My Autobiography as a Poet


I read someoneís comment that itís fun and illuminating to write an autobiography every five years, or every ten years, and then compare them. Iíve never written one before, and I canít imagine being disciplined enough to do it every five or ten years ≠ Goddess! Never mind the creepy feeling of going to read something you wrote such a long time ago, with no temptation or curiosity to draw you into the pages except for the mechanical click of the date. And yet: I struggle so much to be serious about art, as a hundred Grim Angels echoed by the spirits of laziness and self-pity dance around me, crying at me NOT to be serious. Everything that helps even a little bit is so welcome. Thus, the day before my birthday, my autobiography as a poet.
(I donít have an autobiography as a prosaist, a word that my word-processorís dictionary tells me does not exist -- but it felt unnatural to try this in Wordsworthian verse.)

The "I"

It turns out to be surprisingly hard to read and reread (revising) a piece that says "I" in so many places. So self-centered, all revolving (gathering the spinning sugar?) around the axis of this "I." But if I wrote in a you or a we, if it was a group manifesto or a confession to one particular reader, it wouldn't be an autobiography. The genre demands that selfish and exclusive focus.
Mortification at allowing self-indulgence to become this rampant. I see why it's the tone (curt, witty, self-ironizing) of Mayakovsky's wonderful "Ja sam."

1. The Story

Perhaps it is significant that I started to talk before I learned to walk, and commented on my failures (and my successes too? I havenít heard about that from the remaining witnesses): "Uh-oh!" as I fell to the ground.
The life of this poet is uneven and full of breaks, like the life-line on someoneís palm. I started to write as a kid -- Iíd get a line in my head, sometimes a whole rhythm, and thereíd be a physical sensation to it. I canít compare it with anything else (of many, many vivid physical sensations!), but it seems to be the same one I still get, a sort of a mental tingle tied to a pleasure and restlessness. The early stuff of course rhymed and scanned and was pretty bad. I showed some of it once to the Scottish woman (Mrs. Dorsey) who babysat for us when my sister and then my brother were born, because she also wrote poetry (as I recall, likewise rhyming, scanning, and pretty bad). She hmphed, staying right in character. At some other point an adult (teacher? well-intentioned mother?) told me "Youíre so good with words, when you grow up you should write advertisements!" This was as appealing as being told, "Oh never mind your last name, when you grow up you can marry a man with a better one." I changed my name, when I got old enough, but it was hard to find a way of imagining writing poetry that didnít end in use and abuse. I continued to say that I wanted to write, though, even at moments when nothing else was in my favor, and that may count for something.
I was more nearly serious in junior high ("The clouds are milk in a bowl of blue soupĒ) and high school (several surviving pieces), though I knew nothing about how to write. Aside from my mental tingle and sense of music, such as it was, I never revised, and I kept doing chunky metrical pieces even after I realized that they werenít very good. (Not to trash metrical verse -- just my implementation thereof.) A writing course with someone capable would have been a great thing.
So when I got to college (spring semester of my first year) I took a class with the creative writing guy at Haverford, and learned a lot more than I had known up to that point, even wrote the first poem Iím still impressed with (ďCome into My GardenĒ; I got an A on it too). Taking a class means youíre making a commitment, it puts the writing on the same level as oneís history reading or French vocab list, itís like getting paid to sing or something. For some reason, that class didnít send me into an easy phase of composition, or lead me to think that I should take another writing class. I guess I figured that was the whole curriculum. Once I encountered some Great Russian Poets in my junior year I was spoiled for writing for quite a long time, figuring, "if I have to be that serious (Tsvetaeva! Mandel'shtam!), I donít think I can do it," I donít have that much faith in myself. Or at least: I sure canít afford to do it, whoís going to support my as I dream my pipe-dreams? I had the dream of going to Santa Fe after graduation to wash dishes and write great poems, but it was an idea so fantastic as to be hardly tempting.
My adult life as a poet began with that brief flowering and satisfaction, one poetry prize which was nice, and a year of occasional verse as ďApplebeeĒ in the Bryn Mawr/Haverford college paper, but interspersed and followed by lots of zombie time. A barely-living corpse, a tenuous thread of life, staggering forward through time, lurching. There were moments when Iíd surface from the swamp of Other Things and come to life for a few weeks or months, other moments when I was breathing through a long, long straw from under some pretty dark swamp (or fen) water. All this did teach me a lot about the other things that contribute to a poetís life (a real conversation with someone else, writing in a journal, other kinds of creative work, walking, reading, observing, staying alive: there were times I must have been alive after all, though I wasnít writing anything to speak of, and itís that aliveness thatís the main thing).
What made me try again rather than simply dying and rotting away like any decent carbon-based life form was turning 32: the age my mother was when I was born. This always seemed the natural boundary for childish aspirations: after that I would have to get serious, as if, you know, a sort of echo of my own life would come into the picture. (Maybe there will be something like that, or unlike, when I hit 45, my grandmotherís age when she had her last child? "Now I am really a grown-up." Ha.) I went on sabbatical in the spring of the year I was 32, and said I would start each morning by writing for an hour or even two, as long as it took. It was hard to start, since I was emerging from the dark tunnel of early motherhood as well as trying to resurrect a voice and hand, and the poems were not-so-great. Then (by March, say?) I started to get some worthwhile things, a feeling of rhythm, writing muscles flexing and getting stronger. The satisfying and arrogant confidence that if I have an idea thatís any good I can sit down and write down something halfway decent, sometimes even recognizable as a piece of art on the first try. (Maybe it's that the demons had gone drinking with that anal internal editor enough times that they could be friendly and cooperative?) A few times I got a buzz of an inspiration and lulled it (lelejala) for a few hours or days, then put it down on paper into the shape I had foreseen; it felt a bit like tapping into the eternal Source of Poetry, imitating Orpheus. As if the real poems are all up there and one can get a hand on the string of one by being sufficiently engaged, or something.
Since then, there were other times when I was only suspendedly animated (especially the year Mislav was sick, though I did write just a few rather nice poems, I think, as a kind of immune system reaction against the hard and grim atmosphere; also, differently, the months before and after Raian was born -- I suppose I could claim my creative energy was diverted into another classical arena). And there have been times of real emergence into the air (a week or two in summer of 1996, and many days of the first part of 2002). Trying to keep the discipline of writing Often, of staying alert to my mind, of the fingers and keyboard or the hand, pen and paper (a whole different topic: why a fountain pen helps, and has helped me since I started to use a cheapo one at 13 or so: I donít know, it just does, maybe because Pegasus sprang from the blood of Medusa) (who is the Muse, anagrammatized and with a few letters ADded).
It is hard, hard, hard to stay alive when everything else tells you that itís not serious. Why would you need to breathe if you can do all the important stuff without breathing (or -- with an occasional gasp)? Even my good impulses point to the dishes that need washing, the papers that need grading; I get an idea that jazzes me, and wait-and-wait until evening, at which point thereís no energy left (oh they are picky, these shreds of inspiration, or the hunting-dog demons who bring them in their teeth), or wait-and-wait for a few days and even scrounge up a time with some energy, but find that the idea has turned to wood in the mean time.
So even writing this self-absorbed-article-of-faith is a kind of leap: maybe Iíll die tomorrow (and maybe I wonít notice it either, since itís that limited, non-terrestrial, air-breathing "I" -- I might not know it until years and years later, looking back and taking a sudden vestigial deep breath that will ache in my unaccustomed lungs). Maybe I'll have to resurrect myself over and over again.
Maybe the energy it takes to jump over all the blocks becomes part of the necessary energy for taking flight? The blocks become something presicely like a block, for taking off from into a race -- handling inspiration as if running with a hang-glider, becoming a human kite. (Is that just something Linda Clare, queen of creative block-juggling, said to me?) A kind of self-resistance as weight training, a limitation that becomes a place to stand and resist. Whenever I realize that I have been barely alive, I am so relieved to be still alive that I canít even spend too much time on regret. Instead, itís time to sing and party.

