There’s a certain amount of waiting that happens with writing. I’m not talking right now about waiting as in the staring at the blank page, the ruthless blinking cursor. Not waiting for the divine to fill the vessel of the self. Not waiting for the magic to happen. But it is a waiting like the moment after a hard question is asked, after a complicated letter is sent. It’s not clear when or how or if a reply will come, only that it might or might not, and if it does, it won’t necessarily contain an answer.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we delay things we know will annihilate our hearts. There are movies, for example, that I’m absolutely interested in seeing—make plans to see, even—that I then refuse to watch. And there are poems I know I need to write—I might have a title or a structure in mind—but delay writing them, because I know it’s going to end up gutting me to get them written.
It’s tough for me, for instance, to watch the Richard Linklater Before series. I’ve seen them all (finally), but it took me quite a while before I could watch Before Midnight, the latest in what is now three movies that chronicle, in approximate-real-time, a dazzling, fated romantic relationship. The age of the films nearly tracks my age—I’m about the age of the characters, and the first movie was released just after I finished college—not just a critical point in my life, but also a critical point in social time: post-grunge, pre-internet (boom, at least). People my age had what we felt was a new, earned cynicism, as opposed to those just a few years younger than me, even, who seemed to possess a learned cynicism. Ours was a cynicism that was only one degree of separation from the wonder and sentiment we still wanted to hold onto—two chambers of an ever-beating heart.
The writer Michelle Orange has a wonderful essay in her collection THIS IS RUNNING FOR YOUR LIFE (I highly recommend it—order from Powell’s here) that delves into Ethan Hawke, the Before movies, the year 1999, the ways in which certain moments in time are braided into our lives, and the ways we mark time. It’s called “The Uses of Nostalgia and Some Thoughts on Ethan Hawke’s Face.” Go read it.
There are days when I think nostalgia will be the death of me, and there are days I try to bring about the death of nostalgia—mostly as self-defense. As protection from heart-annihilation. The writing of poems, for me, is my greatest weapon in my personal war of attrition against nostalgia. In poems, I get to live outside of time. With rare exception, I don’t use time-specific markers in my poems, even when there are plenty of things described. There are houses and rooms and cars and clothes. Certainly a modern setting—electricity & all that. My poems are more of a translation—of what my sleep sees, of what my lungs see, of what my spleen or my liver or my gut sees, even. To use what my eyes see would feel far too literal to me.
Many fine poets rely on actual description, and do it well. They relate stories that presumably have actually happened, and then work on analyzing those stories within the poem. In one of my advanced undergrad workshops with Charles Wright, for instance, I remember a classmate reacting particularly badly/aghast/incredulous at a heavy critique of her poem. “But it actually happened that way!” she said. 1) All poems “actually happened that way,” even when they haven’t. 2) Just because something happens doesn’t make it interesting or compelling or successful in poem-form.
Memory & desire & memory & desire & memory & desire. I am a broken record, but at least vinyl is still popular with the kids these days.
Ok, I admit it. I’ve been re-watching The Wire. I started it again, initially, because I’d been thinking through an essay I was writing on Orange Is The New Black, and how people will extend empathy (and even genuine kindness and care) to fictional characters that they will not extend to the real-life counterparts of those characters. The Wire is as good an example of that as OITNB, I think—the way viewers (white men, especially, it seemed to me) would invoke the character of Omar Little with such complete reverence, but show little-to-no interest in understanding actual structural poverty and the criminal justice system.
I’ve re-watched the show a few times now since it originally aired, and like many people, I think about which seasons I like best. And like many people, that changes with each re-watch. I have pieces of each season that rise to the surface. (For example, I think some of the one-on-one dialogues between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale in Season 3 are nearly Shakespearean, just perfect & refined & layered & stealthy. But I don’t think that season, nor season 4, go into white/black race issues nearly enough in the political or educational context.)
Still, I keep coming back to this small bit of dialog in Season 1, when Stringer is visiting Avon in prison, and Avon says something like, “You only do two days in here: the day you come in, & the day you get out.”
