April 29, 2013

Find What You Love &...Then What?

Today I am thinking about the artistic life, in which discipline and excess are so often flip sides of the same coin. I recently stumbled across an essay on The Guardian's music blog by concert pianist James Rhodes, who advises us to "Find What You Love and Let It Kill You." This is how he begins:

After the inevitable "How many hours a day do you practice?" and "Show me your hands," the most common thing people say to me when they hear I'm a pianist is "I used to play the piano as a kid. I really regret giving it up." I imagine authors have lost count of the number of people who have told them they "always had a book inside them." We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend. 
[Full text here]

In pursuit of a career in music, Rhodes later says "Admittedly, I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight." He traces the title advice back to poet Charles Bukowski. But the specific provenance is iffy--the most credible source I've seen places the line in the context of a letter, the full text of which reads:

My dear, 
Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from you your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you, and let it devour your remains. 
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it's much better to be killed by a lover. 
Falsely yours,
Henry Charles Bukowski

And one has to reconcile this advice with some of the other things Bukowski had to say about "love," which he compares here to a fleeting fog:

The pride of a full-time artist is that we make a living doing what we love. Of course, the reality is that our job then includes all kinds of things we do not love. We drown in email like everyone else. I lose sleep over my complete failure at keeping track of airline miles, Amtrak Rewards, or Hilton points. Rhodes mentions "hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews"; I would add to that list eight-hour drives, coffee machines grinding mid-poem, and casual delays in what to you is critical income and to others is a piddling honorarium not worth the paperwork. 

The advice to those embarking on start-up is often "Work, family, sleep--pick two." I would tweak that advice for those embarking on a full-time career in the arts, to "Location, comfort, children--pick two." If you can buck those hard choices, good on ya. I'm just being honest about what I've seen in my own experience. 

But damn it, choose two. You deserve two. Whatever your choices may choose to be, they should not be to let your art kill you. Rhodes knows that, deep down. His vignette of what motivates him to stay on this difficult course is an evocation of immortality through music, the very opposite of death:
The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time. 

These moments of creative elation, of a communion with history, are real. To pursue them takes ego and sacrifice. Bukowski, that talented bastard, had the chutzpah to engrave on his tombstone "Don't try." What? Would Rhodes agree, given his own aggressive training? The phrase comes from a letter to John William Corrington:
Somebody at one of these places...asked me: 
"What do you do? How do you write, create?" You don't, I told them. You don't try. That's very important: "not" to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.

You can get a longer elaboration on this idea in "So You Want to Be a Writer," a poem published posthumously in 2003. Bukowski articulates a great philosophy for the act of writing. Don't try. The best works are not motivated by the pursuit of money or fame or deadline; they cannot be forced.  Your strongest art will be hard on you in its creation. Physically taxing. Emotionally consuming. You want to claim you die a little death at the end of each major revision, and I'm right there with you.

But "Don't try" is a lousy philosophy for creating a career as a writer. That's why being a full-time artist is hard. You have to have a temperament that honors the muse in the individual acts of performance or creation--then harnesses her to the cart like a work horse. I'm not entirely sure I'm cut out for it, yet. I procrastinate. I panic. I shy away from perfectly reasonable non-invasive opportunities to monetize this blog. 

As I said at the outset, excess and discipline are not mutually exclusive; I would venture to say they are inextricably intertwined in creative types. We can sit at a desk or stand at an easel for five hours, enjoying refining a single small detail, then opt to drink away another five hours past the point of even the most general pleasure. We will obsessively proof a piece, but be unable to balance a checkbook. We can read an entire novel in one sitting or spend an afternoon flitting through clippings like a dilettante. 

The most unfair aspect of Rhodes' essay (well written, engaging overall) is his challenge to take advantage of an imaginary six "free" hours in the day--after six hours sleep, after eight hours at an office job, after four hours of housework--to pursue the dream of being an artist. I'll be honest: if I could have gotten six hours out of each day to write in the context of employment elsewhere, I might have chosen that instead of this trapeze act. But I have these things I'm annoyingly determined to keep a part of my life too: Friends. Parents. Trying a new wine flight on a breezy day. Walks through the National Zoo. Seeing plays.  