2. What I Write about

I canít add up and summarize exactly what it is that jolts me -- I donít know until it does it. I can look at the old stuff and say what has worked before: sometimes imagining what this or that historical or noteworthy figure would say in situation X or Y. I got a lot of mileage out of those ideas in 1994, when I was also working on a book on Tsvetaeva, who does persona work a lot.
Or -- love. The classical temptation into verse -- because it pulls you out of yourself, and the whole world is changed the same way in which I aspire to alter the world with language. (Love is much easier and more effective than language, but poetry is at best a spell for love.) Often there wasnít even a particular person at the source of a "love" poem, it was just the easiest way to move into a tempting space, open myself into the temptation of space. What would I say to You, oh Being who makes me thirst to live vividly, if I had You captive across a cafť table, and we had already ordered coffee?
It has to be something that incites me, and this can create another kind of block: how can I be writing about this silly topic? Or -- even more often -- this is so self-centered, who on earth would care about it? Or -- of course -- this is so trivial! Though I have gotten much better at ignoring the anti-Museal voices, and not regretting the price of ignoring them. Or -- the snitty voice of good taste and Measure will declare that this is so exaggerated! But I know from my own experience, even my experience with the terrifying Russians, that I for sure donít want to read about some ordinary person with ordinary emotions -- I can go into myself for that (well, in my array of ordinary moments I can). So I try to write as large as I can, the thoughts are no less true writ large, and surely more interesting.

