are tempting fate. As a poet it is helpful to assume that every poet but yourself writing today is wrong.
Something Bob Kaufman once told him, or maybe he’d read it in the obituary where the “black Rimbaud” was quoted as saying “I wish to be forgotten” and realizing that such a proclamation was nothing if not memorable, as well as slyly echoing Pushkin’s last words, “Try to be forgotten.” Sound advice no matter who spoke it. But, all the same, wishing or trying to be “forgotten” was entirely different from being “forgettable.”
The poem comes before the commentary. The primary text is first, not only temporally. It is not a pretext for subsequent exegetic or metaphoric treatment. Its priority is one of essence, of ontological need and self-sufficiency. The poem embodies and bodies forth through singular enactment its own reason for being. The poem is. Commentary simply signifies.
He could ask himself Why do I write? There were so many reasons, and not one said it all.