For every six hours I write well, in ascetic mode, there are two hours I need to fritter away first, not to mention the two hours zoned out after. That's how I free-associate the ideas that become poems or essays. "What if rather than a book club you joined a writer's club?" he asks. But reading is a critical part of my writing process. You have to gestate before you give birth. Supporting myself through my writing places an intense pressure on me, yes. It means I have to write really damn well, and often, and I have to pitch and market and hustle. But it's also the only way I could conceive fitting my writing into the context of the life I want to lead, and the person I want to be. 

Find what you love and prioritize it. Find what you love and challenge yourself to get better at it. Find what you love and share it with a community. But don't make what you love into a pyre to throw yourself on. There are lots of things in this world that can kill us. I refuse to let my decision to choose the life of a full-time writer be one of them. 

April 17, 2013

National Poetry Month

In celebration of National Poetry Month, I would like to point out that T.S. Eliot was a spectacular talent...

...who was just one crazy hairstyle and a cackle away from making an excellent Disney villain, as revealed here:

The man had some killer eyebrows, yo.

While we're teasing the greats, Leslie Pietrzyk has been sharing amazing tidbits from Kathleen Spivack's With Robert Lowell and His Circle: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz & Others over at "Work-in-Progress." Read the latest post--about the time Anne Sexton and Elizabeth Bishop finally met--here

On a different note, I've been thinking a lot lately about goals, in part as I prepare to move back to DC in later May. Being in North Carolina for a month has helped clarify my thinking about the city I've lived in and loved for over a decade. Are we a good town for literature? My answer to those who ask is usually "Yes, but we're fragmented." We only managed to merit one category of this year's City Paper awards. Some of our best and most successful writers are total recluses. It can be frustrating when great events are going on mere blocks away from each other, with no awareness. 

That said, there's a renaissance going on right now. Split This Rock has become a vibrant festival that brings major poets of witness and political activism to town. The storytelling scene is blowing up thanks to buzz attached to Story League, which--founded just two years ago--now produces showcases every week in DC and New York. Representatives from organizations such as Barrelhouse, Big Lucks, 826DC, and others are hosting packed events and combining forces under the umbrella "DC Lit" (details to come). The programming staff at major institutions such as the Library of Congress, PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series are great people--young and energetic, open to new ideas, approachable. This past Monday, a stolen day back home, I met up at Cleveland Park's Spices with four other women writers, two of whom have books slated to be out within the year, to share ginger salad (okay, so I hogged most of it) and toast each other's successes with sake.

In short, it is a great time for artists to live in DC. But if I'm going to stay there, I need to articulate my goals as a writer. I don't mean goals like "Write a best-seller" or "Win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry"; those are givens and, er, impossible to strategize. I mean goals for myself as part of a literary community. In some ways this is about being more selfish with my time, in some ways less. Here is what I have come up with so far:

-Create a space where I meet socially with writers once a week. Brunches and cocktail hours one on one are great, but you know what? They are a time killer. What I'd love is a comfortable venue and a group of 8-10 friends who make it a habit to show more times than not--no RSVPs needed, as long as you can get general critical mass of 5-6 people. DC has not shown itself to be good at this. People are overscheduled. My beloved Oxford, Mississippi, has this down to a science. 

-Find a monthly reading series to co-host. I love hosting poets; the talent they bring to town, the manic high I get as an emcee, the opportunity it offers when chatting with folks at AWP. But I feel bad bringing someone to town when they then lose money on paying for a hotel. So, I put this out to the universe with a caveat: I need to find a way to offer them $100 honorarium per reading. Or, a place big enough to house them. 

-Cement a monthly workshop group. This, I am actually lucky enough to have the makings of, but we could be a little bigger and more robust in our attendance record. The trick is to get not only likeable people, but people whose work you respect enough that when they push you, you don't get defensive. Plus, find a spot a little more atmospheric than the Pennsylvania Avenue Cosi. 

-Be diligent in attending the readings that broaden my horizons, especially in terms of prose. Let go of attending the readings that will not. 'Nuff said. 

-Develop a relationship with a local school. I have fond memories of the "poetry lady of Fairfax County Public Schools," a.k.a. Rose MacMurray, and I'd like to pay it forward. But I'll be blunt--too many times I've experienced flakiness. The date gets changed at the last minute because of testing. We're meeting in a classroom with 15 students; no, it's the auditorium, with 60. The students haven't gotten the handout in advance. There's no water. There's no microphone. I'm really not the diva type but I'd like to have a stable, ongoing relationship with a school that does right by their kids--and their guests.

