06 October 2011

Who wants to be a poet, anyway?

The delay is that – well – since writing is so much of what I do, now, it’s neither escapist nor explanatory nor therapeutic/exploratory to write about, all the time. But it returns, now.
*other poets may disagree. That’s fine. This is my experience. I'm envious, perhaps, and/or admiring of - in awe of - those who are so dedicated to this as I am to no one thing.

The first poem I remember is from second grade.
Poem that I wrote.

I was a better poet then than for the approximately ten years after that –
because I didn’t know, yet, what poetry was. What poetry was “supposed” to be. What “sounded like” poetry.
From seven to seventeen, there was subversion, inversion, and perhaps glimpses of things that had merit! maybe! that said something! maybe! But it “sounded like ‘poetry’” – which is, really, not good at all.

Even poetry that conforms to rules – i.e., Shakespearean sonnets in strict iambic pentameter, for one – is good if it’s so natural that you don’t know for awhile that that’s what you’re reading (unless it is, obviously, Shakespeare). The rhymes, the rhythm are not forced. They’re what exists – and what happens to be in that form. And then you look and realize it’s three quatrains, ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, and a couplet – GG. Ten syllables to the line in iambs. Trying that – doing that – is hard, and often sounds heavy-handed and sing-songy with inverted structure to get the right rhyme at the end. I think everyone goes through that phase. (and maybe it becomes something amazing and there is the real poetry. Not for me, not now).

But at seven I was a poet.

To be a poet is not a choice.
Who would choose this? It’s a lonely vocation. You sit, alone (or alone in a crowded room, as we crave the (prototypical?) background noise of cafés. Street and people-watchers, listeners, we are). You spend an inordinate amount of time in a difficult headspace that most people don’t have to inhabit so often. You – if you’re really going to write – are connected as much as possible to everything, and you’re always listening, and open.
It’s dangerous.

Nselang, Cameroun - you can't capture the greens of the forest in a photograph - can't - This isn't a great photo, but that's irrelevant for this point -
and you can't capture everything with words, but we try

Why be a poet, and why not be another sort of writer? (many, many of us are, as well. These days, I’ll claim poetry-fiction-non-fiction, whether I have a “right” to or not).

“No one reads poetry.”
“People are afraid of poetry.”
“To say ‘poetry’ – to say ‘I’m a poet’ – has serious connotations. To say ‘writing’ or ‘piece’, rather than ‘poem’; to say ‘I’m a writer’ or ‘I write’ – that sounds different.” Less presumptuous? Less evocative of I’m-disconnected-from-the-world and I’m-part-of-the-tuberculosis-aesthetic, living-in-a-garret-aesthetic, surely-starving-artist who, well, teaches, because who can make a living at this, and who would do it anyway?

Among my coterie, among my new colleagues and friends and cohort, these are common discussions. Why do we do this. Who do we read. Who and what stops your breathing and heart and makes you gasp and reread from the beginning again, and again, and again.

To be a poet is not a choice. We didn’t choose this. People might choose to write fiction, in some sense (paperback? Things that sell? Even over and above that – it’s a different kind of discipline).
There is discipline to being a poet, certainly. I was reminded of this in the poem that I have, perhaps, spent approximately 18 hours on – thus far. It’s not done. It’s far from done. It’s what absorbed much of last weekend, has kept me up until 3 am a few times (that and other new pieces), brought me to a café (“my office”) with my unabridged thesaurus, reminded me that being a poet is damn hard, and is unbelievably exciting.
I could articulate it, I know it – but to whom, and who outside of poets – and those who know me and try to understand – would get it?
And why is that important.

I didn’t choose this.

One project, lately, has been rereading every poem I wrote since freshman year of college, when I first started getting serious about this poetry thing. When it went from being something I vaguely did and vaguely wanted to do to something I was really going to put energy into because it mattered. It matters.

Why on earth do that? There are the bad ones. So, so, so many bad ones. (The impulses and ideas for “bad poetry” are still there – I’m just better at self-censoring (we all learn to do this) and don’t write them down). But things are resurrectable – lines, ideas. Two of my recent poems, turned in for workshop, were resurrected – and severely edited – from pieces that are, respectively, 9 and a half and 7 years old. They’ve changed – they are something, now, maybe – but the raw material is that old. It needed time and maturity.
So that’s why. There are things there that I just didn’t understand, before.

