Lately I’ve been in a frenzy of contest-entering and publisher-nudging, having completed a second manuscript of poems. But the sense of pride and relief that comes with finishing a project knowing you’ve done your best is fretfully short-lived. All the focus on the work itself, on its integrity as a little universe of logic and emotion, now changes direction. It shifts to the larger world. Which contests are open now? Which presses are accepting manuscripts? Do I have a chance with this press? Can I afford the entry fees? Has my writing evolved? Will I make a fool of myself?
All this planning and plotting and talking up my work has left me feeling a wee bit dirty. If I were more talented or more well read—maybe more thoughtful—I’d be rolling up my sleeves and starting a new project. Instead I feel creatively bankrupt.
As luck would have it, I took part in tributes to two poets last week: James Merrill and Adrienne Rich. An odd couple to be sure. These were separate and very different events, yet they both brought me out of myself and reminded me of the importance of a gyroscopic view. By this I mean that I’m not just of this current time and place in history, writing for (and sometimes in reaction to) my peers. I’m also a single link in a long chain of poets, some of whom I recognize as having influenced my work, others whom I’ve read and passed by, still others whose poems I’ll never know because they’re no longer being read. All of this seems so beyond my control, and yet I realize that by reading another poet’s work, by speaking of it-- or better, speaking the work itself, my little link in the chain does the job it’s there to do.
What better way to step away from myself and my times than to pay tribute to another poet?
The tribute to Merrill came about when Spencer Reece, who has been living in Spain for a couple of years as a newly ordained Episcopal priest, contacted me with a proposal that he give a reading in Merrill’s apartment, now a writer’s residency. Spencer asked to read not from his forthcoming collection of poetry, but from a draft of a short piece of prose he’s been writing about the four poets he believes have been most important to him. Reece calls the pieces “devotionals.” In his devotional to James Merrill, who he met toward the end of Merrill’s life, Reece recounted Merrill’s encouragement even as he approached a painful death from AIDS, which was kept secret at the time. Merrill’s willingness to engage with a young writer in the face of his own end, said Reece, has had a profound effect on Spencer Reece’s work and life.
The other tribute was organized by my friend, the poet-journalist-activist-fireball Bessy Reyna. Bessy put out an appeal to a broad group of poets in CT and MA, asking if anyone was interested in reading Rich’s work for a group tribute at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford. Seventeen of us read—women and men, gay and straight, varying races, varying politics—and Rich’s son Pablo drove up from Brooklyn to join us. I’d never counted her among my favorite poets or my influences, but I realized that night how much of Adrienne Rich’s work is present in so many poems written by American poets over the last few decades. Her images and cadences have been sifting onto our common ground. It felt good to learn once again that influence is more complicated, more mysterious, than I’d let myself think.
Photo credit goes to Doug Anderson for the shot of Spencer Reece and his parents in the Merrill House. Photo credit of the group tribute to Adrienne Rich goes to Pit Pinegar. Organizer Bessy Reyna is in the front row center. Rich’s son Pablo Conrad kneels at the end of the first row.