I’m relocating to Atlanta in a few weeks. The plan is to work on a book—cultural studies meets poetics—about the ways contemporary art thinks about Civil Rights History. I’m shipping a few boxes, but mostly I have to limit myself to whatever I can fit in the Jeep between everything else I need to live.
Choosing which books to bring is a doomed project. Determining which books to bring for the prose project is not that hard, and I’ll have a university library behind me, so the pressure there isn’t too severe. Selecting poetry books, on the other hand...
Some books get written in you as you read them and then you’re always carrying them. For me Karen Volkman’s Spar is one of those books. It altered the way I thought about the capacities of the prose poem, how quickly and how frequently the thought within it could change shape, and the way I thought about the uses of sequentiality in a poem. I am a different person, that my mind is a different mind, for having read the book. In a sense I always have that book with me—so I may not need to actually pack it.
In selecting from the rest, I know—since this is my third temporary jaunt in three years— no matter what I choose to bring or ship—whether they are books that provide some imaginative comfort or stability, books that challenge, books that I have yet to read—I will inevitably leave something I will feel I need, in the same way that once I decide, as I’m packing for the day at the office, to leave a book at home—or vice versa—I will, later in the day, need need need that last book I removed from my bag, the last book I put back on the shelf. It’s almost as if, once I’ve left the book, once I’ve decided I don’t need it, once it’s absent, my mind enters what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as the “incubation” phase of the creative process, thinking about that book in (and because of) its absence. Then comes the insight that requires the return of the book.
Charles Wright’s The World of The Ten Thousand Things is one such book. I bought a copy—actually, I ordered a copy, since no bookstore I could find in Alabama would carry it—in late 1992 or early 1993. I read it and carried it like a bible for months. In the summer of 1993, my girlfriend was working in New York, where she heard Wright read at the 92nd Street Y and had him sign the book. All through graduate school, I’d return to this book when I got stuck on the long poem that was my thesis. Since then, I’ve had a cyclical relationship with Wright’s work, at times feeling I’ve read it so much that I believe it’s written in me, in the way Volkman’s is, and at others feeling that the ink has faded, that the language has slipped away.
The process is, I think, part of my creative process. Because Wright’s work was so important to me so early in my life as a writer—his were among the first books I bought after I decided to study poetry—I return to it at those moments when I’m making some sort of turn, as if Wright’s poems are kinds of benchmarks.
Wright says in “Roma II” “The poem is a self-portrait \ always, no matter what mask / You take off and put back on.” Maybe one’s books are self-portraits, too.
(What is it Eliot writes in his essay “The Music of Poetry” about the poet always inadvertently describing his idea of his own poetry, regardless of what he’s writing about?)
I am going to leave something I am going to need. I am going to leave something, I’m convinced, as part of my relationship with that thing. I am going to leave it knowing, subconsciously, that I’m ensuring its future importance. And I’m going to do this, somewhat consciously, because a part of me already knows what’s next and how to trick the rest of me into getting there.
I’m looking forward to that—and to being in a new place. The alienations in which you encounter things that are almost familiar—or in which you encounter what was familiar in a new way—these dislocations are freshening. For a while, until I settle, everything seems new. Everything requires (and abets) serious, almost unnatural, concentration.
This past Spring I lived in another writer’s house for five months. A space was made for me, but part of his library remained. On his shelves were books I knew, others I’d seen in bookstores and libraries, and others I should have known but didn’t. Knowing I only had a little time with these books, I thought that I should set aside my plans and start reading them. This idea quickly revealed itself ridiculous, but on the occasions when I did open one of his books, even once-familiar ones, I had a strange and fresh encounter.
You can’t predict this—what will be there when you get there, just as you can’t imagine in advance if your hotel/hostel/lodge/guest house will have a library or what such a library might contain—but, strangely, even the books you find there and pay attention to reflect back some notion of yourself. On my mountain retreat last weekend, the field guide to stars and constellations stood out because it was so different from every other book in the lodge’s library, but I may have focused on it in part because I was spending so much time looking at the sky.
For this reason, it’s interesting to look at the books I bought in the Spring while I was living in another person’s house in another town in another state. Some of them are occasional—I bought several of William Fuller’s books when I went to hear him read, and when Charles Wright’s The Bye-and-Bye came out, was prominently displayed at the bookstore, my hand closed instinctively around it—or situational, because it was there. Others say something about the directions my mind and life were going in. I’d never have bought Mark Allan Jackson’s Prophet Singer, a biography/cultural history of Woody Guthrie if I hadn’t been trying to write a response to Terrance Hayes’s “Postcard from Okemah.” Or Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music if I hadn’t been thinking of writing a poem in response to Jason Moran’s “Feedback, Pt. 2”—which is a piano composition written around a tape of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” that has eliminated everything but the feedback noise.
So, maybe I should leave as much as I can behind, have an empty shelf that will be graph of my year as writer and thinker.
One of those books will be Best American Poetry 2011, because David Lehman and Kevin Young will be discussing the book at the Atlanta Journal Constitution Decatur Book Festival, where I’ll be hanging out.
Maybe by this time next year I can fashion a cento from the volume, using those poems to look back on the year, a sort of “Self-Portrait with Lines from Best American Poetry 2011.”