Reading this – yes, cringe-worthy at times, but actually less than you might believe – I have so much separation from most of the pieces (not all) that they almost feel as if someone else wrote them, as if I’m reading them for the first time, with only a vague memory – is useful. One of the poems – the nine-and-a-half-year-old – has been stuck in my head for many months. Just a few lines. And that meant something. That’s why I had to find it.
Senior year of college, there was a line that was persistent, pestering all year. I tried to write poems with it. So many poems. And nothing worked. All were “bad.”
In the end, that line happened to be the title of my thesis.
That happened another time (another memorable time – but many, many more times – this was before I understood and had experienced the phenomenon frequently). A line came to me – I had no idea what it was, where it came from, or what it meant. But I knew it was “something” and that I had to write it down. I did. Turns out that it was the title of a piece I wrote three months later. Not on purpose. It was after I wrote the piece that I realized what the title was.

And thus Jack Spicer’s Martians (for the morbidly curious, it’s from the Vancouver lectures (starts in #1, but here's #3 - http://jacketmagazine.com/07/spicer-lect3main.html – or, in brief, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2008/07/taking-dictation-from-a-martian-muse/ ). Others call them muses. Martians feels more appropriate, to me.

It’s reading these that I realize I am a poet, that there’s never been a choice, there isn’t one, and that taking time from med school for an MFA was, well, not really a choice, either. The MPH? Yes, later. But I can – and do – work on public health in the meantime (7 years, now. Much like that second poem, above). I’ll now be ‘working’ in some capacity with the Department of Public Health now. Fine.
I know many, many people who understand my love, my passions for medicine, and how integral that has become. Ditto public health.
Poetry? Harder to find them. And I have.
(Another commonality? We all hate Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. The "classic" children's "poets." Hate. Always did. This was a discussion the other night - Dr Seuss is a better poet. Certainly).

The poem from second grade:
“The moon holds a beauty within itself. That beauty is called silence.”

A more recent line*?
“The silence is palpable; I’m not.”

*completely unrelated to the project of resurrection. Interesting only in having some relationship, maybe. And in calling both "poetry" though they don't "sound like poetry." Education, too, is dangerous. Some types and some things in it. Powerful stuff. And the first doesn't have an "I", and the second has "I" as speaker - the delicate separations we make, earned or not. "I" could be the moon (really, too obvious an image for 'poetry', unless done well), or...whatever else. I just thought this was interesting. Curious. And anyone can certainly think that both/either are terrible lines.

It’s never been a choice. I don’t think anyone is a poet – not a “real” one – because they want to be. Want to hone, yes. Want to really work on and devote time to, yes. Perhaps this is reductionist, but you don't "become" a poet - you are or you aren't (apologies to some), and you can become a better poet, much. I wonder this while looking at the $#*%^ turned in as my portfolio for my first workshop - I got in on that?? There must have been something. A few lines.
And there are ways to write - read poetry. Go to readings. Be in workshops and around other poets. But the 'discipline' of poetry is different that that of fiction, I think. And others - you can choose to be a journalist. You can choose to be many things - and you can be a good writer, certainly, and you can work on that.
Realize the necessity, yes.
But no one chooses to be a poet.

I wouldn’t have.

And last week I went to the ER (the next story) to shadow for a shift (no longer covered by malpractice, I can’t do anything hands on – it’s frustrating, in a sense, because it feels like many steps back). And yet – I read EKGs, I read head CTs, I helped do differentials and diagnose, I looked up criteria for admission, I saw physical exam findings and talked to patients and thought about things – I saw a stroke code (and could anticipate the exam and what would be done), I saw an intraventricular shunt placed to relieve pressure from hydrocephalus from a hemorrhagic stroke (i.e. – yes – the neurosurgeon bored a hole into a woman’s head and put a drain in it, and things came out. A little brain matter? How not?)
All of this was rejuvenating and invigorating and exuberant and the time passed more quickly than time has in a long time. Similarly to the alone-work of a poem for late, late hours.
Reading an EKG as reading a line. Thinking through how to put things together. How to get to somewhere. And the unbelievable, incredible nature of medicine.

That too is no longer an option.

Many people want to be doctors, initially – and maybe they don’t, for various reasons, because they didn’t understand what that actually means, the pre-work, the study, and then the work. And some do and become disillusioned. Others don’t and wish they had. Others do and it’s the absolutely perfect, right choice. Is it a choice? In some senses. I chose it – at least, I thought I did. Perhaps that’s not quite how it happened.

I didn’t choose to be a poet.

But no one asked me.


***Addendum: in relation to this: my poet-cohort has sent emails to our workshop teacher entitled "Poets hate Labor Day" and "Poets hate Columbus Day." Both holidays have meant missing (Monday evening) workshops - which isn't okay.

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