Wednesday, May 17, 2006


One summer night in 1992, I sat atop a set of monkey bars in Fritz Park with two friends from high school, suffering the Texas heat, and discussing the plight of the world, the nature of the unmeasurable universe, and the embroidery of our own lives on the fabric of this culture. It was, without question, the type of conversation that is only possible in those liminal years of high school and college when you stand independently at the doorstep of maturity and the bevy of responsibilities that you could never imagine as a child. The conversation swirled all night through cigarette smoke, swilled coffee, gasoline fumes in a ’72 Super Beetle, and the crisp of French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches at the local Denny’s. It was 6 AM before any of us had realized it and long before such a conversation could ever near its completion. By the time I made it home, I curled up on the sofa, closing my eyes just long enough to see my ride to work come strolling through the door wondering why I hadn’t been outside waiting.

Years later, one of those friends works somewhere near LA on an artificial life project. Perhaps one of these days, his work might add a few data points toward answering the age-old question of what, precisely, life is. The last I heard, the other friend was studying Divinity at a Baptist school somewhere. He’d been through a life I can only imagine. He’d started—simply enough—as a college student in the Midwest intent on studying poetry. He lasted perhaps a year and a half before returning home to stay in a two-bedroom apartment with his little brother and his mother. I can’t honestly say why he didn’t return, but I do know that the requisite reading of Foucault and Derrida didn’t help his mindset and that he would later end up homeless in California, kept a few days in a Mexican jail, and eventually, back home again drawing a disability check from Social Security.

During Christmastime of my Freshman year, before he became someone I’d fear, we hung out a bit. He gave me the classical guitar that had brought him the visions of Bob Marley-like stardom that kept him from attending classes sometimes. We went to a rave where breakfast was served, and more, we talked about poetry. For a few months he’d been working feverishly on his own epic poem. I think, by then, he was fed up with the rigmarole of writing programs and had become unfettered from the expectations of peers, family, and professors. Instead, his sole criterion for quality was that his little brother—who was about 11—liked the poem. Indeed, his epic poem was to be a science fiction tale of piracy across the galaxy.

Even now, years later, as I sit here contemplating my own failed epics and the fictionalizations that continuously creep into my own poetry, I wonder what kind of poem that might have been. I suspect, occasionally, that I would have adored it, that it would have been a raw blend of Beat poetry and Samuel Delaney that was designed for kids who like fart jokes. Sometimes, of course, I think that such an enterprise is doomed to failure. Most of the time, I just hope he’s ok.


In graduate school, I focused solely and utterly on writing. Even though I was only 22 and should probably have been enjoying much more of Miami’s night life, I spent most of my time writing poems. What an absurd luxury.

So, after a difficult first semester, when I felt myself cracking at times, and found difficulty separating any moment of my existence from my writing, I had, to my mind, almost completed a draft of my thesis. Even as I sat in literature classes that were ladled with theory, I could not help but try to apply endless permutations of postmodern thought to my writing. If your life ever allows stress-induced paranoia to trickle in through the cracks of your own self-image, such a self-reflexive postmodern exercise is deeply uncomfortable. I came within inches of losing my fellowship simply because I didn’t turn in a paper.

When my adviser returned that handful of poems to me, I did not find any of the praise I naively expected. Instead, I found that my ideas weren’t cohesive and that my ambition was desultory at best. In fact, after reading through two or three poems, he found the effort pointless and stopped critiquing those I’d handed him. Yet, even as he questioned my use of German intermixed with my poems and the fragmented polyphony that I’d gleaned from Eliot and Bakhtin, my adviser did notice the ambition inherent in my work. In fact, a few weeks later, he handed me a damning review of Jorie Graham’s Errancy, which admired the courage to ask the ontological questions posed throughout the volume, but damned its difficulty.

I, of course, revised those poems by simplifying their structures and cutting huge portions that may have been too prosaic or, in a few instances, I simply abandoned those poems. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone—with the possible exception of Ezra Pound—could have taught me how to write the poems I wanted to write, and now, I wonder why I wanted to write such poems. And although I think I could write such poems now, most of them seem pointless to me.

It’s ironic, I suppose, but 14 years later, I’ve realized what my friend in high school already knew: poetry need not be difficult to be ambitious. I still haven’t learned to tame my ambitions. I still want—although I seldom admit it—to write poems that are not merely good. I want to write important poems that outlive me. And every once in a while, I think I know how.


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