3. How I Write

There are three ways (speaking of the experience and how I analyze it now -- perhaps it was different before). First, a phrase or an idea zings into my mind, seems to waken an echo. I sit, or lie, or walk along, holding it in my mental palm, letting it send out its echo, its little sonar, like a bat or a whale calling the other bats or whales (or -- to bugs and plankton). What else accrues to it? Sometimes I can lift the idea, twist it like the paper cone that structures a serving of cotton candy. The melting sugar of whatever else the mind holds flies into spun strands, they can move in several directions. Sometimes it wants to be a multi-part poem; other times the strands seem to fold around the stick in a single direction. (The others would be -- conjoined at the head? Like bunches of baby carrots at a farmer's market.) So then I have this rough and sticky idea: to amount to anything, it has to be written down before the strands melt or congeal, or gather too much dust and lose their attractive stickiness. Often a version at this stage gives a false feeling of satisfaction and completeness -- and once it hits paper and ink looks extremely sketchy, needing lots more stick-twirling to create links and integuments. With a written draft (usually in a notebook: the journal is a perfect place for maybe-drafts, though the back of an opened envelope can be even better, more properly provisional) I go to the computer, with its promise of provisionality even greater than a used envelope temporarily reprieved from the recycling can, and continue to spin. Often this makes a good draft -- sometimes, it even takes shape at this point (rarely, the good draft, then stored in the folder labeled "good," is almost the same as the original scribble: this is usually a reward for discipline, recognizing the import of the snakes who bite their tails in my dream). Sometimes the draft withers, and nothing comes of it -- or one or two living strands (animated sugar!) will reemerge later in another piece.
A second way is: just sit and start writing about something. Usually this is mere wheel-spinning, or a kind of stretching/weight-lifting, and Iíll never use any of it (jotting of local details, or at best an appealing idea -- that may have been besieging me in my ďrealĒ life -- but I havenít yet found a way to embody in words, an axis of conception). Sometimes it will surprise me, the demons will like some part of it and come out to dance. And of course a line or two can be good and find a purpose in some other piece. (A poem as a failed or aborted version of another, very similar, that is meant to exist. As if oneís the twin that withered in the womb, no one suspecting its existence. Or the withered one survives as a line or two -- a secret mass of tissue from that other possibility, hidden in the living body of the one that was born.) The point of this second way is merely to engage in writing: sometimes Iíve already written a couple of good things that day, and want to make sure that the vein is dry; sometimes I havenít written for a couple of days (weeks! months!) and wonder whether I can wake the impulse; other times I have time to kill and figure what the hell. I am a writer, right? And what does a writer do? (How you be a writer is to do writing.) If anything comes through, unexpectedly, Iíll feel a flicker (energy that feels like opening a window in the mind to see something drift or fly in) (the cat on the back of the couch catches sight of a bird).
Finally, and most rare, I can get an idea that jazzes me from the moment I feel it. I can tell itís going to bring something, itís probably something like seeing a fishing hook shake, and I either write it down the first chance I get (in these cases, all the drafts tend to share the same energy, even if things change I lot while Iím working on them), or else I hold it in my mental palm for a day or three, letting the idea gather lint and sugar strands, before I sit down -- sometimes straight at the computer -- and entrust it to words. The cycle "Yseult" came in that way, over a few days and evenings where it felt like a nest of unhatched bird's eggs; it was the first big poetical thing I had ever written, and that experience had a wonderful sense of power and confidence, almost like being Tristan in his coracle with the harp: Iím powerless against the elements, but what power I still carry with me. The feeling would have to be conveyed in music.
The worst feeling in the world is getting a hit of the third kind of inspiration (or even the first kind), to put it off in certainty that it will be great when I get to it, to put everything else (Everything Else!) first. Then when I get to it I find it dead and desiccated, I left it too long and it turned to wood. (Story of trying to write while working full time, or while taking care of little kids. Beware, all you young poets who say "I want to be a college professor, because then I can also write....") This must be why Pushkin and his ilk conceived of the state that favors inspiration as a "holy laziness" -- you create and defend space, you preserve the clearing, for inspiration to enter, because otherwise it will be choked out by weeds, or saplings, or other plants, valuable in their way but not liable to flower into art. Of course, Pushkin and his ilk were Gentlemen, and someone else set their tables for them and herded and plucked the geese from which they got quills. I'm hobbled, among many other ways, by a vision of the world based on lower-middle class housekeeping, observed in my female ancestors and internalized to perfection -- and it's a lifestyle that fed and clothed and raised us. Compared to that certainty, how can wifty poetry compete? Tsvetaeva is right ("Art in the Light of Conscience").
A note on writing as physical experience: wheel-spinning and even weight-lifting donít take too much energy, but really writing (more than one poem -- say if it goes on for 2-3 hours) is exhausting, physically as well as mentally, and not just for the writing hand, or its wrist, arm, shoulder. I shake after a bout of writing (with a very fine tremor) as if Iíve been lifting and carrying heavy boxes of books, helping a friend move house; as if Iíve had a cup or two too much strong coffee. That's probably a sign that I'm not really in shape; if I wrote that long and that seriously more often.... Or the sign of an ecstatic experience (a "creative frenzy" -- doesn't that sound fun and Dionysian? -- something that leaves a chemical residue, a bit like chewing laurel leaves) -- a standing-outside-yourself, temporary emergence from ordinary incarnation, or brief reprieve from the ordinary and temporary experience of incarnation.

