Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How Not to Change the World

When I was in college, I actually wrote a 50-page "epic" poem that would become the centerpiece of my senior thesis. At least, I think it was 50 pages. Even now, almost 11 years later, I’m impressed by such fevered ambition in a 20-year-old, and I’m vaguely stunned by the dogmatic certitude with which I approached the composition of that poem. You see, even though the protagonist of that poem was, of course, me, I couldn’t begin to doubt that it wasn’t literature with a great, big, fat, and juicy “L.”

Somewhere, I’ve heard or read that a young novelist will often receive a free pass on his first book. Editors, critics, audiences, family, and friends all expect a semi-autobiographical coming of age story. I’ll not claim that this is true, but for me "Genetics” was that type of tale.

I wrote the first draft of the poem during October of my senior year. On the day before Halloween, I was crouched over a white, Formica table at what was then my favorite cafe. Between scrawling black ink into my black spiral notebook and swilling sips of lukewarm coffee, I would stand up abruptly and pace around the narrow walkway between the scattering of tables against each wall.

At some point after dusk had settled well into night, a friend of a friend walked through the glass door and waved. I don’t think she ordered a coffee, but she sat down across from me—just as I needed a respite from those ineffable alleles that haunted me and my poem. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I have little doubt that I rambled on about my mutant of a poem. It was, at the time, crucial to me for myriad reasons other than the simple wish to write something touching, beautiful. It was, I suppose, a railing against predestination, in whatever form it might take, so the randomness that followed must have seemed the perfect panacea.

Somehow, we ended up across the street at my favorite bar, pressing against the limits of our tolerance. Then, we ended up at her place, pouring more whiskey down our throats as one of her roommates chatted online with a long-distance boyfriend, ignoring us almost completely.

The next morning, I singed a tuft of hair as I bent to light a cigarette on the front burner of her gas stove. I stood in her kitchen, taking the first deep draw into my lungs, and studied the way the morning’s sunshine pierced through the shadows of the oak trees that towered, even above the roof of her apartment. From that moment, I later carved thirty-three syllables into a tanka and that was the first poem I would publish.

A few days later, she found me sitting in the same coffee shop, plowing through the same enormous poem. She took a folded sheet of paper from the pocket of her jacket and handed it to me. It was a poem. I hate to admit this, but I have no idea whether or not it was good. I didn’t take the time to find out. Instead, I read the poem as though I were sitting atop that gargantuan "L" in the word "literature," dangling my pasty-white legs. I pointed out the lines that, ever so slightly, seemed vibrant to me, and I took a pen to the lines that, in my overrated opinion of myself, seemed awkward or contrite. This wasn’t a workshop. She hadn’t asked for a critique. And the poem, I suppose, was about the night we spent together—just like the tanka I started over the next few days.

A couple of months later, my mother rode the bus up from Texas for a visit. It was a difficult visit, as my mother isn’t really well. In the midst of what seemed the inevitable shouting and eye-rolling that accompanied her visits, I showed her a draft of my 50-page poem. And at this moment, I wonder if I’ve ever done anything crueler than that. You see, the other main character of that poem is her. And, bless her shattered heart, but when she read those pages, what could she do but weep to see her son saying, in print, the very words she’d fought against for the entirety of her adult life? But at the time, I think, this perspective was entirely foreign to me. The poem was mine, and its potential importance was worth whatever damage it might cause. Bullshit.

During the final semester of my senior year, "Genetics" was finally near completion. I performed it, more or less, at a poetry reading for the Amnesty International group on campus. At least one person in the audience commented that there were moments where it seemed as if I’d actually "lost it." But, in a way, I’d lost it long before then—and it had nothing to do with my parents or my genetic code. Instead, I’d lost track of why I fell in love with words. I’d used them, manipulated them, and maneuvered them with the brute force of a politician.

Now, I honestly believe that self-censorship is almost as important as self-expression to a poet. Poetry, after all, is about communication and unabashed cruelty has a knack for severing those lines. Of course, I don’t want to suggest that any subject whatsoever is taboo. I believe that, in a perhaps apocryphal story, Ted Hughes was right when he interrupted Sylvia Plath in the midst of a marital row and told her, that’s what’s missing from your poetry! If you feel compelled to write about your parents, then write about them. Just remember, that if they read the poem, and they are hurt, you’ve earned the pain that follows. As for me, well, since then, I’ve learned that my perspective is but one among many. "Genetics" might some day be shredded into several smaller poems, but none of them will hurt anyone in the same bludgeoning way. I’ve learned that some things are left unsaid for a reason. I’ve learned that poetry isn’t simply the domain of those who studied it, and that I should pay more attention to those who haven’t. I’ve learned more and more to follow Emily’s advice to “tell the truth, but tell it slant.”


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