-Become a regular at a spots...that is, a regular "do not disturb." I used to be really good at this. Tryst, Teaism, or Kramerbooks: you could always find me with a pot of tea or a beer, and a stack of poems to workshop or an essay to edit or a book I'm determined to finish. Somewhere along the way I lost this habit, in which location = accomplishing work, and I miss it. I have my eye on Soho Coffeehouse or Modern Times at Politics and Prose as the next incarnations of my "office."

Obviously, I'm a list-maker at heart. It is how I get to where I need to go in the otherwise directionless world of being a full-time writer. What are your literary goals? Does the place you live help satisfy them?

April 08, 2013

Very Important Poems (and Resisting Them)

The trains come through Hickory every few hours. Nothing haunting about it--the clank of freight, the chuff-chuff of speed, and always the whistles. I love it. Not much like the morning carillon of the National Cathedral, my neighbor at home, but lovely--and much livelier company around 3 AM. 

I've been focused on finalizing my manuscript. Reminds me of one of those puzzles in which you are supposed to slide squares numbered 1 through 15 back into order, except the painted numbers on these squares are has worn away--I can just barely feel the outline of their cardinal molding under my fingertips. This week I added a poem back in, which required editing it so it didn't over-echo with the poems before and after it, and which moved everything around so that suddenly another poem seemed worthy of coming back in, then a third. Turns out that first poem isn't invited back after all--it is a sestina I wrote in 2005, and just feels too young--but I suspect that if I hadn't faux-included it, and labored accordingly, that third poem would have never found its spot. So much of organizing poetry manuscripts is about liberating yourself, or tricking yourself, or both. 

Of course, I wouldn't be spending all this time on order (for better or worse) if I was drafting. But a couple of attempts to write this week faltered, because I think there is only one poem left to write for this book, and I want so badly for it to be a Very Important Poem. A poem that makes the reader jump in the air, like a character in a Toyota commercial. A substantive poem that turns into a two-pager when you galley it up. A poem that ties up all this manuscript's threads of travel, of love, of loneliness, with one potent truth claim. Bah. You can't write that way. You can write a poem out filled with urgency, or mouth-watering food descriptions, or good knock-knock jokes, but beware trying to write the Very Important Poem. 

To paraphrase something Jane Hirshfield said, in an interview with Michael Collier on the topic of "unearned luck," you can't bless your own poem directly; you can only acknowledge outward. 

So, I need to back off, and let a poem sneak up on me. Far from DC's annual April carnival--cherry blossoms & readings galore--my way of celebrating National Poetry Month has been to prioritize time with books. I spent this week with recent collections by Philip Schultz (who I also had the pleasure of interviewing on Friday), Anne Champion, Allison Benis White, Jane Hirshfield, Mary Biddinger, and Matthew Dickman. His Mayakovsky's Revolver is particularly worth your attention.

Because the collection is dedicated to Dickman's older brother, who died of an overdose, it would be easy for this collection to overflow with Very Important Poems. But Matthew Dickman neither eulogizes nor lionizes. The diction is conversational. The line breaks add energy, though there are no stanza breaks, no overt plays with form. Instead, you will be drawn in by the voice, whether proclaiming "The Summer's Over, Jack Spicer!" or creating an "Elegy to a Goldfish." The speaker locates lightness in pain. In Paris, we find Portland. These poems are loose and brave and funny, though the whole time you know you're on a bridge looking out over a very dark river. 


Because I miss you I have made a pile of clothes
along the bed, your exact height and weight. I’ve invented
you for a night! I put the dumbbells
of my hands around the sweater that’s your waist and let them
fall asleep there. The moon is in the yard
floating through the blinds, becoming a zebra
with glowing stripes, asleep on the floor. In my fourteenth dream
about you we were in Paris. But I’m simpleminded, and also
I want to be with you in Paris! I want baguettes
and petit déjeuners. I want the rue de la Lune and hotel sheets.
French handcuffs and French bottled water. I have
added another T-shirt to you
because maybe by now you’ve had dinner. In the morning I will
attach a couple wires to the socks and boxers
that are being your head. I’ll pull down a big heavy switch
and see if you don’t rise up, moaning, your arms out
in front of you, your legs
beginning to kick, and I will hold you up and kiss you
where your mouth hurts because it’s new and was only a handkerchief.

~Matthew Dickman