4. Imagining an Audience

Okay, I write mostly for myself. I write so this self won't die. Tsvetaeva said that as soon as you finish a lyric poem (a short one), you die right then -- the minute you sense that you have finished it! -- and don't come to life again until you've got your next poem started. There's something to that as well. "Wow, that was great, but can I do it again?" You try again, you fail, or not, and draw conclusions. Each poem is a bead on an invisible string (of intention? of breath?). (What would a necklace of beads strung on breath look like? You see.)
But I love it when other people read my stuff, especially if they like it. I want them to want more; I want reactions or comments; I want them to see me through the writing, and to feel themselves called in a similar way. Barthes is right that writers write because they want to be loved. Getting translated into another language is so much fun, as flattering as having someone come over and hand you a portrait of you they drew without telling you they were going to or asking you to hold still. If I already care for the reader, I want to express all kinds of profound and moving things, and win or ornament the readerís love. If a poem was written for one particular reader, which doesnít happen all that often between here and eternity, then of course I want it to seduce, convince, delight, perplex, and MOVE that reader -- but if it wouldn't work for other readers too, then it probably won't work for the particular addressee either. Now and then I write one I think will work only for me -- usually, itís emotionally satisfying but nothing special artistically -- and donít show it to anyone.

5. The Muse

I hadn't thought of this mythological figure in my own writing (the generative phrases or themes that popped into my mind didn't seem to have any origin outside that mind), until I gave a paper on Tsvetaeva and vampires on an MLA panel with my friend, the wonderful poet Barbara Ungar. She assembled the panel and named it "The Erotics of Inspiration: Female Poets and the Male Muse" -- or something like that, you can check back MLA programs, it was in 1995. And of course they accepted it, how could they refuse such a perfect MLA panel title? And it was probably mocked in right-wing media, but I don't read them so I don't mind.
During Barbaraís workshop on "Courting Your Muse" at the Womenís Writing Retreat the next summer in Paradox, NY, we did an exercise where we had to come up with our anti-Muse. Mine turned out very like my grandmother, complete with Edinburgh accent. I realized that she didnít so much want to squelch me (though there was some of that, "I thought someone had trodden on the cat," to keep a child from getting too full of herself and thereby cause the universe to explode or something): she was mainly concerned that I wouldnít have a good life if I went off into Lit-Land, that it is a kind of madness, dangerous and irresponsible. There'd be no money, no friends, no husband for sure though probably lots of louts; my family would be neglected and then probably abandon me. A little extreme: why does being a poet have to be so damn extreme all the time, rather than just at the crucial moments? But I recognize that sort of protective defensive pose, inherited from my loving ancestors, in other crucial decision-making junctures in my life (go to the grad school that offered me best financial aid, so I can emerge without taking out more student loans!).
We went on to try to imagine our Muses, and I came up with a fellow rather like Vladislav Khodasevich (in his Parisian period, of course), a thin and down-at-heel aristocrat in poor health and with poor posture, reduced to smoking only three cigarettes a day, looking pretty threadbare, and stuck with this flippant American poet, who was his only and not-very-dependable source of existence. The Male Muse poems from 1996 and after are often about this guy, though he flickers into a variety of ages and positions. Sometimes he doesn't even smoke, even the three impoverished cigs a day, though he always has glasses (classically, in heavy Socialist frames).
Since then, it makes a great deal of sense to me that the Muse be a figure one wishes to woo, one who can at least in theory motivate or incarnate oneís erotic attraction to the universe, who can channel both the wish to write (oh please bring me to life today!) and the attention on a listener or reader, an other, that makes utterance possible.

6. What I Hope Happens Next

I want to publish a lot of stuff. Why not, right? I want to write a LOT of stuff. I want to read a lot too, and listen to wonderful Other Poets read, and to lie in the hammock while itís still so hot, and to bake ] apple pies for my friends and family. Read this, please, with patience and indulgence.

Return to SF's Poetry Page.

Return to SF's Home Page.