Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Sick Day

It’s nearly noon and these are the first words of the day. On some days, when I’ve got the slightest headache, a touch of allergies, and the sticky buildup of summer dirt and sweat clinging to my arms like a second skin, it’s difficult to concentrate. Of course, on some days, when I feel good enough to be prancing about the block like a thoroughbred racehorse festooned with roses after the Kentucky Derby, I still have trouble getting started.

Since my schedule still orbits like a cold moon around the planetary path of the puppies, I often have to spend a significant amount of time coddling them before I can settle down in front of the computer. Once there, like everyone else, I spend an ample amount of time clicking through Yahoo and ESPN to keep abreast of the latest news, err, entertainment. Then, I still have to take a few minutes, which can easily morph into hours, surfing the blogs and litmags that I enjoy. If you add a handful of minor business ventures, query letters, and the requisite housekeeping to the list of accomplishments, it is not that hard to imagine a day, once looked forward to, devolving into a muggy nap on the sofa as I wait for the air conditioning repairman to phone. Plus, on some days, like today, I end up feeling like my writing is a little off the mark, as though my superego finally noticed how often I wander over to the sprawling cage where my id stalks the edges of light and dangle bits of food in its direction to convince it to speak. Fearing an escape, perhaps my superego has tossed a heavy tarp over the cage, blocking off all light.

Of course, if Freud’s theories were traded on NASDAQ, they’d be penny stocks in danger of delisting. I realize that the process of cognition and cognitive development is both more complex and simpler than Freud’s trinity-like construct would have us believe. On a CAT scan, of course, finding the superego isn’t any easier than locating the soul. Yet like the soul, I think the descriptions are occasionally useful. How else can you write mixed metaphors that no one else in a workshop will notice?

Now, the dogs are circling between the antiquated fence that cages them and keeps them safe and the newly arrived wrought iron patio furniture where I am sitting. They look both tired and restless, as though they’d like to be able to lie down on the cool concrete beneath the table while digging up dandelion roots or sniffing out the fallen berries that I just discovered in our backyard. Dixie the smarter of the two has foraged a twig of some sort and sprawled on the concrete near the back door to finish eating. And I can relate. Today, I feel both tired and restless. I’m ready to take on the world, right after a nap and a few hours lost to the oblivion of the PlayStation console upstairs.

Yet, right now, I realize that the problems of a writer are actually fantastic problems to have. Perhaps my dilemmas aren’t as interesting as those of Brad Pitt or LeBron James, but by the same token, when I wake up in the morning, I don’t need to shave and shower so that I look presentable in a bright blue Wal-Mart smock.

I think that, as you write poems, such perspective can actually help immensely. If I were commuting each morning to a discount store, fretting over whether or not the 20-cent spike in gasoline prices would force me to cancel a long-promised excursion to King’s Island for the kids that I’d been saving toward for four weeks, would I worry that my prowess for stocking shelves seemed a little off kilter today? If I were a cashier with a cracked nametag that I’d repaired with a layer scotch tape, would I fret over the way this sticky heat has clung to my skin?

It’s pleasant to have the problems of a poet. Sure it’s been romanticized again and again. All those writers are crazy, poverty stricken, rebellious fops who don’t fit in with the rest of the civilized world. And sure, once in a while, the cliche is true, but come on, walk away with an English degree from a respected university and your life will be, in many ways, far easier than it otherwise could be.

Nevertheless, I want to clarify something for myself: writing is work. Although I haven’t, to date, been fantastic at following this advice myself, I honestly believe that if you feel good enough to drag yourself to a day job, you ought to feel good enough to jot down a few lines of poetry or a few paragraphs of prose. After all, if you wouldn’t call in sick to a grocery store, why would you call in to your life’s work?

I’ll tell you a secret now. Intermittently, over the last two years, I’ve been working on a series of poems unlike anything I’ve ever written and, shockingly, unlike most of the poems I’ve seen written. For the time being, the project is low on my list of priorities, but every few weeks an idea will come along that belongs. When I think about the project, I find myriad reasons to find a book of matches and carry the manuscript pages into the backyard as tender for a marshmallow roast. The poems—regardless of quality—seem near impossible to publish. I’ve only found two or three very small markets where a published poem wouldn’t stand out like a boil on the gargantuan face of a movie star in a sappy romantic comedy. More, the poems are difficult. Most of them are suffused with multiple voices, and worse, build upon each other to carry readers into an ethereal, melancholic world that is punctuated by moments of paranoia and resignation. When I think of sending these poems off, it is far too easy to imagine an editor who hasn’t yet had enough copy skimming through a few lines, stopping before the third stanza, and mumbling to herself, “what the hell is this” before tossing my submission back into the slush pile.

Yet, at the same time, I believe—whether through delusion or a kind of faith in my talent—that one day those poems will be important—maybe even as important as the work of Wallace Stevens. I imagine students in college classrooms everywhere thumbing through the book as a student in the back of the room mumbles to himself, “what the hell is this.” I imagine PhD students, eager to start dissertations on early 21st century poetry, confronting my book only to reconsider their choice of topics.

Perhaps, in a way, these useless fantasies sustain me as I toil away making my poems better and better. Yet, I honestly believe that—even if I don’t manage to publish a single poem from that collection—those poems will be more than worth writing. They entertain me immensely and my wife likes them—a lot.

And so what, if on one particular day, the rhythms in my poems sound like a coughing dog? Revision is always around the corner, and I’ll never know how good a day’s work was until long after the day is done—unless, of course, I don’t apply myself and succumb to the doubts that buzz around like summer insects on the last front porch in a neighborhood whose light is still flickering. So, for me at least, as long as I can make it to my computer, there won’t be any sick days for the foreseeable future.

2 Comments:

Anonymous me said...

Imagine if Freud's theories were raced in NASCAR - Now that would be something!

5:01 PM  
Blogger Les said...

I thought that was the basis of NASCAR...

12:05 AM  

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