I talk in my OITNB essay about viewers patting themselves on the back for watching these shows and finding them “real,” as a means of exonerating themselves from actual social responsibility toward the issues portrayed, but that small bit of dialogue just feels like something that was articulated by someone other than a Wire staff writer, or even David Simon. I don’t know for certain that’s the case, but it is a moment that does not feel contrived.
I don’t want to turn the idea behind that line into a metaphor for anything, or make it precious somehow. I’m not even sure, really, why I keep coming back to it, other than it interests me so much, the ways that people package and re-package time in the context of good or bad moments in their lives. We give that bit of non-advice so much: “It just takes time,” we say. But what we mean is really “just stay alive.”
There should be more. There should be better advice than just to tread dark water and wait.
I’ve also been thinking about how so many older children’s stories and movies have (at least) that one moment of terror—the one that seems nearly age-inappropriate for the kids who are watching it. Like the “there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going” boat ride scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. As a kid, IT WAS TERRIFYING. Shoot, as an adult, it’s still pretty jarring. But at age 6 or 7, or whenever I first saw it, it seemed to last forever—time didn’t stop, but it slowed to the point of what people mean when they say you can survive anything so long as you know it will end. In that film, it was the price of admission for seeing the underbelly of how the candy factory worked. You could stay outside in Candyland and eat the teacups, or you could turn and face the strange, and be changed for the better.
In the Wizard of Oz (which many of you know is a film obsession/feminism obsession/writing obsession of mine), most people list the Flying Monkeys as its most terrifying moment. I have a poem about what I think is most terrifying about that movie, but in terms of scenes, I think for me it was the talking trees, and how mean they were (even if justified). People, creatures, you expect to be mean or frightening. Trees, you do not.
(Second place, for me, might’ve been when the Wicked Witch set the Scarecrow on fire. I mean, that’s when sh*t got real for me—like, this witch really wants to kill these people.)
Exposure describes the way light is allowed to touch film. Exposure describes the way one person allows herself to be seen by another. Exposure describes the breadth of how one person is seen by everyone.
One thing about writers who write many pieces quickly: it terrifies me, and not in a good way, as in not in a “fear that is good for you to walk into” kind of way—much more a “fire that is not good for you to walk into” kind of way.
I have very serious relationships with individual poems while I’m writing them. Very monogamous—probably more monogamous a relationship than any I’ve had with people, even. And so it’s unfathomable to me that one would just dash off so many poems, all rapid-fire—how do you develop that chemistry, that banter with the poem, when everything happens so fast? And my relationship with an individual poem, that in love feeling, definitely diminishes once I seriously begin another one. Why would you want to rush that, or skip it entirely? Don’t get me wrong—I will absolutely go to bed with a new poem on the first date, but it’s the beginning—not the end—of the affair.
I get most attached to people who give me that same spark I feel when I fall for something I’m writing. It is rare, & so when I feel it, I s’pose I also feel that it belongs to me, at least a little bit. There is something so pure about it—these are not the people I have to love, or even choose to love. These are the people love cannot sufficiently describe. How do you find a place for those people in your life, when life is so often about the have to love and the choose to love and all the attendant rules and expectations those others bring? This world puts a great premium on the accumulation of love, on the responsibilities of love. We celebrate decades spent together, putting in the time, the daily work of it. But what about when responsibility becomes the enemy of possibility? It’s important to see it through, we say. Putting in the time is its own reward. We are a nation of quantity, but I reject the quantification of love. Of love + time as tautology.
Desire is often cast as an indulgence. A weakness. Something separate from the self, or something so internal that it is the only occupant in its own particular room. But desire feeds the creative impulse, perhaps unlike any other drive, other than the death-drive. And it’s a currency that doesn’t necessarily have different exchange values across geographies. One person’s indulgence is another’s kindling. Electricity & all that.
Why do we make ourselves wait so long for the things we know will change us for the better? There should be better advice than just to tread dark water and wait.