Hello. My new book, night thoughts: 70 dream poems & notes from an analysis, has just appeared, and I’m feeling thoughtful and nostalgic. I’ve decided to write here this week about my writing life--I'll start very young, with reading--
BEING & READING
Everyone else was buzzing around: did they care if I was talking or what I was talking about?
Maybe I was the only one needing a book to read: I need a book! I had read all the books. Then books arrived in the mail for my age group, 7, but they were baby books, with a line or two on a page. This is what they give me when I ask for books?
No one was paying attention.
The real world was in the books. I read Heidi and I danced off into the Swiss mountains. Reading Heidi, I forgot that no one listened when I spoke.
In the book, someone was talking to me. A voice, the voice of the narrator, talking quietly. I heard the voice as my grandmother’s. She told the story in a gentle, rolling way. I rolled along with her voice.
I learned the voice of the narrator, and as I walked along, I narrated a story to myself about myself: she did this, she said this; and then “she was gazing at the snowy fields, admiring winter.” I was reading my life. I used as many grand words as possible, for a little girl: “gazing”--a word no one said. I had a special cache of words I had learned from books.
In fact, they didn’t listen so I didn’t talk much.
Or I talked over them, as loud as I could--needing expression.
Expression being the essence. Can’t you see I’m talking?! I’m yelling this now, in my mind: I’m talking!
Sometimes they made fun of my big words. I said “horizon” with the second syllable pronounced “zone.” I was looking out at Lake Michigan and I saw the very word I had just read in a book, essentialized before my eyes: a horizone.
Only the grownups knew enough to laugh; the joke got out: she said horizone.
Horror zone, hurry zone, harrow zone. No, not that bad.
I have always loved turning words around and around. I hear them coming through my mind the way they come off the page or through the page, and the rhythm of them lulls and comforts me.
I say “page” but many people have left “page” behind. They are thinking of the screen. What would it be like not to have turned thousands of pages, feeling the paper-feel in my fingers. Sometimes turning down a page edge.
Though I rarely did that: I worshipped books, writing my name and the date of acquisition neatly on the endpaper, at the top right hand corner.
I didn’t understand until later that life is short, and that books grow old too: may as well dog-ear them and mark them up. Use them, make them mine.
BEING A WRITER
I never imagined that I would become a real writer: publish a real book. Early on, I imagined the writer’s life, unaware that I was doing so. There were people called writers and they lived in places called Bohemia and they wrote books and painted paintings. They lived in cities. Why Bohemia, where was Bohemia?
It was only in recollection that I knew I had fantasized about the writer’s life.
Long after I had begun to live that life, I looked back and saw that I had envisaged it. And had then gone to it, without noticing the progression from the thought to the fact.
This looks like destiny to me, not thought or plan.
Then there I was in New York City living in shabby bohemian splendor and all the people I knew were writing poems or painting paintings. We went to parties and readings and worshiped the writers who were already real writers and the painters who were already real painters. Tried to talk to them and flirt with them. Tried to be seen and known.
I read everything, from anywhere. I made no distinction as to ancient or modern; I wanted to read what had been written. Neruda, Merwin, Plath, Marguerite Duras... I wanted, above all, to read in the languages. I could already do French and Spanish, if I worked at it--a pencil, a pencil sharpener, a dictionary on my lap. For Sappho and Dante I browsed the translations. I made a list of languages to study: Italian, German.
I lived on ten cents. No, not ten cents. I paid $350 rent monthly and spent $35 a week on food, in the East Village. This was 1984.
BEGINNING TO WRITE
When I was first writing poems, I knew nothing about what they were. I had read a few in school, and listened to some songs. So I wrote in a kind of hippy scrawl, a word here, a word there, putting the words in different places for emphasis.
I think I was trying for casual, hip and ecstatic. I already knew I had to get into a zone to write a poem, and sometimes I could, and sometimes I couldn't.
Here is one of my teenage creations:
of pure light
dark stone night.
Fuck talk, man, I just want to look in your eyes.
There was a copy of Howl in the upstairs bathroom--I leafed through it now and then. I believe it was de rigueur in the homes of leftists. I picked up a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind and Erica Jong’s Fruits & Vegetables. Of course I thought that the "coney" of Coney Island was related to ice cream cones; I had my own etymologies then, and still do.
Later, more grown up, I wrote for a while as almost everyone else seemed to, uneven line endings forming a ragged or jagged pattern on the right hand side of the poem. I was doing the breath line.
Someone--Richard Howard, the teacher of so many of us--told me I needed a count. I had learned that syllabics were written in odd-numbered lines, in order to defeat the rhythms of iambic pentameter. I tried writing in 9s and 11s, but one was long and one was short. So I started writing in 10s while at the same time trying not to hear an iambic pulse. I wanted to write flat. If I heard the bounce of the iambs, I knew I was going wrong: there was something off in the feeling of the line.
I took that as a rule and abandoned any poems that began with that singsong as unsalvageable.
I need to write flatly because I tend toward dramatic gestures and strong experiences. Being passionate and volatile, I know that my most persuasive discourse is understated or nuanced by irony; I’ve tried with all my soul to tame and understate myself.
In Visits from the Seventh, I separated snips of song from the other lines by italicizing them; it was a way of saying, now I know I’m singsonging--I’m quoting a song, this is not my voice.
DUENDE OR AUTHORITY
Naturally there’s a difference between my voice in my poems and my usual speaking voice.
The poem begins; the voice has “authority” or not. Authority, a bad word, suggesting police stations and bus depots. A line of poetry has duende, daimon, muse, hutzpah, élan, soul, mind, heart, gut, kick; it has cri de coeur, ronco pecho, dada, mysticism.
The voice in the poem is inviting or compelling.
A speaking voice, however, can be compelling or not.
I don’t think mine is compelling; I speak in a group of people, and my voice is drowned out by others. At a dinner party or a cocktail party, I begin to speak.
Someone interrupts, and the others turn away from me and toward that voice. This bothers me: I can’t make my voice have the weight necessary to keep my listeners listening. It’s too light and high, too airy; it doesn’t have command.
There’s that word again, command, authority--can’t get away from it.
I do best whispering. Sometimes I have better luck holding someone’s attention if I whisper in his ear.
But it’s different with my poems; when I speak them, people listen. What a relief this is. Or they listen to them when I’m not there watching, which is better.
They’re listening to me, somewhere, and they don’t know me.
Or they do know me, but now, reading my poems, they’re surprised that these are the poems that have emerged from my being.